Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

Apartheid for better or for worse

I have fallen into the trap myself: become so outraged by government mismanagement that I wanted to beat them with the biggest stick I could: “It is worse than it was under apartheid!”

Unfortunately, this is not what “worse than under apartheid” communicates to most South Africans. It is all too easily read as “better under apartheid”, as a desire to bring back white minority rule; a claim that our majority government is not fit to govern.

FW de Klerk has tried to clarify his CNN interview by reiterating that apartheid was indefensible, but alas he still doesn’t seem to have seen the light. Many black South Africans understood the young De Klerk and the Afrikaner’s fervent desire for self-determination, but they knew it was to be achieved through social engineering of the worst kind.

Politicsweb recently posted the 1947 National Party manifesto (which crowbarred it to power with a 5 seat majority, but only 40% of the vote). Its racial ideology makes for a chilling read.

Comparisons being made that the Bantustan concept is similar to the Czech and Slovak Republics are at best tenuous.

Besides, the emergence of such states, including the proposal for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine (a horrid solution to an even more wretched problem) are lamentable, and certainly no justification for Grand Apartheid as De Klerk seems to believe.

Just because “apartheid” (I use the word advisedly) solutions are being proposed and even supported in other parts of the world (as many supported Buthelezi’s Zulu nation state right up and until a few days before the 1994 election) doesn’t make apartheid “ideals” any better.

The narrow nationalists pursuing the creation of these ethnic states are in many cases as sinister as the old nationalists. The secessionist Vlaams Belang in Belgium has strong fascist tendencies, not unlike those pursuing a Volkstaat in South Africa. Witness the havoc and misery such leaders brought upon their people in the Balkans; the on-going strife in Iraq; the tribal wars of Africa; the fragmentation of the Arab states into sectarianism.

Peace isn’t guaranteed by ethnic statehood. Peace is more likely to exist if you have equality under the law; where neither an ethnic minority dictates nor a majority subjugates the ethnic minorities under its control. Equality, democracy, constitutionalism are far better guarantors of peace and prosperity than Balkinisation.

Cosmopolitism is, in my book, infinitely preferable to some ethnic-based statelet.

The European Union is a noble idea that should be celebrated. It has brought prosperity to more Europeans and peace for a longer period than any dispensation in the history of that tortured and bloodied continent which for centuries laid waste to entire cities and massacred its own people in the tens of millions.

Democratic South Africa founded on a negotiated settlement is also a noble ideal worth cherishing. If honoured, it will save us from the fate of nations all over Africa.

Even the things that are now worse than they were under apartheid are better in the new South Africa. This is of course a paradox, but let me attempt to explain using one of the most contested examples.

The ANC government’s track record on education is among its greatest failures; where policy outdid planning, ideology overpowered good pedagogics, and where today succession politics in the ruling party trumps the educational needs of 11.3 million children of school-going age.

Government is of course still dealing with the consequences of Bantu education, a malicious system in which most of its teachers were formed. But much of the current implosion in education is of the government’s own making followed by its failure to address the situation.

Though let’s not forget that under Bantu education black students had a 50% failure rate among matrics, with only 11% achieving exemption, even though they were writing papers of a lower standard. Classroom backlogs were staggering. By 1989 even white teachers’ salaries were lagging by 40%.

The all-white school I went to was built for 600 students and it had to cope with over 1000. We were taught in rows of prefabricated classrooms. More than once, I remember textbooks arriving late, months into the school term.

I did, however, get a very good education. Now I may be able to spell and add better than most, but my education was extremely poor in other ways. We were discouraged to think for ourselves (the main reason the ANC got hooked on OBE was to remedy this). We were subjected to a narrow, nationalist, Christian education; to military cadets (justified in Parliament as the need to teach white boys they were a superior race); we were taught propaganda instead of history, and given physical exercise and woodwork by teachers who frequently praised Adolf Hitler. (Consequently, like Malema, I also failed at woodwork.)

We were indoctrinated with racialism and we were separated from other school children along racial lines – an impoverishment in itself.

Many of my peers, especially Afrikaans boys, absolutely loathed their high school years; the dreary raising of the flag in the morning to a crackly long-playing record of “Die Stem”; the separation of boys and girls in different courtyards during school break; the cadets stomping around the field; the compulsory team sports; the rote learning; the short haircuts; the daily beatings of the entire class whether one had done anything wrong or not.

Some will protest: what about corruption then? Pass book and police corruption was a daily experience for millions of black South Africans who had to pay bribes to keep out – or get out of jail. Apologists like to separate out the Bantustans, but they were part and parcel of a patronage system, intended to bribe or co-opt a black elite (sound familiar?) at the cost of billions to the tax payer. To which we can add the R150-billion that simply disappeared into the apartheid elite during the 1990-1994 transition.

The NP bankrupted the country. Inflation was at 17%, the mortgage rate at 25% by 1985. We had unsustainable, inefficient parastatals and ruinously wasteful nationalised industries.

Instead of today’s competition commission, we had a crony bureaucracy of price control boards (some in the SACP might like to bring these back) for everything from rooibos tea to red meat, providing cushy jobs to broeders.

We had Gadaffi-style media laws, Mugabe-style policing, Murambatsvina-style forced removals, and a Mubarak-style regime reform called the Tricameral Parliament.

So let’s please perish the thought that anything was better under apartheid. And if you do think you find something that was, you are morally obliged to preface any such claim with: “better for only a tiny minority, achieved by grossly immoral means, and at the cost of black lives”.

I recall people starving to death in the Ciskei when I was at Rhodes University, and food aid being turned back by the military. Today we are the least “hungry” country in Africa according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, having improved since 1990 on their index.

Yes, some measurables appear better under apartheid, but that ignores the irredeemable and immeasurable harm of the context in which they occurred.

It is true that many RDP houses are not up to the standard of those built by the previous regime. This is a scandal and a cause of renewed hardship, but an RDP house is no longer part of a draconian, racist urban scheme.

All this does not mean the majority should cut government any slack. According to the United Nation’s Human Development Index in 1994 South Africa was 93rd in the world; now it is 123rd, and still slipping; one of only a handful of countries in the world to be continually negative (the others being Congo, Zambia, Tajikistan, Swaziland and Zimbabwe).

This backsliding is directly attributable to the initial bungling of Aids, to the festering corruption in the ruling party in numerous provinces, and is also at the very least in part attributable to the ANC’s failure to address through Gear or Asgisa the continuation of “economic apartheid”.

In South Africa, 44.4% of employed people must survive on less than R300 a month.

Perhaps the point is not to sully our criticism and argue about what was worse or better under apartheid, but to root out the apartheid that remains with us.

Follow Brent on Twitter.

Tags: , , , , , ,

  • A rebel without a satellite dish: Decoding the recent Steve Hofmeyr saga
  • A question of balance…
  • A world without electricity?
  • Roger Collins: A Higher Education