Mandela, De Klerk and the apartheid apologists

Mugabe Ratshikuni says there can be no doubt that the system was a crime against humanity


Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, former President Nelson Mandela uttered the following words, which constitute the perfect riposte to FW De Klerk and his Foundation and all other white South Africans who are becoming increasingly brazen about their apartheid denialism as time passes by and the memories of the inhuman brutality of the apartheid regime seemingly fade into the horizon:

“It will forever remain an indelible blight on human history that the apartheid crime ever occurred. Future generations will surely ask: what error was made that this system established itself in the wake of the adoption of a universal declaration of human rights? It will forever remain an accusation and a challenge to all men and women of conscience that it took as long as it has before all of us stood up to say ‘enough is enough’… That historic change has come about not least because of the great efforts in which the UN engaged to ensure the suppression of the apartheid crime against humanity.”

So, apartheid was a crime against humanity, right! Case closed, no prisoners (literally so, ironically enough). This is true unless you are FW de Klerk and an increasingly brazen group of white South Africans with short memories and a revisionist view of history, who want to downplay the evils and depravity of apartheid, claiming that it was the Soviet Union and Communist nations who pushed through the UN resolution proclaiming apartheid to be a crime against humanity and as a result nullifying that very principled stance of the international community on the basis of “rooi gevaar” (talk about being backward?)

The other claim is that apartheid didn’t kill as many black people as Nazism killed Jews, hence it can’t be put into the same bracket as a crime against humanity. Talk about utter contempt and disdain for black lives and the dehumanising, debasing, subservient, multi-generationally damaging conditions that black South Africans where forced to live in, under such a cruel, evil system.

The sheer audacity, one is almost compelled to say, of people who should be contrite and looking to make restitution, but are rather growing more blasé, intolerant and dismissive of black struggles that are a direct result of the inhuman system that apartheid imposed on them.

It’s astounding that black South African magnanimity amidst such a devastating historical injustice, is constantly confronted with growing white arrogance and a false sense of superiority in response.

This arrogant historical revisionism goes against the optimistic words and warning of Mandela when he said, “this achievement is bound to last because it is founded on the realisation that reconciliation and nation-building mean, among other things, that we should set out to know the truth about the terrible past and ensure it does not recur. Ours must therefore not be merely a respite before the bitterness of the past once more reasserts itself.’

It is only by acknowledging, embracing and dealing with the bitter pill of truth about our history, that apartheid was an evil, dehumanising system that was a crime against humanity that we will be able to rise above the populist demagoguery with its polarising effects that we witnessed during the State of the Nation Address (SONA) last Thursday. To deny this history and demean the struggles of black people in doing so, is to create a platform for such polarising demagoguery to arise.

In Nelson Mandela’s own words again, “the ANC spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs, it will not change that policy.” The ANC fought to create a new dispensation where race and colour would not be a determinant of people’s rights by promoting reconciliation and nation building, so that oppressor and oppressed could both enjoy the benefits of being part of a new South Africa, as was witnessed last Thursday when FW De Klerk, despite his apartheid denialism was allowed to sit in parliament and exercise his constitutional right to listen to the SONA, alongside those who fought against the evil regime he led, the likes of former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe.

So there was no contradiction in the ANC-led state protecting the right of De Klerk to be in parliament and listen to the SONA, given the ANCs historical position, but the irony was in that the beneficiary of such magnanimity in De Klerk and the many white South Africans that he represents who hold similar views to him, continue to arrogantly dismiss the extent of evil that they imposed upon this country by dehumanising and debasing black South Africans, in claiming that apartheid was not a crime against humanity. Once again, black magnanimity and forgiveness is met with white arrogance and dismissiveness.

This is one of the fundamental problems that keeps derailing the “Rainbow Nation.” White South Africans entered the new dispensation without losing their false sense of superiority and changing their outlook/ worldview.

Mandela spoke about this, when he spoke about the significance of not just freeing the oppressed from their oppression, but also freeing the oppressors from their prejudice and parochialism. In Mandela’s own words:

“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case... We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

 In all we do, we have to ensure the healing of the wounds inflicted on all our people across the great dividing line imposed on our society by centuries of colonialism and apartheid. We must ensure that colour, race and gender become only a God-given gift to each one of us and not an indelible mark or attribute that accords a special status to any.

We must work for the day when we, as South Africans, see one another and interact with one another as equal human beings and as part of one nation united, rather than torn asunder, by its diversity. The road we shall have to travel to reach this destination will by no means be easy. All of us know how stubbornly racism can cling to the mind and how deeply it can infect the human soul. Where it is sustained by the racial ordering of the material world, as is the case in our country, that stubbornness can multiply a hundred-fold.

And yet however hard the battle will be, we will not surrender. Whatever the time it will take, we will not tire. The very fact that racism degrades both the perpetrator and the victim commands that, if we are true to our commitment to protect human dignity, we fight on until victory is achieved.”

Racism continues to stubbornly cling to the minds and infect the souls of many white South Africans and up to now we have failed to liberate whites from their false sense of superiority and condescending nature, as Mandela spoke about, and that is one of the fundamental problems with the nation-building project in South Africa.

It has consistently and continually been the black South African who has been taking steps and making moves towards reconciliation, but this effort has consistently been met with white arrogance, dismissiveness and false superiority as evidenced by the ahistorical narratives on apartheid that are now being advanced by the likes of De Klerk.

Of course, the easiest thing to do, would be to dismiss and ridicule these sentiments as those of another “incompetent, inept, corrupt, undeservedly deployed ANC cadre” (argumentum ad hominem part excellence), but in reality these are the sentiments that are held by a large proportion of black South Africans, even within the private sector, and to keep dismissing them and ridiculing them is to take the easy way out, as opposed to doing some serious soul-searching and seeing if we can change tack and indeed contribute to building a truly united, non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous South Africa.

The journey towards doing that is not easy, as Mandela warned us in the quote above, it is a road less travelled, which requires that we reflect on and address the “historical injustice” as Thabo Mbeki so famously called it with honesty, truthfulness and a large dosage of humility, lest we give space to the opportunistic demagogues that we saw in action in parliament last Thursday to further polarise us.

The journey that is before us, which is “no easy walk to freedom” as Mandela also stated, requires that we embrace the paradigm of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his timeless novel (not bed time reading I might add), The Brothers Karamazov, “active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labour and persistence, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”

True reconciliation and nation-building is hard work, it’s labour, it’s perseverance. It is not, as we may have thought, taking one giant leap, as we did in 1994 with the whole world applauding us. Rather, it is a long journey filled with many frustrations with each other that requires the continuous sacrifices of “active love” and this is not something that is being shown by the likes of De Klerk and other white South Africans who continue to brazenly and unapologetically punt apartheid denialism.

Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government; He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.