A very useful pig

James Myburgh writes on ANC and Western attitudes to SA's white minority (October 2006)

The following article first appeared in the Vrye Afrikaan in October 2006 under the heading "Africa and the West".

A man is driving through the middle of nowhere when his car breaks down.[1] He goes to the nearest farm house and the farmer tells him that he can stay the night, and he invites him to have dinner later with the family. When dinner time arrives the visitor is surprised to find that there is a pig with a disconsolate expression on its face seated at the table. Not only that, but the pig has three medals around his neck, and a wooden peg for a leg. Eventually, curiosity overcomes the visitor and he expresses his surprise at the presence of a pig at dinner.

“Well,” says the farmer, “he is here because he is a very special pig. See those medals around his neck? The first medal is from when our youngest son almost drowned in the dam. The pig swam out, dragged him back to shore, and saved his life. The second medal, that is from when the pig pulled our daughter from a burning outbuilding, and saved her life. And, the third medal, that is from when our oldest son was cornered in a field by an angry bull. The pig ran under the gate and distracted the bull by biting him on his hind-leg. This allowed our son to escape.”

“Yes” the visitor says, “I understand now why you allow him to sit at the table and have dinner with you, and why he has all these medals. But why the wooden leg?”

“Well,” says the farmer, “you don’t eat a pig like this all at once.”

The visitor is very touched by this. When gets home he tells his wife of the kindly way the farmer has treated the pig. “How can the pig be so sullen” he asks, “He is allowed to sit at the table, he wears medals, and he has only had to give up one leg!”

It is an allegory that can neatly be applied to contemporary South Africa and the relationship between the ANC government (the farmer) and the white minority (the pig). No matter how productive, or heroic, or useful the pig is, in fact no matter what he does, the farmer still regards him as a pig. The pig is quite aware of this fact, and that it is not a question of whether but of when, which is why he encourages his piglets to move elsewhere.

The concern of this essay though is with the attitude of the visitor – or, in our case, the Western journalists and academics who may drop into the country, but who don’t put down roots or learn enough to shake their simple moral certainties abut the place. Such people articulate one very influential strand of opinion about South Africa, and it is one which for a long time bewildered me.

In early 1999 I remember sitting in a Democratic Party MPs office in parliament watching on a grainy black and white monitor the proceedings of the debate on the report of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. One ANC cabinet minister after another stood up to direct wave after wave of vitriol against the white minority. After Tony Leon had spoken, Peter Mokaba, then Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism replied, to the applause of the ANC backbenchers:

“The one thing that we must accept if we want to talk about reconciliation is that…the entire white political, social, economic and cultural establishment, including white business, white labour, the media, the churches, the schools, the universities, the judges, the magistrates, etc, has blood on its hands. That is why it is very disconcerting that some of them, like the DP, think that blacks are so stupid as to believe the lie that their hands are clean. The fact is they are as guilty as the whole white apartheid establishment.”

I remember being struck then by the disjuncture between what I was witnessing, and the naïve and simple-minded descriptions of the ANC (as liberal, non-racial, reconciliatory etc.) I saw being reflected back in much of the Western media.

Since then of course Thabo Mbeki has squandered much of the immense political and moral authority built up for the ANC by his predecessor. The two policies which did the most damage were his rejection of the science of HIV/AIDS and his support for ZANU-PF’s hold on power through three stolen elections in Zimbabwe. It would be difficult nowadays to find any credible person willing to defend Mbeki on these issues. Descriptions of him as a centralist and an African nationalist in the Western media also now pass without comment.

However, much Western thinking (or rather feeling) about South Africa remains unchanged. It is still deeply conditioned by what George Orwell called ‘nationalism’. This involves not just the belief that human beings “can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’”; but also, the habit “of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”[2]

In South Africa’s case many Western intellectuals continue to identify with the African nationalist cause, and to display a deep aversion to the continuing aspirations of the white minority for equal treatment. As a result, sixteen years after the end of apartheid, the ANC’s toxic racial policies can still rely on visceral support of many in the Western intelligentsia.

After a recent holiday in the Western Cape one Guardian columnist bemoaned the fact that the “goodies are still hoarded by one group [‘the whites’]—and withheld from everyone else. The government is doing its best, with a Black Economic Empowerment programme designed to spread the spoils more fairly.”

The white minority can never really win. If they continue to prosper as a group – despite the many handicaps placed on their advancement – this is regarded as ‘miraculous’ and credited to the forbearance of the ANC. If they are subjected to rough treatment, then they are only ‘getting what they deserve’.

Any suggestion that the victims might have changed is likely to trigger either ridicule or aggression. The fuss around the ANC’s imposition of racial quotas in cricket provoked one English commentator into saying, “The disenchanted white minority may think they have already been forgiven by the rest of the world for the decades of disgrace, but the rest of us have longer memories.” Another expressed his amazement that cricket and rugby were “still allowed in South Africa, so greatly were they used as comforters of apartheid.”

Earlier this year I unwisely wrote to a prominent (white) American journalist, who had written a paean to the ANC’s racial purposes, and asked him how he could claim to abhor racism and yet fail to recognise it when it was right in front of his nose. He replied, “I take it… that you are a white man. Let’s turn the tables for a moment. If you’d spent more than four decades as a non-being because of your colour – expropriated, humiliated, threatened, marginalized, trampled upon and not infrequently beaten to death by security goons – would you really consider it ‘racism’ to be favoured for a job over your erstwhile black tormentor?”

If one looks at South Africa in isolation, then such loyalties could be ascribed to the particular cruelties of apartheid. One would hope that if things were ever to get really bad, such attitudes would change. The experience of racial minorities in other African countries suggests that neither is likely to be the case.

A young Paul Theroux wrote, in 1967, that among the Westerners who took an interest in Africa after the end of colonialism, there was an immense eagerness for the new ruling parties to succeed, and “a total identification with the African cause”. As a result the discrimination and racial abuse that those of South Asian (Indian) origin were being subjected to in post-colonial Kenya went unnoticed and “unexamined by the political scientists who picture Kenya as a little paradise for race relations”. The precarious position of this Asian minority was, he concluded, “the result of a collaboration, most likely unthought-out and maybe even unconscious, between outsiders and insiders; almost a conspiracy of Africans and their European apologists, who would very much like to see Africa succeed, even at the expense of a pogrom, a thorough purge of these immigrant peoples.”[3]

Although there was no pogrom in Kenya, the implementation of discriminatory citizenship and trade licensing policies resulted in a steady exodus of Asians from that country. His fears were realised in Uganda where Idi Amin ‘transformed’ the Ugandan economy overnight by expelling the entire Asian population of 72,000. In August 1972 Amin simply announced that they all had to leave the country within ninety days. This action had been precipitated by a dream, he said, “that the Asian problem was becoming extremely explosive and that God was directing me to act immediately to save the situation.”

By the late 1980s another “little paradise” of race relations had been discovered. The American academic Jeffrey Herbst described Zimbabwe as a model of “racial reconciliation” and one of the “few signs of hope for stability in the bleak landscape of southern Africa.” The terms on which whites were allowed to stay in Zimbabwe, Herbst wrote with approval, were that they could continue to operate their businesses and farms; but their children, with the exception of those who went into commercial farming or wild-life tourism, would have to leave. The government having made very clear that “there is no economic future for most young whites.” This removed the necessity for Africanizing the economy by force because in a generation or so there would be few whites left in the country.[4]

When Robert Mugabe set out to liquidate, by force, the white farming class in Zimbabwe in 2000, there were numerous British commentators willing to defend the rightness of his cause. One invoked the bible to justify why white Zimbabweans should be punished for the crimes of their predecessors: a jealous God would visit the sins of the fathers upon the children “unto the third and fourth generations”. Another claimed that the land question “remains the biggest single problem [Mugabe’s] government has yet to resolve. There are good reasons for African bitterness over land. Whites in colonial Rhodesia simply took the land they wanted by conquest.”

London-based columnists for the Guardian tried their best to stamp down the upsurge of sympathy in the United Kingdom for the farmers. One accused the British government of a “racist concern for the privileged white minority”. Another sought to explain the anger of the War Veterans by the “inherent racism” of white Zimbabweans. A third argued that the MDC shouldn’t be allowed into office as “they might rule in favour of the farmers and multinationals, neglecting the majority peasant population.”

As Orwell noted, the problem with this kind of transferred nationalism is that it makes it possible for a person “to be much more nationalistic—more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest—than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.”


[1] With apologies to P.J. O’Rourke

[2] George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism”, 1945

[3] Paul Theroux, “Hating the Asians”, Transition, vol.0, no.  33, October 1967

[4] Jeffrey Herbst, “Racial Reconciliation in Zimbabwe”, International Affairs, vol. 65, no. 1, 1988-1989