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Apartheid wasn’t so bad – historian

30 June 2012

A few days ago a well-known historian, Hermann Giliomee, wrote an article published in the newspaper Rapport with the headline Apartheid: Was dit dan net boos? (Apartheid: was it just evil, then?).

Giliomee is the author/editor of New history of South Africa, which claims to put the bias of apartheid-era textbooks behind it. I haven’t finished reading it yet, and haven’t reached his treatment of the apartheid period, but after reading the article in Rapport I’ll be reading it with a great deal more suspicion.

In the Rapport article, according to Giliomee, many politicians and political commentators are trying to create the impression that apartheid was an ideology that was uniquely evil and much more oppressive than the pre-1948 segregation policy.

As the journalist Piet Cillié put it in 1985, the impression is created that South Africa was a nice integrated multiracial community that was divided and fragmented by dictatorial NP-governments and so prevented from “developing the friendly relationships that it was heading for.”

According to this view of history, after 1948 the country was on a long economic, political and social downhill path, on which the retrogression was only halted in 1990.

Like Cillié, I think that this is a totally distorted understanding of history (my translation).

Giliomee goes on to say that South Africa would not have had such rapid economic development were it not for apartheid, and though he acknowledges that none of his propositions can be proved, the historian must nevertheless be prepared to think the unthinkable — the unthinkable, apparently, being that apartheid was not so bad after all.

He also quotes another historian, Herbert Butterfield, to the effect that if we try to judge the past with the moral insights of the present, we will just be creating a giant optical illusion.

In doing this, I suggest that Giliomee is himself trying to creat a giant optical illusion: he implies that we cannot judge apartheid by the moral insights of our time, but we must judge it by the standards of its own time. The problem with this is that apartheid was judged by the standards of its own time, and found wanting. Christian churches called apartheid a heresy, and worse than a heresy, a pseudogospel. This was not the judgement of a later age, judging by hindsight. It was a contemporary judgement. Quoting Butterfield at this point is disingenuous.

Giliomee’s main argument appears to be that apartheid was just a logical development of segregation policies that existed before 1948, and it was just an intensification of those earlier policies; in other words, it differed in degree, but not in kind, from the earlier policies.

He also speculates (in his terms, “thinking the unthinkable”) “Rapid racial integration could take place, or the country could experience 25 years of reasonable stability. Both could not take place at the same time.”

I don’t know of anyone who was proposing “rapid racial integration” before 1948, or even after 1990. Eighteen years after our first democratic nonracial elections, no “rapid racial integration” has taken place. If it hasn’t happened now, I doubt that it would have happened back then.

Giliomee speaks what might have happened if “liberal” policies had been introduced in the 1940s, but one could just as easily speculate on what might have happened if the Cape nonracial franchise had been introduced throughout the Union of South Africa in 1910. Or would that have been “unthinkable”?

Throughout the 20th century there were two opposite trends in South Africa — one towards greater segregation, and the other towards less. One gained the ascendency in 1948, and the other in 1990.

Giliomee also compares apartheid with segregation in the southern states of the USA in the same period, and implies that if such views were as widely accepted, they could not be all that bad.

He objects to commentators seeing apartheid as “uniquely evil”, but also objects to comparisons with Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot. If it is unique, however, then it is incomparable; it cannot be compared to anything else. And I think one could say with some fairness that though many bad things happened in South Africa before 1948, there was nothing to compare, in the scale of evil, with the treatment of American Indians in the USA. I read Bury my heart at Wounded Knee in 1973, at the height of apartheid. It impressed me and gave me some more insight into the workings of apartheid. And it also impressed me in that it seemed to be so much worse. Even apartheid at its worst could not match it.

But there was a qualitative difference between apartheid and pre-1948 segregation. The pre-1948 policies were racist, and they were based on racial prejudice. But for the most part they were ad-hoc policies, reactions to circumstances, based on this prejudice.

Where apartheid differed was that it was calculated and planned. It was proactive rather than reactive. It turned racial prejudice into an ideology. Even in that, however, it wasn’t unique, because the Nazis had done something similar. As B.J. Vorster said in 1942:

We stand for Christian Nationalism, which is an ally of National Socialism. You may call the anti-democratic system dictatorship if you like; in Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.

Apartheid resulted in the deliberately-planned ethnic cleansing of 3-4 million people. That didn’t make it unique, but it did make it evil.

Before 1948 there were some people who thought segregation a good thing, and thought it should be continued, and even intensified. Others thought that racial prejudice was a bad thing, and wanted South Africa to move away from that system. Many thought it was manifestly unjust.

After 1948, however, the NP-government tried its best to suppress the second tendency. Apartheid was more than just a political policy of racial segregation. It was a totalitarian ideology. Thinking outside the apartheid box was forbidden. And the intention of the apartheid ideology was to make it unthinkable. Christian National Education was intended to indoctrinate children in schools so that they could only think in terms of apartheid and not be exposed to any contrary ideas. According to apartheid educationists (or pedagogicians, as they liked to call themselves) it was the “greatest possible injustice” for a child to be taught by someone of a different ethnic or cultural group. Think about that for a moment: “greatest possible”. You could starve a child, whip him, push burning cigarettes into her, lock him in a lightless cellar, make him slave in a mine or factory or farm at starvation wages, keep her as a sex slave, but none of those would be as great an injustice as being taught by a teacher of a different ethnic or cultural group.

There was quite a lot of resistance to the apartheid ideology in the early 1950s — the Torch Commando and the Defiance Campaign come to mind. It was not, as Giliomee, following Cillié, tries to present it. Apartheid was devised, and deliberately devised, to counter any tendency to think that a non-racial society would be desirable, a society in which, as Martin Luther King once put it, little black children and little white children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

Cillié and Giliomee might maintain that this tendency did not exist, but it did. It existed in civil society alongside the tendency towards increased segregation. It manifested itself in civil society organisations, such as churches, and, despite what Cillié says, it ‘was divided and fragmented by dictatorial NP-governments and so prevented from  “developing the friendly relationships that it was heading for.”‘

It seems all too easy for people like Giliomee to forget the darkness from which we have come, and to attempt to whitewash it and not merely to pretend that it didn’t happen, but to try to erase it from people’s memories. And it was to counter such tendencies that I’ve been writing a series of blog posts, Tales from Dystopia, to remember what it was actually like under the NP-dictatorship.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Irulan permalink
    30 June 2012 10:04 am

    What angle is he coming from? How comprehensive is his research? E.g. is the argument that “SA wouldn’t have had such rapid economic development were it not for apartheid” not realpolitik? The economic ‘development’ of Iraq and Afghanistan by US interests comes to mind.

    • 30 June 2012 2:04 pm

      I think he’s coming from a verligte Nat angle. From the time Verwoerd became prime minister in 1958 there were two strands in the NP, later called “verligtes” and “verkramptes”. The “verligtes” believed that what they were doing was “for the good of the Bantu”. And Giliomee evidently still believes that.

      The economic angle is debatable too. From 1948-1960 the Nats discouraged immigration from anywhere, but by 1960 they were faced with a critical skills shortage, partly because they were tightening up job reservation and making it harder and harder for non-whites to do skilled work. To be able to continue that without stifling economic growth they had to import skilled whites from Europe. There had been a different policy, and blacks had been trained for those skilled jobs, there may have been similar economic growth, and more skilled people around now.

      But Giliomee plays down the totalitarian way in whch apartheid was enforced, and made to be the only framework in which any political development could be discussed.

  2. 1 July 2012 11:29 am

    Having not read the article you’re referring to, I think the problem with it (and, with respect, your response to it) is the unfortunate human tendency to describe “evil” on a scale of intensity and… “evilness.” Evil is Evil, and while certain Evil may have worse consequences than other Evil, no Evil should be tolerated. 😦

  3. Ernst Grosskopf permalink
    31 March 2013 11:09 am

    ‘Apartheid: Was dit dan net boos?’ doesn’t mean ‘Apartheid wasn’t so bad’ but ‘Apartheid: was it then only bad?’

    It’s your blog so you’re entitled to your opinion, i suppose.

    • 31 March 2013 6:48 pm

      I didn’t say that the title meant “Apartheid wasn’t so bad”. I said that that was what Giliomee claimed in his article.


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