"Worse than apartheid": The phrase that pays
Julius Malema recently suggested that the South African public health care system is worse than it was under apartheid. A favourite rhetorical device of the EFF supremo, his is the latest in a long list of similar such comparisons, made almost across the board by prominent individuals. The phrase is almost guaranteed to generate a headline but, in a land where language and sentiment tend to trump reason and evidence, what does one make of that?
First, it is worth noting that the comparison is made remarkably often, primarily by South Africans themselves, and it would seem heartfelt enough. By way of illustration, the 2015 Afrobarometer Survey (2,400 demographically representative respondents), puts it like this:
"In 2015, a majority of South Africans report a lack of improvement on a range of socioeconomic indicators, including personal safety, economic circumstances, employment opportunities, race relations, and inequality between rich and poor (Figure 5). On average, less than four in 10 citizens (37 percent) believe that these conditions are "better" or "much better" than in 1994, while six in 10 (62 percent) say they have either stayed the same or deteriorated."
Those findings are corroborated by a number of other such polls. So, it is difficult to describe the sentiment as controversial. Most people would seem to believe the last 20 years have hardly revolutionised their lives. Whether the feeling is objectively true, is another matter.
Nevertheless, as a comparative, rhetorical mechanism, the phrase remains highly fraught. No doubt the reason is that the system of apartheid was itself inherently illegitimate, repressive and malevolent and cannot be compared to our contemporary dispensation: a constitutional democracy based on a Bill of Human Rights.
Understandably, it is almost impossible for most people to separate the moral profanity that was apartheid from the conditions and circumstances that defined it. It is for this reason that most surveys use far more neutral language in their questioning — typically whether conditions have improved or deteriorated since 1994, not whether life is better than under apartheid.
The Afrobarometer survey findings are more remarkable in that sense because its question was: "Is your life today better, about the same, or worse than it was under apartheid?" No wiggle room there. People are not happy.
The ANC government's performance has deteriorated into a catastrophic and almost universal omnishambles, a great increase in the use of the phrase "worse than apartheid" to drive a wide range of political agendas across the board.
But for public commentators and politicians, this sort of terrain can be treacherous indeed. The world of instant and sensational news means any such comparison is immediately elevated to headline status and the complexities of the argument, specific or qualified, often immediately lost. And social media does its own, not insubstantial bit, to heighten the drama. Evoke the phrase, and risk any specific comparison being automatically subsumed by the intense feeling of immorality the word conjures up. The truth of any observation becomes inseparable from moral judgement.
Nevertheless, it is actually perfectly possible to compare and contrast particular quantifiable indicators over time. Like all scientific comparison, it requires accurate and consistent information but there is no reason, using the right data, why you could not compare say, the quality of education outcomes before and after 1994, the unemployment rate or the size of the economy.
If the conclusion is that specific things are worse, well, it is unfortunate that the historical frame of reference is so morally loaded, but that is science for you. It's purpose the pursuit of truth, not morality. What you do with the data, how you extrapolate the findings and what reasons you ascribe to them, can be a more subjective business but the findings themselves are what they are.
There have now been, over the last decade or so, and as the ANC government's performance has deteriorated into a catastrophic and almost universal omnishambles, a great increase in the use of the phrase "worse than apartheid" to drive a wide range of political agendas across the board.
The accuracy of most of the claims is dubious, they would seem to be made primarily for the sake of rhetorical power and impact or to drive a particular political agenda, one entirely unrelated to any more scientific pursuit. Others are no doubt more accurate, only they are not accompanied by supporting evidence, so it is hard to know definitively. But either way, they are plentiful. Here are some examples.
On the political front, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu has said of President Jacob Zuma's attitude towards his executive, "We are not only equal to the apartheid state, we are worse — because they never treated their ministers like this."
Zuma himself has himself evoked the comparison when, in 2006, his various private residencies were raided by state prosecution agencies. "I must tell you, you are doing even what the apartheid state did not do. If they thought there was somebody who had committed a crime, they would investigate until they had a case, then charge the person", Zuma recalled his response at the time, "I said: 'You are worse than them.'"
Former ANC member of Parliament, Makhosi Khoza, who fell out with the party over Zuma, has said of corruption and self-interest among ANC members, "They're not different from the apartheid forces. In fact, they're worse."
EFF leader Julius Malema has often used the comparison. He has described RDP housing under the ANC government as "worse than apartheid houses," likewise the public healthcare system and, in perhaps his most damning comparison, the general condition of black South Africans: "We are worse than we were during the times of apartheid. We are being killed by our own people. We are being oppressed by our own government."
He has used the phrase more than once in reference to state violence. "Jacob Zuma's government killed the Marikana miners, they are using the same tactics that were used by the apartheid government", he said in 2014.
But the DA too, normally held to a different standard on this subject, has also made use of the comparison. Douglas Gibson, former DA chief whip and ambassador to Thailand, far preceded Malema in his view on the public healthcare system, saying in 2016, "If anything, many of our public hospitals are worse — some far worse – than they were under the apartheid government twenty-five or thirty years ago."
DA leader Mmusi Maimane has said of the current education system, "The education [Jacob Zuma's] government provides to millions of black children is no better than the Bantu Education of 40 years ago. In fact, many believe it is worse." And the former leader, Helen Zille, has used the phrase to describe the scourge of gang violence and drug addiction (no doubt with particular reference to the situation in the Western Cape).
All of these examples almost immediately generate a raft of media stories and, whatever else was said on the day, it is the "worse than apartheid" comparison around which they inevitably revolve.
"We have a big future, we all stood to fight apartheid but this is worse than apartheid", she said in 2007. And, in 2013: "I often said before that our crisis of substance abuse is harming another generation of young people worse than even apartheid did to their forefathers, because apartheid didn't incapacitate people, it mobilised people to demand their rights and to claim control of their lives."
Even the late Helen Suzman felt compelled to make the comparison, with regard to the state of debate and democracy. "Debate is almost nonexistent and no one is apparently accountable to anybody apart from their political party bosses," she said in 2004, "It is bad news for democracy in this country. Even though we didn't have a free press under apartheid, the government of that day seemed to be very much more accountable in parliament."
In 2012, IFP MP Albert Mncwango described the implications of the Protection of State Information Bill as "even worse than what happened during apartheid, when even the worst laws were supported by a segment of the South African population."
Former Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi said of unemployment levels in 2007, "Many of the millions who are unemployed, or whose jobs have been casualised, are even worse off than under apartheid. Around 20-million of our people are still mired in poverty. We still face many challenges and the task of transformation is far from complete."
From civil society, Mamphela Ramphele has said of basic education: "Maths literacy... what is that? It's worse than the arithmetic I did under Bantu education" and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of the ANC's decision not to provide the Dalai Lama with a visa in 2011, "Our government is worse than the apartheid government because at least you were expecting it from the apartheid government."
And so it goes. All of these examples almost immediately generate a raft of media stories and, whatever else was said on the day, it is the "worse than apartheid" comparison around which they inevitably revolve. There are numerous other examples besides, but these paint a fair picture of just how common the comparison is. Outside of public figures and opinion polls, there have been some more quantitative assessments that have arrived at a similar conclusion on one subject or another.
As the ANC has fallen, it has slowly and systematically wrenched from history the one comparison, thought sacred and reserved only for unspeakable evil, and turned it into an increasingly legitimate contemporary moral weapon.
The US-based think-tank The Cato Institute, for example, wrote in its 2016 "Misery Index", that "Unemployment in South Africa is worse now than it was when apartheid ended in 1994." And, in 2015, a report commissioned by the South African Council of Churches into inequality found that "inequality today is far greater than it was at the end of apartheid. The issues of youth unemployment‚ pegged at nearly 70 percent‚ paint a bleak picture of a society with little to look forward to or hope for."
On the rare occasion, the state itself has evoked the comparison. In October 2017 Business Day would write of a briefing by statistician-general Pali Lehohla, "The statistician-general, whose term ends soon, said that conditions for learning under apartheid for black South Africans were much more conducive than they are now", therefore, it quoted Lehola, "Whites continue to outperform black students."
Whatever the veracity of any particular claim, then, it is clearly becoming more morally acceptable to evoke a comparison with South Africa's dark past. Time has a way of diluting the intensity of any given moral crime and now, 23 years into a new democracy, the sustained and profoundly damaging policies and conduct of the ANC government have done much to dilute any comparison with apartheid, to make it less morally offensive. Worse still, it resonates with much of the public as true, a situation that no doubt encourages political public figures to evoke it.
And that, perhaps, is the greatest indictment of all. The phrase has become a litmus test for the ANC's moral legitimacy and the party, through nothing more than rank incompetence, has now found itself, rightly or wrongly, in the same moral cesspool as the idea of apartheid itself.
As the ANC has fallen, it has slowly and systematically wrenched from history the one comparison, thought sacred and reserved only for unspeakable evil, and turned it into an increasingly legitimate contemporary moral weapon. As if that wasn't enough, people now increasingly believe it to be true. It is the phrase that pays, entirely sponsored by the ANC. Unless things change, soon it will become passé.
Gareth van Onselen is the head of politics and governance at the SA Institute of Race Relations.