David Saks
David Saks

Verwoerdgate: A different take on Alistair’s faux pas

Alistair Sparks undoubtedly put his foot in it by referring, in the context of praising Helen Zille, to Hendrik Verwoerd as a “smart” politician. Whether he likes it or not, lumping the two together, as well as including him in a list of otherwise progressively inclined white parliamentarians from the apartheid era, to some degree implied that Verwoerd’s smartness was something to be admired. Obviously, this was a blunder, and a surprising lapse in sensitivity on the part of a veteran journalist with well-established liberal credentials.

Still, the strength of the backlash against Sparks surprises me. Is it really accurate, or even fair, to liken his faux pas to the fulsome praise recently heaped on Adolf Hitler by former Wits SRC president Mcebo Dlamini? The latter, it will be recalled, stated outright, “I love Adolf Hitler”, ostensibly qualifying this by saying, “What I love about Hitler is his charisma and his capabilities to organise people. We need more leaders of such calibre. I love Adolf Hitler”. That’s about as blatant as it gets.

Sparks, for his part, never said, “I love Hendrik Verwoerd”, nor did he say that he loved Verwoerd for his political astuteness or that South Africa needed more leaders like him. His mistake was in referring to Verwoerd and his abilities in a manner that was morally neutral, which had the effect of sanitising — or at least downplaying — the reality of racial oppression that Verwoerd did so much to bring about.

The question all this raises for me is whether it is in fact permitted at all in our hyper-sensitive climate to draw attention to the strengths of historical figures generally considered to be morally tainted?

Does it mean, for example, that if a school teacher were to describe Hitler as having been a highly effective orator with an unusually powerful personality, he/she should be hauled over the coals? That Hitler had these qualities is pretty much universally acknowledged, so merely saying so surely should not be taken as an endorsement of Hitler himself or of his actions.

The same applies to Hendrik Verwoerd. No-one, least of all his political enemies, regarded him as a fool — on the contrary, he was known by all to be a formidably intelligent and astute politician particular skilled in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate. It is a fact that the force of his personality, facility in debate and almost messianic belief in the rightness of his ideas contributed much to his being all but idolised by his own party. Knowing this is critical to understanding why the National Party clung for so long to the apartheid ideology, even when it was contradicted at every turn by objective realities.

Calling someone clever should not imply that one agrees with them, or that they are even right. History is replete with highly intelligent people who have not just been wrong, but hopeless, ludicrously wrong about things, whether through being unable to see beyond their own ideological biases, through personal ambition or vanity or other subjective causes.

Some of the worst damage, in fact, is done by learned professors with ideological axes to grind, people whose emotional attachment to particular notions blinds them to basic facts and logic. What makes them dangerous is that by virtue of their status as professional intellectuals with impressive strings of letters after their names, society as a whole tends to defer to them, with lesser mortals attributing whatever doubts they may have to their own relative lack of learning.

Verwoerd is a prime example. Despite this, his grand vision for entrenching permanent white domination proved to be hopeless wrong — not just in a moral sense, which (one hopes) goes without saying, but in the objective, practical sense as well. Grand apartheid never had a chance of working, and 20 years after his death was in ruins, having all but bankrupted the country and sparked off a sustained revolt by the black majority that ultimately forced a demoralised white caste to throw in the towel. To describe him as “smart” is not to deny this appalling legacy. On the contrary, Verwoerd’s intellectual gifts only heighten his culpability before the bar of history.

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