Othering the Afrikaners

Andrew Donaldson writes on Fergal Keane's unexpectedly good BBC Four documentary


I WAS expecting much of the same old, same old from Reporting History: Mandela and a New South Africa, a BBC Four documentary in which, according to the bumf, correspondent Fergal Keane would be looking back on his reports for the Beeb and considering “why history did not turn out the way he expected”.

It’s a bugger that way, history, it really is. And I must confess to a long history of disappointment and cynicism with such programmes. All too often, the rumination of those who presented the events of the 1980s and ’90s in the most reductive of packages for the evening news told us more about themselves rather than the story.

Happily, Reporting History, broadcast on Wednesday, was better than expected. True, the customary homilies and avuncular reflections were there. But it was good, for example, to once again revisit the celebrated 2008 interview in which Keane accused Jacob Zuma, then president of the ANC, of being corrupt.[1]  

But it was Keane’s interview with South African academic Saul Dubow, Smuts Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Cambridge, that was a particular highlight. 

Looking back at old video clips of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging and its leader Eugene Terre’Blanche, Keane made the point that — contrary to what contemporary reports may have suggested — the violence of white extremists was not representative of the majority of Afrikaners, and he wanted to “explore why [the AWB] got so much media attention”.

It was the sort of question you could ask of the media concerning their coverage in general of right-wing extremism, whether it’s of the Klansmen in Charlottesville or the Alternative für Deutschland in Berlin. One possible answer, of course, is: “It’s the nature of the job, dummy.” 

But, instead, Dubow suggested there was something specific in this case. “I think there is — certainly in Britain, but elsewhere too — a fascination with the Afrikaner. These were the people who almost beat the British during the Boer War. You interview the AWB and so forth as the kind of people we might have become had we not been better people. So there, is a sense of fascination—”

“A kind of moral superiority?” Keane said.

“Yes — moral superiority.”

“In South Africa,” Keane continued, “it was too easy to look at neo-Nazis marching around, behind drums, carrying weapons, staging a… I’ll never forget one particular event, riding around on horseback and shooting at watermelons — and this was all lapped up by the international media. A great deal of the media coverage of Afrikanerdom, of white South Africa, revolved around the imagery of neo-Nazis. It was wrong.”

“So,” Dubow said, “in a sense, to many liberal overseas television watchers, the ultimate ‘other’ was the right wing Afrikaner.”

“Absolutely,” Keane said. 

He went on to admit that he didn’t see the state capture project coming, and that the sheer magnitude of the corruption had shocked him profoundly. But, Keane wondered, what about the overall quality of the international reporting? 

“Do you think we got it wrong, collectively, the media?”

Dubow didn’t think so. As an historian, he said, he’d been impressed by the quality of the news coverage.

“At the same time,” he continued, “I think that perhaps there was an unrealistic expectation that a society in the 1980s which looked as though it was on the precipice of racial conflagration and disintegration is suddenly saved by the redeeming figure of Mandela — [while] ignoring the fact that 150 years of apartheid and segregation is not going to be resolved in a generation.

“I don’t blame journalists for that, but I do think that perhaps there’s a sense in which they became captive to their own narratives.”

As is common with such things, Keane had to have the last Beebishly edifying observation.

 “When we report situations of conflict … so suddenly, you look and feel that this conflict [in South Africa] is something that arrived yesterday. No. It didn’t. It did not. 

“This is centuries deep with many layers. Maybe this is the kind of conflict, in academia and journalism, where you have 800 words, there is only room for a limited amount of complexity. I don’t believe that’s good enough. I’m constantly arguing for a journalism which pays due regard to history — the impact of economy, culture, social structures. But it’s an ongoing battle.”

That may well be. But I liked this idea of limited amounts of complexity in tackling the “big conflict picture”; there is no shortage of reduced capacities, I’ve always felt, when it comes to the ongoing South African story. They’re everywhere. 

And it was with this in mind that I was off to Chatham House the next day. There, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs’ headquarters on St James’s Square, SA Institute of International Affairs CEO Elizabeth Sidiropoulos and political economist Moeletsi Mbeki would be offering their post-election analyses…

* * *

THE first big surprise was that the Chatham House Rule had been put on hold, and the meeting was entirely on the record.[2]

The second was the afore-mentioned limited amounts of complexity from both Sidiropolous and Mbeki. This was not because their talks were brief — the equivalent of the 800-word “big read” op-ed analysis piece — or without value, but rather a case of what they said was all so depressingly obvious. Nothing too startling here or too left-field, in other words. It was all packed out in the simplest and most unambiguous of terms. 

There is nothing nuanced about being told you’re a hair’s breadth from being basket-cased. 

Among other things, Mbeki detailed how the ANC had entrenched itself in the rural areas. There was no democracy, he said, in such places. It was all in the cities. Things changed in the metros. In the country areas, though, it was all one-party rule.  

“The rural population,” he said, “is controlled by what are called traditional leaders. They are almost a law unto themselves. The ANC government keeps strengthening their power over the rural population.”

As a reward, he continued, the party gives its rural voters a welfare programme. As he put it, “The narrative that the ANC gives to the rural population is that if you vote for the DA or anyone else they’re going to cut [off] your social grant. They say ‘We, the ANC. . .’ They don’t say ‘the state’. They say ‘We, the ANC, we give you the social grants…’ So you have this bloc vote that the ANC has managed to court.”

Which brings us to the third big surprise of the meeting — the questions that followed from an audience that seemed top-heavy with industrialists, financial consultants, policy wonks and big thinkers.

Like this rambling open-ended poser from some think tanker: 

“I spent some time in the rural areas in around King William’s Town and Port Elizabeth and East London and, I agree with what Mr Mbeki says [about welfare programmes], but I was struck that it wasn’t just social grants. Wherever you go, you see pylons taking electricity to people, you see sanitation, you see water, and yes, there may be terrible corruption associated with [the ANC] but you know everyone knows that 25 years ago these things didn’t exist. 

So, I mean, these people are being surely logical in what they are doing [by voting for the ruling party]. I’m sure I could have gone on to parts of the Eastern Cape where these things didn’t exist and, I mean, even ANC supporters spoke to me openly about how corrupt and useless they thought the government was, but, you know, would they abandon the government that has given them all these things? Hmmm, I wonder…”

Mbeki’s response was one of utter bemusement. He agreed that, yes, services had been delivered. However, when it came to service delivery, well, he just happened to benefit from the best service delivery in the country.

“I live in one of the most expensive suburbs,” he said. “It’s called Dainfern. It’s got an 18-hole golf course, it’s got huge green spaces. But I certainly don’t feel compelled to vote for the ruling party. I disapprove of what they’re doing, their incompetence, and I don’t vote for them. So, it’s not correct that people in the poor areas are voting [for the ANC] because they happen to have electricity.

There’s a lot more to life than electricity. What’s the future of their children? Their children have no future [with the present education system]. And anyway, how do they pay for the water and electricity? They need social grants to pay … so the dependence of the poor population of South Africa on the state is very real. We have nearly 40% unemployment, so in order to pay for this services by the state the state has to give the money to pay for the services. So, in reality, the improvement on their wealth is still very dependent on the state.”

A student completing a PhD on South African politics had heard of the growth of the Freedom Front Plus. She asked what was up with the white population.

Mbeki told her the whites were a deeply divided group. In the manner of a very bored pol-sci lecturer addressing undergraduates.

“One can’t just generalise about the white population,” he said. “We commonly say we had white rule in South Africa but actually we had two types of rule in the past hundred years or so. We had rule by the British colonialists, which was the British army, the foreign affairs, the colonial office and so on, who ruled over everybody. They crushed the Boer republics, the Zulu kingdom, what have you. They were followed by the Afrikaner Nationalists, not ‘the white people’.”

What’s more, he said, some white South Africans didn’t keep particularly quiet about apartheid. There were lots of whites in the anti-apartheid movement. “Even the big rich Oppenheimers and the like expressed their opposition. So the white vote is a sort of misnomer. There isn’t quite such a thing as the white vote.”

There were other interesting questions: Tony, an industrialist, detected a certain “pessimism” from the panelists, and asked, “Is South Africa going to be better in five years time or not?” 

John, a consultant in the energy sector, meanwhile was worried that Ramaphosa was a member of the Venda tribe and not a Zulu. Would this issue of tribal identity be a problem, he wondered, when Ramaphosa got down to getting rid of the dead wood among the 79 ministers and deputy ministers in the cabinet he inherited from Jacob Zuma?

Mbeki now seemed to be on a roll. (Lunch, maybe, was in the offing.)

“The reality,” he said, “is that during the last ten years the per capita income of South Africa has been declining. So you’re asking what will happen in five years time? Well, it will be worse than it is today if the current policies carry on.”

Unemployment was on the rise, and the country had the highest levels of inequality in the world.

“What is happening with our population? The top end, especially the back section of the top end, is getting richer and richer and richer and the rest of the population is getting poorer and poorer and poorer. South Africa is actually heading for trouble if this carries on for much longer. So that is the reality about the coming five years.”

As for tribalism, well, that was the least of the country’s problems.

“The president comes from the smallest tribe in South Africa. I think the Venda population is about half a million people. We don’t have a tribalism problem. But we have huge problems of class inequality in South Africa. We don’t have tribal inequality, or tribal-driven inequality. We no longer even have race-driven inequality in the black and white sense. The biggest inequality in South Africa is now among the blacks.”

All in all, then, not very promising as far as investor confidence is concerned. I’d wanted to ask about the much-vaunted “strategic vote” for Ramaphosa, but it seemed a redundant inquiry — particularly as Mbeki was so adamant that the weaker the ANC’s hold on the country, the better its chances of a viable future.


[1] THE exchange clearly rattled the thief-in-chief: “A lot of people think you’re a crook,” Keane began.

“Is that so?” Zuma replied. “Ha-ho, he-he! I want to see these people, they must come tell me why they think I’m a crook—”

“Well, there’s a whole army of prosecutors who think that.”

“Uh-huh? Is that so? Whoo! Serious?”

“Are you a crook?”

“Me? Well, I don’t know, unless I must go to the dictionary and learn what a crook is.  I’ve never—”

“Somebody,” Keane explained, “who takes money from other people for corrupt purposes.”

“Have I ever did that so?”

“I’m asking you.”

“No,” Zuma said. “I think that’s a mistake you guys are making. And I said I can’t have two trials, trial by the media and then a trial by the court. I’m saying I was not a crook. I’ve never been a crook. I’ll never be a crook.”

“To those in the international community who look at the situation now and the possibility of your becoming president and say to themselves, ‘How on earth did we come from a situation from having Nelson Mandela to Jacob Zuma …?’ What would you say to them?”

“It’s actually a wrong question, because you can’t have hundreds of Mandelas. It’s impossible.”

[2] THE Chatham House Rule, used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion of sensitive issues, is aimed at encouraging openness and facilitating the sharing of information. It provides a way for speakers to openly discuss their views in private while allowing the topic and nature of the debate to be made public and contribute to a broader conversation. It reads as follows: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”


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