Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 13 November 2013

McBride: Straddling South Africa’s fault lines

Divided reactions to Robert McBride’s nomination as head of the Independent Complaints Directorate of the police service point to deep fault lines in our society. They raise crucial questions about who gets to be called a hero and how long hero status lasts, and who gets to be a villain and when villainy expires. Crucially, McBride’s nomination forces us to ask what we do with our heroes once they let us down.

Aside from Nelson Mandela, there are very few heroes that we can all agree on. Such is the polarised nature of our history and our politics that black people’s heroes tend to be seen as terrorists amongst whites, or are simply not known, and white people’s heroes are viewed as racist colonisers, oppressors rather than role-models.

One of the objectives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to close the gap between what black and white South Africans believed about our past, and in some ways, the hope was that we would come to have a sense of shared nationhood, including common heroes.

In this regard, the Commission failed. The TRC provided South Africans an opportunity to hear various versions of ‘the truth.’ Yet as the Commission wrapped up its work it was hard to see how these truths would form the basis for the development of a coherent new national narrative.

Robert McBride’s nomination reminds us that our history is still deeply contested, that there are jagged pieces that we cannot smooth over. More importantly, that he was nominated at all speaks to the willingness of the current ANC leadership to exploit the differences between blacks and whites on matters of history and politics.

In nominating McBride, the ANC knew that they would have the support of many black people who would back him because of the great admiration and respect they have for his role in Umkhonto we Sizwe. They must have also anticipated that the response of many media outlets and opposition parties would be to be outraged. In this outrage, the media and opposition would demonstrate their bias. They would show that where someone has stumbled, indeed fallen, in the post-Apartheid era, they are prepared to forget his or her contribution to the struggle.

It is important not to brush aside this criticism simply because it is self-serving. It is self-serving but it also taps into a deeper sense of discontent amongst many black people.

There is no denying that white people who didn’t actively oppose Apartheid have seldom been held up to the same kind of media scrutiny as blacks who worked against Apartheid but transgressed after liberation came. CEOs of large companies that operated in egregious ways under Apartheid continue to operate without interference, and without too much media scrutiny. Media houses that were active communicators of Apartheid propaganda continue to be staffed by people who did nothing to confront power and fight for justice.

But somehow it is open season on black leaders including those who played an important role in the struggle against Apartheid. I am not arguing that there should not be intense scrutiny applied to McBride and other black leaders. In fact there can and should be more pressure applied. I am proposing however, that similar scrutiny be applied to whites in leadership positions both inside and outside the state.

For many white people, 1994 provided an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. By voting in 1994 their sins were washed away. For black people, rebooting the programme so that it began only in 1994 had the effect of erasing significant memory. It meant that the good things we had done, the hurt we had endured, these were wiped away in service of a reconciliation in which no one ever really said sorry. The net result is that black people may admire and respect people like Robert McBride, but some of us have the sense that most whites either don’t know, or don’t care about their contributions before 1994 (see Justice Malala’s excellent piece on this from 2011).

This double standard rankles and so as the ANC put McBride forward, it may have been betting on these resentments bubbling up.

To illustrate the double standard, and to demonstrate the extent to which the appointments of whites to key positions tend to be under-scrutinised it is worth looking at the appointment of Judge Ian Farlam as head of the Marikana Commission. There was no widespread disgust in the media. Opposition parties did not rally behind any attempt to bar him from presiding. Yet Farlam was a member of a segregated bar from 1961 to 1993. He was an Apartheid-era judge, including in the then Orange Free State during the 1980s – arguably the worst time for political detainees in South Africa’s history.

There is no question that McBride is not appropriate as head of the ICD. Being detained in a Mozambique jail for seven months under dubious circumstances, maintaining a questionable friendship with Cyril Beeka, and attempting a cover-up while police chief of Ekuruleni Metro clearly disqualify him.

But his post-Apartheid behaviour is contrasted against his extraordinary bravery in service of South Africa’s freedom. As such, there are real questions about what you do with people like McBride once they have disqualified themselves from certain positions. Do you pretend they never existed, that they never did what they did in service of the struggle? Or do you hold to a strict standard that says in a new dispensation all that matters is what you do now? Both are compelling, although neither is satisfactory.

Yes, the ruling party is playing politics by nominating someone who many blacks love and many whites fear. We cannot allow this to distract us from the fact that McBride the person, the persona and the political nominee who reminds us that reconciliation remains unfinished business in South Africa. DM


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