Twisting history harms democracy

The way some have it, you’d think our history was a simple Good versus Evil battle. It wasn’t, and trying to delegitimise some while lionising others undermines democratic choice today.

A current flare-up is that caused by a “Know your DA” campaign that uses imagery of Helen Suzman being hugged by Nelson Mandela. An outraged ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe counters that “white parties, irrespective, have always wanted to maintain white privilege and an upper hand on the black majority”. Letter writers to newspapers complain that the DA’s liberal predecessors in the Sixties supported giving the vote only to those with a matric or suchlike.

When looking that far back, it is probably wise to heed historian Antony Beevor: “The great danger is the temptation to impose the values of the 21st century on previous periods. Historians should put themselves in the shoes of the people at the time and see things through their eyes”.

White South Africans have enjoyed democratic practice almost throughout their time in SA. Liberals wanting this extended to others knew that it could only happen with a white say-so. Starting with the Progressive Party in 1959 (which the DA erroneously claims was founded by Suzman), they staked their claim.

Thirty years later came an improbable victory in the white general election of September 1989. Here, the National Party fell below half the popular vote, losing seats to the right wing Conservatives and to the liberal Democratic Party. The rate of loss from both ends meant that FW De Klerk’s new government would likely be the last in which the NP could dictate the pace of change – wait another term and he’d be forced into a coalition with the DP. Four months later he made his move in unbanning the ANC.

Parliament was thus just another place, albeit a critical one, for the fight against apartheid. Thus the Communist Party held seats there until banned in 1950 and the ANC had four seats in the white National Assembly from 1990 to 1994.

While the ANC says it fought for a non-racial democracy, this wasn’t always clear. Its history includes the racially defined Congress Movement of the Fifties, and only allowing white membership of the mother body in 1968. Whites remained barred from the ANC’s national executive committee until 1985. It wasn’t until after unbanning that the party openly accepted multi-party democracy and entrenched freedoms in a bill of rights. Through the Seventies and Eighties it had instead emphasised the “people’s democracies” of the Soviet empire. And the “People’s War” it launched in 1984 appeared aimed as much at rival black organisations as at the minority government.

In this, a flummoxed state found itself facing a sort of black collective suicide called “ungovernability”. Through coercion found in street committees, people’s courts and “liberation before education”, black rivals to the ANC were wiped out and the state’s ability to govern black areas started to collapse. It worked in driving government to talks. But it was a campaign costing 24 000 lives (including 530 necklacings) in 10 years, and it had the anti-democratic effect of literally killing off alternative black politics.

After all this, it’s a wonder we have a collegial democracy at all. But we do, and that’s something to celebrate.

– Paul Pereira (first published in The Citizen, 7 May 2013)