Twenty years after the end of apartheid: the need to move on
One sometimes hears white people in South Africa saying things like “Apartheid was twenty years in the past, it’s time to move on and forget the past and stop talking about it.”
Blogger Cobus van Wyngaard discussed this in a recent post here … want dis nou eers 18 jaar later | die ander kant. He probably hears such things more often than I do, as we move in different circles, and in some ways the separation between those circles seems to be growing, perhaps as in the days of apartheid.
There seem to be three broad views on this:
- Yes, we have a tragic past, but that was 20 years ago and we should move on
- All our present problems stem from our tragic past, and our failure to solve them is because of the burden of the past
- We need to learn from the errors of the past in order to solve the problems we face now and will face in future
The first is found most often in white people who supported apartheid in the past (and who sometimes like to ascribe all present problems to the incompetence or malice of the ANC government), and such comments often have a racist subtext (black people aren’t really competent to govern).
The second is found most often in black people who support the ANC in the present, and like to ascribe the failure to solve present-day problems (like the availability of school textbooks) to the legacy of the apartheid past, and such comments often have a racist subtext (all our problems were caused by wicked white people, and we poor blacks aren’t competent to sort them out).
I, and I think Cobus (if I have read his article correctly) , adopt the third view.
Saying that there are just three views is, of course, an over-simplification; there are many variations and overlappings. But it is a broad description, and I believe the first two are dangerous delusions.
Saying that apartheid ended twenty years ago and that it lies in the past and does not affect the present is delusional. Apartheid changed the landscape of the country, and twenty years later there is little sign that it has been changed back. Attempts to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube are usually wasted effort. The massive ethnic cleansing that took place under apartheid has not been reversed. Twenty years ago most of the people in the suburb where I live were white. And twenty years after the end of apartheid most of them are still white. Twenty years ago the residents of Mamelodi, 15 km away, were mostly black. And now, twenty years after the end of apartheid, they are still mostly black. Let’s not kid ourselves: apartheid may have ended twenty years ago, but its effects are still very much with us.
Fifty years ago there were flourishing peri-urban settlements of mostly black people in places like Charlestown (near Volksrust) and Roosboom (near Ladysmith). These were places where black people lived and they kept chickens and a few cows and owned their own land. Some worked in nearby towns, but many were also productive small-scale farmers. They were forced off the land because these settlements were “blackspots” in areas that the apartheid map had marked as white. They were forced to move further from the towns, but in places where they lived in “closer settlements” where they could not keep cows or poultry, but had to commute to town in search of employment. Thus we solved the energy crisis, by making people travel ever-longer distances to work. Twenty years after the end of apartheid, the residents of Lady Selborne are still living in Ga-Rankuwa.
Now the land restitution process has restored the land in many such places to the original owners, or rather to their heirs, because the original owners are long dead. But the heirs have lost touch with farming. They grew up without cows and chickens, and lack the skills of their parents and grandparents. Handing them the land does not restore the status quo ante. The heirs often resort to “people farming” – sub-dividing the land and letting it out to commuters. They are sometimes absentee landlords, and sometimes crooks move in an “sell” the land to people desperate for a place to live. And so twenty years after the end of apartheid, the effects are still with us.
Apartheid not only changed the physical landscape, it changed the mental landscape as well. Forty-five years of Christian National Education and Bantu Education left their mark. People sometimes remark how much better-educated recent immigrants from other countries in Africa are. Some of the xenophobia we see is because Zimbabweans and Congolese sometimes find it easier to get jobs than South Africans, because they are better-educated, harder-working, and don’t have a sense of entitlement. But in spite of the traumas those countries have suffered in the last fifty years, they did not have Bantu Education. Christian National Education, and its Bantu Education variant, warped the minds of at least two generations, and the mantra “Apartheid was twenty years ago, we need to move on” is a product of those warped minds.
The ANC government has had nearly twenty years to change this, but though there has been much talk of “transformation”, it has not acted decisively to do so. The police force was demilitarised to some extent, then remilitarised, but there was no transformation, as the massacre at Marikana last August clearly shows. There was an attempt to reform education using “Outcomes-based Education” (OBE), but in order to work properly, OBE would require a radical retraining of teachers, and that did not take place. Teachers trained under the apartheid system carried on teaching the kids in the new South Africa using the same methodology and ideology in which they themselves had been trained. Very little was transformed. The ANC had some competent and creative people with a vision for the transformation of education, like John Samuel, but they were sidelined.
The ANC came up with a plan for a Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and when it was elected said it was not negotiable, but within a year they had negotiated it away, and all that is left of it now is a nickname for jerry-built houses. So the ANC likes to blame apartheid for present problems, but it has also had twenty years to try to solve some of the problems caused by apartheid, and has largely failed to do so. The ANC can’t be blamed for failing to solve insoluble problems. It can be blamed for not trying harder to solve the soluble ones.
But, like Cobus, I approach this from a point of view of hope.
In spite of all the problems, much has been achieved. And that is another reason for not drawing a veil of amnesia over the apartheid past. It is too easy to forget the darkness from which we have come. If we are conscious of our shortcomings and failures, and the shortcomings and failures of the ANC government, we can thank the freedom that our democracy has given us to report those things. If we are conscious of corruption in high places, we can be thankful that we have a free press to make us aware of it. In spite of all the problems, someone, somewhere, must be doing something right.
Cobus writes of his rejoicing at the self-confidence of black high school kids asking questions about how often white people wash their hair. And I had a similar experience with black primary school kids in Melmoth, which would have been unthinkable thirty years ago when we lived there.
Apartheid can be blamed for some of our present-day problems, but cannot be blamed for the failure of people to tackle those problems. Our task should not be to blame or exonerate apartheid, but to recognise the problems that it caused, and try to solve them. Some of our problems are a legacy of apartheid, and pretending that they are not is a delusion. But recognising that is not an excuse for failing to analyse the problems and trying to think of ways to solve them now. We should not forget the darkness from which we have come, which is one of the reasons I have written a series of Tales from Dystopia on this blog. And we have indeed come a long way since then.