South Africa and the question of truth

Hendrik Mentz says our current debate is riddled with category errors

‘There is only one truth. It’s a bitter truth, but it’s a truth that can save us’ (Vasily Grossman)

For Maxim Gorky, there were two truths, and he advised Vasily Grossman to write the new truth of the (Communist) Revolution into his first novel, Glϋckauf, if he wished it to be published [1]:

‘We know there are two truths and that, in our world, it is the vile and dirty truth of the past that quantitatively preponderates […] it is a disgusting and tormenting truth. It is truth we must struggle against and mercilessly extirpate.’ [2]

Grossman wrestled with Gorky’s dualistic epistemology until he concluded - as Plato had centuries before - there can only be one truth:

‘No, Marusya […] You’re wrong. I can tell you as a surgeon that there is one truth, not two. When I cut someone’s leg off, I don’t know two truths. If we start playing at two truths, we’re in trouble. And in war too – above all. When things are as bad as they are today – there is only one truth. It’s a bitter truth, but it’s a truth that can save us. If the Germans enter Stalingrad, you’ll learn that if you chase after two truths, you won’t catch either. It’ll be the end of you.’ [3]

South Africa, and the question of truth

The challenge of what constitutes truth also faces South Africans today.

During the time of the first democratic elections in the country which ended apartheid (1994), our truth was the rainbow nation of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela. Now, however, a quarter of a century on, the belief in our oneness has been shattered. Instead, Gorky’s sense of ‘a vile and dirty’ past with its ‘disgusting and tormenting truth’ is what now prevails with accusations of ‘white monopoly capital’, ‘you stole the land’ – and which must now be ‘mercilessly extirpated’ by a new truth that will liberate ‘the people’ from the shackles of a white colonial past.

The sense of there being two truths was confirmed in 2018 by no one less than our State President, Cyril Ramaphosa, during his first Sona (state of the nation address) when he stated that the original sin inflicted on South Africa were the white settlers (VIDEO of Ramaphosa’s accusation: click here), and that to correct the injustices flowing from this original sin the South African Constitution was to be adapted to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.

The President isn't alone. There are currently multiple processes ‘mercilessly extirpating’ the past. University curricula are being ‘decolonised’. White people - framed as the sole beneficiaries of colonialism - must now own their guilt, confess the privileges flowing exclusively their way from their theft, and find ways of making amends by reaching out to those whom, over generations, they oppressed. Any white person questioning this new truth is by definition racist, accused of resisting reconciliation, and is punished through labelling (witness: Helen Zille), banning (Steve Hofmeyr) or discrediting (Afriforum), alternatively they can leave the country.

An idea, once it takes hold, wields enormous power, and so it is imperative for it to be true. For instance consider the consequences of the following ideas: the divine right of kings, liberté, equalité, fraternité, Rule Britannia, apartheid, the American Dream. By ‘true’, I mean that the idea in question should at least make sense – which the new South African truth being propagated doesn’t, because it contains numerous category errors.

Category errors

You’ve made a category error when the quality you ascribe to something (i.e. the category in which you place it) is wrong. In other words what you say or believe it to be, isn’t true.

To illustrate a category error Gilbert Ryle tells the story of a traveller being shown around a campus and who noted the library and the faculty buildings but then complained he couldn’t find the university. The traveller’s error was to assume that a ‘university’ was also a tangible object or category comprising bricks and mortar whereas it fell into a different category altogether: conceptual.

Ryle coined the term ‘category error’ in order to show that René Descartes – of cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) fame - was wrong to believe that each of us comprised a separate mind in a body because if it were so, Ryle argued, how could something inanimate (mind) bend something material (body) to its bidding - like a ghost in the machine (which is in some ways similar to the belief that when we die our soul rises to heaven while the body remains behind). Ryle contended that there are truer ways of describing human consciousness that don’t commit a category error, for instance, understanding that being human expresses itself through thinking, feeling, toiling and then dying (please note: my reformulation).

I turn to South Africa.

Claims that white people stole the land are false

The accusations of new-truthers that white South Africans stole the land from our people comprise a series of category errors, and are therefore not true.

‘Our people’ is a category error because it privileges black Nguni/Bantu as victims whereas in fact the original Nguni people were in the same category as white Europeans and light yellow to olive Khoikhoi invaders who, in successive waves, occupied space originally exclusively inhabited by yellow-brown-skinned Bushman (San) hunter-gatherers [4].

The ‘land’ itself is also a category error because the original Bushman wouldn't even have noticed the land. Instead, was endless space with mountains and streams teaming with animals to be hunted and eaten. What is now categorized as ‘land’ would for the Bushman have been the spoor of an impala buck. What is now categorized as ‘land’ would for the Khoikhoi pastoralist have been water, and grazing until it was exhausted.

The Nguni people might have had the initial sense of an area to be held, cultivated and protected but even this sense didn’t approximate the European sense in 1659 - with the first Land Plakkaaten of Jan van Riebeeck - of a geographical area, measured, pegged, and with a title deed and associated record of permanent ownership ‘to be entered in a well-bound book, so that no difficulties may arise later over possession and inheritance’ [5], let alone its modern equivalent as a mechanised, tightly managed farming operation forming an essential part of the country’s GDP.

To summarise: ‘you stole the land’ is a category error because what is now understood as stolen land never existed before European settlers arrived in southern Africa, whereas the category ‘land’ as it was then ‘conceived’ as teaming game or endless grazing now no longer exists.

The accusation that white people are the original sin is false

President Ramaphosa’s accusation that white people are the original sin is also a category error because the land purportedly stolen is indistinguishable from the geographic entity universally recognised as the Republic of South Africa of which Ramaphosa is currently President. So, if by Ramaphosa’s reckoning, white people are the original sin then Ramaphosa, as beneficiary of that sin, is equally - if not more guilty, and should, by rights, resign. He can’t have his cake and eat it.

It is impossible to ‘decolonise the curriculum’

That the curriculum can be ‘decolonised’ is also a category error because it assumes that ‘colonialism’ is something lurking, like a homunculus, inside knowledge able to be identified and extracted, instead of understanding knowledge as additive and enriching.

Accusations of racism are category errors

Murder is a clearly defined punishable crime or category distinguishable from manslaughter, acts of self-defence, and action on the battlefield, and is itself, a sub-category of killing. Racism is also now categorised as a crime but whereas I know what murder is, what racism is escapes me, because, like Descartes’ category ‘mind’, the category ‘racism’ is a nothing.

Sure I can infer racism like I can infer mind but I’m just as likely to be wrong. For instance we infer from Penny Sparrow’s use of the descriptor ‘monkeys’ to describe black people littering a Durban beach on New Year’s eve that she’s a racist. But where or what exactly is this thing that we now call, label or categorise as ‘racism’, and how to measure it?

Is it the word? Is it the speaker? Is it the attitude? Is it the intent? Is it the context? Is it the interpretation? Is it all these things? Is it something else? I don’t know. You help me. Helen Zille is suddenly a racist because she tweets that colonialism also brought benefits. Again, the same series of questions apply. I could go on to Steve Hofmeyr or Julius Malema but hopefully the point has been made that whereas crimes such as stock theft, fraud, trespassing have tangibility in that each has been clearly defined, meaning a perpetrator can then be identified, stand trial, and, if guilty, sentenced and convicted, the same cannot be said of racism which is by its very nature indefinable, as in: fluid, fleeting, contextual, contingent. The label ‘racist’ is therefore a category error, which, needless to say, comes in handy if your intention is to cower or confuse a populace, keep everyone on the back foot, discourage discussion, ensure adherence to a new truth.

One truth

None of the above is to deny that European, Khoikhoi and Nguni people detested, feared and together exterminated the Bushman in horrific numbers [6], thereby forcing them into remote enclaves and, finally, the Kalahari. Nor does the above excuse white people for passing various legislation aimed at driving ‘the Hottentot … from pasturage and watering-places necessary for the Company’s purposes’ [7], and dealing with the ‘native question’, thereby depriving many black farmers of their ancestral land and their livelihood. Nor does it excuse apartheid, which uprooted entire communities.

But the foregoing constitutes the one truth which found expression in the form of a negotiated treaty [8] we refer to as our Constitution, with its associated remedial legislation which has been administered over the past quarter of a century by the ruling ANC government. So why invent a new truth, unless for nefarious ends?

So if all we have is our one truth, how do we live it?

I don’t want to talk for Ramaphosa, Malema et al except to suggest more truthfulness on their part, owning and taking responsibility, and less projecting and blaming would be a fair start. You, dear reader, can speak for yourself. For me I return to Grossman, who, I believe, has the answer. The one truth finds expression in the individual in a very personal way. Further, it is clearly evident given history that truth is about suffering:

‘The more sorrow there is in a man, the less hope he has of survival - the better, the kinder, the more generous he becomes.’ [9]

And what is that sorrow? For me it was locating, entering and living my own darkness – also inherited, as transgenerational trauma, going back almost 300 years to 1749 when Joachim Frederik Mentz stepped ashore in Table Bay. Mine was a lonely, arduous, terrifying yet definitive experience which I sense, in retrospect, has made me more human than I was before. It also strengthened me at my core, brought me greater clarity, and left me, on occasions, less critical and kinder: as in you and I; not crowds. It also enabled me to detect and resist, as tyranny, those who wish to impose their truth as the truth.

‘Man and Fascism cannot co-exist. If Fascism conquers, man will cease to exist and there will remain only man-like creatures that have undergone an internal transformation. But if man, man who is endowed with reason and kindness, should conquer, then Fascism must perish, and those who have submitted to it will once again, become people.’ [10]


1: Smith, A. (2019). The trials of Vasily Grossman. Harpers Magazine, July, pp. 80-85. Available at: click here [Accessed 11 July 2019].

2: Foreword by Robert Chandler to Grossman, V. (2018:5). Stalingrad. London, Random House. Available at: click here [Accessed 25 June 2019].

3: Ibid.

4. Theal, G.M. (1919). Ethnography and conditions of South Africa before A.D. 1505. London, George Allen and Unwin.

5: Spilhaus, M.W. (1949:109). The first South Africans. Cape Town, Juta.

6: Theal, G.M. ibid.

7: Spilhaus, M.W. ibid. 6

8: I am indebted to Michael Kenmuir who, in correspondence, pointed out that the Constitution is in fact a treaty.