Defend Truth


I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… and I am angry


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

All those moments may be lost in time. But it should not be forgotten that the same people who are now pointing fingers at black populism, were once populists themselves.

I have been writing for a long time. I have been writing since the time when my first mentor, Don Mattera, started his Roots newspaper in Eldorado Park almost 40 years ago, when I held down two or three jobs. One of those jobs was learning the craft of journalism. It’s been hit and miss since then. After a few twists and turns (and a couple of decades later), I am back writing full-time. As I write, these days, I have an overbearing sense of moral collapse, and of an anger welling up, at least within me. But anger is never an option – or so I have been told, nor is despair when you write. Only objectivity is…

I cannot match, in explaining myself, the moment in Roy Batty’s C-Beams monologue in the movie Blade Runner, where he approaches something of a technological singularity; that speculative point at which robots start feeling, and thinking, and developing an attachment, and finding meaning in the false memories that were implanted in them. 

But yes, I have seen a few things, done a few things and, well, I have written a few things. All the while, the one thing that I have been taught, or that I have been expected to adhere to, is to contain my anger. 

I remember, always, what the spouse of a colleague once told me: “My husband does not empathise with the people he interviews, that’s why he is a good journalist.” I’m afraid it was never that easy for me at the time. The townships in which I spent my childhood were in flames.

Even in academia, anger is considered to be “irrational,” often not “objective” or “too emotional” and, therefore, not a good starting place for scholarly analyses. It’s not easy to toe this line. Not when you are really, really angry. It’s hard to keep a straight face, anywhere in the world, when people have bombs dropping on them. 

It’s hard to avoid being angry

I was reminded, a couple of weeks ago, about the time when Nato, led by the US, bombed the former Yugoslavia in 1999, and left the people of Novi Sad without water for eight days (some folk used water from the river to flush their toilets), without electricity, and living in constant fear of bombs dropping from the skies. I was angry. So were the people of Novi Sad. Why, asked a retired lawyer, Milenko Mrdjanov, “did they have to destroy it [another bridge] so completely,” leaving no chance for repairs. 

Said one pregnant woman, Maja Zecevic, at the time, “The worst thing is that Nato is targeting the psychology of people. Now we feel anger, which is not characteristic, and we think all the world is our enemy, and that is not good for people.” 

When I saw the latter stages of the Rwanda genocide I was angry. I get angry every time I visit Srebrenica, or when I visited Babi Yar (twice), a ravine in which the Nazis slaughtered thousands of Jews, and Soviet prisoners, and, alas, the one time I visited Auschwitz. 

As I write, now – it might be at a different level of barbarism and cruelty – the concatenation of events around the State of the Nation Address (SONA), and around the willful obstructionism at the Zondo Commission (it is all connected) has made me unbelievably sad, and angry. The one thing that I have held on to, over the time that I worked as a reporter, a photojournalist, an academic and as a public policymaker, is never imagine that everything is about me, but it is hard to live with the sadness and anger that has brought the country ever closer to the moral collapse of all our democratic ideals. 

I am angry, now, when I hear Dudu Myeni and Jacob Zuma complain about being too broke to go to court. I want to break something when I read about Carl Niehaus leading a chorus of vacuous encomia in support of Zuma. 

I get angry when I hear yet another one of those commentators or analysts, for whom humanity, with all its shortcomings and weaknesses, began in 1994. Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old. Our human ancestors have probably been around for about six million years, our “modern” forebears evolved about 200,000 years ago, and civilisation, as we know it, is only about 6,000 years old, but some people would imagine that the Earth, and everything that makes us human, started in 1994. 

And so, things like crime, corruption, lies, maladministration, and economic mismanagement never occurred in their prelapsarian world with the imagined progressive and puritan values of Western Civilisation. If, for Francis Fukuyama history ended sometime in 1989, to them history started in 1994. They don’t want to hear about anything that happened before 1994, because what happened afterwards is all that matters. This is a type of white middle-class blame attribution (and the self-satisfaction of a wish fulfilled) that is at the heart of their charges of populism – when those populists happen to be black.

They were populists once

So what am I wanging on about? Well, having made clear the anger and sadness over what seems like our moral collapse, I should say that I have been invited to speak at Woordfees next month, and the topic is “Populism’s Underbelly”. While I look forward to it, immensely, it may be difficult to suppress the anger and disappointment that have overwhelmed so many of us. It is going to be difficult to keep an “objective” distance, or be “rational”. 

Paraphrasing Roy Batty, in what is probably the most beautiful soliloquy on film, I have seen things that people either have not seen, or refuse to see; we cannot let it all be lost in time. The same people who are now pointing fingers at black populism were once populists themselves – the only difference was that they were white people (Afrikaners), and they wanted to establish “positive Christian and pure Afrikaans” institutions. 

According to one paper, I came across a few years ago (I hope my notes are correct), between 1937 and 1956, the head of the Department of History at Stellenbosch University, Professor HB Thom purposefully promoted links between “the volk” and their history, in a manner that satisfied the Afrikaner national objective by blending political and cultural life and “science” into a harmonious whole. The intellectual objective was a synthesis of “volks geskiedenis” and “scientific” history – which was blended into what was considered to be “truth”. 

Under Thom’s guiding hand a generation of historians was created and the Afrikaner cause was sharpened – as a bulwark, at least in part, to the “liberal West”. I don’t think I have all of this wrong, but the only view that was foregrounded at the time was prevailing Afrikaner orthodoxy.

Projected from Stellenbosch, this “objective-scientific” project extended across South Africa’s universities after the Second World War as part of creating a white South African nation. It was, therefore, not just an intellectual project; it influenced hiring, firing, the success, and the very permissibility, of what was accepted as scholarship. 

According to this paper (I can’t locate it, so I am writing from notes I made), in 1949, after the Afrikaners had captured the state, the editorial board of the Archives Yearbook took offence to any academic thesis that contradicted Afrikaner nationalism, and white hegemony in general. One thesis, that year, was censured for being offensive, and was described as “nigger-loving, anti-apartheid and negrophilistic nonsense”. And so, when we discuss populism, today, let us remember, that those who look down their noses at irascible, noisy, and populist students, were once irascible, noisy and populist students themselves. 

Why, then, am I angry?… This beaming of Afrikaner nationalism across the country resulted in me knowing the words to Vader Jacob before I knew the words of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica. You have no idea how angry that makes me. DM


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