Laying The Ghost Of Colonialism To Rest In Post-Apartheid South Africa
Julius Malema leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party (EFF) and has pushed a proposal to amend the Constitution to allow the government to seize private land from white farmers. The plan is to reclaim land stolen during colonization and without compensating the descendants of colonizers. A quarter-century after apartheid, whites still own 70% of the land, down from 80% in 1994. The parliament is currently dominated by the center-left African National Congress (ANC), many members of which voted with the leftist EFF. To supporters of the amendment, justice has been denied for four hundred years, and they won’t see it deferred a day longer than they have to.
The Democratic Alliance (DA), supports land reform, but opposes the seizure of private property, according to its leader, Mmusi Maimane. Without the protection of private property as guaranteed by the Constitution, businesses will be too frightened to invest in South Africa. Land reform, Maimane claims, is moving apace under the Constitution as it is written. The DA insists that it is the inaction and poor policy of the ANC which has hindered land reform, not the Constitution. Mosiuoa Lekota (a founding member of the Congress of the People, COPE, that split from the ANC in protest over the 2009 election) stood and opposed the land reform on the basis that it would deepen the racial divide in the country. “You are going to give the land to ‘our people.’ Now please tell us, who is not our people in this country?” he cried over shouts of derision. “Will you take the properties of the French, of the great-grandchildren of the French Huguenots, the German refugees, all of these people that came here…to dig diamonds…to dig gold?”
Tucker Carlson has called Malema a “violent nutcase” who doesn’t support killing “the entire white population…right now.” He claims that the ANC has destroyed the country and is trying to turn South Africa into Zimbabwe by “crushing” the white minority. According to guest Mark Steyn, the “corrupt ANC” threatens the “economic anchor” of the continent by following in the footsteps of Robert Mugabe, who expropriated the land from the white minority farmers and gave it away to black farmers, leading to mismanagement, food scarcity, abandoning their currency and starvation. UKIP European Parliament member Janice Atkinson accused Malema of being a “dangerous individual who encourages farm terror and murder” and urged Boris Johnson to intervene in Africa’s southernmost nation.
Zimbabwe’s economy is in shambles, but it’s not the same situation. Unlike Zimbabwe, the government of South Africa is a parliamentary democracy. Mugabe took control in 1980, and his government was ostensibly Marxist-Leninist. According to Financial Times, it was Mugabe’s acquiescence, albeit reluctantly, to World Bank and western influence forcing economic liberalization in a poorly managed fashion that accelerated the decline. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, personally claimed much of the land, including dams and areas with substantial gold deposits, even building a lavish “Graceland” estate for herself. Ian Ross, a white engineer, believes that the reforms were necessary, but mismanaged. “People should have been given land to farm on generous leases with state help, the funding, and expertise. But instead of the state owning the land, greedy powerful individuals like Grace Mugabe took over so much of it.”
Malema is an impassioned speaker, committed to justice for the downtrodden of his homeland. “The judiciary is the only leg of the state which keeps this country together,” he stated. “Without the judiciary, we would be in a banana republic today.” Statements like this, praising the rule of law as a legitimizing force for the country, seem at odds with international critics like Carlson and Atkinson. In his grilling of CJ Van Der Westhuizen, he shows a deep, personal understanding of the effects of racism and colonization on the South African people. When he questioned Van Der Westhuizen about how many African languages he speaks, Van Der Westhuizen retorted with, “I’m a lawyer, not a linguist.” Malema shot back, “I am a linguist, but I know colonial languages, imposed on me by the apartheid regime.” Malema held Van Der Westhuizen to such scrutiny over his attempt to weasel out of admitting that apartheid was explicitly made to teach white people to hate black people that he was forced to begin his next round of questioning with an apology.
Malema’s core position rests on the idea that the beneficiaries of criminal genocide should not receive compensation for the crimes of their ancestors. The pitfalls of land reform are not unknown to him, but it is crucial for the dignity of indigenous South Africans that they have an equal stake in the land. To the EFF, state ownership provides the only way forward, as it would allow contribution and benefit from white and black farmers alike. At a gathering, Malema addressed the white farmers:
“Established Afrikaner farmers, you owe it to the people who have been oppressed…to mentor them. If you say, ‘we are going to take land and this land will not be used for anything,’ you are to be blamed, yourselves. Because when a government buys a farm for millions of rands and gives it to a black community, and you know that there might be a possibility of a lack of skills amongst those community members, and you sit back and later on come to blame this, another black failure, you have failed yourself. Cause if you love this country, you must love your people. We belong, all of us, to this country and all of us have got an obligation to contribute.”
White South Africans have been a fetish of racist right wingers ever since the end of apartheid. Lauren Southern’s videos show the conditions of the displaced farmers and she interviews them, asking questions to elicit the same answers over and over again, that they have nowhere to go, that they will be on the streets, the government isn’t helping because they are white. What is absent is any questioning of government officials, hospital workers where whites are supposedly turned away because of their race, or black South Africans regarding their situation, or consulting any statistics of violence. Propagandists like Southern rarely provide context to their reports. Take this clip from World Focus from 2009, where the narrator tells a story of white poverty doubling since the end of apartheid. He even claims the squatter settlement had “living conditions similar to what you will find in many of the black townships.” Presented as a more balanced report than Southern’s, the narrator doesn’t note the irony of lamenting the plight of the white farmer as reaching the conditions black South Africans have endured for years.
Benjamin Dixon (credit for finding the above clips) mentioned that the situation in South Africa reminds him of the different reactions to the crack epidemic and the opioid crisis. The response was to crack in the black community was increased policing and an attitude of austerity and taking personal responsibility for moral failings. Now that opioids are flooding predominantly white neighborhoods, the reaction is one of mercy and treating the addicts as victims in need of help. In both of these situations, people become horrified at white people being forced to endure what is implied to be “natural” for the black population.
People like Lekota, well-intentioned or otherwise, reframe the issue in a false light. He points to the fact that South Africa was a refuge for many displaced persons, including ancestors of the modern white population. If the black population deserves consideration for past crimes against them, then surely so do the descendants of white refugees. However, by 1913, the land had been distributed to white owners by government edict, codifying existing inequalities. White South Africans’ ancestors may have come to the country in a dire situation, but they were given preferential treatment by the government. The crimes of the past are not remote occurrences that ended centuries ago. Divisive mentality and inequality only grew, even as rights were supposedly expanded.
As Malcolm X noted, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.” The end of apartheid was a good thing in the way that pulling the proverbial knife out of the wound would be. But when you remove a policy that keeps a population away from success without giving them the ability to stop the metaphorical bleeding, progress is a pipe dream, and the powerful just wash their hands of the sins of the past. To heal, we must act to right the imbalance. It is disingenuous to call into focus the declining white population that is now suffering the prevailing situation of black communities. However, the pain of the displaced white South African is real. Inequality spreads like fire. If one cannot muster sympathy for the native South African population or the black population in the US, then understand that the only way to keep a controlled burn controlled is to stop it. To prevent inequality from destroying society, we can’t just keep it confined to specific communities. The profiteers may use common cultural and racial attributes to foster bonhomie with the poor white town, but a white worker’s wallet is just as ripe as a black worker’s.
One reason that the conversation makes a lot of people uncomfortable is that it calls into question the meaning of ownership. Who owns the land? It has been almost universally accepted that what the colonizers did was criminal, at least by today’s standards. Accepting stolen property is a crime. We know that the land was stolen by the abuse of entire populations and that passing the spoils of that abuse through generations is what made so many of the fortunes in the world today. How do we get to the point of righting the wrongs that have been perpetuated over generations without intruding on the classic liberal “natural right” to property? Does that natural right extend to criminally obtained wealth, or even wealth “legitimately” obtained from a criminal? These questions attack the very identity of the wealthy, who have convinced themselves that they deserve what they have, even as those who “have not” deserve their plight. When someone cries that taxing inheritance is wrong (“my ancestors worked hard!”), but claims that reparations to the oppressed is a radical position, it becomes clear that power is more important to them than justice.
Neoliberal capitalism entrenches inequality by diverting resources to those who already have plenty, ensuring that future generations maintain their ancestors’ privilege while denying social mobility to the underprivileged. When those inequalities are drawn on racial lines, racial and economic inequality are impossible to separate. There may be poor white people in a nation, but they don’t suffer the same problems at the same rates as the poor black people. There may be rich black people, but only if they support the system at the expense of their less fortunate brethren. Ultimately, what South Africa is asking, and what the US is afraid to ask, is what level of reparations do the beneficiaries of privilege owe their oppressed brethren? What is, to borrow Dixon’s phrase, the “statute of limitations on colonialism?”
No one can erase the past. The scars of colonialism may be with us forever. The question is not how we erase it, but how we move forward. Any honest attempt to address the systemic inequality caused by colonialism will cause discomfort to those who have benefited from inequality, but it must happen. Malema and the EFF have proposed a method of moving forward that would allow all South Africans to share in the benefits of society. While power hasn’t ever been comfortable with sharing, if South Africa continues to move forward with policies that focus on trickle-down wealth, the problems of extreme poverty in the black community, rising poverty in the white community, and increasing crime in all cities will continue.
However, if the nation moves forward in a spirit of solidarity, where resources are managed for the good of all rather than the few graced by the system, much of the structural inequality will abate. It won’t be immediate, and it won’t be easy, but continuing competitive policies only serve to increase socioeconomic division, and allows the weaponization of race to divide the lower classes. If Parliament can do the hard work of opposing powerful interests, then the country can see real progress towards coping with the legacy of brutality weighing it down.
It’s possible that Malema’s high ideals will find themselves falling flat when put into practice. It is also possible that foreign intervention on behalf of global wealth will again crush an emerging leftist movement in the developing world. And it is possible that the EFF and the Ramaphosa coalition of the ANC will do the hard work of serving the people, all the people, and slowly we will see a reduction in inequality. Malema has not, as so many reactionaries do in the US, cried for the minority to “go back to Europe.” For someone who understands that with land and home comes dignity, to do so would be the height of hypocrisy. South Africa is and must continue to be home to all South Africans, but it is incumbent upon white South Africa to realize their duty to the nation to use their privilege to move the country forward. While the scars of colonialism may never heal, either in South Africa or the US, if the people come together in a very real and tangible fashion, they may fade somewhat.