Was the wealth of South African whites acquired by "bloodshed and robbery"? Too often, today, black commentators in our media are expressing such views as "historical fact", when in reality our history was far more complex and ambiguous. I recently wrote the following piece based on the row over an editor being called a "black snake in the grass deployed by white capital", and that she would have been necklaced in the 1980s.
Truth or Propaganda?
The nature of propaganda is such that the more you repeat a lie, the more people begin to accept it as the truth.
A classic example was Nazi Germany before the Second World War, where the Jewish community was demonised by the fascist leaders under Adolf Hitler to such an extent that eventually they used this “truth” as justification for a policy of genocide.
So I write with a sense of growing concern at the direction in which the national dialogue has been moving of late. And something Veli Mbele said in his “In my view” column in the Port Elizabeth newspaper, The Herald, of August 22 encapsulates the way in which African South Africans have become so steeped in the “black is right, white is wrong” perception of our history that they refuse to see the many uncomfortable nuances, the vast expanses of grey.
Mbele wrote a largely commendable analysis of the row between City Press editor Ferial Haffajee and Sowetan columnist Eric Myeni, who was fired after writing a racially charged diatribe attacking Haffajee. We all know the most jarring aspects of what was written – things like calling her a “black snake in the grass deployed by white capital to sow discord amongst blacks” and that in the 1980s she would “probably have had a burning tyre around her neck”. Scurrilous stuff.
Mbele explored further Myeni’s argument about how the use of state tenders to enrich black people could be justified. Mbele commendably says the point is whether “when they get rich through state tenders ... they do so legally and ... use their wealth to materially improve the living conditions of African people in general”. On this point, of course, one has to ask: how many of the many state tenders awarded to BEE companies since 1994 have been above board? How many of the companies were equipped to do the job, and indeed completed it properly? One only has to look at the RDP housing fiasco – with houses crumbling – to realise that far too many of these companies were ill-equipped to tackle the projects for which they tendered. Often they simply sub-contracted the work to established (read white) firms, thereby increasing the cost of the project.
But that is an argument for another day. More worrying for me are Mbele’s comments with regard to our history. He notes that Myeni had stated that the DA “receives money largely from white business, which is the main economic beneficiary of the government tender system”. Firstly, that is a dubious claim, since white firms are by and large only given the contracts when, as noted above, black firms find themselves unable to do the work. In terms of the BEE loading formulae, contracts will go to black firms first. Indeed, the whole BEE concept was almost custom made to facilitate corruption. As soon as you put race above things like competence, price and track record in the awarding of tenders, you’re asking for trouble. So we are stuck with a system literally designed to promote just the sort of moral malaise which Mbele correctly identifies in Myeni’s argument.
However, what really concerns me is this sentence by Mbele: “It is common knowledge the DA is a historically white party and that our national wealth, which now resides in white hands, was acquired through bloodshed and robbery.”
He goes on to talk about “these historical facts”, as if his biased view – which is widely held thanks to decades of indoctrination – is holy writ. The historical reality is far more nuanced. There are indeed vast grey areas where Mbele sees only black and white, good and bad.
A brief resume of the counter-argument would go like this. Bantu-speaking people came down from central Africa and “colonised” what is now South Africa and was occupied by the Khoisan. European whites started “colonising” the same area, starting in what would become Cape Town, from 1652. That’s over 350 years ago. The world was a very different place. The great powers of Europe were taking to their sailing ships and exploring a world they had only recently discovered was indeed round, not flat. They were motivated by both a desire to find wealth through trade, and indeed colonisation, and among their scientists and intellectuals, by a fascination with the complexity of this planet. Charles Darwin is a fine example.
It was as much an age of discovery as one of imperialism. Yet imperialism did occur, and Britain was the key imperialist for a century and a half. Of course “weaker”, less advanced indigenous people were conquered and governed by settler rulers. (Just as the Romans did to Britain for nearly 400 years until 410 AD, the Normans did after 1066 and in a sense the Roman Catholic Church did to much of Europe for 1000 years up till the 16th century.)
The local populations of colonised countries were exploited and marginalised. But Britain did abolish slavery in 1833, and by the mid-20th century gradually loosened its grip and eventually handed over the reins to the locals in countries around the globe. A fine example is India, which is now a thriving democracy, though still beset by widespread poverty.
Most important of all, the European settlers brought with them – especially in the 19th and 20th centuries – all the benefits of the scientific, intellectual, industrial, agricultural and economic advances that had made their home countries the powerful states they were. These were introduced into South Africa as a direct result of colonialism, leaving us with an advanced, industrial economy that is the envy of the rest of Africa.
Certainly black people often suffered grievously, particularly under apartheid post-1948. But the broader picture is one of a country provided with the building blocks to succeed by the ingenuity of its white settler community in partnership with the indigenous population.
Mbele and Myeni can distort this history as they please, but each time they make use of anything that has its origins in the West – the products of centuries of rigorous intellectual endeavour – they should pause to reflect on whether they shouldn’t be just a little grateful for that legacy.
I suggest the Internet – a western invention – might be a place to start looking. Or computers themselves. Or cars, trains, internal combustion engines, cellphones, telephones, radio, television, CDs, DVDs, fridges, stoves, electricity. Look at the history of science and ask yourselves, should we not be grateful for these gifts, the atom bomb notwithstanding? Think too of things like freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, human rights, modern medicine, formal schooling, universities, police forces, democracy. All were, by and large, a product of this western European age of enlightenment.
We have a choice. We can accept this broader, more balanced, picture of our history. Or we can just swallow the “white is wrong, black is right” propaganda hook, line and sinker, until in the end all manner of cruelty is justified in addressing this supposed “truth” – as Hitler did in Germany and Poland.