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Pandering to apartheid

The DA has recently launched a poster campaign entitled “Know Your DA”. It attempts, I think, to bring to light the “untold” role that some of their founding members played in the fight against apartheid. Typical of South African politics, supporters of opposition parties countered these claims with a series of spoof posters, intent on revealing the pivotal role that some founding members of the DA played in actually supporting apartheid.

My concern here is not with the “truth” or historical accuracy of these claims. What does concern me rather is an increasingly predominant form of “doing” politics in this country that is increasingly reactionary and baseless. It seems to me that these posters, and the responses to them, are the latest incantation of a subversive political strategy, adopted across the board from Zuma to Zille, that does a disservice not only to the memory of apartheid, but to the many contemporary problems that the country is facing. The articulation of this disservice can take many forms, but in the instance of this example, it takes two styles: the trivialising of the memory of apartheid in the name of banal politicking, and the (simultaneous) cloaking of contemporary issues in the glorification of an imagined past.

Making reference to apartheid is of course a very powerful strategy in South Africa. Invoking its memory unearths deep-seated prejudices and provides the reference points for a potent moral compass that is understandable and meaningful for the majority of South Africans. However, and as the DA/counter-DA posters show, contemporary references to apartheid often trivialise that memory, using it not as the reference point for our struggle for justice, but as a simple scapegoat for badly thought out political positions. Surely we should use the memory of apartheid as a means of judging ourselves, as a means of determining whether we have succeeded in becoming a democratic nation, rather than trivialising its lessons in a tit-for-tat banter about who did what and how?

Furthermore, both the DA and ANC have changed fundamentally since apartheid, so much so that making reference to their various historical roles draws attention away from their contemporary failures. It seems to me, as ever, that political parties are more focussed on rewriting history than they are in scripting the future.

Of course I recognise that political parties have to claim for themselves a legitimacy that often relies on past incidents. But using the commemoration of apartheid as a mere tool for the justification of their own existence seems to me to do a disservice to that memory. Furthermore, when these political bullfights begin to draw attention away from the many crises facing this country, education, crime, and housing for instance, one must begin to question exactly whose interests these parties have at heart. Neither party, moreover, is “innocent” in this game.

South Africa is facing a number of serious problems that cannot simply be wished away or hidden in the glory of the “revolution”. Rising crime, levels of unemployment, a lack of basic services and so on are not going to magically disappear, however much the present dispensation wishes it so. While it is important to acknowledge that these problems have their roots in the collective history of the country, and that there is indeed work to be done because of this history, the acknowledgment of this is not going to prevent or solve these problems. The reactionary attitude that so characterises this country’s political imagination detracts attention from these problems, bureaucratises service delivery, and wastes time. Have our political parties nothing new to say? Have they no advice, policy positions, or ideas? It seems to me that the memory of apartheid, a memory that should occupy a rare and special place in our collective memory, is tainted every time it is invoked in a banal or trivial manner. I find it absurd that in the face of our many problems, and our achievements, politicians and political parties still seem to think that references to apartheid will heal the gaping wounds in our collective psyche. In doing so they do both a disservice to the past and the needs of the present. Sticking one’s head in the sands of time is not, in short, going to help us now.


  • Simon Howell

    Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.