Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
17 January 2007

Robert McBride, reconciliation and “fatuous” remarks

A reader took umbrage at my “fatuous” remarks about many white people not liking Robert McBride. For me the complaint illustrates quite vividly why the past still haunts our political landscape and why many black people are disillusioned with the whole discourse of “reconciliation”.

Anonymous writes:

If you do not understand why Robert McBride is not liked – and why he should never have been appointed to a position of authority – you should read the TRC’s decision on his amnesty application. It includes not only an accounting of his conduct, but the names of the victims he attempted to kill, those he actually killed, and those who were simply maimed. Perhaps then you will stop making such fatuous remarks.

I am, of course, well aware of the fact that Mr McBride was involved in the Magoo Bar bombing in which people were killed. I do not know Mr McBride, but given his shenanigans regularly reported in the press, I suspect I won’t find him a kind and generous man and would not want to be his friend.

But Mr McBride was an ANC member who formed part of the military resistance against the apartheid regime. This regime oppressed the majority of the citizens of this country solely on the basis of their skin colour. It was surely ethically praiseworthy of him to oppose this regime and to try and bring it to an end.

One might disagree with the methods used by him (as Anonymous clearly does), but then one must be consistent. If you say it was not acceptable for Mr McBride to plant bombs that he knew would kill innocent people, you should also condemn the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima that killed thousands of innocent Japanese and the killing of hundreds of thousands of Germans by RAF bombing raids towards the end of the Second World War.

(“Innocence” itself is of course a loaded term in all three these cases because like the Germans and the Japanese most white South Africans either actively supported the oppresive regime or passively enjoyed the benefits that the regime offered them. We were all, to some degree or another, less than innocent.)

I suspect that Anonymous would not condemn those killings because he or she would say that the Germans and Japanese were evil and had to be stopped. This suggests that the animus towards Mr McBride is at least party based on the notion that the apartheid government was not really that evil or even that bad.

“Maybe they were a little bit bad but at least they built roads and schools.”

This is the crux of the problem: So many white South Africans believe that there was a moral equivalence between the ANC and the apartheid government. (“We did bad things but they also did bad things and are doing bad things now, so we are quits.”) If one does not accept that the one side (the ANC and other liberation forces) had the moral high ground, one cannot acknowledge the pain and hurt caused by the system that one was inextricably part of.

Without accepting that apartheid was really evil (I am not saying it was as evil as Nazism) and that those who fought against it were ethically justified to do so, one cannot really begin to understand how the new South Africa works and one cannot begin to demand respect and reconciliation from those who suffered from it.

Of course, now that the ANC has been in power for 12 years, they often act (wrongly) as if apartheid has never ended and then claim to still have a monopoly on moral outrage. But people like Anonymous assist them in this folly by continuing to act as knowing or inadvertent defenders for apartheid. Without such “bad guys”, the ANC won’t have any enemies left to blame for things that go wrong.

I strongly believe (here is the text verse now!) that until we all recognise our past for what it is, until we acknowledge that only one side was the morally just side, we will not be able to create even the beginnings of a non-racial society.


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