No amount of champagne, cakes or booze-fuelled parties can mask the reality of the what the ANC has become.
High level clouds. Mild.
Former minister Magnus Malan.
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News broke last weekend that there is compelling evidence
Malan and other apartheid government ministers were paedophiles. The story
took up a news cycle or two and its ripple effects are still pulsing through the
media and the public at large.
The pointed horror is stark when we consider that the child
victims were coloured kids and how that resonates in terror with the white
settler rape and abuse of coloured people since European invasion. What's more
instructive, given our current national discourse on identities and privilege,
is how South African society creates and perpetuates narratives that normalise
overt abuses of whiteness, whether they be legal and/or criminal acts or "smaller"
abuses of norms and dignity.
That there is negative and condemning reactions to the Malan
story is to be expected. But what is more interesting is the burden of living
in a world where white supremacy is not just centralised but the very rules by
which we are all expected to play. This was illustrated when some quarters
reacted to the Malan story by calling it "fake news".
Even more telling is the inability of society – people across
all lines of privilege – to recognise that the apartheid government Malan
served was corrupt; more corrupt than the state capture of former president
Jacob Zuma and the Guptas. It was a corrupt ideology served by corrupt
practices of nepotism and white tenderpreneurship.
That people agree the apartheid government's racist white
supremacist ideologies were immoral and indecent is not in question here. What
is in question though is that we still live out this fiction that the apartheid
government was efficient and effective. This is reflective of how powerful whiteness
is in its ability to excuse violent and horrific acts. Acts by perpetrators of
some of humanity's worst horrors are still made out to be, not just the centre
of the human story, but its main victims too.
White South Africans – those who benefitted directly from apartheid
– are most guilty of this fallacious thinking. Some comments on the Malan story
said, "why accuse Malan now when he can't defend himself?" Others
turned the story into another "example" of how the white Afrikaner is
a victim class; how the media is out to get them. Centering whiteness works so
well that perpetrators become victims who feel the need to mitigate, to
rationalise and to excuse behaviour that is not only horrible but abhorrent and
The Malan case is a powerful, meta-type example of how white
violence can become victimhood and therefore worthy of protection and defence. The
narrative around victimhood is that whiteness and, white people particularly,
are the primary victims. We go to extremes to find redeeming factors to protect
The case of Wouter Basson is informative. In 2015,
Stellenbosch University medical students spoke out against being taught by Basson
aka "Dr Death", the former head of secret chemical and biological
warfare, who now works as a medical doctor in Cape Town. The response by the white
community was that Basson, to paraphrase, is a "leading cardiologist and
therefore should maintain his position in the medical field because there is a
lot to learn from him".
Again, white privilege waved a triumphant flag in that even
when white people have inflicted unimaginable pain on black lives, they are
still protected and humanised via their skill and white skin, the two
implicitly tied together in our society.
Similarly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)
humanised white experiences of apartheid. White perpetrators were afforded the
opportunity and given the platform to share their experiences of apartheid and
often the narrative around the TRC excused their role in the brutality of the apartheid
system. This platform also allowed them to appear to be performing remorse and
contrition, which in turn asked (and even demanded) that we absolve them and reconcile.
Once again, white people were at the centre, even in a space
ostensibly set aside to preface black oppression and pain. White people were
portrayed as simply "acting on behalf of the state" or "just
following orders" when inflicting violence and destruction on black lives.
This narrative relegated responsibility to an anonymous impersonal system of apartheid
when white people themselves as a collective of individuals are the system; when
they upheld and perpetuated the system's inhumanity; when they were, and
continue to be, beneficiaries of its injustices.
These examples are not just part of white supremacy but also
illustrative of how the TRC's focus on demonstrated and performative acts of
forgiveness and "healing" extended this narrative as shibboleths and
cultural memes to be reproduced; a script for whiteness and white people to act
out in post-apartheid society; a script written for a film where once again
whiteness is the main protagonist. It gave us a code for how to behave, even
going as far as to excoriate those of us not ready, then and now, to forgive
and reconcile. Winnie Mandela is a perfect example of this.
The TRC, in general, is a tiring conversation that leaves
many with frustration and valid anger. And in this current climate of critique,
it is important for us to question and challenge our collective psyche as a
people, and how it is that we would forgo a chance at justice, merely opt for
the truth following a haphazard attempt at whatever it is we have now?
The TRC, while being the first of its kind, "bandaged
previous injustices" and played an active role in the production and
entrenchment of white victimhood. The workings of the TRC centralised white
perpetrators and, by doing so, denied pursuits for justice.
We live in a white world; a world where white is "right";
a world where whiteness is by default afforded innocence while blackness is
criminalised; a world where the closer you are to it, the more privilege and
power it bestows upon you.
Whiteness and white supremacy are global phenomena with real-life
consequences. In dialogue, for example, the language that we use to talk about
racism, more often than not, protects white people. We relegate responsibility
to "whiteness" (a relatively abstract concept) but it is white people who uphold and perpetuate
it. It is from white people that
whiteness is constructed.
Moreover, when called out, white people centralise
themselves, their fragility, and their discomfort, which ultimately shields
them from taking responsibility for their role as perpetrator and us moving
forward from there.
The TRC was imperfect and had positives, to be sure. But it
also denied the victims of apartheid a chance at justice on many levels. While
that may be a difficult thing for us to grapple with, it is important that we
do. Especially since so many of the deep-seated societal issues that we are
currently facing were negated and even perpetuated by the legacy and
co-constructed memory and narrative of the TRC.
Scrutinising the political transition of the 1990s is
imperative to our conversations around social change today. It is important to
sit with whatever discomfort it may conjure up; it is important to examine
these critiques and it is important to learn from these mistakes. Because no
longer can we simply negate humanity and deny justice for the sake of
protecting white people.
- Jodi Williams is a communications and advocacy project officer
at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. A Political Science (Hons)
graduate from Stellenbosch University, Jodi's postgraduate research zoomed in
on the intersectional links between political participation and gender in South
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