On reconciliation and racial denial

The SAHRC’s chairman gets it wrong on the white minority.

In a recent speech to the Johannesburg press club the chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission, Jody Kollapen, reiterated his view "that the reconciliation process was at the expense of transformation. I also argued that and I continue to argue that in terms of transformation hardly anything was asked of white South Africans." Although these remarks contribute little to our understanding of recent history, they are revealing in a different way.

In the run up to the April 27 elections, and immediately afterwards, Nelson Mandela made various assurances to the white minority. These included that affirmative action would not be pursued at the expense of others (but through training), that minority rights would be respected, and that the ANC needed, and would rely upon, the existing civil service. In one speech he stated, "Let everybody start from the premise that we are one country, one nation, whether we are white, coloured Indian or black."

Mandela's efforts to reach out to the white minority were reciprocated. In June 1994 he described the adaptation of white South Africans to the new political order as "absolutely remarkable." However, the policy of reconciliation was always intended by the ANC to serve very limited purposes; to ensure a smooth transition and dissipate the threat of counter-revolution. Once these had been achieved it was discarded. The actual period of ‘reconciliation' lasted just over a year-and-a-half - from April 1994 to January 1996.

From then onwards the ANC set about overturning Mandela's earlier assurances. White civil servants were told that they were not wanted after all, and encouraged to take severance packages (which they did in their tens of thousands.) In 1997 the ANC made clear that its priorities from now on would be "African hegemony" and extending control over all the levers of power. The end goal of transformation was going to be total "demographic representivity." In 1998 Mbeki publicly reasserted the old SACP doctrine that South Africa was a country of "two nations". In 1999 the ANC embarked upon a programme of demonising the white minority.

While ordinary white South Africans continued to regard Mandela with tremendous warmth and affection, they were (generally speaking) under no illusions about the ANC's actual agenda. The only important constituency who continued to mislead themselves in this regard were the ANC's own white sympathisers.

By the late 1990s racial discrimination had become the over-riding political concern of the white minority, and particularly Afrikaners. This was not provoked by reading the newspapers, but rather by personal lived experience. A South African Institute of Race Relations survey (2001) found that "The dominant concern among whites is with what is perceived as the reverse racism of affirmative action and black empowerment. These perceptions do not ameliorate with higher education and income, and there are no significant differences between political parties on this score. The consensus among whites that these policies are racist is as complete as the consensus among Africans opposing apartheid in the past."

The ANC's ruthless pursuit of ‘demographic representivity' through the Mbeki-era is a matter of public record. Even if one does not know the noxious history of this racial ideal, one only needs a rudimentary understanding of mathematics to see how discriminatory it is towards the white population and what the ultimate consequence of its realisation will be (namely, the annihilation of that minority).

The remarkable thing about much of the recent commentary about racism in contemporary South Africa - of which Kollapen's remarks are but just one example - is that they barely acknowledge the existence of this racial project. Everyone knows it is there of course, but it is not seen as worth mentioning (even in a discussion on racism). There is nothing new in this of course.

C.W. de Kiewiet observed something similar in the old South Africa. "One of the most remarkable facts," he wrote in 1964, "is the manner in which the great range of discriminatory laws and the severity of their application to [black] Africans are masked and submerged. They seem to exist at a lower level of comprehension and significance, like automobile accidents. This is so in spite of the still remarkably outspoken English language press." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

As many white South Africans will remember statutory racial preferment is at once psychologically affirming and morally discomforting. It is a free lunch served with the knowledge that someone else has had to go hungry. One response is to withdraw into a kind of denial about the implications of that preferment for others. This is what made it "almost impossible for whites to recognise the political pain of others" under apartheid -  as Hermann Giliomee put it in 1984. And it is what leads so many otherwise fair-minded black South Africans into a rejection of the very notion that white South Africans could today be the victims of prejudice.