Opinionista Gustav Swart 10 March 2016

Spoils of War: Reform vs Rhetoric

We need to address the “lopsided” effects of History on current South Africa but I would suggest that we pour money and personnel into existing land reform efforts (by sharply increasing income tax, cutting down on government waste and enhancing State support for emerging farmers) rather than indulging in rhetoric that attaches moral weight to who beat whom in the 19th century.

In a marvellous scene in The Lion in Winter, the 12th century kings of England and France negotiate the fate of disputed territories. The two great and terrible men haggle over borders and garrisons before coming to the sticking point: the Vexin, a thin dagger of land uncomfortably close to Paris. Henry Plantaganet, the “ablest soldier of an able time”, snarls at the young Philip Augustus. “The Vexin’s mine.”

“By what authority?”

It’s got my troops all over it.” Henry smiles at the question. “That makes it mine.”

While thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Spinoza posited various Just War theories, classical, medieval and Renaissance monarchs waged wars for God, fun and profit. “The strong did what they could and the weak suffered what they must,” laments Thucydides. “To an imperial city, nothing is inconsistent that is expedient.” For millennia, any “little patch of land” saw constant conflict between clans as they became tribes that grew into kingdoms, nations and sometimes empires.

Always at someone’s expense.

At the time, loot and rapine were expected, slavery was a near-universal custom and Liberty, Equality and Fraternity had yet to become recognised values. Citizens had rights of a sort in some locales via allegiance to various pillars of state, normally represented by someone who was qualified for the job by cunningly being born to the right people. The map was drawn and redrawn as History unfolded in a Darwinian struggle cut into ages by monsters, visionaries and clowns. And combinations of the three.

We know that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” and it almost seems absurd to have to make such trite observations, but South Africa’s national conversation about Land has dredged up some peculiar ideas that impact on the present. Other contributors to this platform have discussed how flawed historical knowledge can lead to unsavoury behaviour and eccentric opinions, but some grave misunderstandings have moved out of their parents’ garages on social media incarnated as snarky memes and oft-repeated canards and now tarry in the Halls of Power.

The most striking feature of these ideas is an anachronistic attempt to judge the actions of our forebears through a postmodern ethical prism. Possibly inspired by Cinema, millennials seem to understand past conflicts in terms of Good Guys and Bad Guys, as defined by 21st century constitutional values and the rules of good movie-making. So the little guy has more virtue than the big guy, the team of misfits deserves victory more than the sleek athletes and Genghis Khan should have Checked his Privilege.

Other than entrenching Manichean conceits that exacerbate current social divisions, this approach leads to outlandish discourse that has political implications, a striking example of which occurred during the no-confidence debate in Parliament last week when Freedom Front Plus’ MP Pieter Groenewald challenged President Zuma’s January contention, made more than once during his time in office, that this country “was taken, not bought… [but] stolen”.

The land of South Africa was taken through the barrel of a gun,” thundered the since-departed ANC Chief Whip Stone Sizani in response. “That is stealing by force.” He’s right about the first part, but my ancestors did not “steal” this fair land.

They took it.

One can (and should!) decry their brutality and greed, but we can only judge them by the standards of their day and the actions of their peers and rivals. While the British and Voortrekkers were carving a bloody swathe across southern Africa, the rest of the world was enthusiastically getting its hands wet too. The 19th century saw massacre piled upon atrocity committed by every interested party, from the charnel house that was China under the Glorious Taiping to Sherman’s fiery march from Atlanta to the sea. And those were both ‘civil’ wars!

Many of South Africa’s Nguni tribes were no exception, launching a series of shockingly robust imperial forays against each other and the Sotho. Shaka’s excesses are hotly disputed but even his staunchest defenders must acknowledge that he transformed an obscure clan into an empire… in the old-fashioned way. This year will see the double centenary celebrations of that violent process and we build statues to Shaka while removing those of Cecil John Rhodes. Why is that?

There are several answers pushed by this new lens through which to revise History. The first is that Shaka was more entitled to conquer his “native” land than blue-eyed interlopers from across the sea were. This idea is predicated on the odd (but popular) notion that “who got there first” matters… that living somewhere entitles you to own it. This was historically simply not the case. The idea of respecting national sovereignty only gained real credence in the last 100 years, via the United Nations and Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous League of Nations before it. These were both initiatives borne out of the technologically advanced horrors of world wars and without which “laws are silent in times of war” (Cicero). Basic jurisprudence dictates that new laws don’t apply retroactively so attempting to roll back migration to a point when things were “fair” is ludicrous. (As an aside, my first ancestor in this country arrived in 1658, long before the Nguni crossed the Kei).

When would it stop? Our species has been moving around since the Beginning, however one perceives it, so logically the only place anyone is entitled to is Olduvai Gorge or the Garden of Eden.

I imagine the Cradle of Humanity saw its own share of turf battles and it’s no coincidence that the Biblical Cain, the first colonist, was also the first murderer. We have as a species spent the last 10,000 years fighting over land and, to quote John Lyman, “At the end of a prize fight, you look at the guy who’s dancing around and that’s who won.”

This brings us to the second argument often advanced to explain why an example of conquest like Shaka is a national hero and Rhodes a source of shame: the one-sided nature of colonial warfare. Largely because of global trade and a number of fortuitous academic achievements, European powers enjoyed near-total military superiority over the rest of the world, though some Victorian armies came horribly adrift, notably in Afghanistan and Zululand, and others endured a few “damn close-run things” against well-armed foes like the Sikhs (who crossed the Sutlej into British India in their own failed attempt at imperialism and still have the temerity to demand the Mountain of Light back).

The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his,” says General George Patton. The fact that 19th century colonial armies had a marked advantage over their antagonists does not affect the moral weight of their actions… despite a Hollywood milieu in which the heroes must always be battered underdogs. Inspired by such narratives, many seem to think military contests should be even, like sports, and ultimately won by whoever wants it most (as demonstrated by who made the most inspiring half-time speech). When somebody’s going to emergency and somebody’s going to jail, it is natural to sympathise with the victim but we should remember Friedrich Nietzsche’s admonition to “not boast of your virtue when your claws are blunt”.

My ancestors were good at killing, but that doesn’t make them thieves.

You may be wondering why I’d bother to write an article about temporally defined ethical relativism, quirks in people’s perceptions of historical minutiae and the semantic distinction between “steal” and “take”. I think it’s important that we “sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” because discussions of collective past guilt and innocence have taken centre stage in our ongoing debate about how we live today.

Inevitably, the third dynamic in many South Africans’ motivation in venerating Shaka and denouncing Rhodes is Race. Two days after the Groenewald-Sizani confrontation, the President addressed the National House of Traditional Leaders and suggested moving the date of land claims from 1913, the year of the Land Act, back to the early nineteenth century.

There’s the razor blade in the candy floss.

It’s possible to dismiss this as simple electioneering as the governing party compensates for a loss of support among the urban youth by appealing to its traditional rural base, but the President’s idea has deeper implications against the backdrop of a mediascape dominated by tales of Race and Racism (maybe erroneously). If you were to spend much time on social media, you would encounter the “you people stole our land” mantra repeated with increasing levels of anger. The President described the current land claim laws as “lopsided against the black people”, and he’s not wrong: the current dynamic does perpetuate certain historical privileges for some people.

Mainly people who look like me. I’m not joining the myopic “get over the past, we’re all human” brigade (don’t you love hearing about a “level playing field” from someone who went to a private or Model C school?), neither am I claiming a right to my White Privilege because the “thin red line of heroes” carried rifles against spears. What makes South Africa’s history of inter-racial conflict so grotesque is its longevity: that the pre-WW2 ethos that “Might is Right” survived into the late 20th century and was even entrenched by the dehumanising system imposed by apartheid… not that racial oppression existed in the first place. This is an important distinction.

We need to address the “lopsided” effects of History on current South Africa but I would suggest that we pour money and personnel into existing land reform efforts (by sharply increasing income tax, cutting down on government waste and enhancing State support for emerging farmers) rather than indulging in rhetoric that attaches moral weight to who beat whom in the 19th century. Honore de Balzac wrote that, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime,” but Privilege is a complex phenomenon and attaching simplistic racially defined historical parameters thereto is short-sighted. And, as Jeff Rudin cogently argues, “the confusions of colour ensure that capitalism escapes close examination”. The fruits of History did not trickle down uniformly to the descendants of those who once supped thereon. The next time I see an Afrikaner car guard, should I tip him or congratulate him on “his” victory at Blood River?

Many Fallists, Economic Freedom Fighters and members of Andile Mngxitama’s Black Land First movement would disagree, claiming that the Land Question supersedes other concerns. Official 2013 figures reveal that only 8% of successful land claimants chose the forty acres and a mule: the other 92% took financial compensation instead, suggesting that the narrative of land is more useful as a symbol of colonial despoilation than a national imperative. We can address injustices within a certain window, in much the same way that inmates at Manzanar were paid reparations, and national programmes like BEEEE and the National Development Policy are working to do so. Of course this is a far less sexy rhetorical gambit than reminding people of the cruelties of the past… and who was more adroit at committing them.

No one ever lost an election by demonising an unpopular minority. It’s a fine strategy for a former liberation party scrambling to regain the support it lost during Fees Must Fall or a new Black Consciousness advocacy group trying to garner media attention. “We want all our land because it is ours,” states Mngxitama, whose Twitter feed is a cornucopia of incendiary racial remarks. That’s his shtik and it works for him, but this narrative of the criminal Europeans pillaging a pacifist pre-colonial Utopia is adding a hysterical and discordant note of vengeful malice to our youth that is potentially toxic and, if taken seriously by the powerful, would have profound effects on the economy. It’s not that the new black elite is living in the past, it’s that they’re living in a version of the past that conveniently excuses them from the responsibilities of Privilege. (Full Disclosure: on the one occason that Mr Mnxgitama and I have met, I called him a “political stripper” and he called me a “racist”. Honour was satisfied.)

Ntsiki Mazwai is one of many voices claiming that Nelson Mandela erred in negotiating a peace with his enemies. This line of reasoning has gained some cache over the last year and relies on the twisted analysis of History detailed above to suggest that adopting nineteenth century practices in 1990 would have been appropriate or even more moral than compromising with the Nationalists. Putting aside the existence of the ferocious South African Defence Force, with 70,000 men in uniform and half a million reservists backed up by planes, artillery and main battle tanks, this bizarrely inhumane idea reflects how broken much of our national discourse is.

The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights,” says John Paul Getty and our country needs to do much more to redress the effects of our divided past. But we should do so on the basis of how individual people are living now and that means a flexible approach based on real-world conditions on the ground, not artificial disputes over symbols and Victorian-era grievances. Policy sells fewer column inches and books than political poetry (you’ll notice I only gave Land Reform Policy a paragraph or two after gleefully attempting to dismantle its poetic elements for most of this piece), but combating poverty and inequality in South Africa will require collective fiscal sacrifice and some serious application on the part of our policy wonks. In the midst of a serious drought, we need real land reform instead of bombast.

That means getting our hands busy in the “Kitchen of Politics”… and off each other’s throats. DM

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