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

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Dr Matthew Blackman is a journalist and the co-author with Nick Dall of ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ and ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia and lives with two dogs of nameless breed.

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

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  • Alan Salmon says:

    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.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    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.

  • Peter Searle says:

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

  • Bryan Macpherson says:

    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.

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