This brand of non-racialism is no better than denial

A review of a documentary film about the life of Albie Sachs, a noted antiapartheid activist and later Supreme Court Judge in postapartheid South Africa.

Albie Sachs, right, speaking post-screening at UC Berkeley. (Photo: Zachary Levenson).

One of the more memorable elements in Abby Ginzberg’s documentary, “Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa,” (2014) is an interview with Henri van der Westhuizen, a former South African military intelligence officer responsible for the placement of the car bomb that would blow off Sachs’ arm in Maputo in 1988. The film was shown last week at the UC Berkeley Law School, where both Ginzberg and Sachs were present. It was revealed during the Q&A that Sachs later learned that the bomb wasn’t intended for him at all. As van der Westhuizen told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “What’s important was the fact that Albie Sachs was not the target, because Indress Naidoo was the target.” Naidoo, one of the top ANC leaders in exile in Mozambique in this period, was left unscathed.

After giving a talk some years later, Sachs recalled, someone asked him about this revelation. “That’s my bomb!” he joked. The bulk of the questions Sachs fielded during the Q&A concerned his relations with van der Westhuizen: Did the former military operative tell him he was sorry? Would the apology even matter? Was it awkward?

This preoccupation with a disembodied sense of reconciliation mirrors the general narrative structure of the film.

While it would be unfair to overemphasize its brief thoughts on the post-apartheid period, the subtitle does play up this bit — “Albie Sachs and the New South Africa” — and this was the second major theme that emerged from the Q&A. A number of audience members asked Sachs what has happened since the transition in light of the film’s rose-tinted glasses.

He emphasized the significance of Marikana, but not in the way I imagined one would. Rather than discussing the slaughter of 34 striking miners, the most substantial use of force against civilians in South Africa since Sharpeville in 1960, Sachs noted the ANC’s reaction to the massacre. It was viewed by the party as an aberration, he insisted, rather than the norm, distinguishing the post-apartheid government from its authoritarian predecessors. The fact that a government commission was convened and will soon release a report expected to contain open criticism of the ANC and the South African Police Service was his primary evidence.

I couldn’t help but think of Cyril Ramaphosa as a glaring counterexample. Ramaphosa, interviewed repeatedly in the film as one of Sachs’ comrades in the anti-apartheid movement, notoriously emailed Lonmin management, the South African Police Service, and Minerals Minister Susan Shabangu just prior to the shootings. He described the miners as “criminal,” calling for “concomitant action.” Excerpts from these emails, sent while he was a board member at Lonmin, were published in every major newspaper in South Africa.

Hardly an obscure story, mass campaigns calling for Ramaphosa’s arrest were immediate and persist today. Dali Mpofu, the lawyer representing the miners, called for him to be tried at the International Criminal Court. University of Cape Town’s Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities Sakhela Buhlungu subsequently declared, “There is no doubt [in my mind] that the hand of Cyril was there [in mineworkers’ deaths]. Whether he says he was taken out of context, the fact of the matter is that he was involved in the killing of the Marikana mineworkers.”

On December 18, 2012, just shy of three months after the Marikana massacre, Ramaphosa was elected Deputy President of the ANC at the party’s Mangaung conference. He had the full backing of Zuma’s camp, receiving more than six times as many votes as either of his competitors, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale. He will surely win the Deputy Presidency in the 2017 elections. All of this is to say that Sachs’ claim that the ANC reacted to Marikana as an aberration is preposterous. Indeed, they’ve done everything in their power to delay the release of the Farlam Commission’s findings.

A second major problem with the framing of the “New South Africa” that emerges in the film’s ending is its deceptive presentation of housing delivery after apartheid. The trope is a common one, with the distribution of free state-provisioned formal homes representing decolonization more generally in countless documentaries. The delivery of a million houses is frequently remembered as a personal promise made by Mandela rather than a key component of the 1994 Housing White Paper, a document produced by the National Housing Forum. (The NHF was dominated by the Urban Foundation, a neoliberal urban policy think tank established by the Anglo-American Corporation’s Harry Oppenheimer in 1977.) Twelve million people have been housed since 1994, we’re informed, with twelve million to go.

The problem with this claim is that according to the Department of Human Settlements, roughly 3.8 million subsidies for new home construction have been released since 1994. With an average household size of 3.1, this yields the 12 million figure featured in the film. But note my careful language: 3.8 million subsidies. The Department of Human Settlements does not keep track of how many homes were actually constructed, and as of 2013, only 1.5 million had actually been filed with the Deeds Registry. In short, it’s quite unlikely that twelve million have actually been housed during this period, and even if this were an accurate figure, it certainly wasn’t through the provision of free formal houses.

Relatedly, the “12 million down, 12 million to go” framing is inaccurate. Rather than a reserve of apartheid-era squatters waiting to be housed by the ANC, an enormous proportion of those awaiting formal homes moved into peri-urban shack settlements after the demise of apartheid. According to the Johannesburg-based Socio-Economic Rights Institute, the first fifteen years of democracy saw a nearly nine-fold increase in the number of informal settlements in South Africa. (While of course we are also concerned here with the population dynamics within each settlement, such data is not readily available.)

This isn’t so perplexing once one considers the urban question in the context of democratization. If apartheid was about coercively controlling urbanization, relocating unwanted black residents to rural bantustans, the lifting of influx controls in 1986 opened the floodgates. From this period on, and especially after 1994, residents of underdeveloped former bantustans converged on cities across the country in search of employment.

The unnuanced picture of post-apartheid South Africa presented in Soft Vengeance does a real disservice to any understanding of the country today. Certainly the real subject of the film — Albie Sachs’ role in the anti-apartheid struggle, his drafting of the 1996 Constitution, and his role until very recently as a justice on the Constitutional Court — receives more in-depth treatment, and for this alone, the film is worth watching.

But the self-congratulatory tone of its narrative of the ANC’s post-apartheid tenure is disingenuous. It’s a triumphalism that derives from an understanding of non-racialism as post-racialism. Rather than land reform, a conscious attempt to reverse apartheid’s geography of relegation, or other concrete socio-economic policies, the film views the transition in terms of an emergent post-racial sociality. The Ubuntu effect, we might call it, emphasizing reconciliation over truth in the TRC.

A rare non-white member of the audience at the screening asked one of the last questions. He told Ginzberg and Sachs that he had been active in the anti-apartheid movement while a student at Berkeley Law in the 80s, and he recalled Desmond Tutu speaking at Berkeley in 1987 to thank students for their involvement.

“I too was intrigued by van der Westhuizen’s apology to you,” he told Sachs. “I was wondering,” he continued, “if he also apologized to any of the non-white people he hurt over the years?”

There is an emergent alternative to this model of non-racialism manifesting as post-racialism. It’s probably a misnomer to call it “emergent,” as it has been there all along, but it is at least rearing its head again. I am talking about the successful campaign and occupation at the University of Cape Town, organized under the slogan #RhodesMustFall.

Of course UCT remains a bastion of elitism and will hardly be the site of any struggle determining the future of South African social relations. But note the rhetoric deployed: for the first time in quite awhile, the question of decolonization is back on the agenda, even if it is being articulated in strange ways, inscribed on the bodies of statues. Against a backdrop of service delivery protests, declining voter turnout, unprecedented strike waves, and the fissure of COSATU, it’s hard to take the reconciliation narrative seriously anymore. What is reconciliation without land reform, without the eradication of the veritable indentured servitude so prevalent in the Western Cape’s farmlands or in the platinum belt?

As calls for civility peter out like a dying gasp, the rhetoric of decolonization is back in the mainstream. From the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters to the post-Marikana wildcat wave to the debates over DOOKOOM’s “Larney Jou Poes,” South Africa’s black majority is no longer content with an assumed consensus of reconciliation, or what I’ve called non-racialism as post-racialism. Rather than the progressivism it purports to be, this brand of non-racialism is no better than denial.

Further Reading

Between two evils

After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.