A while back I had the disconcerting experience of receiving a spontaneous ovation from an audience consisting mainly of Afrikaners. The statement that led to the unexpected explosion in enthusiasm was that ANC members seem not to be promoted despite alleged wrong-doing but because of it.

The statement was based on my analysis of the power politics within the ruling elite, where an opportunistic construction of victimhood fuels the rise of compromised individuals. John Hlophe is merely the latest to follow this strategy, a la Jacob Zuma.

The audience at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in April this year had happily started clapping before I could provide the explanation for my statement, after which the clapping quickly subsided.

The statement per se was not funny. Why then the giddy response?

My suspicion, partly based on decades-long experiences with racist family members, is that the mirth sprung from the assumption that the statement confirmed existing racist ideas, namely that black people “cannot govern” and that black people are “naturally corrupt” and “incompetent”. (“Just look at the rest of Africa!” as the hackneyed saying goes.)

It fits in with messages that I am receiving nowadays from some Afrikaners saying it seems as though I am now finally on the right path; that my eyes have opened. These are responses to the critical analyses about the ruling elite that I have written in the last while. There is an attitude of “we told you so, one can’t expect anything better from black people”. (Obviously they don’t necessarily use the phrase “black people”.)

Anti-democratic action, whether by black or white, should always be exposed. Criticising the ANC does not mean that I agree that black people are inherently inferior and therefore do not have the ability to govern the country.

To think this way paradoxically plays into the hands of some ANC leaders who try to dismiss criticism against them by calling it racism in order to avoid having to account for irregularities.

The idea that race is an indication of people’s competency is propaganda out of the 19th century. It is ridiculous to think that something as arbitrary as skin colour could determine whether someone can rule a country or be corrupt or not.

But, unfortunately, it seems that some white people still can’t understand that race is a social construction. As social construction it does not mean that different skin colours don’t exist. It means that white people use the fact of a different skin colour as a useful mark to relegate black people to the bottom of a false hierarchy of human value. The same with the marks of sex, sexuality, disability, ethnicity and so forth.

The fiction of a “natural, biologically-based hierarchy” has historically been used to justify the plundering of resources and exploitation and violence against people disowned during the processes of colonialism and apartheid.

It will benefit Afrikaners to remember that the British also dismissed their Boer ancestors as backward and barbaric — like black people. This was done partly to justify the British lust for diamonds and gold and the resultant South African Anglo-Boer War.

Cecil John Rhodes, among others, believed that the British “race” was the most superior in the world and therefore had the right to an empire that left destruction in its wake. For his race to be “superior” and to be able to do as they pleased, he had to find races which he and other imperialists could construct as lesser beings, and southern Africa’s ethnic variety came in handy.

What is the use of these discriminating hierarchies today? So that some Afrikaners can still feel superior despite their disappointment about their system of inhumane and dehumanising abuse — apartheid — officially coming to an end? (Shame, what are we if we are not the “superior white race” of Africa?)

Moreover, if it weren’t bad enough, this racism goes hand in hand with an undertone of schadenfreude, or “to find joy in another’s damage”. The incident at the KKNK applies.

Some white people seem to find a perverse pleasure in the growing difficulties of the post-apartheid government. This attitude contributes to the failures that we are currently seeing at all levels of South African society, whether state administrative, political or social.

Afrikaners are not the only ones who are guilty of this. While some Afrikaners are still desperately holding on to their imagined racial supremacy, there are English-speaking white people who are not only convinced that they are the most superior white race in Africa but who are also relishing the dilemma that Afrikaner identity has landed itself in. They see no contradiction in this position.

At a talk before the Cape Town Club last year, I was taken on because I did not make it clear that apartheid was an Afrikaner creation. Some English-speaking whites are conveniently choosing to forget that apartheid continued some aspects of British colonial segregation and that the majority of English-speaking whites were voting for the National Party by the 1960s. Not to speak of the variety of horrors committed here and elsewhere in the name of British imperialism.

But, with opportunistic amnesia, some English-speakers can again position Afrikaners as a barbaric bunch, this time because “they” developed and maintained the policy of apartheid.

Meanwhile some Afrikaners position black people as backward and not fit to rule while “forgetting” about the violence and social disruption that apartheid wrought. There is an inordinate emphasis on infrastructure and service delivery during NP rule while little or no mention is made of the fact that the NP regime provided services to only a minority of South Africans.

To develop the state’s repressive apparatus to daily rob people of their citizenship, is much simpler than to acknowledge their citizenship with all the rights that accompany it, as especially the 1980s showed when the NP regime was falling over its feet trying — and failing — to win over “hearts and minds” by building roads and clinics in black areas.

In other words, the oppression of people is much easier than providing health, education, housing, job opportunities, welfare and basic services befitting the principle of human dignity, as the experience with the NP regime and many other authoritarian regimes on this continent shows.

The ANC inherited a state with overdeveloped repressive functions which provided services to only a fraction of the population that was separated in geographical enclaves. This is one of the many reasons why the ANC government is currently mostly failing in the delivery of state functions — above and beyond lack of skills, patronage and corruption, the reasons that are usually emphasised.

The historical legacy does not make the current factors less valid. All the reasons for state failure are relevant. So the question remains: why the schadenfreude? The damage is not to an “other” — it is to us as South Africans.

If the newspapers report that more than R600 million over a couple of years disappeared into the pockets of civil servants in the form of contracts, or that thousands of rands are being spent monthly on luxury homes for civil servants who want to live like ministers, or that the irregular scrapping of charges against Zuma encourages corruption, this is not happening somewhere “out there” to black people.

A collapsing state happens to us all. Without a functioning state that can deliver people’s right to healthcare, education and so on, democracy cannot work. As Dr Mamphela Ramphele recently asked: what is each of us doing to stop the collapse?

Many white people engage consciously with the realities and work hard, especially in civil society, to try and stop the state and therefore also democracy, from failing. We need more of them. Let’s leave the pettiness for when things are going better and we can afford it.

This is a revised, translated version of an article that appeared in Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad’s supplement By in July 2009



Christi van der Westhuizen

Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is an award-winning political columnist and the author of the book Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa's Parliament at 20 Years, available for download...

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