What AfriForum did (and did not) say about apartheid

Ernst Roets responds to a number of allegations often flung at his organisation

AfriForum: What we did (and did not) say about apartheid

AfriForum is a civil rights group that aims to protect the rights of minority communities in South Africa. According to AfriForum’s charter the organisation aims to promote peaceful coexistence and to foster mutual recognition and respect among communities in our country on the southern tip of Africa. We believe that the test of a well-functioning democracy lies not merely in the operation of a universal franchise, but also whether minority communities – who do not have political control – are included in democratic processes and have their rights protected. Our view is the basic difference between majoritarianism and democracy lies in the fact that in the latter system the rule of law is upheld and the rights of minorities are respected.

Opponents of AfriForum, especially those intent on discrediting our campaigns without responding to them on the merits, often attack us using straw man claims. They prefer doing so either in our absence or on platforms where we have scant opportunity to reply and defend ourselves – presumably because they fear being called out on their distortions and untruths.

The favourite straw man is to try and label AfriForum either as supporters or deniers of apartheid. This is invariably a topic raised by others, who seek to challenge us on it in some way. Usually apartheid is raised in some way with the purpose of trying to discredit AfriForum’s arguments on some issue, and we are required to talk about it in response. Informed readers will already be well informed on exactly what AfriForum has said on apartheid (and what it has not said). But for those who may be unsure, allow me to put our position clearly...

Criticism on apartheid

AfriForum has repeatedly condemned apartheid. Apartheid was a state-driven policy of social engineering (precisely what we are fighting against). It was a policy that failed miserably and that had to be terminated. It was a policy in terms of which people’s dignity was violated and where the state tried to position itself as the ultimate moral arbiter. Indefensible forms of discrimination took place under apartheid. There also were atrocities, such the murder of Steve Biko in police detention and the reaction by the minister of justice, Jimmy Kruger, on Biko's death by simply saying "It leaves me cold".

It was not only a policy that violated the dignity of black people. One unintended consequence of this policy was that anti-apartheid activists tended to sweep under the carpet the atrocities committed by the liberation movements or even to try to justify the ANC’s murder campaign against soft targets. Another consequence was that the Afrikaner cause was hugely discredited, and any Afrikaner taking a stand in defence of his identity or culture today is confronted with accusations of apartheid.

Woolly concept

Some of our friends in the media are fond of describing AfriForum as an organisation that has described apartheid as a “woolly concept”. The purpose of doing so has been to subtly label AfriForum as rightist or racist. It creates the impression that AfriForum is trying to defend or to justify apartheid, or to neutralise criticism of apartheid.

The truth is that I indeed did once use this phrase during a TV debate in Afrikaans with Pieter du Toit, former news editor of Netwerk24 (subsequently editor of Huffington Post South Africa and currently assistant editor of News24). However, I was referring to the way in which the word “apartheid” had lost its meaning and was being used solely for its pejorative connotations.

Making this point about the way in which a word is misused – becoming a “meaningless word” (as George Orwell termed them) in the process - does not amount to passing a judgment about the thing it originally described.

It simply means that although many people may be using the same word there is actually little consensus about what it actually means. There are “meaningless words” which have positive connotations such as democracy and human rights, and there are ones with negative connotations such as racism and apartheid. If you ask 20 people to define what is meant by democracy, human rights, racism or apartheid, you are likely to get 20 different answers.

There are people who would say apartheid was a racially discriminatory policy (which is correct), or that white people received preferential treatment (which is correct with regard to areas designated as white areas but not the black homelands).

There are also people who allege that apartheid was a policy of slavery (which is false), or, even worse, that it was a policy of genocide (which is grossly false). The truth is that the black population doubled during the first two decades of apartheid, and during the next two decades it doubled again. Does that sound like genocide?

Then there are people who argue that apartheid was a policy in terms of which huge numbers of black people were killed by the apartheid government. It is indeed true that black people were killed by the apartheid government, but the correct figures will come as a surprise to many people. The Human Rights Committee and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that roughly 21 000 people died in political violence between 1948 and 1994. Of those 21 000 people, roughly 100 were killed by white rightists and roughly 600 by members of the security forces. Roughly 19 000 people died following the ANC’s launch of the people’s war against competing black institutions and organisations.

The reference to the term “apartheid” becoming a “woolly concept” was a plea that the system of apartheid should indeed be criticised, but for what it really was.

So-called injustice

AfriForum is sometimes accused by some publications of having called apartheid a “so-called injustice”. Referring to this, Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser remarked that AfriForum “clearly has a PR problem”. Maybe this is true. However, the PR problem is not that dubious arguments are being advanced. Rather it is that our rational and morally justifiable arguments are being completed twisted and misrepresented by malicious (or negligent) reporters.

So here are the facts: AfriForum – or more accurately its lawyers - once did use the phrase “so-called injustice”, but not referring to the policy of apartheid. AfriForum never said apartheid was a “so-called injustice”, though if you read the minority judgment in City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality v AfriForum, you may well come away with this impression.

So what did we say?

The court case concerned the Tshwane Metro’s attempt to change the names of 27 of Pretoria’s most prominent streets. The Tshwane Metro, however, did not follow the required procedures and AfriForum argued that the name changes were invalid because the process that had been followed to effect the changes was riddled with procedural and statutory flaws. The Tshwane Metro argued that the names had to be changed to “rectify the injustices of the past”. There was only one problem: many of the names did not have any relation to actual injustices in the past.

Consequently, AfriForum’s legal team wrote the following paragraph in urgent court documents:

“It appears from the Council resolutions resulting in the change of the old street names that the underlying reasons largely amounted to an effort to rectify the so-called ‘historical injustices of the past’. If the origin of the names in question is considered, it becomes clear that the large majority of them cannot rationally be linked to the consideration of rectifying so-called historical injustices of the past.”

This was not meant as a denial that injustices had taken place in the past. The point was rather that the argument that a name such as Church Street had to be changed to rectify a historical injustice was a fallacy. With the benefit of hindsight, one could certainly say our wording could have been better, if only to prevent the malicious mischaracterisation of our position.

The apartheid flag

AfriForum is also sometimes portrayed as apartheid sympathetic because of the fact we were drawn into a court case, as respondents, by actors seeking an outright ban the old South African flag (the 1928-flag). It is, incidentally, inaccurate to describe this as the “apartheid flag”, as it was in use long before apartheid and was also still being used officially after the end of apartheid.

AfriForum is on record that we do not allow this flag at our meetings. We regard the flag as a political flag and not as a cultural flag representing Afrikaners. In our opinion displaying the flag does more harm than good. This is why AfriForum always asks its supporters not to display it at our meetings, and also why we do not, as far as possible, take part in meetings where the flag is used. AfriForum does not have a particular loyalty towards the flag and is aware of and sensitive to the fact that there are people who find the flag offensive and insulting.

On the other hand, AfriForum does not believe it is meaningful to ban anything by law simply on the basis of its offensiveness. AfriForum is strongly opposed to incitement and also to hate speech. Offensiveness, however, is not sufficient to qualify something as hate speech. The correct definition of hate speech is that it should contain a call to action against a specific group. Simply showing a flag therefore is not hate speech.

We also believe that banning the flag is not going to solve anything. Ideas don’t go down with their flags. Banning the flag is not going to change the way supporters of the flag think, but it could succeed in hardening their sentiments. The Barbara Streisand effect also teaches us that the consequences of banning something could actually result in increasing its popularity. Banning a flag because it is offensive could therefore easily have the opposite effect of what is intended.

Although we do not want to protect the flag, we do want to protect the principle of freedom of speech. Douglas Murray rightly remarked that the problem with defending free speech is that you never get to defend it on exactly the territory you hoped for.

Crime against humanity

A veritable media storm erupted when Kallie Kriel, chief executive of AfriForum, said on 702 that apartheid could not be classified as a crime against humanity – thereby equating it to Nazism - but that it should indeed be condemned because it resulted in the violation of people’s dignity. This is not supposed to be a contentious statement. The anti-apartheid activist and friend of Nelson Mandela, Alan Paton, as early as 1985 said that comparing apartheid to Nazism was a prostitution of language.

The 702 presenter Eusebius McKaiser immediately turned to the social media to disclose this revelation. However, he made sure not to allow a good exposé to be undermined by the facts and he quoted Kriel’s statement completely out of context. 

McKaiser had sprung this question on Kriel late in an interview on a different topic, and did not give him an opportunity to explain his position, interrupting him repeatedly. Kriel did get enough in to make part of his point. He explained that it did not make sense to argue that apartheid was a crime against humanity but at the same time to pretend that communism (a policy that has led to the death of 100 million people) was not. He condemned apartheid as a policy in terms of which people’s dignity was violated, but that this was a conversation for another day as the topic under discussion was farm murder statistics. Kriel’s remark was not a condonation of apartheid but a plea that history should be looked at in a consistent manner.

Condemnation of the past

There is no doubt that apartheid has become a weapon. It is a weapon that is used by the governing elite to justify their own discriminatory policies and to cover up their failures. On the other hand, it is a weapon that is used by rightist groups when government fails, by arguing that apartheid was better than the present dispensation. There are also a number of influential black politicians who have expressed their opinions on apartheid when the ANC government fails, by arguing that apartheid was better in some way or another. This includes Julius Malema’s reference to the apartheid government’s health system and Mamphela Ramphele’s reference to the apartheid government’s education system.

The fact is that we should never be naive as far as the past is concerned. With the benefit of hindsight, we should learn from the past so we will not repeat the mistakes of the past. At the same time, we should guard against simplistically judging historical periods through modern lenses. We also should guard against the temptation of looking at the past as if everything that happened during that period was either hell or heaven on earth.

We should not defend apartheid. We should study it and explain it as clearly as we can. The better we understand the psyche of the drafters of this policy, the better we can learn from it, and the better we can ensure that the same wrongs are not repeated in a different form. We should never hesitate to point out and criticise the mistakes made by the apartheid government.

On the other hand, we should realise that there is a responsibility on us to be historically accurate in our judgments about the past. It is our duty to point out when misrepresentations are made about the past or when something is claimed as fact which never actually happened. This is particularly the case when such distortions are being used with the purpose of promoting some or other malign political or ideological programme.

Ernst Roets is deputy chief executive of AfriForum. Follow Ernst on Twitter at @ErnstRoets

A version of this article first appeared in Afrikaans on Maroela Media.