By Jodi Williams
News broke last weekend that there is compelling evidence that Magnus Malan and other apartheid government ministers were paedophiles. The story took up a news cycle or two and its ripple effects are still pulsing through the media and the public at large.
The pointed horror is stark when we consider that the child victims were coloured kids and how that resonates in terror with the white settler rape and abuse of coloured people since European invasion. What’s more instructive, given our current national discourse on identities and privilege, is how South African society creates and perpetuates narratives that normalise overt abuses of whiteness, whether they be legal and/or criminal acts or “smaller” abuses of norms and dignity.
That there is negative and condemning reactions to the Malan story is to be expected. But what is more interesting is the burden of living in a world where white supremacy is not just centralised but the very rules by which we are all expected to play. This was illustrated when some quarters reacted to the Malan story by calling it “fake news”.
Even more telling is the inability of society – people across all lines of privilege – to recognise that the apartheid government Malan served was corrupt; more corrupt than the state capture of former president Jacob Zuma and the Guptas. It was a corrupt ideology served by corrupt practices of nepotism and white tenderpreneurship.
That people agree the apartheid government’s racist white supremacist ideologies were immoral and indecent is not in question here. What is in question though is that we still live out this fiction that the apartheid government was efficient and effective. This is reflective of how powerful whiteness is in its ability to excuse violent and horrific acts. Acts by perpetrators of some of humanity’s worst horrors are still made out to be, not just the centre of the human story, but its main victims too.
White South Africans – those who benefitted directly from apartheid – are most guilty of this fallacious thinking. Some comments on the Malan story said, “why accuse Malan now when he can’t defend himself?” Others turned the story into another “example” of how the white Afrikaner is a victim class; how the media is out to get them. Centering whiteness works so well that perpetrators become victims who feel the need to mitigate, to rationalise and to excuse behaviour that is not only horrible but abhorrent and criminal.
The Malan case is a powerful, meta-type example of how white violence can become victimhood and therefore worthy of protection and defence. The narrative around victimhood is that whiteness and, white people particularly, are the primary victims. We go to extremes to find redeeming factors to protect them.
The case of Wouter Basson is informative. In 2015, Stellenbosch University medical students spoke out against being taught by Basson aka “Dr Death”, the former head of secret chemical and biological warfare, who now works as a medical doctor in Cape Town. The response by the white community was that Basson, to paraphrase, is a “leading cardiologist and therefore should maintain his position in the medical field because there is a lot to learn from him”.
Again, white privilege waved a triumphant flag in that even when white people have inflicted unimaginable pain on black lives, they are still protected and humanised via their skill and white skin, the two implicitly tied together in our society.
TRC humanised white experience of apartheid
Similarly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) humanised white experiences of apartheid. White perpetrators were afforded the opportunity and given the platform to share their experiences of apartheid and often the narrative around the TRC excused their role in the brutality of the apartheid system. This platform also allowed them to appear to be performing remorse and contrition, which in turn asked (and even demanded) that we absolve them and reconcile.
Once again, white people were at the centre, even in a space ostensibly set aside to preface black oppression and pain. White people were portrayed as simply “acting on behalf of the state” or “just following orders” when inflicting violence and destruction on black lives. This narrative relegated responsibility to an anonymous impersonal system of apartheid when white people themselves as a collective of individuals are the system; when they upheld and perpetuated the system’s inhumanity; when they were, and continue to be, beneficiaries of its injustices.
These examples are not just part of white supremacy but also illustrative of how the TRC’s focus on demonstrated and performative acts of forgiveness and “healing” extended this narrative as shibboleths and cultural memes to be reproduced; a script for whiteness and white people to act out in post-apartheid society; a script written for a film where once again whiteness is the main protagonist. It gave us a code for how to behave, even going as far as to excoriate those of us not ready, then and now, to forgive and reconcile. Winnie Mandela is a perfect example of this.
The TRC, in general, is a tiring conversation that leaves many with frustration and valid anger. And in this current climate of critique, it is important for us to question and challenge our collective psyche as a people, and how it is that we would forgo a chance at justice, merely opt for the truth following a haphazard attempt at whatever it is we have now?
TRC ‘entrenched white victimhood’
The TRC, while being the first of its kind, “bandaged previous injustices” and played an active role in the production and entrenchment of white victimhood. The workings of the TRC centralised white perpetrators and, by doing so, denied pursuits for justice.
We live in a white world; a world where white is “right”; a world where whiteness is by default afforded innocence while blackness is criminalised; a world where the closer you are to it, the more privilege and power it bestows upon you.
Whiteness and white supremacy are global phenomena with real-life consequences. In dialogue, for example, the language that we use to talk about racism, more often than not, protects white people. We relegate responsibility to “whiteness” (a relatively abstract concept) but it is white people who uphold and perpetuate it. It is from white people that whiteness is constructed.
Moreover, when called out, white people centralise themselves, their fragility, and their discomfort, which ultimately shields them from taking responsibility for their role as perpetrator and us moving forward from there.
The TRC was imperfect and had positives, to be sure. But it also denied the victims of apartheid a chance at justice on many levels. While that may be a difficult thing for us to grapple with, it is important that we do. Especially since so many of the deep-seated societal issues that we are currently facing were negated and even perpetuated by the legacy and co-constructed memory and narrative of the TRC.
Scrutinising the political transition of the 1990s is imperative to our conversations around social change today. It is important to sit with whatever discomfort it may conjure up; it is important to examine these critiques and it is important to learn from these mistakes. Because no longer can we simply negate humanity and deny justice for the sake of protecting white people.