An honest dialogue on navigating the legacy of Apartheid: Martin van Staden

The legacy of Apartheid persists in discussions today, highlighting those who benefited from its injustices. However, this narrative is often exploited dishonestly. While acknowledging historical wrongs, focusing on identifiable enemies for political gain risks oversimplifying complex issues and obstructing genuine progress toward justice and equality.

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By Martin van Staden*

The injustice known as Apartheid happened, and people did benefit from it. Care must however be taken when encountering this narrative in the discourse, because it has been weaponised in a fundamentally dishonest and opportunistic fashion that does not stand up to scrutiny.

The cause of liberty was indisputably served when Apartheid was brought to an end. Decades of liberal advocacy against this authoritarian system that set aside the freedoms and property of innocent civilians to implement an academic theory were vindicated.

Today, 30 years after Apartheid officially ended, and some five decades after Apartheid was unofficially reformed, we still encounter the notion that there are “beneficiaries of Apartheid” around who must be victimised through discredited redistributionist policy.

The importance of “enemies”

Opponents – but, in particular, enemies – are important for any effective political advocacy. Ruminating about ideas is interesting to a small number of people, but most want a discernible and identifiable person or group to direct their criticism and even anger towards.

This is why to say “We need criminal justice reform!” gets a few shrugs and nods but, in the American political-theatrical context, “New York State is selectively using criminal law to persecute Donald Trump!” and “the Republicans’ war on drugs is a proxy for white supremacy!” gets blood pumping.

Having enemies activates people politically.

Those who are effective in political advocacy are therefore constantly on the lookout for natural enemies to identify and point to, both to “make real” the ideas that they advocate for, and to prompt responses from those enemies. When one’s enemies respond to one’s provocations, interest is generated, and one’s own supporters are activated and feel like they are engaged in a battle.

Where natural enemies are not readily available, enemies have to be manufactured. Without enemies, whatever one has to say will be relegated to being of obscure academic interest at best. With enemies, one can go far – even to the highest political offices. Not having enemies is therefore simply not an option to those who operate in the space of political advocacy.

Apartheid is over, and natural enemies are few and far between

Every sober-minded person today agrees that Apartheid was, at least, terribly misguided. Nobody seeks to “bring back Apartheid”. The old battlefield, between the enlightened who sought a non-racial society and the bigoted who wanted state-enforced segregation, is gone.

Transformaniacs, who seek nonetheless to continue the battle to achieve their real aim – not the end of Apartheid, but the inauguration of an ostensibly egalitarian and regimented socialistic dystopia – still, however, require an enemy. In pursuit of this, they have identified someone “to blame” for Apartheid other than those who, in fact, created and implemented the system.

Given the pivotal role that historical injustice plays in these activists’ ideology, they realised that the generation of Apartheid’s “architects” was dying out and that, once the last of them in fact died, they would no longer have an identifiable natural enemy to organise their social and policy programme around.

So, they expanded those “to blame” for Apartheid to the so-called “beneficiaries” of Apartheid, who will presumably always be around to single out as the enemy.

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The real beneficiaries of Apartheid

There are actual beneficiaries of Apartheid, of course. DF Malan and his Reunited National Party campaigned on the Apartheid platform and (at least according to the electoral rules of the first-past-the-post system) won the 1948 general election. The notion of Apartheid benefited them politically. They were, clearly, beneficiaries of Apartheid.

Many companies were contracted to (for example) build housing for people who had to be “relocated” from their own homes in areas designated for other racial groups. These entities are the equivalent of today’s BEE consulting firms. Clearly, these companies were beneficiaries of Apartheid, having been paid to implement that policy.

But the question must be asked: would it have been preferable for them to refuse to build housing instead? This is a complex question, but the answer might just reveal that being a “beneficiary” of Apartheid – even when that was policy – was not necessarily a morally dubious phenomenon.

The Apartheid system gave rise to whole state bureaucracies employing thousands of people, including the departments of Native Affairs, Native Education, Coloured Affairs, Indian Affairs, various divisions of the Census Bureau, and later the entire governments of the white, coloured, and Indian ministers’ councils under the tricameral system. This was only at the national level.

Then there were the homelands: each “independent” − and every formally non-independent − homeland had their own tiered systems of government: national, regional, and local, employing tens of thousands.

Read more: SA’s “centre” unites in historic pact

At South Africa’s provincial level, each province had Apartheid institutions, like the Cape Province’s divisional councils. Locally – in “white” South Africa – black townships had their own (black) local authorities under the supervision of the larger white municipality.

The people who worked at any one of the institutions or bodies in this intricate web of Apartheid – white, black, coloured, and Indian – were salaried beneficiaries of the implementation of Apartheid.

The same question arises as with private companies: would it have been preferable (for example) for a teacher who worked for and “benefited” from the Department of Native Education to rather have not worked there?

These are all clearly beneficiaries of Apartheid.

But these are not usually what the contemporary criers of “beneficiaries of Apartheid” have in mind. Instead, they have “white people” in general in mind. And with this approach there are some notable problems.

Problems with the beneficiary narrative

Firstly, it is completely trite that Apartheid has contemporary beneficiaries, to the extent of being a pointless thing to point out.

“Benefit” is a conceptually unlimited notion. We all benefit today from the fact that Julius Caesar invaded Great Britain, where many were killed in the process, because that gave Roman law a foothold in England. The immense benefit of that legal tradition continues to serve us today. Everyone in the world today is also a beneficiary of Roman engineering, particularly in waterworks, which utilised slave labour.

Does the fact that we “benefit” mean we must somehow make amends? Why must I repent and not the other beneficiaries? Is indirectly benefiting from injustice also necessarily itself an injustice, or is it simply a fact of life?

Secondly, to talk about “benefit” in the abstract is too easily exploitable by opportunistic transformaniacs. It needs to be properly reduced to scrutinisable numbers.

For example, it is likely that in the absence of Apartheid, white South Africans – and naturally other South Africans – would have been richer than they are now. Markets left to operate freely generate more economic growth and opportunities. Indeed, it was precisely Apartheid’s economic flaws, which necessitated retaining a large non-white labour force in “white South Africa”, that sowed the seeds of its demise.

If this is the case, then the “benefit” argument falls away, and becomes “everyone was harmed by Apartheid – some were just harmed more than others”. In other words, if blacks today rank at -15 due to Apartheid, whites might rank at -5. Nobody ranks at + anything, meaning there is no “benefit” to redistribute or make amends for. In fact, everyone must be compensated, although some might receive less compensation than others.

“Who” is to pay this compensation then becomes the question, which, unfortunately, is a dead-end street.


The question of “reparations” is clearly, therefore, intricately related to the “beneficiaries of Apartheid” narrative, because very few transformaniacs only want people to “recognise their privilege” – they want wealth transfers. But the notion of reparations creates even more incoherence in this context.

Reparations, properly understood, are about placing someone in the position they would have been had the wrong or injustice never occurred. If Bob A takes Charlie L’s apple, he must return the apple or pay an equivalent financial amount. This is easy enough. But once cross-generational timeframes enter into the equation, all simplicity is lost.

It is of course entirely impossible to determine what someone would have done with opportunities otherwise denied to them. For Bob A’s descendants to say that, had the apple not been taken from him, he would have used it to start a large fruit company with seven-figure annual turnovers which the descendants of Charlie L must now compensate them for, is a non-starter.

This means we have to pay mind only to what we can in fact prove.

This is why even those of us who acknowledge the unacceptable wrong of institutions like slavery and Apartheid also sit uncomfortably with the notion of reparations (oh, and because we want to protect our own privilege, of course): because reparations itself, if implemented logically, must necessarily produce further injustice.

This injustice is not limited to those who are expected to pay completely arbitrary reparations for something they did not perpetrate, but also applies to those thought to be the beneficiaries of reparations.

For, if we apply the principle of reparation the way it is meant to be applied, something like the following becomes possible: If John X’s great great great grandfather was kidnapped from a Ghanian village and he became a slave in the United States, and today John X wants reparations, the reparation would properly be to transport John X (“back”) to his ancestral homeland and take from him the benefits that he acquired as an American citizen. As far as we can actually prove, he would be placed in the position he otherwise would have been had the injustice not occurred.

Read more: Making a co-operative government work in SA: Terrence Corrigan

This is why those who support reparations rubbish any talk of looking into particular facts. They vociferously resist it. They simply choose arbitrary currency amounts, or choose arbitrary plots of land, and say “gimme.” It is easier. But we must acknowledge that that is not true “reparations” – just rentseeking.

Reparations in the form of restitution is of course perfectly possible (though not uncomplicated) in certain cases, which South African property law makes ample provision for.

Both the common law and the Restitution of Land Rights Act allows anyone to go to court to prove that a specified plot of land was taken from them or their ascendants in title (not just people who share their skin-colour) and claim it (or equivalent financial compensation) back. Millions have done so successfully since the end of Apartheid, and most of them – not wanting to be farmers as transformaniacs insist they should be – opted to take financial payment.

Restitution is a matter of justice and must be prioritised over the other forms of rentseeking disguised as “reparations.”

An incoherent proxy argument

There is another key problem with the “beneficiaries of Apartheid” line of argumentation, and that is that it is not the argument being had. What I mean by this is that “beneficiaries of Apartheid” usually, but not always, is a euphemism, or a proxy phrase, for “perpetrators of Apartheid.”

This you can test for yourself in eight out of ten interactions with transformaniacs. Their argument will often start with them arguing that “those who took the land cannot be allowed to keep it!” or “why must compensation be paid to those who stole the land?” or something similar. That is their true, honest perspective.

It is only once you make the obvious point that the “thieves” are dead and gone – something they should, but worryingly rarely, know – that they think they can simply replace “perpetrator” with “beneficiary” and carry on the same argument.

Thus, while one might be defending against an accusation that one is a “beneficiary of Apartheid,” the actual accusation is that one is a perpetrator of Apartheid.

Perpetrators and beneficiaries are not akin, and even if one assumes both are wittingly or unwittingly engaged in some kind of injustice, the way to “deal with” perpetrators and beneficiaries cannot be the same. A murderer is a perpetrator who must be imprisoned. The child of a murderer, who is thought to benefit from their parent’s immoral exploits, is innocent and cannot be imprisoned.

Liberty is the real reparation

One of the transformaniacs’ most favoured arguments in favour of ostensible “reparations” from the so-called “beneficiaries of Apartheid” has been that free markets “freeze” the status quo. In the early years of the transition and the years leading up to it, it was said that adopting a system in South Africa that protects private property and allows free enterprise would just mean blacks stay poor and whites stay rich, with no wealth transfers between the two groups.

This was fallacious back then and remains so today. A free market freezes nothing, even if there were some arbitrary desire to do so. Free exchange of goods and services without undue interference from third parties leads to dynamic and varied outcomes. In a free market, there are no “two groups” of “blacks and whites,” but an infinitely diverse mixture of producers and consumers, and providers and clients.

A public policy dispensation that recognises and respects individual liberty, private property, and the right to engage in economic activity freely, is necessarily a dispensation where government is limited. This is the best way to achieve a flourishing future for all South Africans.

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*Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).

This article was originally published by Daily Friend and has been republished with permission.