Beware the weaponising of history

Mike Berger says Helen Zille is the latest target of a creeping tyranny

On my way into town Friday 17 March a Cape Times poster caught my eye. It read "HELEN ZILLE COLD-HEARTED RACIST" in large bold type.

Of course, even before seeing the sign my attention had already been drawn to the Twitter storm around Zille, reported to me second-hand initially.

I've listened to the 16 minute interview in which Eusebius McKaiser on Cape Talk tried to badger Mmusi Mainane into labelling Zille a racist. And I have read or listened to a fair amount of the subsequent commentary, including Zille's own responses and the revealing interview between John Maytham and Ferial Haffajee, from within her painfully limited and self-righteous bubble, wrapped in the Huffington Post.

My first reaction on seeing the Cape Times poster was that whatever negative traits one may impute to Zille, neither 'cold-hearted' nor 'racist' would readily come to an unprejudiced mind.

But this article is only about Zille insofar as what it reveals about ourselves. I suspect that many in South Africa, like myself, sense that what happens over the next few weeks and months may have great implications for the future trajectory of the country.

Specifically, it will tell us whether we have the moral clarity and courage to resist the creeping tyranny of a weaponised and tribalised ideology and its supportive history. The dividing line between good and bad in politics is thin but decisive. The road to hell may indeed be paved with good intentions, but then so is the road to heaven.

I believe that globally, and here within South Africa, we're in great danger of perverting massive advances in human rights into a new form of totalitarianism. It is the ability to recognise and avoid the temptations of zealotry, revenge and narrow tribalism that will determine our fate.

Weaponising history

We all intuitively understand what 'weaponising history' means. George Orwell in his book '1984' wrote "Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future." Michael S Rosenwald in the Washington Post (6 Feb 2017) implicitly defines this process as "deploy(ing) history as an offensive or defensive rhetorical weapon".

Rian Malan in Politicsweb (25 March) located the psychological charge in our history as derived from the defeat, subjugation and oppression of the Black tribes of Southern Africa by alien White peoples. This is undoubtedly true and this basic story has run through all of history founded on human nature as it emerged from the crucible of tribal life in our evolutionary past.

But, and here is a very important caveat, the self-same 'human nature' can also form the foundation for cooperation that transcends history and exclusivist tribal boundaries. 'Ultrasociety' by Peter Turchin is a useful overview of the human capacity for extended cooperation across incredibly divisive boundaries; there are many others.

I spent more than 40 years of my professional life within the boundaries of academic medicine in South Africa, first as student and later as teacher, researcher and practitioner - including 5 years abroad. I was thus a first-hand-witness to history being played out here.

Rightly, the injustices and inequalities have been extensively dealt with by academics, by an extensive and brilliant South African literature and theatre and within the media. But the ordinary textures and nuances are also part of the story and need to be told.

For instance, as a student I remember our predominantly white, wealthy, liberal BSc (Med) class with its smaller proportion of Chinese and Indian colleagues working and partying together in easy camaraderie.

I remember the fury which swept over me when I witnessed a consultant gynaecologist at the famous Baragwaneth Hospital in Johannesburg deliberately hurt a young African women during an examination.

But I also recall the dedicated and respectful paediatric department at the same hospital, led mostly by Jewish doctors, Ms. Haffajee, extending absolute professional expertise and care to their Black patients.

I will never forget the example of the gentle, deeply compassionate and competent female white Consultant who led the Medical team at the Non-European Johannesburg General Hospital, as it was called at the time, during my time as a junior intern.

Served by a staff of able and dedicated Black nursing staff and registrars, our desperately poor Black patients received dignified and professional medical care. The universal morality of medicine was drilled into us by our teachers at 'Wits', even those rumoured to have National Party sympathies.

These values were shared by many (not all by any means) of my colleagues, including some significantly to the right of myself politically. I remember my astonishment and pride when most of the Black members of my third-year class at UCT stood up and applauded when I apologised for postponing a scheduled lecture in order to participate in a protest march.

In between the many trials and tribulations of academic politics, teaching and research remained my two saving graces. I will remember with deep gratitude the many years I was fortunate to spend teaching and interacting with 'black' as well as white students of all ethnicities.

I published a paper in the South African Journal of Medicine, while head of the Biochemistry Department at the Red Cross Children's Hospital, which documented wide-spread, chronic organo-phosphate pesticide poisoning in 'black' (mainly Coloured) farm workers in the Western Cape. The truly sad part of the story was that they did not even realise how ill they were; the debilitating symptoms were simply part of their hard lives.

These tiny snippets are not intended to minimise the harsh realities of inequality and stunted lives or to magnify my small contribution. There is a much larger story to be told here and some of my colleagues contributed far more than I did.

But to denigrate or deny the full history of colonialism is to destroy our joint future. The same sense of justice which underpinned white opposition to Apartheid must be mobilised against the toxic narrative which is replacing it.

The sad reality is that extended cooperation based on reciprocal empathy and respect is a fragile flower vulnerable to zealotry, the revengeful tribal instincts built into our natures and the seductions of power and privilege. Such dark impulses are never far from the surface of even 'democratic' societies.

Only deep cultural roots, resilient institutions and courageous, moral pragmatism can save us from the demons of our natures and the traps of history.

Part of what is happening is South Africa is a systematic attempt by the ANC and other politically ambitious parties and individuals to use our complex and painful history as a weapon to intimidate and delegitimise critics and opponents.

It rests on the selective reduction of our painful, multi-layered history into a mythical tale of ruthless white villains and innocent black victims. This sacred narrative is enforced via 'flash mobs' mobilised on social media and in more subtle portrayals of white arrogance and perfidy in innumerable artistic, academic and literary media.

The public shaming and legal pillorying of impulsive, stupid, exasperated or simply bigoted whites forms part of the tapestry of demonisation and delegitimisation. Zille is part of this process but because of her political status is a very valuable target indeed.

Ironically, much of this weaponised doctrine does not come from African sources, but has European origins in academia and political movements which have spun desirable and legitimate concerns with the excesses of Western power into all-encompassing doctrines of Western-Christian abuse of others.

The origins of such doctrines in courageous introspection within the West itself, accounts for the culture of human rights which underpins the emergence of a multi-cultural, egalitarian Europe in the later post-WW2 period. These developments can only be applauded as an important stepping stone on the path to a peaceful, interconnected world.

But such moral advances, disconnected from worldwide economic and political realities and tied into group and individual ambitions, has contributed to our current global crisis.

Amongst many negative consequences, which cannot even be touched on here, the sacred doctrines of progressive morality within the West have been hijacked to serve the interests of various anti-democratic and massively retrogressive forces around the globe; including in South Africa.

The weaponisation of history and ideology serves to divert public debate into moralised tribal conflict to cloak agendas of domination and extraction. The only beneficiaries of this process are political demagogues and their cynical political cronies.

The response to Zille's tweets can only be fully appreciated in this context.

Singapore and South Africa

It is tempting but mistaken to use superficial resemblances between two situations to draw conclusions. The similarities - poverty, history of colonialism, social decay and ethnic diversity - are far from sufficient to make Singapore a useful model for South Africa.

Helen Zille is too experienced and intelligent to seriously believe in some form of meaningful equivalence between ourselves and Singapore but that, unfortunately, is how her tweets can be interpreted.

To be clear, complex systems, especially political systems, are sensitive to even minor differences in starting conditions.

Singapore differs from South Africa in size, history, cultures and geo-political context. The timing and history of our liberation struggle differs profoundly from their experience. For all these reasons at least, the Singaporean miracle is many steps too far removed from our realities to serve as a model for South Africa.

But in some ways Zille is a Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) clone: results-focussed, strongly pragmatic, non-ideological, intensely rational and, let it be said, temperamentally authoritarian. Thus it was hardly surprising that she would find in LKY a source of inspiration and even emulation.

That is the meaning of her tweets: an intense longing to see her beloved South Africa forsake the dead end of the Zuma regime and turn onto the clean, rational, inclusive highway labelled 'PROGRESS'. 

This is a mirage. As we speak the nefarious Zuma-Gordhan saga is playing itself out and various DA factions are doubtless girding themselves for a showdown. How these various strands will merge and interact is unknown, but times of great flux are also times when tides may change. This is the time for clarity and courage.

In my view the value of expedient manoeuvring is past. Time for the DA to face the mob and to stand for honesty and principle and to recognise that the Zille tweets have been used to enforce a weaponised history and a divided future.

Black and white, we can either let our history be used to divide us for the self-enrichment of the few or it can be used, honestly and truthfully, to acknowledge harm and injury but also to assert our common humanity.

That, and only that, is the take-home lesson of Singapore.