Apartheid’s over. Really?: Blade Nzimande

2013-04-14 10:00

How does one quantify the effects of nearly three and a half centuries of bondage?

It is understandable for those who benefited from apartheid to pretend its legacy is dead and gone.

It is probably a comforting thought and relieves them of responsibility to redress past wrongs. Perhaps that’s why sections of our media positively drooled over what they interpreted as Minister Trevor Manuel saying apartheid was no longer to blame for South Africa’s problems.

Usually, when we talk about the negative effects of apartheid, we are using the phrase to refer to more than just the ills of the period 1948 to 1994.

We are referring to the entire period of colonial and settler rule in South Africa. This period of white supremacy was long and, for black South Africans, extremely oppressive. It began 361 years ago when the first European settlers arrived at the Cape. It included various forms of bondage for black people, including slavery and various forms of legally sanctioned oppression, of which apartheid was only the last.

For the past century and a half, racial oppression was a means of entrenching a capitalist cheap-labour system. Racial oppression – like gender oppression – served the purpose of intensifying capitalist exploitation and ensuring a cheap, unskilled labour force at a time when unskilled labour was still very profitable to exploit.

Blacks were coercively dispossessed of most of their land. This, together with the need to pay taxes, forced our forebears to enter the cash economy as low-paid labourers.

Racist laws and practices excluded them from most trades and professions. They were not allowed to become apprentices (and consequently artisans), let alone architects, engineers or scientists. They were restricted in where they could live, with all the most desirable areas reserved for whites. Even simple cultural activities like attending movies, going to the beach or to public parks were severely curtailed by segregation laws.

Blacks were excluded from the type of education, healthcare and social benefits that were provided for whites. Our people’s right to farm or to own a business was severely proscribed, and the pass laws deprived them of the right to move freely in their own country. Most were condemned to poverty.

They were denied the right to have any influence over government. When they established political organisations to seek justice, these were harassed and many people were imprisoned or forced into exile.

Not surprisingly, the impact of such a system was sharply etched into the DNA of our country and its people. Inequality and poverty became embedded in the social and economic structure.

A new democratic system has begun to remedy the situation, but there is no doubt the deep economic, social, cultural and psychological impact of oppression remains. The fact that whites today enjoy by far the highest levels of wealth, education, healthcare and general wellbeing of any racial group in the country – and still control the commanding heights of the economy – is surely no accident. It is the direct result of nearly three and a half centuries of history, and its impact will endure, crying out for redress, for some time to come.

Today, much of this system still remains. The white minority has submitted to democracy, but has managed to maintain a socioeconomic system in which most of their economic privileges remain intact. Blacks had long embraced a vision of a South Africa that belongs to all, irrespective of race or origin, and have reaffirmed that vision.

April 1994 did mark a new beginning and the end of apartheid. However, as our Constitution recognises, this did not mean history had been arrested and ceased to cast its shadow over society. The need to remedy its injustices still remains.

Of course, the South African government cannot sit back and blame the past for all its problems. The ANC’s reason for existence is precisely to overcome these problems. It would make little sense for us to say that the ANC government cannot make progress because of this past.

And, quite frankly, I don’t think that we do. The ANC does not blame its own weaknesses, its occasional divisions or the incompetence or corruption of some of its members on apartheid.

But this does not mean the legacy of apartheid is not still very much with us. It most definitely is and we need to confront this reality and calculate it in framing our objectives and our policies as a government.

The need for redress must be central to objectives of any democratic government because it meets the deepest needs of our people. This need goes beyond the achievement of formal equality, as important as that is.

It must bring about real equality, when race and gender are no longer factors in determining people’s living standards, their wealth, their educational levels, the state of their health, their homes or their life chances.

Then we can assign apartheid to history.

As to when the apartheid legacy will end – which City Press asked me to write about – of the impact of the French Revolution, on its 200th anniversary, Mao Zedong said: “I think it is still too early to tell.”

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