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SA, I hate to break it to you, you’re not so special

By Vadim Nikitin

Dear South Africa,

When I first arrived here, amid your familiar gaggle of beggars and black BMWs, I thought: “Have I landed in Moscow by mistake?” After several years of living away from Mother Russia, it felt like a homecoming. You and my country are like twins separated at birth, with one crucial difference — Russia never experienced apartheid.

Just think, you and your northern sister have so much in common:

*Two complacent old dames ruled by balding, lecherous macho-men and their cronies, intent on diplomatically propping up fading anti-Western despots yet almost entirely dependent on raw material exports to the same West.

*You’ve reared two of the world’s most unequal societies, marked by crime, police brutality, pervasive corruption and Aids epidemics. (You might have one of the largest Aids epidemics in the world, but Russia has the fastest growth in infection rates.)

*You’re both being pimped out by monopolistic ruling parties that have never lost an election, thanks to the populism, patronage and hypocritical nationalism of their reliably Swiss-watched, Italian-suited leaders.

*Each capable enough to be selected to host the World Cup, you both struggle to feed and house your people, a negligible fraction of who own nearly all your wealth. It’s got so bad that increasing numbers now grow nostalgic for the relative security under communism and apartheid.

*Your collapsed education systems create too few specialists but plenty of unemployable youths who terrorise the immigrants streaming in through your porous borders. The surest path to self-enrichment involves joining the government or securing a dodgy tender.

Because I recognise my mother country in so many of your ills, how could they all have been caused by apartheid, racism and European colonialism — which Russia had never experienced? Yet that was exactly what your son, the public intellectual Andile Mngxitama, claimed in a debate with Antjie Krog at last weekend’s Johannesburg Literary Festival.

According to Mngxitama, who called you a “black country under white management”, your poverty and misery is the direct fault of whites and the white mentality of the ANC leaders. “White wealth is created out of the subjugation of black people,” he once said. And any complexity and nuance on this score is wrong because it denies people the opportunity to make clear moral judgements (by which he presumably means to unambiguously blame white people and the ruling class “house negroes” for all your problems).

My first reaction to this was pride: we Russians, at least, have successfully managed to ruin our country and our people without any help from European colonialists or apartheid. That’s self-reliance!

Mostly though, Mngxitama made me feel jealous of you, South Africa. You and your people have got it all so figured out — just throw out all the whites, take their white-privileged stuff, money, companies and land, and all your crime, inequality, unemployment, disease, resource-cursedness, corruption and crony capitalism will disappear.

But what about your poor sister, Russia? If only her 18th century landowners had gone to Africa for their slaves, instead of preferring the much simpler method of enslaving their fellow Russian peasants! If only Stalin had massacred some dark-skinned foreigners instead of millions of his white countrymen! Where both the victims and perpetrators, the elite and the excluded, are white Europeans, who are we supposed to hate and blame for everything? I thought we were in this together, South Africa!

Let me tell you something a wise man once said: “A universal orthodoxy can be combated only by a universalising heresy.” Those words, from the radical Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger, reminded me that Mngxitama did not simply misdiagnose the source of your problems. In the globalised age, local heresies like his, which treat you as a special case and prescribe a nationally-specific medicine, betray a spectacular failure of scope and imagination.

Don’t be offended if I tell you this: apartheid may have been unique, but the crises you face today are not; they are the common plight of our post-liberation plunge into an unequal but inseparably interconnected world. As long as your brightest and most devoted sons continue to peddle such parochial, race-based exceptionalism, how can they ever hope to help find the universal heresy that our equally universal tragedy urgently demands?

Anyway, I’ve got to go get back to perpetuating my white privilege. Talk to you later!

From Russia with love,

Vadim

Author

  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.

74 Comments

  1. Zakir Zakir 7 September 2011

    brilliant!!! A refreshing take on our current condition… apartheid has become a convenient excuse for everything… what we dont realise is how such victimhood prevents us from being the best we can be…

    Having said that, we are, indeed, pretty special as a country. Why should we downplay it? We are a diverse, exciting, interesting, challenging, scary and beautiful place…

    Whether good or bad, there are few places in the world like this place.

  2. Judith Taylor Judith Taylor 7 September 2011

    An article which is both highly amusing and spot on. In fact Stalin’s policies were racially based as he took out more gypsies and non-Great Russians than others.

    Dave Harris – you are wrong. People in the USSR could not move around the country without permits just to cite one problem. I could give you an entire history! And children of party members had better access to education than others unless they were prodigies. I can assure that the USSR did not tolerate people of other colours easily and made sure they stayed where they were told plus Jews were openly persecuted.

    The current similarities are striking – well done Vadim. It also reminds us that we should be human beings and members of the human race before anything else as it reminds us that we now have to embrace humaneness in all our dealings with each other and that is what we are manifestly not doing

  3. Charles Charles 7 September 2011

    Excellent.
    To those who still say Apartheid has led to economic inequality because of colour, please look around you today.
    The masses are still destitute and there is a small group that have great wealth which includes Bantu.
    If Apartheid never existed, then we would have the following situation in South Africa:
    The masses are still destitute and there is a small group including Bantu that have great wealth.
    I use the term “Bantu” as there are really very, very few “black” people in South Africa. Anyone ever been to the Sudan?

  4. iamsouthafrican iamsouthafrican 8 September 2011

    @ GW
    You are absolutely right in all that you say! However what is even more frightful is the absolute lack of realization from the blacks of this most important fact – no skills!
    They did not have it! They do not have it! They will not have it for a very long time to come, and for no other reason other than themselves!!! That is indeed even more sad than what apartheid could have ever have done to these people.
    Freedom can be a scary thing as it is founded on self responsibility! Our leaders and most of our people are not willing to take responsibility for their actions, and in not doing so well then they are proving to the world that they were not ready to be a free people. All we are seeing now in SA is a theme of entitlement and the government must provide, and a growing mass of people becoming more and more dependent on the government for survival. I am not saying apartheid was right, I am just saying that it can be argued that the blacks of this country were not ready to take charge of this country, not yet even. In order to reap the benefits of true freedom and democracy our population is needing to be able to think for themselves. Our population is mostly uneducated and is forced fed political garbage by uneducated leaders (the educated are not in the power positions), and we can then argue that SA is just not ready for true freedom and democracy! SA needs to focus on educating themselves if they want to win the next wave of colonialism, the Chinese!

  5. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 8 September 2011

    @Harris,you are dumb then I thought you were for writting a comment about Russia like you did. Under Stalin, Russia was a killing field and Stalin carried out a great purge from the military and most intellectuals were put in jail. All property was taken from the people and the people were never paid for their property . Stalin once made a remark that thirty million people were killed during the great purge in Russia under his command. When the Germans invaded Russia in 1940 the Russian army fell apart and the comrades could not run Russia. The Russians were forced to bring all of their military officers and skilled people out prison to fight the war against Germany. As a matter of facts, the people that designed many weapons during ww2 were in prison.

    Moverover, the apartheid government in SA viewed the blacks as human capital and never had any mass killing of the black population like Stalin killed off many Russians. I am not trying to defend apartheid but, this system was less brutal then Russia under Stalin.

    Speaking of colonism,Russia was a colonial power the same way many other countries were at that time. Russia has just gave her colonies their freedom about twenty years ago. Mandela would have been put to death under Stalin when Stalin ruled Russia.

  6. Clinton Clinton 8 September 2011

    Wonderful article in so many ways. Acerbic, witty, insightful, interesting in factuality and perspective. Whilst your tongue may be firmly in your cheek, what you say has much merit.
    As for the critics and detractors above…you will find the common thread of flagellating self-pity and weary non-apologetic “victim” mentality.

    More writings please….

  7. Save SA Vote DA Save SA Vote DA 8 September 2011

    Mr Nikitin a very good article! I think that the more we see paralels elsewhere the more apparent it is that humanity has some issues. The postives are that these human frailties surpass race and all are equally capable of idiocy.

    I truly believe that Apartheid was (like everything else) about money – how can a minority maintain political power and access to the economic growth of a nation? Well I wonder if it could have been done by other factors than race; and I’m sure it could. Perhaps if the vote was only given to those over 60, we might have had some wise governance over the last 70 years…..but that would have been age-ist. Perhaps only for those who submit tax returns – then those who pay would direct the nation….. many options. Blackness and whiteness was a lazy way to draw a line and divide up the wealth. A very blunt tool.

    Nonetheless, history is history – and if a country wants to excel then the future has to be it’s focus. Japan, South Korea and the UAE are great examples of nations which went from zero to hero in less than 40 years. These are the examples we should be following.

    It does require us to move forwards though….and it’s not very palatable to let the white tribe off the hook just yet….maybe a few more decades of punishment, and then we’ll truly be allowed to become one nation as per Prez Mandela’s vision.

  8. tovarish tovarish 8 September 2011

    Good read. Unfortunately, no matter how sound the underlying point, parallelism never wins arguments.

  9. Dave Harris Dave Harris 8 September 2011

    @Wela Patrick Msimanga
    Well said indeed.
    Unlike SA, Russia prefers to kill off its “bloody agent” journalists, throw oligarchs who disagree with the government in jail, and racial diversity is non-existent! Russia is far from a progressive democracy.

    So, Vadim – the Great White Russian Impersonator, if you insist that Russia and SA are similar, then you’re simply being a naughty provocateur! You’re giving our angry youth far too many tempting ideas to try out ;-)

  10. barry barry 8 September 2011

    For those that don’t know, South Africa was a racists state before Apartheid.

    Apartheid was about separate development.

    That is why you still have coloured and black townships predominantly populated by coloured and black people.

    They didn’t all coalesce because they wanted to, there were forced removals, setting up of “homelands” etc.

    In Cape Town particularly those townships are still under serviced, education is poorer than in afluent(previously advantaged areas).

    People growing up in those areas still face the same challenges they did before Apartheid in terms of upward mobility in South Africa today.

    That is a legacy of Apartheid. Another legacy left behind is the concentration of economic wealth in the hands of whites. Yes there are a few BEE fatcats, but that is a minority.

    Yes Apartheid has now passed but the inequalities left behind be separate development persist. That is plain to see. But also apparently really easy to deny.

    And that is that.

    To foreigners who come to South Africa the racial inequalities are plain to see, yet in SA mentioning them is so taboo it’s almost viewed as racist.

  11. AG AG 9 September 2011

    Fascinating read! This American learned a lot!

  12. ayejaye ayejaye 9 September 2011

    spot on in every way the parallels is uncanny but true

  13. X Cepting X Cepting 12 September 2011

    Loved your post, agree with most. Paticularly because I was once thrown out of an apartheid era commie-hating classroom for offering the hypothesis that we might not be so different from the commies after all and that most Russians and South Africans have many things in common, like the daily struggle to live, raise children and hopefully succeed at something.

    One objection: Comparing Putin to Zuma is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think? I’ll swop you a Zuma, Malema and Tutu for one Putin, how about it? At least Putin looks good on a Harley.

  14. J J 13 September 2011

    right on – witty and provacative. look forward to reading more of your work here!

  15. Sean Sean 29 September 2011

    “Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear submarine base.”

    Nostalgia warps your view of the truth of the past. For goodness’ sake, check your facts before you jump the gun!

  16. Sean Sean 29 September 2011

    Pls ignore my previous comment – it was meant for a different article.

  17. Holger Behrens Holger Behrens 3 October 2011

    If nothing else this is brilliantly written and very thought provoking.

    I agree with the sentiment of this author and wish that more people can be exposed to its thinking. I will not be so bold as to wish that many people grasp and make this understanding their own.

    It stands in such sharp contrast to the “though leadership” of our ANCYL “brains trust” that it totally exposes our lack of insight to our particular position.

    Thanking you!

  18. ian shaw ian shaw 21 October 2011

    How about a beautiful Russian poem by Lermontov (transcribed to our alphabet)

    About democracy: “V duse mayey kak v okenanye
    Nadyezhd razbitych gruz lezhit.”
    In my soul like in an ocean
    The weight of beaten hopes resides.

  19. nb nb 13 December 2011

    The Boers came to this country in the late 17 century. It took them some 50 years before they realised they weren’t going to achieve the type of growth they desired, so by the early 1700’s, land seizures from native Black farmers began.

    Exclusionary labour practices designed to favour White (Boer and British) ‘South Africans’ continue for 200 years before they are formally made into law passed in 1910. All people of colour (besides coloureds in the Cape) are no longer allowed to vote in their country.

    In coming years the White governments pass actual laws that state:
    i. the Physical Movement of People of Colour is restricted – (1952)
    ii. the primary, secondary and tertiary education of People of Colour is restricted – (1953)
    iii. the land and immovable property of People of Colour is restricted – (1951)
    iv. the public facilities of People of Colour is restricted – (1953)

    They are also not allowed to organise political representation that seriously voices their concerns.

    In 1991, 300 years after Whites first came to South Africa and started formulating undemocratic and unparticipatory approaches to government, the ruling NP government called for a new Constitution that would look after the needs of People of Colour as well.
    It took 3 years before elections to this effect were held.

    leg·a·cy (noun) \ˈle-gə-s
    something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past

  20. Caroline Caroline 23 June 2012

    What a load of populist garbage! Shame on you, Vadim, for getting dirt on your own country in order to get your 5 seconds of local “fame”. Being a Russian, you should know all too well what journalists like you are called there, and for a good reason: “media prostitutes”.

  21. razzmaster razzmaster 25 April 2013

    interesting and true, we’ve met before, I hope we meet again, youre on to something

  22. Heinrich Heinrich 10 December 2014

    Excellent article – should be compulsory reading for all SA politicians.

  23. feanor feanor 11 December 2014

    “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

    – H. L. Mencken

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