🔒 RW Johnson: Apartheid, ANC’s foundation myth, not working so well anymore 

Oxford don and the BizNews Tribe’s favourite political columnist RW Johnson comments on a recent clash at the National Council of Provinces between the DA’s Gauteng leader Solly Msimanga, and the ANC’s Minister for Social Development Lindiwe Zulu. RW Johnson suggests that the ANC’s reliance on apartheid as a justifying crutch may be waning, as some South Africans express nostalgia for aspects of life under apartheid, challenging the ANC’s foundational narrative.

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A Moment of Truth

By RW Johnson

There was an illuminating clash in the National Council of Provinces last week between the DA’s Gauteng leader, Solly Msimanga, and the Minister for Social Development, Lindiwe Zulu.

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Msimanga led off as follows: “I say to the ANC, don’t you have any shame ? You have rendered South Africans poorer and poorer. You have rendered the upcoming middle class into poverty. Those people who were beginning to restore their dignity after the injustice of apartheid now find themselves worse off than what they were during the apartheid days. You better have shame.”

An infuriated Ms Zulu replied: “The embarrassing thing for me is for Msimanga to stand here and tell us that our people are in a worse position now than they were under apartheid. We are not going to be nice about issues when he speaks about apartheid being better. Where was apartheid better ? Can he go and tell the people of South Africa, with all the challenges they face, that apartheid was better ?”

Clearly. Ms Zulu has not been listening to the voices at the taxi rank. For whenever I sample such opinions, people of all races tell me that of course things were better under apartheid. (Nobody wants to defend apartheid itself: they are talking about life under apartheid.) Electricity was reliable and cheap. So was water. Public hospitals were a lot better and there was also less crime and better policing. There was far less corruption. Unemployment then was less than a third of what it is today. The infrastructure was properly maintained, the railways and ports worked well. Even Bantu Education was better than the lousy education black kids get from public schools today. And after all, these are empirical matters: it’s not difficult to look up the facts and Lindiwe Zulu ought to know them. Surely she knows that per capital income has been falling in real terms for over a decade ? And surely she knows that inequality has been steadily increasing ?

Any minister for social development ought to have all these facts at her fingertips. So how come the minister is so full of righteous indignation that she is horrified that Mr Msimanga should allude to any of this ? The short answer may be that Ms Zulu normally associates only with people with the same opinions as herself. But the other reason is that apartheid is the foundation myth of the ANC. Over and over again everything the ANC does or did has always been justified as part of its opposition to apartheid. Anything that is still wrong today is still the fault of apartheid. Apartheid is/was pure evil. And its heritage goes on, apparently, forever.

In other words to say that life under apartheid was better than now, let alone better than what the ANC has done, is sacrilegious. It profanes the ANC’s entire foundation myth and raison d’etre. Worse, to argue that even life under apartheid was in some respects better than what has followed it is to break the spell of the holy horror in which it is held. After all, if Coloureds, Indians and Africans, however grudgingly, can allow that even life under apartheid had its merits, where does that leave the boast that apartheid was, on the authority of the UN, no less, a “crime against humanity”? Kadar Asmal and Ronald Suresh Roberts once wrote a book trying to equate apartheid with the Holocaust but that looks pretty silly if even people of colour can now say they preferred life under apartheid to the present dispensation. 

Note that this is Ms Zulu’s position, She doesn’t attempt to disprove anything Msimanga says, She is simply horrified that he has said it and wants to make it clear that such talk shouldn’t be allowed. It’s tantamount to swearing in church. Such talk doesn’t need to be contradicted or argued down: instead it should be deleted from the record and never heard again. It’s a matter for bell, book and candle.

Peter Attard Montalto refers to this from a somewhat different angle. “The constant blaming of everything on apartheid is an unhinged story investors have heard for far too long from government ministers who travel overseas making the case that somehow people should treat South Africa as a charity case and buy its bonds because of the legacy of apartheid. This sob story narrative does not go down well……” Again, though, apartheid is treasured as a sort of holy wound, entitling South Africa to special consideration. In effect, Montalto is saying that South Africa needs to grow up, stop being sorry for itself and, in a word, get over it.

Why should an ANC minister like Ms Zulu find this so difficult ? There may be another reason. For this I am grateful to my good friend, the late Belinda Bozzoli, who told me how difficult it was being a DA MP. Wherever you looked things were going horribly wrong and you were having to bring each of these disasters to the attention of ANC ministers or committee chairmen or directors-general of departments. Belinda said that it was a distressing fact that many of the people you spoke to seemed not to take such matters too seriously. It was as if they were distracted and couldn’t quite get their heads around what you were saying. 

But then, Belinda told me, it occurred to her that while she was trying to tell such people what a disaster everything was, they found it hard to credit this because they personally were having the time of their lives. Typically they had come from poor, uneducated backgrounds and now they found themselves earning high salaries, benefiting from government-provided electricity, accommodation, travel, expense accounts, chauffeurs and bodyguards, enjoying high status with authority over many other people and in continual receipt of invitations to embassy receptions and grand occasions of every sort. 

And that really is the point. People who live such lives are in a waking dream. They know they owe it all to the ANC and they know that the ANC’s foundation myth and indeed its entire legitimacy depends upon apartheid. In that sense apartheid is the gift that keeps on giving. So the shrine of apartheid must be tended and those who would profane it must be driven away and silenced. Provided this is done things can just go on as they are now: as Montalto notes, you can even try to convince foreigners that because of black suffering under apartheid they have a sort of moral obligation to buy South African bonds…. 

But of course nothing lasts forever. Already there is a sort of growing secular impatience with this preoccupation with symbolism, with the history and ideology of 50-60 years ago. Already, telling a South African mass audience that apartheid is to blame for everything works a lot less well than it once did. The world moves on.

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