The interview on CNN with FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid President, has gotten many South Africans hot under the collar – and rightly so. In the interview, De Klerk refuses to admit that apartheid as a concept was immoral and wrong. Claiming that he did apologise for the “injustices wrought by apartheid”, he empahises that what he has not apologized for “is the original concept of seeking to bring justice to all South Africans through the concept of nation states (essentially creating two separate states, one black and one white)”.
He then proceeds to explain why the system of racial segregation and the subjugation of black South Africans by the white minority had “failed” in the following rather cold-hearted and unemotional manner:
But in South Africa it failed. And by the end of the ‘70’s, we had to realize, and accept and admit to ourselves that it had failed. And that is when fundamental reform started…. There are three reasons it (apartheid) failed. It failed because the whites wanted to keep too much land for themselves. It failed because we (whites and blacks) became economically integrated, and it failed because the majority of blacks said that is not how we want our rights…. I can only say in a qualified way. Inasmuch as it trampled human right, it was – and remains – and that I’ve said also publicly, morally reprehensible. But the concept of giving as the Czechs have it and the Slovaks have it, of saying that ethnic unities with one culture, with one language, can be happy and can fulfil their democratic aspirations in an own state, that is not repugnant.
The attitude displayed by De Klerk is shared by many (but thankfully by no means all) white South Africans and to my mind it illustrates quite emphatically why white South Africans are still widely viewed with some scepticism by many black South Africans. It is a timely reminder that many white South Africans do not “get” race and that they do not know or, worse, do not care that they are not getting it.
What De Klerk cannot admit or what he is incapable of admitting is that apartheid was not wrong – a moral abomination – because it had “failed” or merely because the human rights of black South Africans were trampled on in order to enforce the system of white domination. It was morally reprehensible because it was born out of a profound racist attitude towards black South Africans, and its logic was based on the dehumanising belief, at best, that white people were morally, intellectually and culturally superior to black people and, at worst, that black people are not fully human and do not deserve to be treated with even a modicum of concern and respect.
Apartheid was the logical result of the ideology of racism enforced by the state and could only be implemented because white South Africans believed then (as many continue to believe today – even if they are not aware of this and will deny it) that they are infinitely superior as a group to black people as a group.
Apartheid can therefore not be compared with what has happened in the former Czechoslovakia. Neither can it be compared with the impulse in Belgium for French and Flemish speakers to want to govern themselves. In these countries, different language, cultural or ethnic groups have chosen to be goverened by those who are like them, not because of the inherent belief that they are intellectually, culturally and morally superior to another group and because of the fear and hatred towards that group. Unlike with the apartheid system, the founding belief of these societies are not that its members would be tainted, subverted or defiled if they had to mix with another group whom they believed to be inferior.
The system of apartheid was not only tainted by racism or skewed by it, leading to human rights abuses against black South Africans. Racism – the fear and hatred of black South Africans by white South Africans born out of a sense of imperious superiority – was the very reasons for the creation and enforcement of apartheid.
One of the most deeply problematic aspects of life in post-apartheid South Africa is that so many white South Africans continue to deny this fact and seem incapable of confronting their own deeply ingrained sense that as white people they are generally intellectually, culturally and morally superior to most black people – although they think that by making an exception for Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu they have overcome the racism within them. Fact is: we have not dealt with our own racism, no matter how progressive we are and no matter how we claim to be non-racist. Many of us may not use the “k”-word and may express our abhorance of racism, but we cannot “unwhite” ourselves and cut ourselves loose from the racists culture and world in which we live. How could we, as racism is embedded in Western culture as a defining characteristic of that culture, a culture which helps to define who we are and where we are supposed to “belong”.
That is, perhaps, why so many white South Africans get so defensive when one talks about racism, and when one calls someone out on his or her own blatant or latent racism and why excuses are so often made for racists. Because if as white South Africans we are all morally tainted because we are white, if because being white necessarily implies that we carry within our bodies the virus of racism born out of a false sense of racial superiority, then we stop being who we think we are and we lose our sense of identity as whites who by definition are superior.
When we confront the virus of racism that pumps through our veins because we happen to be white, we have to admit that we are not superior to anyone and, in fact, we become, at least, as morally tainted as everyone else, but probably morally far inferior to black South Africans. But as the definition of whiteness implies for many white people a (often unspoken and unexamined) superiority to other racial groups, this acceptance of the fact that we are morally tainted (also) because we are white (of course, no one in the world is not tainted in some way), is literally impossible to comprehend, something that would drive one mad because, for many, it just cannot be true!
No wonder De Klerk has to insist that apartheid was wrong merely because it did not work very well. If he had to admit that the very premise of apartheid made it an evil system, he would have to confront the fact that he was part of a deeply immoral system and this would fatally undermine or even destroy his sense of self – his sense of self as an essentially good person who might (because of circumstances) have made a “few mistakes” but who remains the morally superior white person he implicitly believes himself to be.
This is perhaps also why the Democratic Alliance (DA) is finding it difficult to navigate the troubled waters of racism. Earlier today journalist Osiame Molefe tellingly tweeted: “Taking on racist models is one thing, what says the DA on apartheid denialist de Klerk.” Molefe is right, but I am not sure that the DA will be able to answer him and to respond appropriately because it would create too much tension inside the DA and that party would be at war with itself.
Fact is that the DA is between a rock and a hard place. If it really wanted to confront its image of being a party for whites, a party that arrogantly exudes the values of white superiority, it will have to confront the deeply embedded notion of white superiority that so many of its current voters (and some of its public representatives) fearfully cling to in order to retain the sense that they are essentially decent human beings. It is never easy to admit that one is not as decent as one would have liked.
What the majority of white people in the world do not understand is that it can be rather liberating to throw off the burden imposed on us by the need to feel superior to others. By admitting that it is impossible to be free from racism, given that we live in a world whose economic and social structures are based on the notion of white superiority, one is freed to begin to face up to one’s responsibilities and to begin to address the problem. If one embraces the fact that one is not special, that (like all other human beings) one is incapable of living a truly ethical life but that one has an ethical duty to continue trying to do so, it is easier to let go of the anger and the hatred (and the fear and the shame which produces the anger and the hatred) that poisons one’s life.
And now I wait for the barrage of angry posts by those who prefer to continue living in their denialist cocoon of festering anger and hatred. But whether they really hate others or themselves, only they will be able to tell.