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Twenty years after the end of apartheid: the need to move on

9 December 2012

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:

  1. Yes, we have a tragic past, but that was 20 years ago and we should move on
  2. All our present problems stem from our tragic past, and our failure to solve them is because of the burden of the past
  3. 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.




10 Comments leave one →
  1. Berne Leuvennink permalink
    9 December 2012 11:17 am

    Thank you Cobus. There is much to think on here and much to digest each and everyone who want to call themselves South African.

    We all love something and/or someone to blame. For anything and everything that doesn’t go our way. And our way needn’t be overly selfish, just different to expected outcomes. Expected outcome A, outcome B happens. Find the nearest circumstance, person, conditon or combination thereof to attribute the no favourable outcome to. This will be a defaulting pattern in the lives of many (even those that deem themselves very mature and emotionally stable). Humility and perspective is not obvious and easy. Having clearer vision and foresight could allow for very practical perspective in everyday things.

    In this, I do think though that the politically incorrect needs more airtime. For instance, the vastly different economic worldviews of the whites (westerners) and of the blacks. Traditionally, african worldviews stem from living for today (I know that sounds unfair). Ancestral appeasement has much to do with this. Live so you have enough for today only. Westerners have a long history in upgrading lifestyles. Do more do gain more to please people to gain more with very little sense of purpose. Mix the two and what do you get? Living for today with only where lives are measured by western consumerism with still little outlook towards the next 20 years. On the white side, pursue traditionally western economic ideals whilst simply not wanting to understand the african upbringing.

    Why do we not talk about this more? Is it too painful for blacks to acknowledge that foresight and western economic ideals don’t go well with living for today? Is it too painful for whites to accept that maybe the endless pursuit of stuff without a sense of purpose and community doesn’t work? Who are those who are willing to stand up across racial lines and peacefully and lovingly help address these questions, drawing all parties into the discussion. Maybe it takes more than a generation. Maybe that’s what we need…

  2. petrujviljoen permalink
    9 December 2012 12:36 pm

    Glad I found this blog. Apartheid is still very much alive in the tiny town called Graskop, in Mpumalanga, where I now live, or rather it is the closest town for buying groceries. I have no other reason to want to use the place. Not any longer. I attended a meeting of the Graskop Business and Tourism Forum. They are organising a craft market for the long weekend in December. Funds from this market will be used to do research about the history of the town as it will be its centenary in 2014. I had to speak out against racist jokes flying around the table. And left the meeting. Since then I had reason to visit the black part of town which is considerably poorer. I found a Dutch Reformed Church – people prefer to listen to sermons in their own language, would be one reason and the other would be that the white people are definitely not welcoming them into any fold of whatever kind. I’ve approached the DA to hold race relation workshops here – I’ve no idea what will come of it. Or not yet, all this happened in this week now gone. I also appealed to the Forum and to the DA that the black history of the area be incorporated into this research. I’ve never been an activist of any kind before and must admit I’m not sure how to force the issue. I think the next stop would be the newspapers, preferably the national ones.

    Concerning your comment on the foreigners, or visitors to our wonderful land from places like the Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe, etc. As a bit of background: I had the unfortunate experience of teaching English to these people at a private institution, run as a business. They needed these courses or entry into universities here in South Africa. I therefore disagree that their schooling is of a higher standard than ours (and ours do seem to be in a state). They attend these English courses by the hundreds. Their racism or xenophobia towards the local black people were really offensive. As offensive as my little experience at the meeting with the white people as above. At this college, I had to field questions such as: why are local black people so stupid, uneducated, or fat. Why do the women have such big bums? I kid you not. It seems to be a well kept secret that in fact, if these visitors to our land were a bit more respectful towards the locals, the problem would not exist. I do not call it xenophobia from the locals side, I call it self defence. After leaving the inner city of Johannesburg, where I lived for 14 years, I moved to Yeoville, a once and still is, trendy little suburb to the east of Jhb. The place was run over by Congolese. The insults I had to endure(even as a white person), the cheating in small change when buying vegetables from vendors was a daily occurrence.

    We live in an interesting time and place.

    • Lazelle permalink
      10 December 2012 9:52 am

      petrujviljoen…thank you for sharing your experiences and insights. Very enlightening and patriotic to our (the people’s) new vision of a South African nation…that does have alot to be proud of as a rainbow nation.

      • petrujviljoen permalink
        12 December 2012 10:05 am

        Thanks Lizelle. I’m glad this comment was approved. One has to talk about these things.

  3. Irulan permalink
    10 December 2012 2:06 pm

    I wonder which box the Melmoth school children fit into? I’ve not read Cobus’ article, but if these kids are anything like the young people living here on the KZN coast, apartheid is no longer their reference point – unemployment is. Ideological analysis comes second to a leaking roof. This is not to decry the socio-economic impact of historical segregation, but to question, in a theology of hope, whether the old liberal / conservative categories still matter. To my mind, an anarchist framework may well be providing a relevant alternative construct.

    • 14 December 2012 3:43 am

      I’m not sure what old liberal/conservative categories are.

      My point was that there are two ways of talking about the past that are not helpful. One is to say that we should forget the past and deny that it has any effect on the present. And the other is to blame all our present problems on the past, including our own failure to deal with them. I don’t quite see where either of those fits into old liberal/conservative categories, or even new anarchist ones.

      • Irulan permalink
        16 December 2012 9:38 am

        “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” GKC
        Christian anarchism finds fault with both, but – by definition – refuses to suggest solutions.


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