The Yahoo problem

James Myburgh writes on South Africa's great divide (1st Quarter 2000)

The following article first appeared in the South African Institute of Race Relations publication “Frontiers of Freedom” First Quarter 2000:

The Yahoo problem

THE outcome of last year's [June 1999] elections was never in doubt. The African National Congress was going to win, the only question was by how much. In the end the ANC fell one seat short of the two-thirds majority it needed to alter the Constitution unilaterally.

The real story of the election was the success of the liberal Democratic Party in becoming the largest opposition party. The DP, which for 13 years (in a previous guise) had Helen Suzman as its lone MP in Parliament, became the largest party among Afrikaners, in the process wiping out the National Party in much of the country.

Yet instead of this development being welcomed, the DP's success provoked outrage. Various accusations were flung at the party -- it was compromising its principles, selling its soul, shifting to the right -- none of which had much substance.

What actually underlay the objection of many journalists and political commentators to the DP's success was an objection to the voters they had managed to win over. People who had abandoned political allegiances of a lifetime to vote for a party with the poster "Fight Back for Merit" were derided as racist and conservative.

One columnist stated that the DP now had the "dubious distinction" of being the pre-eminent representative of white, coloured and Indian people. The implication was that the DP, by unapologetically pursuing the votes of such people and winning them, had somehow tainted itself and the principles it subscribed to.

The electoral success of the liberal opposition and the hostility this provoked are indicative not of a shift on the part of the DP, but rather of a great change in South African society.

In Gulliver's Travels, the final land Gulliver visited was that of the Houyhnhnms. In this land there were two castes: the ruling one of the Houyhnhnms and the subservient one of the Yahoos -- dull brutes who either ran wild or who served the Houyhnhnms in performing menial tasks.

After he had been thrown off the ship by a rebellious crew, the first group Gulliver met up with were the Yahoos. "Upon the whole, I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, nor one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy."

Gulliver (himself a Yahoo) entered into the employ of one of the Houyhnhnms where he "contracted such a love and veneration for the inhabitants, that I entered on a firm resolution never to return to human kind".

Eventually, however, the general assembly of the Houyhnhnms "exhorted" Gulliver's master to expel him, for the relative equality and familiarity Gulliver enjoyed was "not agreeable to reason or nature".

Although reluctant, Gulliver's master was pressured by his neighbours to execute the will of the assembly. For although a Houyhnhnm was never compelled to do anything, the "exhortation" could not be disregarded.

George Orwell wrote: "In a society (such as that of the Houyhnhnms) in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.

"When human beings are governed by 'thou shalt not', the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by 'love' and 'reason', he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.

"The Houyhnhnms, we are told, were unanimous on almost all subjects. The only question they ever discussed was how to deal with the Yahoos."

Illustration: Gulliver among the Houyhnhnms

The Yahoo/Houyhnhnm divide is a good illustration of a divided society and of apartheid in particular. While the blacks (or Yahoos) were governed by various restrictive and oppressive laws -- "thou shalt not" -- the Afrikaners (and to a lesser extent other white South Africans) were governed by "love" and "reason": or rather, a sense of belonging and the threat of social ostracism if they did not conform.

Under apartheid, and before that, the major issue of discussion among white South Africans was the "Native question" or what to do with the Yahoos.

While many Afrikaners were morally uneasy about various aspects of apartheid, they suppressed their doubts and voted for the National Party regardless. A 1978 survey showed that 60 percent of Afrikaners would vote for the NP even if the leadership acted in ways they did not approve of.

This was a major contributory factor to the abuses perpetrated by apartheid, as moral disquiet was suppressed in the name of ethnic solidarity. (Equally, it gave FW de Klerk the latitude to lead white South Africa out of the morass apartheid created.)

Yet with apartheid (an attempt to deal with the Yahoo problem once and for all) a curious transmogrification occurred. Overseas, it was white South Africans who started being regarded as Yahoos, and black South Africans who were regarded as Houyhnhnms.

As Mandela repeatedly reminded white South Africans in the run up to the last election, they had made "an enormous mistake" voting into power the National Party government which had turned the country into the pariah of the world.

The attempt to escape this pariah or Yahoo status was a major motivation behind the De Klerk government's decision to abolish apartheid and enter into negotiations with the ANC. Yet instead of reversing the process, it merely accelerated it. By 1994 Nelson Mandela was President and the ANC was in government.

With the Truth Commission's revelations and the ANC's policy of reconciliation, this transformation was completed: within the country it was white South Africans who were now the Yahoos, and black South Africans the Houyhnhnms.

The two leaders who embodied this shift were Mandela and De Klerk. Mandela was the great reconciler, an icon, a Houyhnhnm; De Klerk a discredited, Third Force racist Yahoo.

As The Guardian's Gary Younge wrote, anybody who thinks that black South Africans are undeserving of racial preferences "need look no further than Nelson Mandela. Then FW de Klerk".

The writings of many foreign travellers to post-apartheid South Africa -- whether parachutists or carpetbaggers -- are suffused with Gulliver's sentiment that never have they met such a disagreeable animal, nor one against which they conceived so strong an antipathy as the white South African.

Many local and foreign Yahoos in South Africa were struck down by shame at their new status, a condition known as "white guilt". The sentiment of the white foreigner who, when attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings could only think of getting a T-shirt saying "I am not a white South African", accords precisely with that of Gulliver:

"When happening to behold the reflection of my own form in a lake or a fountain, I turned away my face in horror and detestation of myself, and could better endure the sight of a common Yahoo, than of my own person."

The final confirmation of the shift that has occurred was when the National Assembly held its first discussion on what to do with the new Yahoos -- the Afrikaners.

However, the failure of many of the new Yahoos to come to terms with their new status is a source of profound irritation to the new Houyhnhnms. This explains why the "racist" epithet is so often used by the Houyhnhnms against the Yahoos in the new South Africa.

The word "racist" is both a description of the presumptuous nature of a Yahoo taking it upon himself to sit in judgment on the behaviour of a Houyhnhnm, as well as a reminder of why a Yahoo has that lowly status in the first place.

As the new Houyhnhnms, black South Africans are no longer governed by oppressive laws as under apartheid, but by "love", a sense of belonging -- and the promise of the great new Houyhnhnm projects of "transformation" and the "African renaissance".

If they step out of line, then they are accused of being Afro pessimists, sell-outs, whites' lackeys and, worst of all, coconuts -- Houyhnhnm on the outside and Yahoo on the inside.

Since the ANC now has powers of patronage similar to that of the National Party under apartheid, stepping out of line not only means social ostracism but the loss of future promotion and advancement.

For the new Houyhnhnms there is that same temptation to suppress one's moral disquiet in the name of political unity. Indeed, a 1997 survey found that 59 percent of black voters (and 63 percent of ANC voters) agreed with the statement, "I will support and stand by my political party and its leaders even if I disagree with many of its policies and actions."

Thus, as white South Africans were liberated from that social tyranny with the end of apartheid, they found themselves steadily being relegated to the status of Yahoos. Since they had been abandoned by their erstwhile nationalist leaders during the negotiations, they found that the only people defending their (individual) rights were those who had argued all along for the complete abolition of the Houyhnhnm and Yahoo castes.

It was for this reason that the Democratic Party managed to make such an extraordinary breakthrough among white voters outside the liberal heartland.

And just as liberals were vilified under the old regime for believing in individual rather than Houyhnhnm merit, they are now castigated by the new Houyhnhnms and their Gullivers for obstinately holding on to such beliefs.

For the new Houyhnhnms, as with the old, to argue for individual merit (and indeed to overtly campaign for Yahoo votes) is to imply an equality that is agreeable to neither reason nor nature.

At the time this was published in 2000 James Myburgh was working as a parliamentary researcher for the Democratic Party.