Reading the testimonies recorded by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I am always disturbed by the scale and severity of the apartheid regime’s brutality. Established in 1996, the TRC was an ambitious attempt to realize restorative justice. Tens of thousands of victims testified, alongside thousands of perpetrators in order to excavate a common understanding of South Africa’s violent past and move towards healing relations between the wretched of the earth and their former conquerors.
Testimonies told of bodies that were irreparably mutilated from days of torture, thousands of activists abducted never to be seen again, human flesh seared by the hot flash of a discreetly concealed bomb, policeman holding onto the limbs of their victims like trophies won on a safari, and families terrorized by desperation, seeking answers in order to mourn those whose lives were stolen by assassins, askari’s, soldiers, and policemen.
One can’t help but wonder why people were willing and eager to unleash such calculated cruelty upon other human beings? The American writer James Baldwin once wrote that “power is the arena in which racism is played out” and he was right. Understanding the use, distribution, and rationalization of power is central to comprehending the project of apartheid. Moreover, realizing the material conditions and historical processes in which power was exercised pulls us into an intimate clarity on why white minority rule collapsed under the indomitable pressures of a changing South Africa.
If we fail to unveil the sources and functions of power we can never mobilize to radically alter its unjust and unsustainable configuration. In the past decade South Africa has been immersed in a series of perpetual crises: ever-widening inequality, nearly half the population locked into poverty, an unemployment rate of 44% that has left millions hungry and undernourished, and nihilistic despair. Accentuating the country’s gradual decay is its governance by a class of politicians who lack the interest, will, and imaginations to design or effectively implement policy that could ameliorate our myriad socioeconomic issues. In part, it is the subtle camouflaging of power that has pushed the country into an explosively precarious situation. You can’t act against that which you do not see.
F.W. de Klerk, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and apartheid’s last president, died on November 11. The varied reactions to his death, and the contentious debates on his legacy, reveal a society trapped in discourse, obsessed with the actions of individuals, and anxious to find answers through the moralizing of political dilemmas. This tendency was amplified by De Klerk himself beyond the grave. The day of his passing, The F.W. de Klerk Foundation released a seven-minute video recorded before his death, in which the former National Party leader clarified his unequivocal condemnation of apartheid and his commitment to the principles of South Africa’s democratic constitution. (In 2012, De Klerk told CNN that apartheid had been beneficial to black South Africans. Last year, February, he told an interviewer on South Africa’s public broadcaster, SABC, he was “not fully agreeing” that apartheid was a crime against humanity.)
It was a solemn plea for forgiveness from a man desperate to purify his controversial legacy. De Klerk’s final words also worked to deploy the mystifying abilities of moralism. Since his death, conservative and right-leaning liberal commentators praised De Klerk for being a courageous and pragmatic leader who released Nelson Mandela, alongside unbanning liberation movements such as the African National Congress, which has governed South Africa since 1994. And of course such perspectives grant De Klerk great esteem for his participation in the arduous multi-party negotiations that moved the country towards its first national democratic election. Other commentators even asked that South Africans seriously contemplate forgiving De Klerk in order to liberate themselves from bitterness and resentment.
But we must ask, does forgiveness matter? The stark reality is that the content of De Klerk’s soul or of his moral character were inconsequential to the end of apartheid and the vitality of its phantoms in the present. Indeed, forgiveness can be profoundly therapeutic. It can be a crucial step for victims seeking to overcome trauma and help perpetrators of oppression digest the gravity of their crimes. However, forgiveness does not undo nor produce solutions to the vast destruction caused by unjust systems of power,such as racial capitalism, which have organized South African society for centuries.
Subverting or ignoring critical questions of power with the hammer of moralism is not an exclusively South African phenomenon. Throughout 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests occurred across the US, liberal talking heads called for a “racial reckoning.” It was a seemingly earnest call to confront America’s “original sin of slavery” and acknowledge not only the sufferring caused by centuries of white supremacy, but also an invitation for white Americans to admit how racism had corroded America’s moral character and their own hearts. In harmony with South African politicians, American liberals and centrists indulge in talking left while walking right. Discussions of a racial reckoning performed acrobatics, yet always dodged dealing with the economic relations and the political order that have sustained racism into the 21st century. As noted by political scientist Toure F. Reed, issues such as healthcare, the criminal justice system, and poverty are likely to be discussed in moralistic language that offers hollow symbolic gestures and moderate reforms, which in turn do little or nothing to change the material conditions under which many black Americans live.
In both the rebuke and lionization of De Klerk there is an attempt to squeeze power into the zone of emotional sentiment. Instead of contemplating his relationship to power, we become entangled and disorientated in debates about his bravery or his failure to expand his moral framework and become a symbol of sincere white attempts at reconciliation.
I’m deeply sympathetic to those who wished De Klerk would admit his complicity in apartheid’s horrors as its last dictatorial ruler. His death means some families will never know what happened to their loved ones whose lives were taken by his regime. Appearing before the TRC, De Klerk lied to the nation, claiming he and his government, in dealing with anti-apartheid activities, had never authorized “assassination, murder, torture, rape, assault or the like.” Through tireless work the commission produced further evidence of widespread human rights abuses conducted by state security forces (then known as death squads) during his presidency, yet De Klerk remained resolute that he and senior leadership of the National Party were not responsible for the “criminal actions of a handful of operatives,” and that such actions were “not authorized and not intended” by his government.
The move towards representative liberal democracy in South Africa was characterized by mass violence and unstable negotiations. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a Zulu nationalist movement and political party led by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, orchestrated a crusade of ethnic chauvinism throughout the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in the death of hundreds of citizens in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The IFP and National Party had a mutual interest in sabotaging the country’s steps towards democracy. Both parties were propelled by narrow nationalism that protected the interests of elites. For the IFP, the shift toward a democratic order threatened the power of the Zulu monarchy; and Afrikaner nationalists feared that a democracy governed by the ANC would result in the persecution of white citizens, but more crucially they feared that the Tripartite Alliance would upturn property relations, in which white minority power was embedded.
Eventually it was revealed that the IFP had co-operated with the apartheid’s security forces by receiving on-the-ground assistance, weaponry, and training from apartheid’s military and police in order to carry out massacres. One would be a naive fool to believe that De Klerk, the executive leader of a totalitarian regime, would have had no knowledge of the operations of the state’s security forces.
After a brief term as deputy president to Nelson Mandela, De Klerk retired from politics, establishing the F.W. de Klerk Foundation. Through his foundation and reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, De Klerk was able to sanitize his reputation. His opinions on contemporary South African politics were valued by international journalists, he was courted as a great statesman and reformer by world leaders, given honorary degrees by esteemed universities and he even spoke before the Oxford Union in 2014. De Klerk also used his platforms to weave audacious apartheid apologetics. In a 2020 interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, De Klerk refused to call apartheid a crime against humanity. He argued that it could not be compared in scale to other grand injustices of the 20th century and that the designation of apartheid as a crime against humanity was a plot by the Soviet Union and ANC to demonize white South Africans. The F.W. de Klerk Foundation later apologized for this statement after it provoked outrage from politicians, commentators, and ordinary citizens.
Witnessing De Klerk’s arrogance and his strange transformation from maligned dictator to a respected leader, one sees why people wanted an unambiguous, unqualified apology from the man. De Klerk’s mentality reflects that of far too many white South Africans today; those who enjoy prosperity paid for through exploitation and blood, while reluctant or totally refusing to digest and admit the scope of apartheid’s devastation. As cathartic as white guilt may be, and catharsis can be healing, it is largely unproductive. Professing the numerous inheritances of white supremacy does not halt the abuse of black workers, it does not strengthen food security, curtail the rampant brutality of the South African police, or halt the governments reckless pursuit of austerity measures that are suffocating citizens.
Politicians are not priests or imams from whom we can seek metaphysical justice. What we must demand from politicians is accountability and justice as tangible as the suffering their governance can create. White South Africans, like De Klerk, indulge in feigned ignorance not because their hearts are at fault, but because the economic relations post-apartheid have created conditions in which this ignorance and apathy can blossom.
Racism is an ideology. It is a potent assortment of myths and narratives that function to justify domination. Racism spawned in South Africa to legitimize colonial accumulation of land and livestock. With a growing settler population and industrialization, racism evolved to rationalize class hierarchy, disrupt interracial working class solidarity and justify the exploitation of Africans, Indians and Coloureds. Racial chauvinism, subtle and overt, persists in the present, so we must look towards material conditions and not just internal prejudice.
Instead of asking “Could De Klerk have done more to ensure a peaceful transition, while also contributing towards an egalitarian future?”, we must ask “What were the interests and external conditions that stopped De Klerk from becoming a great reformer?” In asking the former, one can realize that De Klerk’s actions were the result of a collision between his power and rapidly changing circumstances in South Africa. Moreover, De Klerk is not exceptional in his deception at the TRC or his choice to free Nelson Mandela and begin negotiations. It is highly likely that any senior member of the National Party would have initiated such changes.
To describe apartheid merely as a system of racial segregation misses the objectives of the regime. Apartheid aimed to amass wealth for the exclusive benefit of white citizens, in particular Afrikaaners, the descendants of Dutch, German and French settlers. Racial segregation was the mechanism through which wealth was accumulated and it required the draconian control of black labor and the repression of black political organizing. It is vital to remember that Indian and Coloured people also endured persecution for the same reasons.
From 1976 a new generation of profoundly committed anti-apartheid activists and thinkers re-ignited the liberation struggle in South Africa; resistance poured from townships, rural areas and even elite spaces, such as universities. Apartheid’s economy was drastically waned in strength by capital flight, action by black labor movements, foreign sanctions and the exorbitant cost of military defense and futile attempts to contain internal anti-apartheid resistance. With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and end of the Soviet Union, Western nations that had once supported apartheid—seeing the regime as an ally in the Cold War against communism—withdrew explicit support and advocated for regime change. By the late 1980s it was pristinely clear that apartheid was unsustainable. Its contradictions manifested as the conflict that necessitated change. Divisions within the National Party, which began in the early 1970s, escalated as “moderates” and a minority of hard right-wingers disagreed on the future of the white society they had spent decades crafting.
Moderates within the NP were adamant to preserve white economic prosperity and soon realized it could be maintained without political supremacy. Global and local capital may have had moral problems with apartheid, but South Africa’s economy, based largely on an extractive industrial complex and cheap African labor, had to remain intact. The ANC had mostly abandoned the socialist features of its rhetoric as it also isolated leftists within the party and broader anti-apartheid movements during and leading up to negotiations. Fearing economic isolation in an age of global neoliberal hegemony and without support from the USSR, concessions had to be made. De Klerk and his party orchestrated disruptive violence and pressured the ANC (with the assistance of global capital) into a series of economic compromises because the conditions previously discussed provided the National Party leverage to enact their interests. It was a question of power, not moral character.
Apartheid was not privatized, rather capitalism endured and evolved. The uncontested reign of capitalism is pushing South Africa to become a Hobbesian nightmare, where life for millions is “solitary, poor, brutish and short.” De Klerk’s death reminds us that we are stuck in a stagnant present where apartheid’s legacy lives on and a new future cannot be born. Apartheid’s last president has died and yet a new black elite wields its power to pursue interests that mirror the objectives of an authoritarian regime they once gave their lives to defeat. The ANC has grown to become what Frantz Fanon described as the “national bourgeoisie,” working as “intermediaries between capitalism and the post-colony” and dedicated to presiding over a mode of production that has given them extravagant wealth while their subjects wallow in destitution.
The centuries-long struggle for self-determination unified millions. There may have been contentious disagreement on the nature of white supremacy and strategies to overcome its domination, but it was relatively easy to identify a common enemy. “Born-free” South Africans must take on the herculean task of defining their generational mission and mobilizing against a common enemy. Moralism and individualistic analysis has led some citizens to think their enemy is white monopoly capital or vulnerable migrant communities. Only when we open ourselves to seeing the true nature of power in post-apartheid South Africa can a new future be born.