Tuesday, July 31, 2007

O Vlok, the past is unpredictable. . .

The present brouhaha about the prosecution of Adriaan Vlok and allegations of wrongdoing by ex-President FW de Klerk reminded me of the comment Evita Bezuidenhout made about the Truth and Reconciliation process. “The future is certain,” she remarked, “but it is the past that is unpredictable”

We will always be fighting about the past, Evita seems to say, because what the “accepted” view of the past is in a society, depends on our view of the present. If we were now to agree that Vlok and De Klerk gave illegal orders for people to be killed or (more likely) turned a blind eye so that the foot soldiers could harm or kill the opponents of the apartheid state, we must accept that there is no moral equivalence between the De Klerk’s and the Mbeki’s of our world.

For most South African’s this is a no-brainer. The one side supported a system that was declared a crime against humanity and the other side fought for liberation and freedom, so for most people there can never be moral equivalence between the apartheid state and all those white people who supported it on the one hand, and the ANC, on the other hand.

But for many white South Africans who have never come to terms with the horror of apartheid, it seems impossible to admit this and so they keep on arguing that the two sides “both did bad things” that we now have to forgive and forget.

However, that was not the (deeply problematic) compromise reached when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up. It was agreed that we will only forgive that which was known, so that we could remember the evils committed in the past and could ensure that it be avoided in future.

What some of us did not know was that in its last years the apartheid state had made it impossible for us to know and thus to remember their evil deeds. As Terry Bell reported in a fascinating article in the Cape Times, during its last years in office it destroyed tons of files and other documentary evidence of the past.

Up in smoke went any chance of really finding out how evil the apartheid system was and to what extent the leaders like Vlok and De Klerk knew or orchestrated the torture and killing committed by security forces or their surrogates in the late eighties and early nineties. Thus De Klerk’s so called halo was kept in tact. That is also why he went to court to prevent the Truth Commission from making findings that would adversely affect his standing (and indirectly the standing of all white people who supported the system).

The present fight is therefore deeply meaningful because it is about who can be called “good” and who “bad”. Of course the ANC also did bad things, but like Britain in the Second World War they did them in the name of a noble cause. Few people today hark back to the decimation of Dresden by the RAF in which hundreds of thousands of German civilians were killed as few will hark back to the Magoo’s Bar bomb in 50 years.

This is because Vlok and De Klerk will find out that the past is unpredictable and that we will continue to re-interpret it in favour of the ANC as our society changes and the power of the De Klerk’s and their constituencies in South Africa diminish.

This is why some people get so upset about the ANC and pour scorn on everything it does. As anyone who reads this Blog will know, I have often criticized the ANC government for stupid and unwise decisions, but that is different from trying to discredit the government as government. Those who do the latter (some of them commenting at length on this Blog), seem to protest too much.

History will judge them harshly. More harshly, I would think than anyone in the ANC today – including fools like Yengeni and McBride.


Michael Osborne said...

But Pierre, did the ANC really struggle in the name of a “noble cause?” That is, I think, a debatable proposition There was dousbtless a strong Stalinists tendency (heavily under the influence of the Eastern-bloc states that were the ANC’s most reliable sponsors) For them, multi-party democracy was a sham. Judicial independence was nothing but a bourgeois obfuscation. (Albie Sachs was immensely important in turning that around.) Anyway, if the ANC had assumed power in the Brezhnev era, things surely would have been very different. Was this a noble cause?

Even now, there are still holder-overs of the Stalinist legacy – just think Snuki, and the uncritical admiration many still have for Castro’s half-century autocracy. For reasons that are not fully understood, the ANC suddenly dropped Socialism in the late 80’s and early 90’s. (Only to replace with neo-Thatcherite crony-capitalism -- the worst of both worlds.)

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael, there are two answers, I think, to your question. The cynical answer is that it does not matter what the ANC stood for or whether they really fought for a noble cause. All that matters is how we, from the present vantage point view the ANC history and as the ANC's story is a powerful one their version of history (that they fought nobly) will prevail).

A second argument is that the ANC might not have always embraced democracy but that the enemy they fought was perceived to be so evil that in the history books they will always be viewed as the good guys. Churchill was a racist, colonialist Pig but he resisted Hitler so his legacy has been secured.

Do you find these arguments plausible?

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, I agree certainly with your first suggestions. The dominant “discourse” (to use Suresh Robert’s favourite noun), would certainly have it that the ANC’s struggle was a noble one. Now, of course, the right has never accepted that view. But it is also eroding under attack from the left – which would characterise 1994 as (a) an attempt by capitalisms to render itself legitimate; or (b) the product of a struggle for power between a black and a white bourgeoisie, culminating in the cooption of the former by the latter. That leaves the myth that the liberation struggle was morally uncomplicated as the monopoly of naïve liberals and sentimental Christians. (See the South African “Miracle.”)

As for your second suggestion, I agree that Churchill (who fought the war to defend a brutal, but not consistently genocidal), Empire, was the lesser evil. Perhaps the more apt comparison in the ANC/Apartheid is the Stalin/Hitler struggle. Both Stalin and Hitler were monsters. But if one is absolutely forced to chose, I suppose one would still opt for Stalin, whose bigger body count is attributable only the fact that he had more opportunity and time than Hitler. Still, I would say that for intelligent, aware people like Slovo and Fischer to have aligned themselves with Stalin and his successors (the ANC and SACP both supported the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan), is no more forgivable than Voster’s and Botha’s sympathy for Hitler.

Pierre de Vos said...

Michael, I disagree profoundly with your equation of the ANC with Stalin's regime. Yes, many in the ANC were blind to the horrors of the Stalin regime on the basis of my enemies enemy is my friend. If one reads the Freedom Charter, surely the founding document of the modern ANC, it contains many commendable things and does not read like the document prepared by Stalinists. When ANC commanders started planting bombs against "soft targets", Oliver Thambo called them to Lusaka to complain. There are many other examples of a certain restraint in the ANC policies which was wholly absent from Stalin. Not all in the ANC were or are angels, but in essence they were the good guys in the fight. Whether one thinks that they are NOW the good guys is another matter altogether, of course....

perhaps said...

In Theatres of Struggle, Belinda Bozzoli writes extremely interestingly about the ANC’s (limited) role in the Alexandra Revolt of ’86 and their construction of a master narrative at the TRC -- appropriating some acts of resistance and renouncing others. The ANC has been successful in its project of setting itself up as unequivocal ‘agents of good’ while silencing others who have resisted and opposed apartheid too. The ANC’s willingness to drop ‘bad’ as an adjective whenever pragmatism dictates, reminds one of the old guard and reeks of hypocrisy. These thoughts are hardly profound or new.

My wish, touchingly naïve perhaps, is for a multitude of sides and voices.

Charging Vlok sounds like a sound plan. A judicial reckoning is not to be sniffed. It is tempting, though, to use him as a scapegoat for general white complacency and opportunism during apartheid. Exoneration of whites by putting Vlok in the dock would be no solution.

Michael Osborne said...

Pierre, you misunderstand me. And perhaps I did not articulate very clearly. You are right. To equate the conduct of the ANC with Stalin would be absurd. Just as to say that the Nats were as bad as Nazi’s is polemical overkill. But both the ANC and the Nats did sympathise (and, in the case of the ANC, actually obtained support from,) truly monstrous regimes.

Our initial debate was whether the ANC’s cause, not its conduct, was noble. Insofar as significant elements of the anc -- and certainly publicly expressed policy – were profoundly undemocratic (viz the Leninist/Stalinist doctrine of “Democratic Centralism”), I do not see how one can claim that the ANC “cause” was “noble.” Of course, many individuals, and here I include Tambo, were indeed noble both in cause and conduct. So, it is all very complicated.

As for your point about the ANC’s documents “not reading like documents prepared by Stalinists” – Stalin’s own documents did not sound “Stalinist. Just take a look at the extract from the USSR’s Constitution of 1936:

ARTICLE 125. In conformity with the interests of the working people, and in order to strengthen the socialist system, the citizens of the U.S.S.R. are guaranteed by law:
a. freedom of speech;
b. freedom of the press;
c. freedom of assembly, including the holding of mass meetings;
d. freedom of street processions and demonstrations.


Pierre de Vos said...

When there is one dominant narrative it is always wise, I think, to be a bit suspicious. The problem in South Africa is that the different voices seem to capture extremes...