Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Was apartheid South Africa really that bad?

Following my articles about the death of Nelson Mandela, I've had several e-mails claiming that apartheid South Africa really wasn't that bad.  Particular emphasis is placed on the fact that the economy was allegedly 'thriving', and the crime rate was allegedly far less than it became after the advent of majority rule.  In so many words, it's being said that apartheid was better than the  democracy that now exists there.

This is completely false, based on either thinly disguised racism or on a very selective approach to the facts of the matter.

First, the economy was pretty darn lousy for everyone except the White community - and even for them, it was getting worse during the 1980's under the impact of economic sanctionsApartheid basically condemned all race groups except Whites to a paltry share of the economic pie, including restrictions on education, job reservation, and a host of other aspects of everyday life solely on the basis of one's race.  The White community basically kept almost everything worth having, in economic terms, for itself until the 1980's, when things began to improve for the other races;  but the change was almost infinitesimally slow, and still has not progressed to true economic equality.  Inferior Black education has a lot to do with this.

Secondly, crime was always very bad - it just wasn't recorded.  The South African Police were probably the single most racist element of the security forces, far more so than the Defence Force.  They perpetrated many crimes themselves (as the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made clear - see, for example, Vlakplaas, the death of Neil Aggett, or the murder of the Pebco Three, to name only three of literally thousands of possible examples).  They arranged many more such incidents through groups allied to the apartheid government (e.g. Operation Marion), and failed to record or report many crimes in the Black community, claiming that most 'black-on-black violence' wasn't really crime at all - it was politically motivated.  This was, of course, completely false, but that didn't worry a police force that routinely tortured and murdered suspects without bothering to put them through the formality of a trial.  Detention without trial was a standard procedure, with few legal rights and/or protections for detainees (even those that existed were often ignored).  It's certain that tens of thousands of Black people in particular were detained without trial for days, weeks or months in the 'evil years' from 1976 until the early 1990's - my personal estimate is that the figure was in the hundreds of thousands.

You want an example of that?  Here's a scene from the end of the movie Cry Freedom.  Just read the names of the detainees (detained without trial) who died or were killed in police custody.  Look up their names, and read their stories.  If even one in ten died the way their deaths were officially reported, I'll eat my hat!  It's blatantly obvious what happened to them - at least, it's obvious to anyone who has two brain cells to rub together.  Note that the list ends in 1987, when the apartheid government stopped releasing the names of those who 'died' in detention, and no longer gave 'reasons' or 'explanations' for what happened to them.

Many, many of those who were detained without trial simply 'disappeared'.  They were often recorded as having been 'released from custody' - but no-one ever saw them again.  When and where were they 'released'?  Why did they never contact their families again?  The revelations about Vlakplaas are a grim clue, because Vlakplaas wasn't the only establishment of its kind (see, for example, the farm known as Post Chalmers or Fort Chalmers, used for the murder of the Pebco Three and other activists).  I personally found unidentifiable whole and partial skeletons in the bush near SA police and military establishments during the 'evil years'.  There were bullet holes in some of the bones.  Who were they?  When and how did they die?  Your guess is as good as mine . . . but I can make a pretty good guess, I think.

I've written about some of the things I experienced in those years.  Relevant blog articles include:

Fellow blogger Titflasher (who seems to have been in many of the same areas as myself during the bad years) has recently summarized her own experience of security forces oppression in three very good articles, under the overall title of 'Mandela and why people who have never lived under complete and utter oppression just don’t get it'.  You'll find them at the following links:

I highly recommend reading all three, and following the links she provides.

Finally, to people who try to make excuses for apartheid and the conduct of the then-South African government, I can only say:

  • If you were treated like a slave, a sub-human and a pariah in your own country;
  • If you were stripped of your citizenship and civil rights in the country of your birth because of the color of your skin;
  • If your education depended upon your skin color for its quality (or lack thereof);
  • If your choice of what to do with your life, or where to live, or who to love or marry, was restricted by your race;
  • If you were denied free travel inside your own country, forced to carry an internal passport and subject to instant arrest if you forgot it at home or lost it;
  • If you were forced to accept menial labor as the only work open to you, paid a starvation wage, and denied the right to bring your family to live with you near your place of work;
  • If you were savagely beaten and imprisoned if you dared to protest such restrictions and indignities, or even shot out of hand rather than arrested;

would you calmly accept those things?  Or would you take up arms to overthrow the system that placed such restrictions upon you?

I know what my answer would have been, in my younger years.  It would have been the same as Nelson Mandela's in the 1960's.  It still amazes me that he could have changed so much as to become an ambassador for peace after his release.



Unknown said...

As someone who lived in South Africa, was curious about your take on this story:

Regarding the "white flight" from that article, the only two South Africans I know of, you and Dave Freer, both live somewhere else now. Haven't read your blog long enough to know your reasons for emigrating. Or Dave's.

socrates said...

You helped overthrow the bad apartheid government....
Why are you now living somewhere else instead of the Utopia you helped create?
It amazes me that the majority of the "activists" of those days have fled South Africa to live in countries with white rule/majority and left the mess for us to clean up.
The wheel turns sir. I have been watching the developments in your new country with interest.
I wish you luck.

Peter said...

@socrates and those of similar opinions:

Read my prior articles about South Africa under apartheid. Read Titflasher's articles. Then ask yourself: If you'd been treated like that, wouldn't you harbor hatred too? Wouldn't you want revenge against those who'd treated you that way?

The answer, unfortunately, is that many people did - and still do - want revenge. Mandela's great gift to South Africa was that he kept that under control, and channeled those energies into rebuilding rather than destroying. In doing so, he aroused a lot of resentment among the firebrands, many of whom are now likely to try to break out of the pattern of reconciliation he established.

As for 'fleeing' and 'leaving others to clean up the mess' - no, not at all. I buried 27 friends during the evil years. I had nothing left to give. I was burned out. The USA offered me the chance to make a fresh start, and I took it for the sake of my sanity, if nothing else. I don't think I have anything of which to be ashamed in that decision.

Those who were part of the problem, and who refused to be part of the solution; those who still resent the loss of privilege and status that went with the dregs of apartheid . . . they've never forgiven those who took it away from them. I can understand that - but that's their problem. I refuse to subscribe to it.

I've said all along that it would take two generations to overcome the obstacles and problems left behind by apartheid. We're now about three-quarters of the way through the first of those generations, and I've seen nothing to make me change that forecast. I'm unlikely to live long enough to see what things are like after two generations. However, I'm glad I was able to contribute to the help of those suffering under apartheid, and in some small way to help to bring about its demise. The world is a better place without it.

skreidle said...

Peter, did you hear about this?

The Sign Language Interpreter at Mandela's Memorial Didn't Know Sign Language | The Wire -- [The deaf community in South Africa is outraged and embarrassed after realizing that man who was signing translations of Nelson Mandela's memorial to the whole entire world yesterday was actually a fraud.]

And this is unrelated, but I thought you'd like it as well:

"You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership. It might help if we ran the MBAs out of Washington." -- Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (b. 1906-12-09, d. 1992-01-01)

December 9th's Google Doodle was in honor of her 107th birthday. :)

An amazing person, that one.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Peter, much, much appreciated. I left SA for much of the same reason. My job there was done, Mandela was released and having spent from the age of 14 to 23 as an activist, it was time to live my own life. I don't think I need to justify that to anyone, especially to apartheid apologists. My family remain in SA and are happy there.

What people who have not lived in SA do not understand is the sheer resilience, the capacity for happiness and the willingness of the majority to live in peace, no matter what colour they are, what gods they worship or who their forefathers were.

It is an amazing place.
Gods bless Africa
Guide her people
And give her peace
Now and forever.

FrankC said...

I know two people who worked in S.A. for a sort time.
One was a work colleague who managed a clothing firm for a while. He was acclaimed a hero after letting the workers have a tea break.
The other is my cousin who job-swapped. While there she was pleased/amazed that when she got back to her lodgings she found that an invisible fairy had tidied up, made the bed and so forth. She had never seen this person and left about £5 as a thank you. Her job swap complained saying "I don't pay her that much a month!"

FrankC said...

a short time.
Don't know whether it was during or after apartheid.

Anonymous said...

Now they just run around with spears kill and eat each other.

parascribe said...

Thank you for sharing your views and memories. As someone who is trying to understand this world while still living in the Midwest USA, I appreciate your perspectives. You've given me a lot to think about, and research.

Anonymous said...

Peter, you and titflasher have both made me re-evaluate what I thought I knew about apartheid, and Mr. Mandela. Thank you for sharing your stories.

I'm sorry it took his passing for me to look past the labels & realize he demonstrated some enormous strength of will and character.

It's too bad his example is lost on those who need it most.

Noons said...

Having had direct experience of the SA police work in the 1960s, I have to consider the "apartheid was better" notion totally biased and misinformed. All I know is that at the tender age of 10, I was considered guilty of the heinous crime of playing glass marbles with a black kid in the black side of Barberton, a town in Transvaal where I used to go for school holidays. It took direct intervention of the Portuguese charge of affairs to get me back to my family, dangerous subversive criminal that I was...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insights and for the wealth of links you've given us to chew on. Your earlier post (Mandela, moonbats and wingnuts) was excellent and along with that I particularly enjoyed Rian Malan's piece in the Telegraph and Titflasher's pieces as well.

I know many of us here in the States instinctively distrust The Narrative that we're constantly bombarded with and so it's incredibly helpful to me personally (and, I imagine, to anyone else who wants some real perspective and not just a set of talking points) to have the opinions, viewpoints and experiences of those that were actually there.

Anonymous said...

To the Anonymous who posted the spears comment- I have no idea why you posted your comment here, it is just untrue and pathetic.

To everyone else - thank you and I am glad I have been able to shed some insight into what it was like.

FrankC - sadly neither of those experiences are unique - I remember once being lauded as a hero when I interceded for staff who were too scared to come to work during a strike and were going to be disciplined. Apparently telling the management of Auto Bavaria (BMW in SA) some home truths about the conditions under which their staff were living was something that no-one had attempted to do before... sick and sad, isn't it?

South Africa is not perfect and it will take generations for the scars to start healing, never mind become invisible. But I have hope. Seeing some of the footage from SA today my hope continues. Even in death, Madiba continues to bring people together.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this.