Dr Leopold Scholtz, veteran European correspondent for Naspers, brings an historian’s perspective to important political debates. He makes linkages across decades which assist in the understanding of current political events. He penned the below article on the ruling ANC, translated by Ed Herbst, which first appeared in Die Burger on 21 October and is published with the permission of the author and Willem Jordaan, editor of the newspaper.
By Leopold Scholtz*
In 1793, at the height of the French Revolution, the French author Jacques Mallet du Pan in an essay on the revolution penned words that became immortal: La revolution dévore ses enfants or ‘The revolution consumes its children’.
Those are the words that spring to mind every time a group of students at South African universities disrupt classes, intimidate opponents, set fire to buildings and libraries, etc.
The #Feesmustfall movement did not fall from heaven. It might be politically incorrect to say so, but the revolutionary fire that was lit by the ANC in the 80s is the father and mother of what is currently happening on our campuses and elsewhere.
In its annual 8 January message in 1984 the ANC’s leader, Oliver Tambo, lit the match. He encouraged people to make the country ungovernable with these words:
‘To march forward must mean that we advance against the regime’s organs of state-power, creating conditions in which the country becomes increasingly ungovernable. We must hit the army where it is weakest.’
In the years that followed, the state’s control over many townships was made impossible. Black police officers and municipal officials were murdered. Many people who only wanted to survive, were often cruelly intimidated to enforce their participation in consumer boycotts.
One should definitely not take the meaning of this too far. Black people’s respect for the law was indeed undermined by apartheid through the perception that the law was there for the protection of the white people only. But the violent ANC campaign extinguished the last remains of respect for the law. The principle was established that it was right to flagrantly challenge the law.
There seems to be some prevailing notion that because it is the ANC government, therefore, student protests should be less militant.
— IG: ConceptSixty5 (@Sentletse) October 20, 2016
The ANC naïvely expected this to change once it had taken over the reins. It did not. It became part of the South African culture.
After 1994, it was in fact enhanced by the flagrant manner in which prominent ANC members – with President Zuma at the forefront – trampled on the law with their unpunished corruption. No wonder then, that the students – of whom many are suspected of not being bona fide students – think they can make and break as they wish, and that their violence and intimidation will always be enough for them to get their way entirely.
It is true that the students have added an ideological flavour to their demands which did not exist in the 1980s. Now it is about the ‘decolonisation’ of the universities, about resistance to ‘Western’ thinking. As if the rules of logic, of scientific thinking in Africa are fundamentally different from those in the West. As if the principles on which the study of mathematics, physics or the history in Africa are based, suddenly differ from those in the rest of the world.
It only goes to show how little these youngsters know about the world. But they want to tell the world what to do.
This ideological flavour, however, is embedded in the culture that the ANC – and let’s be honest, what the apartheid system created before 1994 as well. One difference is that it was not specifically the intention of apartheid, but indeed of the ANC.
The other difference is that this culture is now targeting the ANC. Which only goes to show that you have to be careful when you start being violent, because a veld fire that you – even with the best of intentions – might start, could become a runaway fire before you even realise it. Do not play with fire.
And so the words of Mallet du Pan can be seen to have re-materialised in South Africa.
- Leopold Scholtz is the Founder of Scholtz Media. He is an independent contributor for a weekly column and various other national and international newspapers. Scholtz has written four books and over 40 academic articles, most of which are about military history.