Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘nationalism

This is what nationalism can do to you

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Church square in Pretoria on the day South Africa became a republic

The consequences of nationalism: Church square in Pretoria on the day South Africa became a republic

Hendrik Verwoerd was the architect of apartheid. He was responsible for at least two of apartheid’s most infamous policies: the creation of the Bantustans and the Bantu Education Act (where he famously proclaimed:”There is no place for [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”)  Most South Africans – black and white – now consider Verwoerd and his ideas nefarious: he led us down a road that we are still struggling to recover from.

But when and where did Verwoerd acquire his racist ideas of the world? Was it always there, simmering under the surface, allowed to boil over with the National Party victory in 1948? Or did context and circumstance gradually pull him in a certain direction? Was Hendrik Verwoerd the Evil One born or created?

I recently stumbled on a rather surprising paper. Written by Roberta Miller and published in 1993 in the Journal of Southern African Studies, the paper investigates the early professional life of Dr Hendrik Verwoerd. An immigrant from Holland, Verwoerd arrived with his missionary family in 1903 at the age of 2. After school, he moved to Stellenbosch to study Psychology, earning his PhD  (The Blunting of the Emotions) cum laude by the age of 23. He was immediately offered a position in the department.

Verwoerd received a bursary to study at Oxford (the Abe Bailey scholarship, which he declined because of Bailey’s imperial jingoism) but chose instead to travel to Germany for his post-doc education. Here he spent time in Berlin and Leipzig, learning the latest statistical techniques in the field, before traveling to America for a lecture and study tour. Miller explains that the quality of Verwoerd’s scientific articles improved remarkably after these trips. While in America, he received word that he had been appointed professor in Psychology and he had to cut short his trip to be home in time for the new academic year in 1928. Verwoerd is still, as far as I know, the youngest professor ever to be appointed at Stellenbosch University.

The remarkable thing, though, is that none of his early career research or teaching could have predicted his future policies. While American sociologists were proclaiming the innate intellectual differences between black and white people based on IQ scores, Verwoerd rejected these ideas. Miller (1993: 650) writes:

Verwoerd did not believe that there were any biological differences between the racial groups. He clearly recognised the distinctions between whites, coloureds, and natives that were made in South Africa and often presented population statistics in terms of the major racial groups in the country. In the context of discussions of population growth, for example, Verwoerd presented his classes with population statistics on natives, Asians, coloureds, and Europeans, and occasionally Jews. But although many South Africans argued that biological factors contributed to the development of civilisation, Verwoerd did not. ‘There are no biological differences among the big race groups as was argued earlier,’ he told his classes, adding that because there were no differences, ‘this was not really a factor in the development of a higher social civilisation by the Caucasian race.’

Verwoerd did not deny that there were measurable differences between the performance of blacks and whites in intelligence tests, but he told his classes that it was difficult to compare test scores across groups of people with different backgrounds and experience. The critical issue, he argued, was not whether there were differences in underlying intelligence, but rather whether the differences in the test scores of various groups were due to inadequate tests and differences in living conditions.

In fact, his academic career paints the picture of a caring, open-minded pragmatist. After five years as Professor of Psychology, in 1932, Verwoerd was appointed as professor in the first Department of Sociology and Social Work in South Africa, also at Stellenbosch University. He immediately began to work on community social welfare activities in Cape Town, mostly dedicated to solving the poor white problem which had become a huge economic and political issue of the time (exacerbated by the global depression).

Because he was not trained as a sociologist, he chose to follow the theories propagated in American universities. Miller (1993: 647) explains:

Certainly the general approach of American sociology sat well with Verwoerd’s own mild socio-political ameliorism. American sociology in the early twentieth century was marked by a pragmatic positivism, an impulse toward the amelioration of social problems rather than structural social change, and a methodological reliance on empirical data.

Verwoerd’s methodological approach was ahead of his time. But his research activities received less and less attention, as the scale of white poverty became clearer. He organised national conferences on poverty alleviation; in fact, he became the spokesperson for social work education. He also worked hard to reconcile English- and Afrikaans-speaking animosities:

Rather than promoting racialism between the English and the Afrikaners, however, Verwoerd’s speech, taken in its entirety, suggests that Verwoerd was instead anticipating a new approach to dealing with poverty in which the English and the Afrikaner worked together in social welfare programmes. His goal was to ensure that the Afrikaner became a part of the country’s welfare activities rather than to eliminate English participation in welfare.

Verwoerd firmly tied social welfare to the democratic state rather than to any social or ethnic group in the state. ‘In the past,’ he said, ‘charity had been the task of a few self-appointed philanthropists; welfare work is now the task of the democracy. New times bring new problems and need new tools’ (Miller 1993: 654).

None of this suggests that Verwoerd would become one of the largest social engineers of the twentieth century. And yet he did. What happened?

The answer: The rise of Afrikaner nationalism in the 1930s. Verwoerd increasingly became agitated with the (apparently persistent) plight of the poor Afrikaner, and thought that political change was the only vehicle to achieve this. In 1937, he was offered the editorship of a new Afrikaner newspaper – Die Transvaler – funded by the Purified National Party of DF Malan. He accepted the position.

After Verwoerd left Stellenbosch, he abandoned the non-partisan politics of civil society that had previously consumed his energies and became deeply involved in party politics. The man who had insisted on joint English and Afrikaner welfare activities emerged as a strong Afrikaner nationalist. The professor who had denied that there were intellectual and biological differences among Africans and Europeans and who had proposed research that assumed them both to be part of the same South African society ultimately became an advocate of apartheid as the means to encourage and protect the differences between these groups. Finally, the academic who had commended the Jews for their contributions to world culture espoused strongly anti-Semitic sentiments (Miller 1993: 660).

As I’ve written before, nationalism – an extreme form of patriotism marked by a feeling of superiority over others – is extremely dangerous. It accentuates artificial differences between peoples, using that as justification for policies of exclusion. It punishes ‘outsiders’, however defined by the ‘insiders’. It inevitably cannibalizes itself, but at an unspeakably high cost for society. And it can shape the minds of brilliant scholars, like Hendrik Verwoerd, to enact policies that will take centuries to undo.

Lest we forget.

Source: Miller, Roberta Balstad. “Science and society in the early career of HF Verwoerd.” Journal of Southern African Studies 19.4 (1993): 634-661.

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Flocking to a new future

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Vuli Nyoni's Murmuration at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

Part of Vuli Nyoni’s ‘Murmuration’ at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

There is no doubt that the Rhodes statue should move from its current location. It should have moved a long time ago. The remarkable thing is not that there are students – black and white – that demand its removal. Instead, it is remarkable that a man that caused so much pain expropriating the lands of blacks across southern Africa and Boers in the Republics could escape the furies of so many for so long. Not anymore.

#RhodesMustFall is a no-brainer. But what should substitute Rhodes’ statue is the far more difficult question. Not only on the premises of UCT, but across South African campuses. Offensive names across the country – like the DF Malan centre at Stellenbosch University (despite my attempts last year to suggest that it can be seen as a victory over the past) – have changed. But, as far as I can see anyway, there is no discussion about forging a new, inclusive identity. This has to do with the unfortunate way the Rhodes statue has given rise to groups that want to score cheap political points; the poo-throwing, militaristic, nationalistic and even extremist sentiments expressed in many of the student meetings are an unhappy result of UCT dragging its feet. Now Rhodes’ statue will fall at the hands of opportunists instead of a progressive movement for change.

It’s necessary to recast the past, of course. It’s also easy. What is much more difficult is to define an inclusive vision of the future.

So let me try. On Thursday evening I attended the International Food Evening at Stellenbosch University. More than a thousand students descended on  Academia residence to taste the cuisine of our international  visitors; food from Belgium (who won first prize) to Zimbabwe (who came third) was on offer, as well as that of 23 other countries. It was fun and festive, delicious and diverse. These are not the pictures, unfortunately, the Cape Times report on their cover, because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of Stellenbosch as the last bastion of Afrikaner racism. Instead, Congolese and Canadian, Zulu and Zambian, Swazi and Swiss, Angolans and Afrikaners were conversing under the stars, tasting foreign foods and drinking beer. That image, to me at least, represents a future Stellenbosch, and a future South African society.

That is, a society that is not uniform (where we all look, think, act the same), but united in our purpose to build a prosperous society for all. For too long in our history, those in power had a vision of South Africa that excluded those who lived in it: Rhodes’ vision of a British Empire in Africa had no space for black or Boer. The Afrikaners’ vision of apartheid South Africa had no space black South Africans. And, in truth, the current regime seems to hell bent on disenfranchising amakwerekwere, Africans from countries outside South Africa. A recent estimate suggests that at least 5% of the people in this country are Zimbabweans, more than 3 million in total. What is happening to them is much the same as what happened to blacks during apartheid.

How do we build this inclusive, prosperous future? First we must step away from the strive toward uniformity. Nationalism is an idea that has been tried before and it has failed, again and again. When we flock, as Vuli Nyoni pointed out in an US/Leuven Thinktank seminar earlier on Thursday evening, we tend to lose track of our personal convictions, our personal identities. Perhaps our emphasis on ubuntu – I am who I am through other people – has made us (and here I include not only black South Africans because I think Afrikaners have this characteristic too) prone to groupthink, or flocking. Birds of a feather flock together is what we like to say, but instead of shared appearances we should be focusing on a shared purpose.

Second, we must grow. I don’t want to discuss economic policy here, but consider the collective entrepreneurial spirit of the Asian countries over the last three decades. Government, business and civil society shared a vision of a prosperous future, implementing pro-growth policies that allowed millions to escape poverty and thousands to become millionaires. India, China, and South Korea, despite their own legacies of colonialism, now have large middle classes that can enjoy the fruits of capitalism. South Africans, by focusing so much on the injustices of the past, should be wary of trying too hard to create a new past instead of a new future.

Which brings me back to Rhodes’ statue. What will replace it? Once we’ve (finally) destroyed the myth that we should all be English, or Afrikaans, or South African, what next? Que vadis young South Africa?

Written by Johan Fourie

March 21, 2015 at 11:47

The dangerous nationalism of Julius Malema

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No laughing matter: nationalism is a dangerous game Photo: Refilwe Modise

No laughing matter: Nationalism is a dangerous game. Photo: Refilwe Modise (The Citizen)

It’s ironic that Julius Malema, in his first speech in parliament yesterday, would reference Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Here is what Mr Malema had to say about Botha:

This elite pact is reflected by the fact that the most prominent statue in this Parliament, is a statue of Louis Botha, and the one of Nelson Mandela is very small and is hidden behind the statue of Louis Botha. Louis Botha is not our Hero and cannot be a Hero of a democratic South Africa. He is a colonial warmonger, who fought for the exclusion of black and indigenous people from running their own country and affairs. Its people like this who made white South Africans think they are superior and if we continue celebrating them, we are equally perpetuating white supremacy. The statue of Botha outside this Parliament must go down, because it represents nothing of what a democratic South Africa stands for.

That statue represents backwardness and apartheid and therefore it belongs to the dustbin of history and to be replaced with a bigger statue of seaparankwe Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela. We will never have true friendship and peace if white minority still behaves like they are superior and we should remain inferior in our country. All black people continue to learn the languages of white minorities as part of our attempt to reach out to them and create friendship but with very little attempt from their side to at least learn one of our African languages because they have a wrong mentality that we must suck up to them.

These are some of the legacies people like Louis Botha have left us and it must be crushed,we must not celebrate anything that perpetuates white supremacy. As part of nation building maybe we need to harsh steps by not celebrating any white person who doesn’t at least know or make an effort to at least know one of our African languages because by not knowing our languages or our culture they are effectively perpetuating the stereotypes of white supremacy. If you have a white friend as black person and he/she doesn’t know your language or not taking initiative to learn your language that person is no friend at all.

Perhaps it would surprise Mr Malema to know that, almost exactly a century ago, one of the big debates in our country was about what it is to be South African. The Second South Africa War at the start of the century, which saw the savagery of concentration camps and scorched-earth tactics, was still fresh in the minds of South Africans. One political group, lead by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts under the banner of the South African Party, claimed that the two white races – as the Afrikaners and British were generally referred to – should reconcile and build a unified country. Their definition of South African was ‘inclusive’, at least in terms of their world view: it included whites from opposing sides of the War and, in the Cape, Coloured South Africans. (Because of the pseudo-science of race hierarchies at the start of the twentieth century, blacks, in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa, and in the Americas, were not allowed to vote.)

In contrast to this message of unification, a small group of Afrikaans-speaking whites began to assert that the only ‘true’ South Africans were those that distanced themselves from the British Empire, that wanted to see a South Africa independent from the British throne. These ‘true’ South Africans also had to have another trait: they could speak the emerging language of the locals that we would later call Afrikaans. Only by speaking Afrikaans did one show true loyalty to the country. The National Party would emerge from this second grouping, and even though their leader, JBM Hertzog, also favoured the more inclusive definition of what it is to be South African, the nationalist tendencies would finally win out, with the formation of the ‘Purified’ National Party, which, as we all now, gave us the policy of apartheid. Nationalism, in this case white nationalism, would have devastating consequences for the country. It is difficult not to draw historical parallels: a message of unification after an intense period of racial confrontation (the 1910s/1990s). The rise of organised labour against monopoly capital (1920s/2000s). The impetus to solve the social and economic difficulties of a depression (1930s/2010s). A rise of nationalism and the defeat of the moderates (the 1940s/2020s?). And then?

Just as the message of the white nationalists appealed to white voters in the 1940s, there is a reason Mr Malema’s message appeals to black voters. There is a common enemy (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the British Empire, and when that turned out to not be scary enough, black South Africans; for Mr Malema and his nationalists, it is arguably white South Africans). And there is economic disenfranchisement (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the ‘poor white problem’; for Malema, it is inequality). Much like the nationalist leaders of African countries that gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Malema speaks directly to the hopes and aspirations of millions of people frustrated by the current economic stagnation. Even his speech is clothed in the same rhetoric. Here is Mr Malema last night: We “acknowledge and greet the millions of South African workers, the poor, and downtrodden and dejected masses of our people”. Here is Kwame Krumah, elected as the first president of an independent Ghana in March 1957: I am the “Hope of Millions of down-trodden Blacks, Deliverer of Ghana, Iron Boy, Great Leader of Street Boys”. Idi Amin called himself the “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”, Malema calls for the “political, social and economical (sic) liberation of blacks in general and Africans in particular”. Yet both Kwame Krumah and Idi Amin caused tremendous hurt to their economies. Krumah nationalised key industries. He heavily taxed (black) export farmers. His idea of African socialism failed to deliver his followers from the perils of poverty. Ghana is now, with a working democracy and market reforms, finally realising its potential, the black star of Africa. Amin, in his attempt to rid Uganda of the ‘external forces’ (sound familiar?), expropriated land and assets from all whites and Asians, and forced them to leave the country. The economy collapsed and Uganda, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, has never really recovered.

There is a reason the statues of Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela stand outside our parliament. Both men fought for the reconciliation of different race groups. Both wanted South Africa to participate in the global economy. Both believed that education is the key to a better life for all. That should be enough reason to keep them in their place. But there is another reason for those statues: it is that we should learn from history never to open our society to the poison that is nationalism. Perhaps that is why Mr Malema wants us to forget the past.

Written by Johan Fourie

June 19, 2014 at 09:10