Knowledge is the new black.
22 March 2018 23:33 (South Africa)
Opinionista Oscar van Heerden

Revisionists, beware: It’s a dangerous thing to try to alter history

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

This issue of Blackness and Whiteness is fundamental. And I fear it is seeing this as physical manifestations of skin tone, and not seeing our collective Africanness and sense of social and economic justice, where we may have lost our way.

In recent times it may be tempting to assert that the reason the ANC talks of “radical economic transformation” is simply a desperate response to its waning power base and because of its slow pace of delivery over the last 23 years. One may label this call as a populist smoke screen to conceal ANC corruption and mismanagement. All of these arguments are crude attempts to sanitise our past. They attempt to rewrite our history so that “white monopoly capital” is exonerated from its role in our ugly past, and all fingers point rather to a problematic ANC leadership. We must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of believing what these revisionists are attempting.

Our true history dictates thus. Thanks to the liberation movement’s theory, this history is already documented and can be consulted. I think there are two key documents worth revisiting at some length (and these are just starting points): Colonialism of a special type (1963) and An historic injustice (1978). I quote at length from each.

I consult these historic texts, not to dampen concerns about corruption, mismanagement, and the slow pace of delivery; but rather to shine a spotlight on the historical role of white monopoly capital and its need to step up, support and participate in our urgently required need for radical economic transformation. Weak leadership both in the public and private sectors allows the current economic status quo to continue. Weak leadership and corruption become scapegoats, used to justify economic inertia and to further delay real economic transformation. By apportioning all blame of the current state of our nation onto one political partner, and its president in particular, there is much of our history which revisionists seek to keep from you.

Colonialism of a special type

This theoretical paper was developed in 1963 by the Communist Party of South Africa, in order to clearly understand the struggle for the liberation of South Africa. It renders an insightful perspective to our history. We are reminded of our more than 350-year colonial history, and how this was shaped by white capital:

From the time of the first white settlement, established by the Dutch East India Company 300 years ago, the pattern was set for the ruthless colonial exploitation of the non-white peoples of our country, the expropriation of their lands and the enforced harnessing of their labour power. The Dutch made war on the people of the Cape, whom they contemptuously called ‘Hottentots’, and rejected their appeals for peace and friendship. The so-called ‘Bushmen’ were all but exterminated.

Slaves were imported from Malaysia and elsewhere. White settlers gradually penetrated into the interior. They drove the indigenous people from the best farmlands and seized their cattle. They subdued them by armed conquest and forced them into their service – at first through direct slavery, later through a harsh system of pass laws and taxation.”

This is the history revisionists seek to keep from you.

British colonialists, missionaries and traders were key protagonists:

This pattern above was basically not changed by the seizure of the Cape Colony from Holland by Britain in 1806. The British colonialists conducted a savage series of wars of conquest against the amaXhosa people in the Eastern Cape and the Zulu people in Natal. They imported more white settlers from Britain, and greatly extended the area of white domination. Through the agency of missionaries, traders, or armed bands of adventurers, they extended British sovereignty or “protectorates” through Bechuanaland and Basutoland, and beyond the Limpopo River in Mashonaland, Barotseland, and other territories to the north, which they have named after the infamous adventurer and multi-millionaire, Cecil Rhodes. And thus, white monopoly capital began.

However, as the foremost capitalist country at that time, Britain was opposed to direct chattel slavery. In 1836 a law was passed abolishing slavery in the Cape Colony. In protest against this law, and to get away from British rule, large parties of Boers left the Cape and crossed into Natal, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. In the course of this Great Trek, the Boers conducted continuous aggressive wars against the African tribes whom they found in possession everywhere. They usurped their lands, exploited their labour and even practised forms of slavery. They established new republics founded on white domination and the racialist principle, ‘No equality in Church or State’.”

The Boer-British differences shaped more of our land, but the common ground between British imperialism and the Afrikaner nationalism in their oppression and subjugation of black people as driven by white capital was the basis for their “Union of South Africa”.

This is the history revisionists seek to keep from you.

One of the pretexts for Britain’s aggression had been the oppression of the African people under the republics. Yet, following the British victory, the colonial status and subjugation of the indigenous peoples was continued and even intensified. They had only one interest in the African — to force him (sic) into labour on the mines at minimum rates of pay. They found the harsh colonial policy of the republics admirably suited to this purpose. The poll tax and pass systems were intensified. Dispossession of the Africans from the land was speeded up. British imperialism and Afrikaner nationalism found common ground. This was the basis for the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Dominating the all-white parliament, the representatives of the wealthy Boer farmers and the imperialist mine-owners joined in an unholy alliance to squeeze the last drop of cheap labour out of the African people. The Natives Land Act of 1913 ended African land ownership or tenancy except in the reserves which were deliberately designed to be insufficient to support the population, so that the menfolk (sic) would be driven forth by hunger to work in white-owned enterprises.

The democratic, co-operative basis of tribal society was broken down, and the entire African people turned into a rightless community of impoverished peasants and under-paid forced labourers in white-controlled farms, mines and factories.”

Notice the connections between mining, appropriation of land and cheap labour.

This is the history revisionists seek to keep from you.

South Africa was not a colony but an independent state. Yet masses of our people enjoy neither independence nor freedom. The conceding of independence to South Africa by Britain, in 1910, was not a victory over the forces of colonialism and imperialism. It was designed in the interests of imperialism. Power was transferred not into the hands of the masses of people of South Africa, but into the hands of the white minority alone. The evils of colonialism, insofar as the non-white majority was concerned, were perpetuated and reinforced. A new type of colonialism was developed, in which the oppressing white nation occupied the same territory as the oppressed people themselves and lived side by side with them. This is known to some of us as Colonialism of a Special Type (CST).”

Special because unlike other colonies in Africa, the colonial power was ruling from afar, not from within the borders of the colony.

Sorry to disappoint our more recent “woke whites”, but it has been at least 54 years since the notion of white privilege has been identified in South Africa, and white monopoly capital singled out as a pivotal subset of the white population:

All whites enjoy privileges in South Africa. They alone can vote and be elected to Parliament and local government bodies. They have used this privilege to monopolise nearly all economic, educational, cultural and social opportunities. This gives the impression that the ruling class is composed of the entire white population. In fact, however, real power is in the hands of the monopolists who own and control the mines, the banks and finance houses, and most of the farms and major industries. The gold and diamond mines are owned by mining-financial corporations and controlled by a handful of powerful financiers. They are linked with the main banks, mainly in the form of loans to industry, commerce and estate. They own vast tracts of arable land and mining rights in almost every part of the country. In agriculture too, monopoly dominates. Thus, in mining, industry, commerce and farming, monopolists dominate the country’s economy.”

Again, notice the thread connecting white monopoly capital to the land, to mining and to financial services. This situation – sketched in 1963 so vividly – beckons the question: What has changed? While our economy has diversified in a globalised world, our hot-spots remain in the mining, agriculture and commercial sectors, particularly the banks and financial services more broadly.

This is the history revisionists seek to keep from you.

And five decades ago, African intellectuals were acutely aware of their choice:

The exceptionally sharp contradictions of South Africa, and their own conditions of life, which are a challenge to their self-respect and human dignity, face the African intellectuals with a clear-cut choice. Either they align themselves with the struggles of the masses, or else they accept the role of assistants and agents in maintaining white colonialism.”

I guess the current ANC leadership is choosing not to be the latter, hence the call for radical economic transformation now.

An historic injustice

The second text in today’s history lesson is Thabo Mbeki’s famous speech “An Historical Injustice” delivered to the Canadian parliament in 1978. Again I quote at length I’m afraid, for the seriousness of this topic demands it. Mbeki first offers an introduction on why our past remains in and guides our present:

Modern political science recognises the fact that social systems are founded on definite historical origins. If the saying ‘out of nothing nothing comes’ is true, then it must follow that the future is formed and derives its first impulse in the womb of the present. All societies therefore necessarily bear the imprint, the birthmarks of their own past…”

Mbeki too pinpoints an intellectual duty to proactively shape the South African future, which is defined by its past:

Indeed we must resist all attempts to persuade us that our future lies in the hands of an ungovernable fate. For the imperative of our epoch has charged us with the task of transforming ourselves from the status of objects of history to that of masters of history.

All this becomes attainable if we have succeeded to discover the regularities of social development, if we have studied our own society critically and in depth to discover the interconnections, the dynamic links that knit together and give direction to what might at first appear to be a chaos of facts, incidents and personalities thrown up by this particular society. For, to repeat, out of nothing, nothing comes. But again, a penetrating understanding of our country today requires also that we look at its past.”

Mbeki then offers some detail of our history in a section titled ‘Rise of capitalism and colonial expansion’. He draws on Marx and Calvinism as theoretical frameworks. While this is worth reading, I will not repeat it here. The central argument is connecting the golden thread of slavery, black oppression and subjugation to the land, mining, commerce and financial services.

Suffice to say, the settlers of 1652 were brought to South Africa by the dictates of that brutal period of the birth of the capitalist class which has been characterised as the stage of the primitive accumulation of capital.

Of this stage Marx wrote:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal’ population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.” 

Mbeki too draws parallels between colonial imperialism and the Calvinism of the Boers:

For Calvin, the chosen of God were those who survived the jungle of capitalist enterprise in industry and trade and emerged as successful men of business, without regard to race or nationality. In the patriarchal economy this was transmuted to read: the chosen of God are those who are white. For his part Luther had said: ‘An earthly kingdom cannot exist without inequality of persons. Some must be free, others serfs, some rulers, others subjects.’ Racism, today so much part of South African reality, constituted a justification, an attempt to rationalise, to make acceptable the enslavement and expropriation of the black people by the white.”

The role of white capital in South Africa’s past was well known. It was seen for what it is: racist, patriachal and exploitative.

This is the history revisionists seek to keep from you.

In Mbeki’s paper he refers to the historic compromise of the “so-called Union”:

Between them, Boer and Briton agreed that they would share political power and, finally, that the indigenous African population would not be party to this contract but would be kept under the domination and at the disposal of the signatories, to be used by them in whatever manner they saw fit. There were therefore written into this agreement, the so-called Act of Union of 1910, the continuation of the methods and practices of exploitation characteristic of primitive accumulation of capital which had remained fossilised in the Boer economy but which British capital had outgrown, certainly in Britain.”

Mbeki located this in the global context of the “post 1885 Berlin Conference period”; this made “the predominant colonialist practices and attitudes of the time… natural and inevitable that the British ruling class would do in South Africa what it was doing in other colonies… The decisive point to bring to the fore is that British capital, throughout the 100 years before 1910, had itself, in South Africa, clung tenaciously to the methods and practices of primitive accumulation. Thus while in 1807 the British administration prohibited the importation of slaves into the Cape Colony, in 1909 it introduced a vagrancy act directed at the Khoi people. Under this law, all Khoi people not in the employ of a white person were declared vagrants. Vagrancy was made an offence. To prove that one was not a vagrant one had to produce a pass. To get the pass you had to enter into a written labour contract with a white employer”.

This is the history revisionists seek to keep from you.

Again we see the land, the mines, the financial services looming large as lead characters in our South African past:

In the end, it was the British armies which defeated the African people, the British who drove us off our lands, broke up the natural economy and social systems of the indigenous people. It was they who imposed taxes on the African peasants and, starting with the Masters and Servant’s’ Act of 1856, laid down the labour laws which govern the black worker in South Africa today. Translating the advantages of black worker disenfranchisement into cash, the Chamber of Mines stated in its 1910 Annual Report that it “viewed the native purely as a machine, requiring a certain amount of fuel” It decreed accordingly that the diet of the African miners living in the mine compounds should be determine in Arms of the formula “the minimum amount of food which will give them maximum amount of work.” 

The historic compromise of 1910 was significant as “in granting the vanquished Boer equal political and social status with the British victor, it imposed on both the duty to defend the status quo against especially those whom that status quo defined as the dominated.”

At that time the Freedom Charter (adopted in 1955) was the guiding framework for the liberation movement, and Mbeki drew on this as his way forward:

We stand up and say, ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people...” (and) “…This is what a free South Africa will be like. For as the masses themselves long discovered, the antithesis to white supremacy, exclusiveness and arrogance is not a black version of the same practice.”

Let me repeat: “... the antithesis to white supremacy, exclusiveness and arrogance is not a black version of the same practice”. So this issue of Blackness and Whiteness is fundamental. And I fear it is seeing this as physical manifestations of skin tone, and not seeing our collective Africanness and sense of social and economic justice, where we may have lost our way.

Mbeki’s paper to the Canadian parliament offers some insight into the definition of black and white:

In the physical world, black might indeed be the opposite of white. But in the world of social systems, social theory and practice (they) have as much to do with skin pigmentation as has the birth of children with the stork. To connect the two is to invent a fable with the conscious or unconscious purpose of hiding reality.”

Underlying the distinction between black and white is black worker and white monopoly capital, giving rise to clear sense of economic redress and social justice. The Freedom Charter itself says that “the national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people”. It also goes on to say “all the land (shall be) redivided among those who work it to banish famine and hunger”. Who in South Africa has wealth, who owns land and how people labour for decent work is at the crux of the need for fundamental economic transformation.

And so ends the history lesson.

Of course we now have the benefit of another political compromise, “the 1994 miracle of a transition to democracy” and our “rainbow nation”.

I charge that white monopoly capital, even after the advent of democracy, has had an insatiable thirst for more at the expense of the poor. They collude around the price of the most basic commodity, bread, and the weak suffer what they must. They see an opportunity with the hosting of the Soccer World Cup and they collude even further in the construction sector. They collude in the bicycle sector. And then our major banks not so long ago are caught out for collusion around bank charges. And the latest, despicable act of inconsiderate collusion by our major banks again.

So I caution those shouting from the rooftops about poor leadership, corruption and a weakened ANC, who choose to dismiss the call for radical economic transformation as a populist stunt: Our past is very much in our present. Our history is not enough. The black pain and black anger is not enough. White monopoly capital must rub salt into that festering wound of inequality, unemployment and poverty. White monopoly capital, like the Gupta family, have cottoned on to the seemingly unsophisticated truth. That blacks can be bought. That blacks are cheap.

So don’t you worry, they tell each other, we will pay the inevitable fine, and that would be the end of that. Name your price is the smug expression on their faces, for money is no object, my comrade.

Amongst the chaos of our current South African politics, some in our country benefit and attempt to deny us a true account of the historical injustice suffered at the hand of white monopoly capital and white South Africans’ role in this, our Mzansi. Revisionists had better beware that it is a very dangerous thing to attempt to alter history and/or one’s past.

In his concluding remarks to the Canadian parliament, Mbeki leaves them with some words from Nelson Mandela:

In South Africa, where the entire population is almost split into two hostile camps... and where recent political events have made the struggle between oppressor and oppressed even more acute, there can be no middle course. The fault of the Liberals... is to attempt to strike just such a course. They believe in criticising and condemning the government for its reactionary policies but they are afraid to identify themselves with the people and to assume the task of mobilising that social force capable of lifting the struggle to higher levels... The real question is: in the general struggle for political rights, can the oppressed people count on the Liberal Party as an ally.”

The liberal party? Who might that be in today’s body politic? I wonder. What we need is a clear commitment towards a social compact involving the private, public, labour and youth sectors. A compact that says, with one voice: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white…” instead of allocating blame on one person/party, and wanting to rewrite our history. DM

  • Oscar van Heerden
    Oscar van Heerden

    Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is an active fellow of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (MISTRA) and is a trustee for the Kgalema Mothlante Foundation

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Reader notice: Our comments service provider, Civil Comments, has stopped operating and will terminate services on 20th Dec 2017. As a result, we will be searching for another platform for our readers. We aim to have this done with the launch of our new site in early 2018 and apologise for the inconvenience.