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Opinionista

Why history matters: In which we break the first rule of modern journalism… and reply to the comments

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Nick Dall has an MA in Creative Writing from UCT. As a journalist covering everything from cricket to chameleons, his favourite stories are always those about people — dead or alive, virtuous or villainous. He is the co-author with Matthew Blackman of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa and Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped South Africa (both Penguin Random House). Matthew Blackman has written as a journalist on corruption in South Africa, as well as on art, literature and history. He recently completed a PhD at the University of East Anglia. He lives in Cape Town with a dog of nameless breed.

You wouldn’t think twice about delving into a serial killer’s past, so why are so many people opposed to taking even a cursory glance at our country’s past?

Between us we’ve written a fair few of these Opinionista columns and – given the fact that we’re both historians – most of what we’ve written draws on events in South Africa’s past. While many readers seem to have enjoyed our perspectives and plenty of others have agreed or disagreed with the individual points we make, there’s also a whole subset of commenters who seem intent on dismissing, out of hand, any attempt to use our country’s past to understand its present.

Of course, we know the first rule of modern journalism: Never Read the Comments! And we also know (or at least hope) that there is a silent majority out there who don’t despise every word we write. But we’ve come this far so we may as well break the second rule: Never, Ever Reply to the Comments.

We should probably give some context. We’ve written two recent books and most of what we’ve written has been, at least tangentially, related to stuff we found out while researching them. Rogues’ Gallery busts the myth that corruption began with the ANC by showing that South Africa’s coffers have been repeatedly besmirched by sticky-fingered bureaucrats for 350 years. And Spoilt Ballots – which looks at 200 years of electoral dysfunction in our country – is our attempt to make sense of the fact that a black man at the Cape had more political rights in 1854 than at any point until 1994.

When you summarise them like that both books might sound provocative, confrontational… even triggering. But apart from the frequent jokes which we threw in to keep ourselves awake, they’re actually fairly conventional history books. In writing them, we didn’t posit many earth-shattering theories, we tried our best not to apply current standards to past events and we certainly didn’t make stuff up. In fact, we didn’t even have to look that hard for evidence of past criminality: folks have been saying all is not well in South Africa for centuries!

Over the years, many commenters have accused us of making excuses for the ANC. Presumably the people who make these claims haven’t read our books, because Rogues’ Gallery contains an evisceration of ANC corruption before, during and after the Zuma years, and Spoilt Ballots lambastes the anti-democratic processes of the ANC conferences at Polokwane and Nasrec.

We’re not saying the ANC aren’t the worst – we’re saying they aren’t the first.

We are also saying that the ANC did not magically get here by themselves. As the political theorist John Gray has pointed out, radical political change from one system to another very rarely occurs. New governments, despite often having the best intentions in the world, inherit the structures and ways of working that are embedded in the system.

Gray’s great prediction in the early 1990s was that (and this seems now more relevant than ever) the Russian government that would take power after the disintegration of the USSR would not be radically different from that of the Soviets. As Ukraine regularly learns, Vladimir Putin is very much cast in the image of the people who came before him.

But there is more to our argument. As Tony Judt, one of the great historians of the 20th century, argued, history is not a series of lessons. We clearly don’t learn, or at least we find it difficult to learn from our mistakes. But what history does, and why people research, write and read it, is that it helps us understand just how we got here. As the expression goes: history matters.

Judt, to his dying day, railed against the claims that we live in “a new world” completely unique and unaffected by the past. But this is seemingly the claim of many of those in the Twittersphere. That is, that some remarkable and entirely unique event occurred that makes the ANC indistinguishable from and unaffected by the past and its events.

No one we know would think twice about delving into a serial killer’s past, or would deny that their own actions are in some way shaped by their upbringing or some past event. So why are so many people opposed to taking even a cursory glance at our country’s past? It’s not about making excuses for current behaviour. It’s about understanding where all this kak behaviour comes from and – hopefully – using this knowledge to build a less-kak future.

If we find out that the serial killer was beaten by his father as a child, it makes him no less a murderer. But at least we might be able to say: people who are beaten as children often turn to violence. These are not radical ideas, nor are they excuses. They are explanations that are aimed at understanding, and motivated by the (perhaps vain) hope of fixing things.

The State Capture under Zuma was at least as bad as anything that has gone before it, but it was not without precedent and not without cause. Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s Vergelegen put Nkandla in the shade, Oom Paul Kruger also surrounded himself with a kring of crooked tenderpreneurs, and the Nats were also unduly influenced by a clandestine group of shady dealers (the Broederbond) who were only in it for themselves. None of this excuses Zuma’s hollowing out of our institutions, our economy and our sense of self… but it does go some way towards explaining it. Psychologists call it generational trauma – economists call it systemic corruption.

When it comes to the assault wrought on democracy by the ANC there is even more precedent – and Cyril and Co almost certainly aren’t the worst in our history. In fact, we are undoubtedly better off in some spheres than we’ve ever been. The universal franchise, a free press and an independent judiciary that has stood up for itself are certainly positives. But there are, of course, many issues with our democracy.

The ANC conferences at Polokwane, Mangaung and Nasrec were plagued by irregularities, the party has been known to exchange votes for T-shirts at national polls, and the RET faction does seem to have been behind the July unrest. But, quite frankly, none of this comes close to the treatment of black South Africans by a string of leaders including Rhodes, Hertzog, Smuts (yes, him too), Malan, Verwoerd, Vorster and PW. Not only were millions of black South Africans denied the vote for the majority of our “democratic” history, but very few families were untouched by forced removals, police brutality and/or Bantu Education.

After writing the paragraph above, we can already hear the naysayers accusing us of making a scapegoat out of apartheid, and – our favourite – of forgetting the wonderful roads, power plants and traffic verges of the 1960s, 70s and 80s… no matter that the majority of the population were living in hovels without access to water, electricity or decent (if any) schooling. At the same time, it is certainly worth pointing out that ANC has done (almost) sweet Fanny Adams about correcting apartheid’s legacy.

Oh wait, hold on, we are told they do have a plan(s). Well as Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. And South Africa has taken so many bliksems to the bek that it’s amazing we’re still in the ring. And let us state again that the blow JZ delivered to the state was, considering the ANCs supposed mandate, one of the most egregious in our history.

We have never meant to excuse the actions of the ANC. All we’re doing is looking at our past in the hope that it will help us to understand how we ended up in such a pickle. And before you feel tempted to remind us, we’re fully aware that you can’t change the past… we just don’t think that makes learning more about it a pointless exercise. Perhaps it’s a naïve hope, but we think knowing about where our fellow South Africans come from might lead us all to be a bit nicer to one another?

In an attempt to preserve that happy delusion we won’t be reading the comments on this piece. DM

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  • Thank you for this broader perspective.
    I think the perspective might be even wider, and seems to be applicable to any government and wealthy people.
    These two players inevitably intermingle, and money speaks, so governments become beholden to the rich.

    It’s nothing new, as you so correctly point out, so maybe the best we can settle for, as countries like the UK and the US do, is a tolerable degree of corruption, and to accept that it’s part of life.

    The ANC, being newbies, just didn’t know that you have to get into the game very gradually, curb your greed for a while, and then, step by step, you get to just the tolerable level so that the populace is not affected to the degree that they start whinging.

    And then you get that just-right trade-off between docile people and well-heeled politicians.
    If only the ANC had been less hasty they could have had it all, just like the governments of the rest of the world.

  • Eish sorry I wasted my time reading that. If the writers don’t read or respond to the comments I presume the section is here just so that the plebs get to fight with one another over what was written but actually to no end? Hmmm that makes commenting rather pointless methinks.

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