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The system is not to blame, it’s the ANC that has brought democracy into disrepute

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Mokubung Nkomo is a retired academic who loathes unhygienic conditions, be they political or otherwise. He writes in his personal hygienic capacity.

There is enough to indict the current government without resorting to a false comparison with apartheid. A legitimate critique of the post-1994 government policies should be in the context of the Constitution of the land and the promises made before each election.

Lately there has been a chilling conversation in which the apartheid system has been presented as being superior, if not more virtuous, than the current system of governance under democracy. Almost daily, radio talk shows are awash with torrents of calls seemingly yearning for the return of the “efficient, corruption-free” apartheid system.

It is not unreasonable to draw the conclusion from this reasoning that the seeds of “Make South Africa Great Again” are being sown. Kinship with the idea to “Make America Great Again” slogan, with all its implications, is striking. Expressing deep concern about this trend, seasoned cynic Barney Mthombothi of the Sunday Times observed that “there’s even a hankering after the past, and (horror of horrors) democracy is unfavourably being compared with apartheid… Such a comparison is incomprehensible and offensive, even subversive.”

Count this claim as similar to the lamentations of the liberated Israelites who sued for a return to slavery under pharaonic rule in Egypt. Other forms of denialism are that slavery in the New World was a benevolent system, others even extending the supposed benevolence to colonialism; or that Nazism never existed (the moderates in this revisionist history charging that criticism of Nazism was an exaggeration).

Beneficiaries of apartheid’s largesse are the chief proponents of the “glorious past” mythology, understandably so. There is a lingering bitterness about the loss of those “glorious” years of unmitigated splendour whose mutated forms stubbornly remain today.

What is startling though is the involvement in the attempt to revise history of individuals who were on the receiving end of the vicious apartheid system.

The first time I encountered this anomaly was in 2012 when a former university vice-chancellor, business leader, medical doctor and political activist previously deeply embedded in the black consciousness philosophy gave voice to the claim; the second time was in 2018 when a leading businesswoman and political activist joined the chorus; and most recently it was refrained by a former vice-chancellor and leading educationist in South Africa.

These are respected citizens, thought leaders and influencers who have a ubiquitous presence in the social media firmament. Could this be the reason, at least partially, that the phenomenon has kindled the imagination of a growing number of citizens who have found talk radio a convenient medium for public conversation on the topic?

Let me hasten to declare my fidelity to the prized democratic principles of freedom of speech and thought, and the right to pry open treasured orthodoxies, especially if the latter may be antiquated or irrational. I derive comfort in the knowledge that fellow citizens who rightly raise pertinent questions must also appreciate the critique of their views.

Now back to the point of this reflection. The claim that the current dispensation is less satisfactory, or put starkly, that it is worse than the apartheid dispensation is patently specious. I wish to suggest that it is a false comparison; it’s like comparing apples to oranges. Here’s why.

Apartheid represented an ideology, actually a holistic philosophy based on white supremacy; meaning that any segment of society not defined as white was ipso facto inferior and therefore deserved less than the “superior race”. No aspect of life under apartheid remained untouched.

It is estimated that nearly 200 apartheid laws were passed over a 46-year period (excluding monumentally heinous laws such as the Land Act (1913) and the Job Reservation Act (1923) which were enacted before the National Party won the 1948 election).

The virulence and omnipresence of apartheid laws included laws such as the Population Registration Act (1949), Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), Immorality Amendment Act (1950), Group Areas Act(1950), and Bantu/Coloured/Indian Education Acts (1953, 1963, 1965 respectively).

These are but a few examples from an otherwise vast body of legislation intended to keep black people in a state of permanent servitude. It is largely because of these laws that South Africa currently is among the most unequal societies in the world. That is the legacy of apartheid.

There is no doubt that Hendrik Verwoerd in particular understood the value of education, in a perverse way to be sure. Shortly after the passage of the three apartheid education laws, missionary schools and night schools were abolished, forcing many good teachers to leave the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Beginning in the 1960s several countries offered scholarships to South African blacks in particular because of the realisation that they were being fed an inferior education.

Crucially, apartheid laws did not lie idle on the books. They were enforced with brute force. Manifestations of the general cruelty were: mass removals; banning of opposition movements; banishing and jailing of political opponents; political disenfranchisement; and social and economic deprivation with incalculable deformities as ably described by Wahbie Long in A Nation on the Couch.

Thousands were forced into exile. It was for these atrocities that the apartheid system was declared a crime against humanity and South Africa was suspended from many international organisations such as the United Nations and the Olympic Games.


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In 1960 Hendrik Verwoerd decided to withdraw South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations because of the criticism from member states. All of this would not have happened had apartheid been innocuous. Unless, of course, the rest of humanity were all irrational or misled.

Then 1994 ushered in the long-awaited democracy. There was unanimous relief among the millions who suffered from the wrath of apartheid. The newly-minted Constitution, a Bill of Rights, Chapter 9 institutions became the envy of the world. The right to vote for all at all levels was a far cry from the patently undemocratic racial minority rule.

Racial discrimination in public places and institutions became illegal. There were promising policy frameworks exemplified by the Reconstruction and Development Plan and National Development Plan that articulated grand intentions.

Regrettably these well-intentioned frameworks and policies suffered the fate of rotten fruit on a withering branch.

From 2008 onwards the descent to ignominy began to take shape. The idea of “I did not struggle to be poor” seemed to inform the behaviour of many in the political class, merging with a weak, visionless political leadership bereft of moral and ethical values.

The Guptas and others of the same ilk took notice and made a fortune from ransacking the country with assistance of a kleptocratic political class.

What can be said is that the post-1994 government with the exception of the early years lacked a consistent philosophy, unwavering focus, and iron determination to implement policies that were the opposite of the inhumane philosophy of white superiority.

A legitimate critique of the post-1994 government policies should be in the context of the Constitution of the land and the promises made before each election. Failure to implement policies effectively, lack of alignment between political, social and economic frameworks, lack of deep faith in a common mission, and a disregard for integrity are the palpable, ugly realities of daily life for millions.

The corruption pandemic has despoiled the soul of the nation and diverted billions of rands into private pockets. Accountability is bandied about but seldom applied, and Batho Pele is exclaimed but contradicted. It is all platitudes and rhetoric.

These should serve as valid bases for criticism. There is enough to indict the current government without resorting to a false comparison with apartheid.  

Let’s be clear, democracy is never perfect. It is a work in progress, continuously evolving according to emergent needs and exigencies of the times.

The common expectation is that a government that claims to be democratic will continually be driven by a compelling desire to fulfil the greater good. That is, by simply being the antithesis of apartheid. DM

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  • Garth Kruger says:

    “In 1960 Hendrik Verwoerd decided to withdraw South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations because of the criticism from member states.”

    I’m too lazy to walk to my bookrack but as I recall Verwoerd applied to stay in the Commonwealth but the application was rejected inter alia by oblections from African states and especially India. Verwoerd did not decide to withdraw; his application to stay was voted down.

  • Garth Kruger says:

    I finally got up. The leaving of the Commonwelath is described shortly in Piet Meiring’s biography “Dis my storie die” on p. 174. The main opposition to SA staying in the Commonwealth came from Nkrumah, Nehru of India and Diefenbaker of Canada. According to Meiring, Verwoerd was aalso bound to apply by an undertaking he had given de Villers Graaf before leaving SA for the Commonwelath conference.

    For what it’s worth, not a big deal.

  • Mark K says:

    Correct about judging by election promises. In the 90s, the ANC had an election slogan “A better life for all”. Surely this can only be measured by the objective material conditions of the people? The ANC did not promise “A better life for some and discounting for population growth”. Are there now fewer people living in poverty than in 1994? Yes or no? Are there now fewer illiterate people? Yes or no? Apartheid was ugly and horrible. This cannot be an excuse when more (not fewer) people are living lives that are nasty brutish, and short. “A better life for all” means what it says. And that has been a miserable failure.

  • Marc Ve says:

    Completely valid article, yet it somehow misses the point. The awful reality dawning all over the world, and especially here, is that our models of democracy fail those who need it most. It takes desperate circumstances when people would prefer the loss of personal liberty and dignity under apartheid to the economic circumstances in which they now find themselves. The voters have lost control over those they vote for, and that is what must be fixed.

  • Inga Lawson says:

    Well written. Wish we could stand shoulder to shoulder to build this land of ours. We should have done so a long time ago.

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