Opinion

Outcry over FW De Klerk a distraction

Outcry over FW De Klerk a distraction
The reaction to FW de Klerk’s statement that “apartheid was not a crime against humanity” has been dangerously fast and furious. The danger is, however, not in the fury.

The danger lies in the fact that such an avalanche of outrage was bound to suppress a necessary debate about our democracy. Predictably, the De Klerk Foundation retracted its statement - but not its beliefs.

First, we should be clear about one thing. Victims of apartheid do not need to be told by the UN, or anyone, that apartheid was a crime against humanity. They experienced it. Denialists like De Klerk won’t change that.

Second, the challenge of our time is in redressing the legacy of apartheid. The outrage must be directed at the persistence of this legacy.

Interestingly, some of the very groupings that were shouting the loudest are the fiercest defenders of the status quo. Their entry into this space is meant to divert attention from the critical issues of our time - such as the land question.

Third, the tirade against De Klerk showed that this is a country that is ever ready to find a scapegoat. He became an easy target and outlet for the nation’s pent-up emotions. South Africa is confronting its worst economic prospects for some time.

In his reply to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA), the leader of the Freedom Front, Pieter Groenewald, was spot on in pointing out that South Africa is more desperate today under Ramaphosa than it was under former president Zuma.

Fourth, the EFF seized the moment at the SONA to expose the ANC’s ideological bankruptcy. The ANC’s MPs found themselves at a loss and ended up defending an unrepentant apartheid leader, just a week after he made his now infamous comment.

Fifth, in their protest against De Klerk at the SONA, the EFF raised the issue of the 1994 political settlement. Whereas some considered it a political victory, 1994 has proved to be a mere accommodation of the political elites into an exploitative economic system.

The new mandarins could be counted on to embrace and sustain the logic of the system. It comes as no surprise that the ­system continues to reproduce apartheid’s spatial and economic patterns. This strategy is no different from that used by captains of industry who co-opt former leaders to join boards of directors. These unionists are not enlisted to come and change the exploitative system, but to breathe life into it for its survival.

Workers remain exploited despite these leaders serving on these boards.

This is a masterful strategy - real state capture. With this apartheid mission accomplished, it was inevitable that the new dispensation would ­continue to reproduce apartheid social and economic patterns.

Until we question why the ANC has failed to fundamentally alter the economic power relations patented by apartheid we will not be engaging in meaningful state-of-the-nation analysis and debate. Neither will we be ideologically fit to formulate sustainable socio-economic solutions that will better the material conditions of ordinary South Africans.

For now, the SONA and its debate is one of mass distraction from the real burning social and economic questions that plague our society.

By all accounts, the EFF won the day. But, unwittingly, the EFF may have defocused attention from the poor, two-year non-performance of Ramaphosa and averted scrutiny from his set of rather limp and shockingly inadequate economic recovery measures.

Without question the FW frenzy is legitimate rage. It brings to the fore the untreated horror of apartheid atrocities and the complicit silence on social and economic justice. However, it has also been a useful outlet for pent-up emotions and national frustration around social and economic transformation.

Political side-shows and artfully created distraction have long been the disorder of South Africa’s Rainbow Nation politics.

As much as apartheid South Africa was a society of mass destruction of black South Africans, post-apartheid South Africa is a society of mass distraction of black South Africans.

The unspeakable shrillness of everyday poverty and landlessness of black South Africans is routinely drowned out by the easy-speak of distraction politics, to tame political discontent.

Lastly, we need to be constantly aware that revolutions are vulnerable to capture, and not forget that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Today, 26 years into democracy, the ANC, the rulers of the democratic order since 1994, should be as much on trial as former ruler FW de Klerk.

* Professor Seepe is an academic and independent analyst, and Heller is a writer and political analyst.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.