The Myth of the New South Africa

In South Africa, the old is alive and well and surging alongside everything that is trying to be new.

Rural Transkei, South Africa. Image credit Chris Bloom via Flickr CC.

In the past few weeks there has been much consternation about the de facto existence of the dompas in the Western Cape town of Worcester, about an hour and a half by car outside Cape Town. The dreaded dompas (or passbook) was a humiliating fact of life in apartheid South Africa; my father had one and his memories of it are vivid and painful. The passbook was arguably the most visible aspect of the system of apartheid. Any white man could stop a black one on the street and ask to see his pass. In this way, the pass gave power to petty bureaucrats and ordinary white men. Passbooks allowed racial authority to be invoked on a pretty random basis, and this of course instilled fear in the hearts of black families. When black women resisted the pass in the 1920s and then in the more famous marches of the 1950s, it was because they had seen the effects of the passbook on their menfolk.

While it served the social purpose of elevating the status of even the poorest and least educated whites, the dompas played an important economic role as well. It was created to manage urbanization and was an essential regulatory mechanism within the migrant labour system. It was also critical for the pursuance of the nonsensical homeland strategy. The dompas operated like a blacks-only passport within the borders of South Africa. It contained the fingerprints and photo of its bearer, his racial classification as well as the name and address of his employer. The pass contained information about how long the native had been employed and even described the characteristics of the pass holder, for example, ‘honest and courteous,’ or ‘speaks respectfully and always on time.’

The information in passbooks was crucial for determining whether or not black people were legally allowed to be in a certain town or suburb. If their employment details did not match up with the area in which they happened to be walking around, they could be harassed, jailed or have their permission to work revoked. Needless to say, only white people qualified as ‘employers’ and only black people required passes. Whites could travel freely wherever they wished.

So the discovery of the pass system – implemented with the active involvement of the police in a wealthy Western Cape community – has rocked the nation. Hands have been wrung and shock has been expressed. ‘How can this happen in the ‘new’ South Africa?’ many have asked. Fingers have been pointed. As usual the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance have traded insults. Both parties have tried to abdicate responsibility for any part of the mess.

For all their hyped up indignation however it is obvious that neither the ANC nor the DA are interested in much more than point scoring. The issue of direct responsibility in this matter is important for stopping the practice but it is somewhat peripheral to the story of how it is that we come to have an active dompas system in South Africa in 2015.

Beginning in the 1760s pass laws were introduced. The dompas was officially repealed in November 1986. Growing popular resistance had made the country ‘ungovernable’ and in 1985 a state of emergency had given the government sweeping powers of arrest and detention. Those in power were well aware that tightening their grip on a society that was coming apart was not sustainable. In a move to diffuse tension the apartheid regime eased some of the more overt restrictions on black people. The dompas was an easy give – it had symbolic meaning, but its repeal would not undo the architecture of apartheid. With or without it, the Nats knew that blacks would continue to live on the 13% of the land that had been set aside for them and would have little access to health, education or full citizenship rights.

Almost thirty years later, the question that all South Africans should be asking is whether – in a metaphorical sense – the dompas was ever truly scrapped. Twenty years into the ‘new’ South African project, it is becoming clear that the apartheid horror show is far from over. Rather than having halted apartheid, it seems as though we simply pressed a pause button in 1994. This allowed the good people of South Africa to learn the rules of an inclusive democracy. It also provided breathing space for the old elements of apartheid to regroup.

In retrospect it is obvious that one of the first mistakes South Africans made in those heady transitional years was to believe our own hype. We fell for the language of the ‘new’ South Africa. We thought that apartheid – l’ancien regime – would die and that a ‘new’ South Africa would replace it. We were even prepared for apartheid to die a slow death.

It turns out that everything that was old in the country wasn’t dying – it was hardening.

In 1994 South Africans began to build new edifices. These edifices masked the institutions that stood behind them. The obvious ones bothered us: what had once been the Day of the vow became Reconciliation Day. For those of you who may have forgotten your history, let me refresh your memories.

Beginning in 1838 the Day of the Vow marked the solemn religious pact that the Voortrekkers made with God. They asked Him to deliver them victory against the Zulu nation, which stood in their way as they sought to make it to safety in the interior of the land. Three thousand Zulus were killed and the river ran red with their blood.

The less obvious ones were folded in corporate branding and we forgot about them entirely: Volkskas People’s Bank was renamed ABSA and today ABSA has been gobbled up by Barclays. What was once the Argus Newspaper Group is now the ideologically contested Independent Newspaper Group. In it’s submission to the TRC, the Argus Group conceded, “The company applied the government’s petty apartheid laws on its premises, and this was broken down in some cases only by black disobedience action in the face of abuse from other company employees.”

South Africa was so busy racing towards the future that once the TRC had done its work, we told ourselves that we had no further need to look back. The work of the Commission was ground-breaking and crucial. It only began to scratch the surface but it gave us any clues. We did not fully understand at that time that there are some processes that cannot be rushed. Dismantling cultures, attitudes, systems and institutions of oppression takes time and energy: we poured all of ours into new things, rather than into the undoing of old ones.

It is clear now that much of our busyness has had the effect of fortifying what was already strong in this country. The new pieces – like our new education system – are made of cheap materials, slapped together impatiently rather than crafted with thought and care. No wonder then that the largest number of complaints of racism that are lodged each year with the Human rights Commission come from the education sector.

Some of the shiny new-ness of the ‘new’ South Africa starting to wear off. The notion that South Africa is new is no longer an unassailable truth. Worse — as events in Worcester reveal – some of us have begun to suspect that the new South Africa is just a fallacy, a powerful contemporary myth sold to us by people who needed to make difficult things palatable. Perhaps South Africans accepted the lie of the new because we needed something to believe in.

In hindsight of course we also believed in the ANC. Even with all the caveats and the platitudes that our leaders issued about how long the road ahead would be, many people around the world believed that that if any movement was capable of re-making the world, it was the ANC.

The ANC has always understood the iconography of freedom and resistance. Its list of fallen heroes stretches back a century: Pixley ka Seme, Chief Albert Luthuli, Lillian Ngoyi, J.B. Marks, Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo. Solomon Mahlangu. Its champions picked up trumpets and played dirges for the revolution. They sang the Pata Pata and then segued into A Luta continua. The ANC’s giants make Che Guevara look like a schoolboy and they look Thomas Jefferson dead in the eye. Their names stand out across the ages; their spirits watchful. They delivered us to freedom and the ANC wrote their histories and took their photos and documented it’s own soaring ascent. The ANC had the presence of mind to plan for nostalgia.

The ANC I remember is a funeral organiser, a sister, a lawyer and a surgeon. When comrades fall the ANC ensures that the casket is black green and gold. The ANC knows which cadres to dispatch to keep vigil over the body through the night. The ANC stands resolute. It fixes our eyes on the horizon. The ANC sends sophisticated natives to address the United Nations General Assembly. The ANC I cherish is a tapestry of human endeavour woven from threads of courage and dignity and intellectual rigour and all the things that black people have always been even as whites denied that we were fully human.

The ANC of today has fallen from grace. He has stumbled and is having difficulty standing straight. He sways drunkenly blinking against the future. The ANC of today is Marie Antoinette’s half sister. She swigs Veuve straight from the bottle and gives shout-outs to her homies still livin’ in the hood. We watch her descent in wounded surprise.

The ANC is the daddy who will not countenance dissent: Uncle Gwede wagging a stubby finger at journalists as he mocks yet another allegation of corruption. The ANC is a meme; it is Comrade Cronin using his diminishing intellect to circumscribe the truth. The ANC is a room full of overfed praise-singers who exalt the man at the helm.

And the man at the helm? Ah, make no mistake that he is a leader. He understands the ways of men. He knows their frailties and their doubts and so he is skilled in the art of lording power. When he laughs it is rarely authentic. This is not a man who is having fun. This is a mirth born of shame.

So is this the new ANC? Because today’s ANC looks so different from yesterday’s ANC, many of us are tempted to suggest that we are seeing the emergence of a ‘new’ ANC. We describe it as ‘the post-1994 ANC’. Mmusi Maimane – with his posh ways and his DA politics – spoilt it for us, but when he said it we knew he was right; ayisafani iANC.

It may not be entirely the same, but it is not new. We call the corrupt ANC ‘new’ because we cant accept that our heroes may have been flawed all along. We struggle to accept that the ANC today is exactly like the ANC of yesterday, but that the context has changed. We are wedded to the idea that heroes are sacrosanct: They could not be both liberators and con men; both intellectual giants and corrupt thieves; both just and unjust.

In an interview about this most recent book, Askari, Jacob Dlamini points out that our history isn’t only a story of victims and perpetrators. Dlamini argues, “There were people who were neither; they were something in between.”

Perhaps this is the key to understanding where we are today. While South Africa is not new, it would be foolhardy to suggest that it is completely old. Perhaps Dlamini’s phrasing, his insistence on complication, helps us here. Perhaps the ANC and South Africa are neither old nor new, but ‘something in-between.’

The racist white on black violence we have witnessed in the last year has provided a heartbreakingly old-school set of reminders that we are not yet in a new place. We are very far away from the post-race society that some people argued we might one day achieve. Sjamboks and dompases, gardeners and maids; this is humdrum, garden variety racism. There is nothing new or creative in this. It reeks in the way that it always has. This is how our grandfathers died. This is how our mothers were shamed: Through petty rules and random beatings on ordinary days.

If these events were not backed by an economic infrastructure that is as old as the British Empire, then I might be tempted to believe that they are simply signs of a dying order. But they cannot be shushed away. They are evidence of the strength of the old ways. They are not throwbacks. No, they are harbingers. In the absence of consistent and thoughtful leadership, the old is re-asserting itself at precisely the same moment in which the new is beginning to show signs of wear and tear.

It is true however that the faces behind the glass windows at government departments are now black faces. This was not the case twenty years ago. The faces on Parliamentary TV are also mainly black. This was also not the case in the old and ugly past. Both – the government faces and the parliamentary ones – reflect the demographics of our country and I concede that they are new and good developments.

But these gains – our black faces in positions of authority within the sagging state – are soft in the face of the hard power of the consultants and ‘service providers,’ who build and plan and maintain this country’s infrastructure. Our muscles are puny in contrast to heft of the families that have always wielded extraordinary power in our country. The Ruperts and the Oppenheimers and the Rhodes’ have not been hounded out of the country. Their mansions remain and their wealth has not been touched.

It is not just that their bank accounts and lifestyles that have gone unchallenged; I am fascinated that their legacies remain remarkably untroubled. Until students on the campus of UCT protested this past week, their monuments have remained standing. South African understand that the barons of old caused untold misery, but we have also been taught to respect their contributions to our society. We have not yet broken with them completely, their names are not thoroughly discredited.

In his will, John Cecil Rhodes stipulated that he was to be buried at Malindidzimu in the Matobo Hills outside Bulawayo. When he died in 1902, his body was transported as per his wishes and the ceremony duly took place. Ndebele chiefs attended the funeral – no doubt in part so that they could confirm that the old codger was truly gone. It is said that when it came time for the gun salute, the chiefs refused to allow the rifles to be mounted and fired as had been planned. They insisted that the shots would disturb the spirits of their dead.

Reading this across the ages, it is tempting to be pleased with this act of resistance. But read on, for nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

As he was lowered into the ground, the crowd of thousands flung a roar to the heavens. “Bayete!” they cried. A chief had passed and Lobengula’s people were there to bid him farewell. In doing so, they were offering Rhodes the highest honour, saluting him in a manner befitting royalty.

This is not a story about forgiveness. We have heard so many stories about forgiveness in the ne South Africa it is as though no other stories exist. We are nothing but forgivers and sinners. But these tales are told at the expense of others and so this is a story about dilemmas. It is about the conundrum of respect. One can hate a man and his deeds and recognize that he was powerful and therefore worthy of a grudging sort of respect. Those who witnessed his interment knew that something fearsome was leaving the world. They also knew that it was unlikely to rest easy.

Today our ambivalence about our colonialist and apartheid past is just as pronounced. In our contemporary politics, we do a strange sort of dance with history. Mandela smokes the peace pipe with the generals of the Broederbond. Tutu weeps. Mbeki intones, ‘I am an African.’ Malema says without economic transformation he will ‘drive the Boers into the sea’. We cheer for them all. We are radical but tentatively so. We are the Ndebele chiefs in the presence of the dead Rhodes. How else can we explain our curious relationship with the word ‘independence’?

We call ourselves the ‘new’ South Africa but we refuse to speak about ourselves as an independent African country. Ghana, Zambia, Tanzania, Cote D’Ivoire, Congo – all of the former colonies that were once under the thumb of settlers or colonialists or (even better) settler-colonialists like those who ruled Rhodesia – mark their break from the past with a celebration on Independence Day. I have always wondered why we do not call it Independence Day as others do.

Sometimes words are important.

Instead, on the 27th of April, we celebrate Freedom Day. Some argue that freedom is more powerful a concept than independence. The former is a state of being whereas the latter is a nod to political autonomy. Freedom connotes signal moments in in black people’s history; the abolition of slavery, the Haitian Revolution, the Freedom Rides. Independence on the other hand describes the end of a colonial system and the beginning of self-government. I understand the allure of the language of freedom, but these very examples also speak to the necessity of independence. The American Civil War gave rise to the Independence that made the abolition of slavery possible. The Haitian Revolution led to the establishment of a Haitian state that was independent of France. In other words, freedom and independence are intertwined – whether the one precedes the other doesn’t matter much. What is most important is that both exist in the vocabulary of a nation.

Let me concede that there are places and sites of dreaming and doing and action and progress so that the feeling of South Africa having taken too many wrong turns is not overwhelming. I have seen with my own eyes that there are spaces in today’s South Africa that are in fact trying to be new. It would be wrong – disrespectful even – to deny this.

But let us also agree that on the whole, one of the most remarkable things about South Africa is the extent to which the rhetorical device of creating a ‘new’ place has functioned to protect those who have refused to change. As we enter our third decade of transition, perhaps it is time for us to address this squarely.

If we accept that we are neither the new nor entirely the old South Africa, then we can stop being incredulous in the face of evidence that the old ways persist. The epidemic of shock each time some new racist horror is revealed stems directly from this idea that the bad old days are over.

This is a naiveté we can scarcely afford. When violence exceeds what we have come to expect and when moral codes are broken, the response must of course be anger and outrage and a commitment to doing more and doing better. But these impulses to act must not be based on the idea that racist and sexist violence is somehow anomalous in our ‘new’ society. Our outrage must be predicated on an understanding that what we are often witnessing are continuities, that the old ways are still the current ways.

Forgive me, for I do not mean to sound cynical. I agree that there is no place for violence and racism and sexism and pain in the South Africa we wish to build. In my heart I believe still that we can make strong things out of broken ones, and like many of those who inhabit the new spaces in our country, I am convinced clear-eyed assessments are far more useful than myopic ones. I love sentimentality in my movies and sometimes in my books, but in my politics, in my country and in my people, I prefer disambiguation.

We must continue to be vigilant yes, but it must be a vigilance that is shorn of disbelief. Shock and surprise are the indulgences of children and South Africans are far too grown up for these sorts of pretend games. There is nothing surprising about racism and dispossession in South Africa. Let us agree to be outraged by inaction, even as we accept that the old is alive and well and surging alongside everything that is trying to be new.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.