South Africa


Invoking apartheid while protesting is the ultimate sign of desperation — and a warning

Invoking apartheid while protesting is the ultimate sign of desperation — and a warning
circa 1956: A sign common in Johannesburg, South Africa, reading 'Caution Beware Of Natives'. (Photo: Ejor / Getty Images)

It appears that when people ask whether SA was better under apartheid, what they are doing is using the worst possible historical memory to describe their present. They are searching for the strongest possible term, the strongest language that they know, to explain how they feel.

Over the last few years, and particularly the last few months, there has been a lament for the state of our nation which has been framed in the most aggressive terms. It has involved people asking whether South Africa was “better during apartheid” than it is now. The answer, of course, is that it is infinitely better now than it was then. But the debate about the question may well mask an important truth.  

Which is that to just ask the question is to see people reaching for the strongest possible language they have to describe their current lived experience and their intense frustration with it.

From time to time on talk radio, a listener will call in and claim that our country was a better place to live in “during apartheid” than it is now. In a country where the racialised inequality imposed by apartheid still defines our society, it is important to note that the people who make this claim are black.

While there may be some white people who believe this, their motivation for making that argument can be grounded only in racism.

But when black people phone into radio stations to say it, and make the claim consistently, it is a sign of distress.

Several high-profile people have come close to making claims like this in the past.

As long ago as 2008, the businessperson Wendy Luhabe was quoted as saying, “I’m a product of Bantu education and when I look back, it really seems much better than what education appears to be today.”

That led to a long anguished debate about our education system. Despite the stated improvements in the matric pass rate, youth unemployment has increased dramatically since then.

Then, just three years later, in 2011, came perhaps the most public denunciation of the ANC government using the “apartheid” label.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu could not contain his anger at the denial of a visa to the Dalai Lama when he said: 

“This government, our government, is worse than the apartheid government because at least we were expecting it with the apartheid government. With our government, we were not expecting that. Now we would have a government that was sensitive to the sentiments of our Constitution.”

This was a comment designed to sting. Which is one of the reasons that it is still so well remembered.

Much more recently, Professor Jonathan Jansen published a column based on the responses he received when he asked on Twitter whether people believed our infrastructure was better in 1993 than it is now.

This led to an angry response. Amanda Rinquest argued in Africa Is A Country that we should not give Jansen “so much airtime”.

In the Mail & Guardian, Sphesihle Nxumalo was probably speaking for many when he suggested that “I find it incomprehensible that some would claim we thrived under oppression simply because we had better roads and electricity.”

There were many other angry responses.

And, of course, our situation now cannot be compared to apartheid.

Deliberately inhumane

The apartheid government was evil, it tried to do one of the worst things you can do to a person, to define their life chances from birth, and to ensure that they could not reach their full potential.

In short, it was deliberately inhumane.

Our current situation now is not like that at all.

Rather, it is the result of failure to provide services and to govern effectively. It is also true that there is corruption, and that this has a huge impact on people. But this is simple self-interest, as is seen around the world, rather than the evil of apartheid, a system based on the oppression of one entire race by another.

Within all of this, it may be important to ensure one particular element of all of this is not obscured.

It appears that when people talk about our present and apartheid times in this way, what they are doing is using the worst possible historical memory to describe their present. They are searching for the strongest possible term, the strongest language that they know, to explain how they feel.

In some countries in Europe, particularly the UK, people will often refer to the Nazi era when they want to use the strongest possible language to condemn something.

Whether it is politicians or football players, this is the language they use to ensure that people know how strongly they feel. There is no worse insult.

In our country, so strong and so awful are the memories of apartheid, it plays the same role here.

To put it another way, Tutu used the phrase “worse than apartheid” because he wanted to deliberately wound the government in the strongest possible way, and so it is the callers to radio stations and some columnists want to do the same thing.

To compare something to apartheid is simply the worst possible insult, and they use it deliberately.

There is real power in this. It suggests that people are as angry and frustrated as they could possibly be.

And this is where the real warning lies.

That if people are so angry at their lived present that they compare it to apartheid, then they may want to treat it in the same way as they did apartheid. That they may want to strike it down to free themselves from their lived present. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Piet Scott says:

    At the risk of stating the obvious, none of us signed up for the current state of affairs back in 1994. Neither white nor black voters. We all agreed to build a better future together. That was the deal. Labelling anyone misguided or racist for stating the obvious is simply deflecting blame. The ANC loves that. Heck, they don’t even need to issue a press release, you’ve done their job for them! As an aside, I’ll tell you whose lives have improved dramatically since then: the criminals.

    • André Pelser says:

      The criminals and ANC cadres, difficult, if not impossible to distinguish!
      The point Stephen makes is valid – to state that SA today, under the control of the ANC is worse off than it was under the apartheid i.e. White/Afrikaner NP regime, is the ultimate insult (in SA).
      But, as an eminent former diplomat with a wealth of experience in Africa once told me – Africa knows no shame! The shamelessness of our rulers and their friends needs to be addressed forcefully and comprehensively – the empty talk of ubuntu exposed as blatant posturing.
      There is no denying the fact that our country’s infrastructure and public administration was better before 1994, albeit skewed in certain fields, but roads and rail servies used by all were well maintained, and Escom well managed.
      Why is the Western Cape better governed than elsewhere in the country, with a multiracial government?

  • Marcela Reynoso says:

    I came from Argentina in 1989, I experienced few dictatorships during my life there and one of my main concerns was to come to a different kind of repression, RACISM
    Well, soon I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, apartheid was on its way out (1990/91)
    1994 was a year of triumphant joy
    Today, I have to admit that during apartheid the country was well administrated, used in infrastructure. I know, many of you will say that it was because they were using the funds removed from the African people
    Today, those funds still out of reach of the same African people
    but used for the benefit of few.
    I’m asking myself, do I need an African corrupted leader or an administrator employed by us?
    This nightmare must end

    • Dennis Bailey says:

      Interesting that coming to SA so recently from the Argentinian dictatorships, you would call our present state a nightmare that needs to end. It won’t so long as the ANC/EFF governs.

  • Stefan Hendriks says:

    Corruption is driven by self-interest, but to infer that this is simply a world-wide phenomenon is to excuse the heinous theft by those elected to govern, from their fellow citizens. Until we get really tough on crime and champion a Botswana-like anti-corruption culture, it will remain a festering sore robbing ordinary South Africans of their right to self-determination.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    I fully agree that apartheid was deliberately inhuman. Stephen, whether you like it or not, the present government is deliberately inhuman too. They know the wrongs, promise change, but are deliberate in their inaction and continue to steal and destroy. Just of a look at CDE’s latest research entitled, “The Silent Crisis” and Prof Jansen’s book about corruption at our universities. What is knowingly done to our youth is a crime against humanity of which many ministers including the president are guilty of.

    • Mike Visser says:

      Our rulers are as guilty as sin, and free from accountability, responsibility, and prosecution. They are incapable of seeing that the problem is themselves. Are they not following the WEF instructions to ensure we all own nothing by 2030 (except them of course), in which case there is nothing to worry about, the “science” is right, we should all be happy.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The NP ran the Republic for about as long as the ANC is now running the Republic, so comparisons are inevitable.

    We have essentially swapped being mismanaged by a party that was fundamentally evil, for being mismanaged by a party that is fundamentally corrupt and incompetent, but that says it means well.

    For example, I am not sure what worse putin would have to do in order to be condemned by the ANC? Same-same as I am not sure what a bigger mess the thousands of corrupt and incompetent cadres must cause in service deliver and critical infrastructure for the ANC to appoint competent technocrats in management roles, and leave the cadres to waffle on and on and on about policy in Parliament.

  • Vas K says:

    I have not much to add to generally common sense comments above. Only this: after the fall of apartheid many things turned better. By now there is only one left: we are all free. This freedom of course is hugely important. Regrettably it is rapidly turning into freedoms to be murdered, die of neglect, starve, remain uneducated and unemplyed. And the freedom to be treated like dirt by the “government”. If people have to compare apples with oranges (apartheid nighmare with ANC hell), perhaps instead of using emotions and platitudes, a scientifically established values of various aspects of peoples’ lives should be determined. The scores for both systems then could be easily worked out. I’m suggesting this only partly in jest.

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