an apartheid story

Andries du Toit is a professor at the University of West Cape in South Africa. He posted this series of chilling tweets on 6/27/18:

Thread. Some thoughts from a white South African, directed at friends in the USA.

I have been thinking about the Kennedy resignation, and what it looks like from here.

I know that historical analogies are dangerous, but here goes.

I grew up in Apartheid days. My family were what these days would be called dissident Afrikaners: opposed to the government. We were white, and therefore privileged, and protected by that, but also to some extent outcast from our community, living each day in a contested reality

I often think back on what those times felt like: to hear of my parents’ colleagues or friends detained or banned, or even murdered. To know that what was happening was evil, even while the surface of everyday life appeared normal, civil, suburban.

Above all, I remember what it felt like to know we were at odds with the state: its police, its soldiers, its spies, its laws; and to know that it could use that might against us.

In my case it was quite personal. I was by law conscripted to the SADF. Those who refused to fight and kill for Apartheid were threatened with six years of jail. I was one of those who refused.

I did not go to jail – long story – but I remember just how scary it was to face the potential of the state’s reprisals. But you know what was even scarier? That all along, most of white society was trying to pretend it was not happening.

You’d go through road blocks, or find riot cops on the street, and on the radio, Bobby McFerrin would be singing ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’. That song was number one on the South African charts for the longest time.

So, Trump. As I said, historical analogies are dangerous. But what I keep thinking about was the 1948 election, the one in which the National Party first got elected. Seventy years ago. 26 May. That was the turning point for South Africa.

Thing is, if you go back and read the papers at the time, what is so shockingly clear is that no-one realised what was in the process of happening. They all thought it would blow over soon.

You see, the National Party never won the popular vote. They had barely 37%. They only got in because of the electoral system. Rural votes were more heavily represented in Parliament. They barely squeaked in. It was never meant to happen. It was a glitch.

And Apartheid? Read the newspapers of the time. Very few in the English press took it seriously. It was a word and a couple of incendiary and racist slogans. Even the National Party itself did not have any detailed policies. It was clearly impractical, doomed.

In 1953, the NP achieved a solid majority. Still, people did not think they would last.

In those days, coloured people in the Cape still had the vote. The NP passed an act taking them off the voter’s roll.

The Appelate Division struck it down as unconstitutional.

So what the NP then did was to pack the Senate, to ensure a two-thirds majority, and they changed the Constitution. That was 1955. That was the first time that it really became clear that big trouble was coming. Seven years after they got in.

It took 40 years to get them out.

When I was doing my history degree, reading the mainstream press from the 1940s and 1950s, it seemed to me I was seeing people sleepwalking into a battlefield. Floating down the stream of history, not seeing what was right in front of their eyes.

It’s hard to look at Trump’s America, and the GOP’s deliberate obstruction and exploitation of the SCOTUS nominations, and the deliberate galvanisation of all the most racist and violent segments of American society, and not to fear that you all are going down a similar road. [emphasis added]

What that means in practice for your choices, I don’t know. The one thing I am sure of is that it is a big mistake to wish for normalcy to return. It won’t. It hasn’t here.  25 years after freedom came, it looks as if our biggest changes still lie ahead.

A follow-up question in the comments:

Q: Am I reading this thread incorrectly, or do you in fact believe that apartheid (largely) crept up on the white voter unawares? That conscious support for the policy was not widespread, as indeed the narrative seems to suggest now in the memories of our white compatriots?

A: Good question. It’s complicated. Remember that the UP’s policy was segregation. Thus also white supremacist – but inconsistent, paternalistic, ‘civilised’. Many English whites did not like the Nats, but they feared black majority rule more. At most they wanted only gradual change.

If you look at South Africa in the 1940s, it is clear that some whites realised the country was at a crossroads. Urbanisation was gathering steam. There was a sense of historical progress. The inclusion of black people in the democracy seemed inevitable … in the long run.

In the late 1940s, liberals thought South Africa was on a progressive path. Genl Smuts had helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights! Progressive business was calling for black workers to be given more recognition. Change was afoot. Then the Nats shut it down.

Again, the parallels with the USA today are striking. The Dems seem secure in the inevitability of the demographic dividend. The whole establishment, including Sanders and Obama, seems to think that progressive change will come gradually. ‘Civilly’.

I think that’s an illusion. Thoughts about ‘the arc of the moral universe’ are not much help here. When things change, they change quickly. And often you don’t even recognise the critical moment when it appears.

Q: Thanks. What [your] response does is confirm my increasing persuasion that liberalism, historically & at present, has not had the ethical force & single-mindedness of moral conviction & has, in the hands of those who benefit from systemic oppression, been a very poor ally in struggle.

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