Recently, the Spectator published an article entitled "Verwoerd looking" on both its British and Australian platforms. The article quickly gained a great deal of attention online, as it is an unabashed reframing and defence of the apartheid system.
In case there was any doubt that this is apologism, the title of the original blog post was not "Verwoerd looking", which is non-sensical and cries out for a sub-editor, but "Verwoerd looking better". The sub-title in the Spectator is still "It seems some of the instigators of apartheid may have had a point."
The types of views advanced in this piece are disturbingly widespread. Many take them seriously. Certain sections of white South Africa, both at home and in the diaspora, argue that apartheid was not really all that bad. This thinking then sustains a new form of post-apartheid white identity infused with an incendiary sense of victimhood.
In other words, pieces like this one aren't history, or merely academic. They are extremely dangerous, loaded with meaning for white politics in South Africa and elsewhere today.
What is perhaps most galling about this genre is that it claims to be rooted in historical fact, which it isn't. I've chosen to simply annotate the original, clarifying, correcting, and contextualising the many claims that the author, John Elsegood, makes.
It seems some of the instigators of apartheid may have had a point
8 July 2017
The late Allister Sparks (1933-2016), veteran political reporter and book author, in the year before he died, reflected on some of the smart politicians he had seen in his long career, including Dr H.F. Verwoerd (South African Prime Minister 1958-66).
The sky fell in on Sparks for including Verwoerd in his list of 'smart politicians', in much the way Helen Zille, the current premier of the Western Cape, has been recently pilloried for saying that colonialism was not all negative.
In fact only a fool would disagree with Sparks and Zille, on both counts."
Hendrik Verwoerd, usually known today as the architect of apartheid, was the man most responsible for the social engineering program known as apartheid. He was not alone. But it was his relentless advocacy of an ideologically-driven, full-scale transformation of South African society — often over the opposition of more moderate party colleagues — that was pivotal to the mass misery that the country experienced.
Verwoerd was a professor of sociology at a time when few Afrikaners held such credentials, and then became a major newspaper editor. He subsequently entered the upper echelons of a political party that largely despised him, and within a few years had them worshipping him as their guiding light. So he wasn't dim, or without talent.
But surely the point isn't whether he was "smart" or not; it is that Verwoerd's intelligence was sociopathic and deployed in ways that destroyed the lives of millions. Or, as Sparks put it in his magnum opus, and not in an off-the-cuff remark in old age, "[Verwoerd's] ideology still casts its shadow over the country. It provided white South Africans with an elaborate system of make-believe that has become a habit of mind and continues to delay their inevitable confrontation with reality." Quite the apt choice of words for the mindset and perspective of Mr Elsegood and his fellow travellers, as we shall see.
"With the current situation in South Africa at highly combustible levels, the western media has shied away from the vicious racism being conducted by the ruling ANC against the eight per cent white minority. The reason is that while they demanded instant majority rule in the 1980s and early 1990s they are no longer interested in reporting on the bitter harvest they helped sow."
There are lots of half-truths elided here, so let's deal with them in turn. First, now, as in the past, "western media" tends to report on events in South Africa only when they fit into existing narratives that their audiences can easily digest. Major Western outlets don't report about a lot of things happening in South Africa. Second, racism permeates South African society, in all directions. Racist discourses have been fuelled by centuries of social segregation, fear-mongering, political differentiation, and bald oppression. Far from identifying a problem, Elsegood's article contributes to those same discourses, giving them more oxygen. Finally, to suggest that the transfer of power away from the "apartheid regime" was a "bitter harvest" is to presume that one event directly and inevitably led to African National Congress misrule today. It did not. Poor leadership, the embrace of privatisation and neoliberalism, the refusal to redistribute wealth across society, the lack of investment in grassroots education and health, a party list system that makes political leaders primarily responsive to their party rather than the electorate—these are just some of the things that lie at the core of where South Africa is today. These were all the result of choices, made by individuals in the context of historical events. Other choices would have led to different results.
(NB. The use of the phrase "bitter harvest" is a reference to the title of former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith's autobiography. Smith's symbolic importance for the white South African "bitter enders" points to the transnational scope of the claims to white identity and victimhood that Elsegood is making here. This piece was, after all, published in the UK and Australia, and not in South Africa at all.)
"In fact, Verwoerd and other Nationalist leaders shine in comparison to the current socially and economically corrupt regime and its president, Jacob Zuma."
This relativism is particularly specious. The claim that x is greater than y isn't really a great claim to quality, when you think about it.
The corruption point is one often heard in this genre, but it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. If we take corruption to mean purely personal enrichment, it is true that the early apartheid governments did not engage in this type of activity. There is a story about the first Nationalist Prime Minister, D.F. Malan, refusing to use the official mail service for his personal correspondence. The story is perhaps apocryphal, but it has endured because it points to a broader truth: Malan and his generation derided what they saw as the materialism and individualism of English-speaking whites.
But these perspectives changed. By the 1980s, with the writing on the wall for apartheid and Afrikaners having long since tasted the fruits of consumerist materialism, government ministers colluded extensively with banks, bantustan governments, corporations, and intelligence services to defraud the public purse. It is surprising that Elsegood doesn't know this. Hennie van Vuuren from Open Secrets SA has recently released a book fleshing out the details of this story, which is on sale at practically every bookstore across the country.
Of course, having your fingers in the till is only one type of corruption. Even in the early years of Nationalist rule, the government only secured power by corrupting almost every norm in the political system that they inherited (which was already, of course, highly illiberal). It packed the courts, purified the civil service, criminalised broad swathes of political thought and action, and violently intimidated opponents. This is a different kind of corruption—the wholescale perversion of even those racially limited institutions that existed in South Africa—and the apartheid regime engaged in this practice far more than the ANC today.
"Verwoerd, as Native Affairs minister for six years, supported a concept of separate development (apartheid) because he likened the racial groups as being at different stages of development. He considered that separation ensured good neighbourliness. He argued every nation had a right to survival without being overwhelmed numerically by others of a different culture. It was not a view that found favour, internationally, as the Western world started to insist all cultures were equal – something being proven daily to be incorrect particularly with the Islamist scourge."
Elsegood's is a reasonable representation of Verwoerd's views. The problem is that, much like Verwoerd and his colleagues, Elsegood treats the categories that he refers to as though they are factual, identifiable, easily delineated entities, and static ones as that. They are not. "Racial groups" as classifications of humanity have no basis in scientific fact, but are constructs. So too with "nations" and "cultures". "Development", in the sense of a unidirectional timeline of human social evolution (rather than as an economic agenda), has been resoundingly rejected by scholars across the disciplines for decades.
These terms mean different things, to different people, at different points in time. For Verwoerd, they meant one thing. Unsurprisingly, other people, borrowing from alternate political and intellectual traditions, felt differently. They did not agree that Sotho-speakers and Xhosa-speakers represented different inalienable "nations" who needed "good neighbourliness" to co-exist. They did not agree that a system of racialised capitalism that simply did not function without the mass exploitation of black labour made whites more "developed" than other South Africans.
Indeed, even an arch-nationalist like Verwoerd understood that nations weren't innate, but political constructs. It was Verwoerd who was the first leader of the Afrikaner National Party to reach out to English-speaking white voters in a serious way (on the grounds of a shared fear of decolonisation). From then on, he and his successors maintained an awfully unconvincing duality that they represented both the Afrikaner nation, with its sacred and unique destiny, and a broader white nation including Afrikanerdom's old rival, English-speakers—who neither claimed nor wanted a "nation" of their own. A social rapprochement between the two groups only followed later. Elsegood might have known this if he had done enough research to know that Verwoerd was Minister of Native Affairs for eight years, not six.
Verwoerd was not having any of it. He remembered South African history, including the brutality of the murderous Zulu Mfecane(crushing) in the hinterland, where perhaps over a million perished under Shaka and Mzilikazi, before the Voortrekkers established their two republics in the Transvaal and Orange Free State; and the period before the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), when British miners (Uitlanders, or outlanders) flooded into the Transvaal and threatened the existence of the South African Republic (ZAR), by demanding the vote. The then ZAR president Paul Kruger resisted such a policy. It resulted in the defeat of the two Boer republics by a British occupying army. However, by 1910 Britain ceded control and the Union of South Africa was established under Boer or Afrikaner leadership until 1994. The common denominator of all those governments was that they were not prepared to surrender to a majority of the population they deemed unfit to govern a unitary state.
This is the type of South African history that you pick up in a flimsy airport-market book with an acacia tree and a sunset on the cover. Or that you would have picked up in an apartheid classroom in 1973.
One thing is true: these governments were not prepared to even share political power with those they deemed unfit to govern. But the basis for those beliefs—scientifically baseless racism, enshrined as the foundational principle for society, and whipped up into politically powerful ideologies—is left unsaid. At best, governments in the Cape Colony engaged in the classic contradiction of colonialism: setting standards of "civilisation" for Africans to attain in order to merit full political participation, and then making it extremely hard for them to acquire the opportunities and education to do so. But far more often in South Africa's history, white governments simply denied Africans any of the things that they wanted (land, dignity in their work, political participation) and then used the absence of these things to argue that they weren't "advanced" enough to have those things.
This was, by any standard except Elsegood's, a truly shameful chapter in human history.
But Verwoerd was no murderous despot; he conceived and introduced homeland governments for the different African groups outside of the central government, so each group could develop and care for 'its own tree,' instead of becoming 'envious of the tree in another man's garden.'
While many criticisms can be delivered at Verwoerd for not fulfilling the full recommendations of the Tomlinson Commission Report on homeland development, the fact is that African literacy rose from 37 per cent (1956) to 57 percent in 1968, while African school attendance rose from 1 million to 2.15 million (1955-66). Overall there was a six per cent growth rate, plus a two per cent inflation rate with little unemployment, in that era.
Almost no fact in this paragraph is accurate, or in context.
The Tomlinson Commission, convened in 1950 and delivering its report in 1956, said that if the government wanted a full program of separate development resulting in political and economic entities that could be truly independent and viable, it would have to spend 104 million pounds over the next ten years (roughly 15 billion rand in today's money, ie. a lot). Verwoerd rejected these findings. He committed just 3 million pounds to homeland development and prohibited private entities from pitching in. This is hardly "not fulfilling the full recommendations."
Then to the claims on African education. I must confess that I cannot find the exact figures that Elsegood is relying on here, but the overall picture he paints is fair. There was a substantial expansion in both literacy and school attendance among Africans across the apartheid era (1948-1990). What is missing from his account is all the context: why and how this happened.
First, the labour requirements of the economy shifted dramatically during this period. While the economy had been largely reliant on mining and agriculture as late as the 1940s, it soon became focused on manufacturing, and developed a large service sector too. Over time, white capitalists successfully lobbied for more education for Africans: they needed cheap labour that could add and write, not just haul gold up from the mine or harvest bushels of wheat. The regime responded by expanding its African education program. Additionally, the apartheid government found that it needed black teachers and bureaucrats to staff the homelands that it was catapulting into an unlikely existence. This opened up still more opportunities in the 1970s and 1980s.
Second, Elsegood's stats make it sound as though the white state provided generously for black education. It did not. Even by 1979, less than 22 per cent of Africans across the entire country (including the homelands) were registered as attending school, which means 78 per cent were not. Nor was the quality of education comparable. The state spent on average more than ten times on each white pupil what it did on black ones.
Finally, education was seen as an excellent means of control. Verwoerd was himself pivotal in the implementation of Bantu Education—a whole system designed to ensure Africans knew their place in the social order. As the quote suggests, that system was designed to keep Africans in a position where they would be happy with "their tree"—regardless of whether they made a two-hour commute each day to water the whites' tree for a pittance.
Elsegood's claims about the economy are deeply problematic too. The notion that apartheid produced an average of six per cent growth across four decades is simply false. It's certainly true that in the halcyon days of apartheid in the 1960s and early 1970s that type of number was reached for a few years. But across the apartheid era as a whole, economic growth fluctuated a great deal and was often much, much lower. The South African economy was able to achieve high growth rates in the post-war era due to two main factors: it was plugged into Western and imperial/Commonwealth networks of trade, which connected South Africa's raw materials to the post-war boom experienced by trading partners in Western Europe and North America; and the system exploited the vast majority of the population, paying them (far) below market wages for ideological reasons. These two factors stopped turbocharging the economy in the 1970s. The West discovered stagflation and ran into oil shocks, and the regime found that it now needed Africans as more than just labour units, but also as consumers and skilled workers. The economy promptly ground to an abrupt halt. In 1974, Gross Domestic Product growth was 7 per cent, in 1975, 2 per cent, in 1976, 1.5 per cent, and in 1977 negligible. The economy occasionally rebounded afterwards on the back of gold prices and a misplaced confidence in the prospects of reform. But so long as the economic fundamentals were rotten, major sectors underperformed. In the 1980s, the economy collapsed and the rand lost much of its value. Of course, whites were far more insulated from the effects of these downturns than Africans were, which is probably why Elsegood recalls the period through such rosy glasses.
Then there is the claim that there was little unemployment under apartheid. This seems fairly obvious, but if you (a) artificially suppress wages and keep masses of the population in servitude, and (b) create huge bureaucracies filled with protected, cushy jobs for white voters (and, later, the black middle class), you will get low unemployment. But such a system wasn't economically sustainable. Wages weren't responsive to demand. The white labour market became saturated. And there was little incentive to modernise equipment and production methods rather than simply hiring more unskilled, low wage African labour, which over time made products globally uncompetitive. Solving these problems through reforms was then politically excruciating. Any effort to create fluidity in the labour market, or offer Africans the training they need to cater to employer demand, or reduce subsidies to whites threatened the very ideological edifice of the regime by increasing socio-economic mobility across racial lines. The market demanded one thing, ideology the exact opposite. No apartheid government ever resolved this fundamental contradiction, which was central to the downfall of the system. I'd encourage Elsegood to read any of the many good books on the political-economic crisis of apartheid, which he evidently has not.
If ever a party had a chance to prove they were morally superior to successive National Party governments (1948-94), it was the ANC. Instead, they have blown an opportunity, ignoring inclusiveness to display a vindictiveness and blatant discrimination against whites in employment, imposing racial quotas in sporting teams and denigrating the cultural and historical importance of Afrikaner monuments and days. Worse, President Zuma has openly incited genocide by dancing and singing 'kill the Boer', and declared Christians are the cause of South Africa's problems. In a parliamentary debate this year, Duduzile Manana, MP (ANC) called out, 'bury them deep' when Dr Piet Groenewald MP was referring to the plight of white farmers. This is a disgrace and would have created demands for resignation anywhere else, except, of course, in the Muslim hell-holes of the Middle East, if said about a law-abiding minority.
On the ANC's watch, some 4,000 farmers have been murdered, many with atrocious cruelty, and there have been 15,000 attacks on farms, making SA farmers the most endangered workers in the world with more chances of being killed than US soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The 'new Boer War' has seen farming families slaughtered on their properties rather than being herded into British concentration camps as they were in the South African War (1899-1902).
It is true that a wide range of political groups in South Africa use anti-white rhetoric as a campaigning tool. It is also true that there have been a number of "farm attacks" against white farmers. These are often linked in pieces like this one to claims of "white genocide". Both of these concerns—anti-white politics, and anti-white violence—are iterations of much broader issues: racialised politics and violence more broadly. However, Elsegood only cares when the victims are white. A reader in Australia or the United Kingdom might deduce from reading this piece that racial violence in South Africa was broadly unidirectional, which is laughable.
The other issue (again) is the data, which is greatly inflated and handled with recklessness. By the end of 2016, the Transvaal Agricultural Union (which is not a disinterested party on this issue) had recorded 1848 such deaths since 1990. That's a lot. But it's not 4000. Elsegood's numbers also exclude a significant portion of those killed in farm attacks aren't actually white at all. The TAU estimates that around 13.5% of those killed in these attacks are black. Other surveys give a substantially higher figure. As to the comparison to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn't clear what his math is here, but it is clear that Elsegood hasn't multiplied the chances of soldiers dying by the time that they spend in the theatre. If a white farmer has worked his or her farm since 1990, and a soldier does a six month tour of duty, you can't simply treat these as comparable data points without allowing for the fact that by 2017 the farmer has spent nearly 60 times as much time on the farm as the soldier has at the front. That's pretty basic.
At best, the data is extremely unreliable in this area.
So why is the "farm attacks" narrative so potent? First, it emerges from a major change in South African society over the last thirty years: whites are now part of South Africa's violent crime phenomenon where once they were largely sealed off from it. The murder rate in South Africa today is 34 per 100,000, which is almost exactly what it was in 1970. So much for life being safer under apartheid; it was only safer for some, and in some contexts. But violent crime is a national blight, and "farm attacks" are just one aspect of it.
Second, what the "farm attacks" narrative evokes is violence against an ever more distant self-image, that of the rural Afrikaner of yore, with values of perseverance, hardiness, independence, and patriarchal family, all rooted in a particular political economy that has long since ceased to exist. (It helps that much like in Elsegood's figures, non-whites are essentially invisible in this picture, or very much on the peripheries.) When the ZAR and OFS that Elsegood refers to were founded, each Afrikaner male was "given" two plots of land to farm as the new entities' core socio-economic structure. Citizenship, political rights, and land were intimately connected from the get go of these "lost republics". Yet almost as soon as these lands were parcelled out, the number of farmers working their own plots began to decline (for reasons too numerous to go into here). Afrikaner urbanisation has steadily continued ever since, albeit with ebbs and flows. In other words, the "farm attack" narrative is powerful not so much because Afrikaners are being mowed down en masse across the countryside, but because of the threat to a particular form of Afrikaner identity and its associated value set. The narrative elicits fear and stokes division because it convinces Afrikaners of a pattern of contemporary violence indicative of broader historical struggles between defined communities. As the reference to the Boer War indicates, this is exactly what Elsegood's piece is itself doing.
(NB. Elsegood's airport book version of the Boer War and its clearly demarcated "nationalist" sides is itself historically inaccurate, as much great research has shown. Again, I'd encourage him to read up on this.)
While Australia gives recognition to its minority Aboriginal population (2 per cent), and their culture, the same cannot be said of the black South African government as regards its white minority (8 per cent). Employment and sporting quotas simply make a mockery of having a 'level playing field', instead reliving the past remains the raison d'etre for the ruling party; while Afrikaans remains under attack with attempts to remove the cultural importance to both white and non-white speakers of the taal, (language).
Quotas are a sensitive topic. In sport as in employment, whites (and particularly white men) are discriminated against. To say that one should not punish the son for the sins of the father is one line of argument (though probably not a winning one, as inequality is structural). One could argue that quotas in the public sector are driving whites relentlessly towards the private sector, private enterprise, and private goods, at exactly the time when the country needs more public goods across income and racial lines. One could also say that quotas are an easy way for the government to avoid putting much-needed resources into the poorest communities to actually help "level the playing field" early on.
Elsegood makes none of these arguments. Instead, he draws a bizarre comparison between Australia's (appalling) treatment of its indigenous population and how South Africa's government treats its "ethnic minority". Of course, this ignores that the quotas are a response not to "group numbers", but to past disadvantage and exploitation. The similarity of "minority" status that Elsegood draws between the two communities, Afrikaners and aborigines, ignores their very different roles in history vis-à-vis labour, the land, economic opportunity, and political participation in a way that is truly creative.
More to the point, apartheid itself was nothing if not a massive quota system. It distributed vastly inflated wages, good jobs, political participation, membership in sporting teams, and exclusive access to all manner of public goods based solely on people's (externally defined) race. The quota of blacks who were allowed into these arenas on their own terms and without discrimination was zero.
The irony of a Stellenbosch University academic, Edwin Hertzog, arguing for 'language pragmatism', as attempts are made to remove Afrikaans from the university, is light years away from his famous namesake, JBM (Barry) Hertzog fighting for a dual-stream language policy, in the early days of Union government. Barry Hertzog forsook an early ministerial career, to establish Afrikaans, but eventually won the fight and became a long serving prime minister (1924-39).
Even worse is the proposal, by the current Zuma regime, to engage in land theft which is what the ANC is considering. Theft is the only word that can be used when a government floats the idea of acquiring freehold land without compensation. It is the racist policy of Mugabe writ large and will produce the same devastating results as in Zimbabwe; to wit, the destruction of commercial farming, the flight of capital, civil unrest and the exodus of people with skills.
Talk of "taking back the land" isn't some new sudden thing, as the piece implies, but has been a staple of ANC politics for years. It hasn't happened. It is unlikely to happen, for precisely the reasons outlined. The government has much more to gain by perpetuating and profiting off South Africa's current system of neoliberal capitalism than by imploding it.
Of course, in his attack on "land theft" Elsegood ignores the extremely long history of dispossession of African land by whites, whether through subterfuge, enslavement, laws in which Africans have no say, or massacres of black farmers. I suggest he read about the Kat River Settlement, anything on the expansion of the Cape Colony, or Charles van Onselen's "The Seed is Mine."
The ANC has shown in 23 years of ineptness that Verwoerd's fears about handing over to those motivated by the politics of envy is a recipe for disaster. The destruction of Afrikaner culture, will, as predicted by President P.W. Botha in 1985, indeed see South Africa 'drift into factional strife, chaos and poverty.' However, Western liberals have long since passed by, on the other side, to more fashionable causes célèbres.
Elsegood's conclusion summarises his piece nicely. It draws straight lines between racialised characterisations of black South Africans ("those motivated by the politics of envy") and the policies and misrule of today, ignoring the role of history, intervening events, or agency. It assumes that groups of people are defined by their race, which in turn dictates their level of development and appropriateness to govern effectively, though one would have thought that apartheid was actually some of the best evidence against that proposition. And it threatens a future of "factional strife, chaos, and poverty", when for most of the population that was exactly what apartheid already entailed.
This is, in one paragraph, what you might term the "Klippies and Coke" school of history: the type of thing you'll hear after far too many drinks at a braai in Klerksdorp, or Perth, or Watford, from someone who has no idea what he or she is talking about. It is sad to see such overtly racist and completely uninformed drivel published in a prominent outlet.
The Spectator should retract the piece and apologise to all South Africans for it.
** Dr. Jamie Miller is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. His book An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime And Its Search For Survival was published by Oxford University Press in September 2016.