Opinionista Aubrey Masango 12 April 2012

Apartheid was not that bad: a case of peculiar nostalgia

There is an interesting narrative emerging in South Africa’s general societal discourse, and it’s connected to the phenomenon of corruption. The narrative makes a comparison between the corruption and service-delivery failures of post-apartheid governance and the “efficiency” of the apartheid state.

By the end of last month, there had been a total of nine service-delivery protests since the beginning of March, violent  protests whose beginnings can be traced back to 2004, most of which were staged in predominantly black areas.
Each of these protests pointing to corruption, municipal incompetence and other forms of ineptitude. At the end of 2011 the head of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Willie Hofmeyer, reported that between R25–R30-billion  had been embezzled or misappropriated in one way or the other in the last financial year, through some form of incompetence or corruption. What is worse is that the Treasury concurred with Hofmeyrs’s findings. Enough money to pay for the e-toll debt and then some.

The many anti-corruption agencies, units and departments in the various organs of state are not short of casefiles which point to runaway and endemic corruption in the country. These units are themselves, in a real sense, an example of fruitless expenditure because they are not an essential line function aimed at the direct alleviation of poverty or betterment of people’s lives, but a grudge purchase aimed at circumventing rampant corruption.

This fact in no way exempts the private sector from the same indictment. One would be naive to think that the private sector is a beacon of ethical corporate behaviour, competence and efficiency. Even as you read this column, there are enquiries into  allegations of corruption in the business activities of one of our major cell-phone companies in a certain Middle Eastern country.

As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango”. For every example of state corruption, there is direct or indirect corresponding private sector complicity. What is more infuriating about state corruption in all its forms, though, is that it is taxpayer’s funds entrusted to public representatives, who are supposed to ethically look after the interests of the citizenry, particularly the most vulnerable in our society.

Let me hasten to say, however, that all should not be painted with the same brush of disdain. There are exceptions to this trend both in the public and private sector. What is sad, though, is that these examples of excellence are the exception and not the rule.

These observations are probably what prompted President Jacob Zuma to say in a recent speech, commenting on the general state of morality in the country: “South Africa is a land of thugs” a statement for which he has received much criticism from many of his detractors. But it appears there is widespread agreement regarding the presence of endemic corruption in our system of governance.

The acknowledgement of this reality naturally prompts a number of questions like, why are there no systems and measures implemented for the eradication of this scourge? Why does the majority of the electorate continue to vote the same people into power who continue to mismanage and perpetuate the corruption when it is clear that they neither approve nor condone these practices?

Perhaps most critical to our discussion is the question: “as bad as apartheid was, was it really as bad as the breakdown in the integrity of governance and the subsequent and continuing erosion of service delivery as we currently witness?” This is the emerging narrative I believe requires scrutiny.

Increasingly, one is hearing this conversation in one form or another from South Africans of all colours, but notably black erudite citizens with solid struggle credentials. “Perhaps the apartheid system of governance was not as bad as all that,” they say.

This sentiment was recently echoed by Dr Mamphele Ramphele, respected social activist and businesswoman and Prof Jonathan Jansen, vice chancellor of the University of the Free State when they both lamented the state of education in the country. They intimated that, as bad as education in apartheid South Africa was, it was not nearly as bad as the public education offered in present day South Africa.

A few years ago, to even think that way would have been considered sacrilegious, but this narrative is becoming bolder with each passing government indiscretion. It is not the criticism of the current government that is of interest to me but rather that it seems to draw a comparison with a system that was declared a crime against humanity. The fact that those who suffered under the diabolical system of apartheid are even vocalising their peculiar nostalgia is most telling.
It must be said in fairness, that no one, other than those who harbour racist reactionary sentiments, is advocating for a return to apartheid. This is unthinkable. It is the acknowledgement, I contend, of the efficiency in the delivery of services and the implementation of policy during apartheid that is longed for.

It is precisely the fact that such an evil system was so well executed that further emphasises the pathology of the current one. It is the idea that a legitimate and democratic system of governance can fail so dismally to deliver basic services largely because of ineptitude and corruption in the face of such overwhelming support that  boggles the mind.

This narrative also brings into clear view and unravels a mystery that has confounded the minds of many a commentator. Namely, why do the black masses continue to vote for a party that so obviously does not care for them? Many have suggested this is because of a lack of education and the sentimentalisation of historical political alignments amongst the masses. It has been said that the black masses lack the intellectual capacity to dispassionately separate issues of practical service delivery and racial identification. These are the kind of explanations that have perpetuated the idea that blacks are irrational hordes of savages bent on destruction and mayhem.

Indeed, the “peculiar nostalgia” seems to give credence to these assertions. “Clearly, there must be something inherently wrong with blacks when they admit that perhaps the former regime was better at service delivery than their black government but continue to vote for them.”

Well, here is an alternative suggestion. Yes, hospitals functioned well, the borders were not as porous, the cities were not overrun with blacks and foreigners, unions knew their place, education was bad but not this bad and the garbage was fetched on time. This was the reality and privilege of a very few mostly white citizens while the masses suffered under crippling poverty, constant violence and dehumanisation. Indeed there are many more efficiencies we could point to that were lost in the new dispensation. Many of which had no inclination whatsoever towards the notion of human rights or democracy.

There are probably many counter arguments for or against this narrative, that is neither here nor there. The fact is that the nostalgic narrative is an indictment on the current government and not a desire for apartheid, it is a deep lamentation, a desperate “wake-up” call.

Apartheid was a corrupt system, which was brutally but efficiently run. That is why it was sustained for as long as it was. So terrible, so traumatic was the black experience under apartheid that black people would rather be subjected to the corruption, ineptitude and abuse of the current government than even contemplate a return to the apartheid system.

The current system is a legitimate and democratic system badly run by corrupt individuals and, because of this corruption, the legitimacy is fast fading. It is this fundamental difference that the masses understand: the difference between a corrupt system and corruption in a system.

This system, the post-apartheid system of governance, is one they were instrumental in bringing about through struggle against the oppression of apartheid. It is therefore theirs in the deepest sense, they are directly responsible for the democratic system – not the corruption.

That is why it is so difficult to “abandon” the instrument by which the system was brought into place. This loyalty is fast eroding, however, because the people are beginning to compare what they fought for with what they fought against, a previously unimaginable proposition. A change is under way. DM


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