First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

We'd like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick

More specifically, we'd like those who can afford to pay to start paying. What it comes down to is whether or not you value Daily Maverick. Think of us in terms of your daily cappuccino from your favourite coffee shop. It costs around R35. That’s R1,050 per month on frothy milk. Don’t get us wrong, we’re almost exclusively fuelled by coffee. BUT maybe R200 of that R1,050 could go to the journalism that’s fighting for the country?

We don’t dictate how much we’d like our readers to contribute. After all, how much you value our work is subjective (and frankly, every amount helps). At R200, you get it back in Uber Eats and ride vouchers every month, but that’s just a suggestion. A little less than a week’s worth of cappuccinos.

We can't survive on hope and our own determination. Our country is going to be considerably worse off if we don’t have a strong, sustainable news media. If you’re rejigging your budgets, and it comes to choosing between frothy milk and Daily Maverick, we hope you might reconsider that cappuccino.

We need your help. And we’re not ashamed to ask for it.

Our mission is to Defend Truth. Join Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Apartheid and colonialism still define South Africa’s...

Defend Truth


Apartheid and colonialism still define South Africa’s politics despite our liberal social democratic Constitution


Matthew Blackman is a journalist and co-author of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in SA, and Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped SA. He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia.

South Africa has a liberal social democratic Constitution, but no truly liberal social democratic political party. Until liberal social democratic politics can sever itself from the ANC, and those last liberal breadcrumbs in the DA can gather themselves up and leave the alliance, South Africa seems destined to continue to stagnate in apartheid’s hybrid inheritance.

Just what are we looking at when we cast our eyes over South Africa today? Is it in some manner a recurrence of our past? John Gray, the liberal-sceptic philosopher, argued when the USSR broke down that there was little chance that a liberal democracy would flourish there. Francis Fukuyama’s theory that liberal democracy would overawe Russia, China and South America with its liberal systems and its moral underpinnings, Gray claimed, was simply delusional.

Instead Gray argued (rightly, it turns out) what would happen in Russia was that a hybrid political practice would form. That was, that the new Russian system would not be entirely different from its Tsarist or Soviet pasts. Putin is the epitome of this very politics. Gray’s general argument is that embedded cultural systems never simply give way to progressive liberal democratic alternatives. Illiberal political cultures are far more complex and far more ingrained in societies than liberals like to believe.

On getting to grips with Gray’s argument and looking at South Africa as it exists today one can’t help feeling that our political frameworks are, in some manner, an inherited hybrid version of colonialism and apartheid. This is not to say, as Helen Zille does, that “the ANC has turned out to be among the biggest racists ever to rule South Africa”. Clearly this is not true. The ANC is by far the most liberal, non-racist and tolerant government that South Africa has had. But then again, we should acknowledge that that bar was not set very high.

South Africa is inarguably a hybrid state which has, embedded within it, an inheritance of apartheid. It has retained many of the structures and internal workings of that system. What my research of the last two years for the book Rogues’ Gallery — which details 350 years of corruption in SA — confirmed to me is that the apartheid government was inherently corrupt and that its corruption served a small clique of people. This is not something unfamiliar to us today. And in fact, many of apartheid’s corrupt systems were simply taken on by the ANC government (the Arms Deal is a case in point).

But there are many other similarities: police violence, low standards of education, bad and failing service delivery in largely black areas and massacres like Marikana. These are issues and events that existed in some form in both the apartheid and colonial systems. They are problems and habits that colonialism, apartheid and post-apartheid systems seem unwilling to solve or change (even if this unwillingness does stem from distinctively different political positions).

It is very hard to deny when people say, as they do in the poorer areas of our cities, towns and countryside, that “nothing has really changed for me”. They are certainly right. A drive through Khayelitsha will tell you as much. The segregation of colonialism and apartheid is still very much a lived experience today, although it might not be enforced as it once was by the torture cell, the Maxim gun or the R4 rifle.

Another inheritance from the apartheid era is the total failure of the democratic opposition to organise itself against a monolithic dominant party. The DA’s recent public suicide attempts in both video and book form have a distinct similarity to those of the United Party (UP) of the 1960s. In the decade before, the UP had aligned itself with the liberal-progressive Torch Commando of “Sailor” Malan and the ex-servicemen who had fought the Nazis. But when this movement fell apart, the UP lost confidence in liberalism and they swung dramatically to the right in order to collect votes.

In fact, in the 1966 election, Sir De Villiers Graaff’s UP was almost unrecognisable from the National Party (NP). In some senses, they were further to the right than the NP. The UP claimed the NP’s homelands policy was the act of liberal sell outs and they openly supported Ian Smith’s white supremacist government in Rhodesia in the hope of currying favour with English speakers. It was a mad and fatal politics and the UP received the biggest electoral hiding in its history — they never recovered. Most people simply lost faith in the UP and either threw their lot in with the NP or stayed away from the polls entirely.

Is this our legacy? Are we like Russia and China, stuck in an inherited system and a mimetic culture that our politicians are fated simply to sustain?

But if you read our history this is not the whole story. There has always been a liberal, one might say social-democratic strain, to our politics that sought to overturn the status quo. This history is contained in the lives and politics of Sol Plaatje, the Msimangs, James Rose Innes, the Schreiners, Albert Luthuli, Robert Sobukwe, Alan Paton, Randolph Vigne, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and the UDF in general. What has happened to this strain in our politics is that many people confuse it with that of the ANC. Or indeed, when the politician is white, with that of the DA.

Quite clearly the ANC and the DA/UP, in past and current forms, have not been social democratic parties, although some of their members may have been. In the ANC’s case, it was only ever the spokes rather than the whole umbrella that were social democrats. In the DA’s case, it is almost certain that no white liberal politician of the past would associate with the DA in its current form… much as they didn’t associate with the UP from the mid-1950s onwards.

Until this liberal social democratic politics can sever itself from both the ANC, and those last liberal breadcrumbs in the DA can gather themselves up and leave the alliance, this country seems destined to continue to stagnate in apartheid’s hybrid inheritance. A political party that is properly aligned to our liberal democratic Constitution, that is representative of our population and that places social upliftment at the centre of its policies may be the only entity that can break our dominant systems of the past. DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 4

  • Excellent well written article. I agree that the DA has disappointingly lost its way – as the author says – there is no truly liberal social democratic party to support.

  • To describe the ANC as non-racist is a stretch of the imagination. In the name of righting the wrongs of the past, they have enacted a raft of racist legislation with more in the offing – a social engineering endeavour doomed to failure at the expense of the poor. The DA, with all its flaws, at least has a record of delivery to their constituents and a genuine desire to grow our economy whilst investing in education and other public services that give hope for the poor and retaining the world class skills we still have here.

  • “one can’t help feeling that our political frameworks are, in some manner, an inherited hybrid version of colonialism and apartheid” and tribal systems ?

  • I wonder if, in years to come, the deep rooted and pervasive corruption of the ANC Government in post-apartheid South Africa will be seen as as equally defining in political terms.
    Certainly, the poverty and despair that it brings to millions will be long remembered.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted