What does Peter Bruce have against the whites?

Jeremy Gordin on the BDFM editor-in-chief's strange response to the Zille twitter controversy

Over the past 21 years or so I have grown to like Peter Bruce, who is now nominally editor-in-chief of BDFM (Business Day andFinancial Mail) and was previously an influential player at the Times Media Group and a generally fine and effective editor.

Nonetheless, I am deeply puzzled by a column, headlined “Colonialism tweet will end Helen Zille’s career,” by Bruce that appeared on 17 March on BusinessLive (see a non-paywalled version here.)

My questions are: Is it a sincere piece or intended as provocation? Given its tone and content, I assume it’s “sincere”. If so, is Bruce going through some sort of personal crisis? Is he having nightmares about his past life, treatment of others, or size of his bank balance? Or did he dream about, say, Alan Paton, weeping and crying out, “Cry, the beloved country”? Or is Bruce finally revealing who he really is – from a position of safety, given the current political climate?

I ask these questions because, really, as much as I like Bruce, I have to say the column is dreck – which, for those who don’t speak German or Yiddish, means “rubbish” – cringeworthy and ignorant dreck to boot.

As you will have gathered, Bruce’s piece is about the Helen Zille twitter fandango, with the details of which I need not bore you, and with the issues of which Thomas Johnson has, in my view, dealt more than adequately.

Bruce begins by briefly describing what happened with Zille and then later decries Zille’s foolish penchant for using the Twitter medium, then goes onto to suggest that Zille was, despite what she later claimed, actually defending colonialism.

I agree with Bruce that, for her own sake, if not Mmusi Maimane’s, Zille should be banned from using Twitter. As Bruce writes, “it [Twitter] offers no context” – and, if I might add, most of the folk who use it are themselves bereft of context as well. I also happen to think – and here many of my Politicsweb brothers and sisters and others might bay for my blood, but that’s okay – I think that trying to discuss colonialism in any forum except (say) a place such as Politicsweb or a university class or Judge Dennis Davis’s TV show, is a non-starter in South Africa, especially now, when sensitivities are raw; and I think that expecting black people to discuss the subject with any kind of impartiality is also a non-starter. Why the hell should they, anyway?

Now then, it is Bruce’s “argument” for why he believes Zille was in fact defending colonialism that is noteworthy. He says she was doing so because “[we] are all prisoners of our time and our generations” and that his generation and Zille’s thought that “at least we had good roads, etc.” and that therefore “[t]hings in SA worked” and that “[w]hen majority rule came, they [the majority] would be grateful”.

Why does Bruce assume that Zille (or anyone else, except him?) is a prisoner of her time and generation? One could (and does) accuse Zille of many things; and she has been known to be a trifle unrestrained at times; e.g., her bizarre affection for that appallingly authoritarian island, Singapore.

But it seems clear that someone of her intelligence, having devoted herself tirelessly, conscientiously and honestly  to a particular political “vision,” has given at least some thought to escaping the shackles of “her time” – and indeed has done so. I also have to believe that she is not such a fool as to think “they’d be grateful” for good roads, school, airports, etc. Anyone who’d think that the “victims” in any situation are going to be “grateful” for anything must be dangerously misinformed about life and history. “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse,” as Caliban remarks, not unsympathetically, in The Tempest.

Bruce then goes on to say that “we [that’s him, Zille, and presumably others] were dead wrong” about expecting any gratitude “because the things that did work [in South Africa, previously] worked because they were needed only, but only, to serve the interests of the colonialists or Afrikaner nationalists who had ordered them built”.

Hold on a minute there. Granted, the millions of other people who lived here were far from being front of mind for the “colonialists” or the Afrikaner nationalists; “the things that did work” were of course primarily intended to “serve” the interests of the rulers. But while a ruling group may have constructed roads or hospitals or dams or airports or schools for their own purposes, those constructions are today, and into the future, available for the use of everyone that’s around. Isn’t that one of life’s wonderful ironies? And we should never miss an opportunity to grasp life’s wonderful ironies as tightly as possible.

More importantly, it could be cogently argued – and has been, by inter alios Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels – that the ruling classes (or Capitalists or what-you-will) in, say, England in the mid-19th century constructed, invested and conquered, etc., only in the pursuit of serving their own interests, not those of the downtrodden masses. I.e., this “stuff” has been going on since time immemorial – in every society and place, not just where colonialists have settled.

What is needed, Bruce tells us, is for “white people fundamentally to change the way they think. There is absolutely nothing, apart from the heroism in the face of threat of a very few whites over the centuries we have been here, to be proud of. We need to crush our sense of achievement and success and see those things for what they really are. Nowhere in the world is there a population quite so privileged as white South Africa. We came, we saw, we conquered and we lived like kings.”

That’s a paragraph that speaks for itself, I’d say. Just a few questions/thoughts. Wasn’t the yes/no referendum held on 17 March 1992 an example of  69 percent of white South Africans fundamentally changing the way they’d been thinking? Absolutely nothing to be proud of? Nobel prizes no good? How about Aaron Klug’s 1982 prize for chemistry? Or Nadine Gordimer’s and JM Coetzee’s literature prizes? And how about a bunch of Afrikaner nationalists getting together with their “enemies” to make a really “fundamental” change of government with relatively little violence? Seems like something to be proud of.

Bruce continues: “And we remain deeply racist, pretty much all of us. Racism is the sense one race has that it is superior to another. Our white ancestors brought it here, chasing slaves and then chasing land and gold.”

Well, I don’t know about Bruce’s ancestors but both my paternal and maternal grandfathers came here at the end of the 19thcentury. Neither had even a pot in which to perform the proverbial, but they worked reasonably hard – one more successfully (in financial terms) than the other – educated their children, sometimes hugged their wives, read a bit of Talmud, paid their taxes (albeit grudgingly), and generally got on with it. Neither lived “like a king” and neither had (nor chased) slaves, land or gold. And why did they come here? Not for slaves, land or gold: they were fleeing multiple waves of pogroms, which would climax roughly 40 years’ later in the murder of their families (and millions of others) in Lithuania and Latvia.

But never mind that; let’s think about a comment James Baldwin made in1963 to a group of school teachers in Harlem, New York: “What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go some place else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower.”

You take my point, yes? Which, since this piece is getting long, leads me to a summary of sorts.

First, in Bruce’s piece, the blatant disregard for history or context and, above all, for what I’ll call the “political process in societies,” is baffling. For example, women, as you probably know, weren’t enfranchised fully in England until 1928 (and then they had to be aged 21 or over). In other words, things change as laws are changed and the political process unfolds. Sure, many people in South Africa (black people too) might be racist – but that has changed for the better and will change even more, simply because legalized racism has been done away with, not because white people “fundamentally change the way they think.” It’s about the politics, stupid. And sure, this country was hijacked for some 48 years by a nasty and cruel “political process” – but that’s over now. And one would expect Bruce, of all people, to understand the political process.

Second, the assumption that, by virtue (or vice) of being “colonialists,” all our (white) “ancestors” were intrinsically evil-doers is jejune. Historically, they were mostly much more like the people sketched by Baldwin.

But above all it’s the overall tone of Bruce’s piece that sticks in the craw, doesn’t it? It’s a bit of a guilt-ridden knee-jerk – of the sort we expect from the Twitterati, not Peter Bruce. In a sense, to cut him some slack, I suppose the piece was supposed to be provocative – supposed to jolt some people and make them think about the significance, especially for black people, of what Zille glibly tweeted.

But I think the moral of the story is that it’s just as dangerous to write silly columns as it is to send thoughtless tweets.