Apartheid denial, the reader and rage


Former ambassador to Argentina and Business Day columnist Tony Leon said in a radio interview with Eusebius McKaiser yesterday that he agreed with the statement: Corruption was rife under apartheid. However, that is not what he said in his column, the subject of the radio interview.

In the column, Leon argued that the National Party did not tolerate corruption and, to the extent it did, those caught were not shielded from punishment by their political party affiliation. He also said that corruption and the lack of consequence for it came in the wake of democracy in 1994.

Tell me, how can corruption be rife yet not tolerated in a system that doesn’t let perpetrators get away? There’s a leak in the logic here only explainable by saying that the National Party, to a large extent, turned a massive blind eye to corruption, which would undermine the premise of Leon’s argument. Hold up his view that the present-day sickening cycle of corruption with no consequences came in the wake of 1994 against his agreeing that corruption was rife under apartheid and you’ll realise that precious little of what he’s said makes sense.

Here is Leon in his own words, emphasis my own:

The NP promoted and prosecuted a political system which oppressed and disfigured this country, and its security apparatus did far worse. But it was not so forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends. And to the extent that it turned a blind eye, it did not interfere when the departments of justice and correctional services indicted and processed its members, some of them very prominent indeed.

Like the entire column, the statement is an elegant cascade of questionable elisions and untruths couched in truths and built on a false premise that caused those who rightly read with the context of Leon’s time in public office to question his motivation for writing it.

Leon used the examples of three National Party members from PW Botha’s time who were prosecuted for various offences and were punished, sort of, to argue that despite “whatever the deficiencies in their political philosophies”, politicians of the 1980s, unlike those of today, regarded public service as a calling, not a get-rich-quick scheme, and a good chance existed that those who crossed the line would be caught.

Leon concluded by saying (emphasis my own):

We should hardly mourn the loss of that political system. But in celebrating the democracy which replaced it, we should not avert our gaze from the undertow that came in its (democracy’s) wake: the rapaciousness of public life and the lack of consequences for leading transgressors. Unaddressed, these might soon capsize the ship of state itself.

The first statement, “but it was not so forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends”, qualifies the assertion in Leon’s preceding sentence of how brutal and ruinous apartheid was. Apartheid was terrible, but look here, it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The National Party did not tolerate corruption. Objectively and acontextually, I guess you could argue this, if you’re that inexplicably desperate for exemplars of what is a fairly common phenomenon in political parties and governments other parts of the world and in other sectors in South Africa. That you could argue this doesn’t make it any less repugnant.

Nonetheless, Leon is wrong. The National Party did tolerate corruption, especially in the era he cites, and many of those caught escaped consequence through hesitant, half-hearted investigations. And “the rapaciousness of public life” he speaks of was entrenched long before and did not come in the wake of democracy.


1989 survey: The majority of white voters polled felt that corruption had become worse under PW Botha and that laws and punishments of the day were inadequate [Click for more newspaper clippings of apartheid corruption. Source: OpenSecrets]

In a report prepared for the 2006 national anti-corruption forum, Hennie van Vuuren, former head of the corruption and governance programme at the Institute for Security Studies, attempted to document and describe the known instances of corruption during apartheid, particularly between 1976 and 1994. Reading the report’s description of the scandals (from page 29), a picture emerges of a system and party tolerant of corruption, where investigations were often only launched under the duress of an outcry from a public kept in the dark and too disinterested to find the light switch. Many of the investigations left unanswered questions, those implicated got away lightly and often, if there was a higher up involved, attempts were made to find a scapegoat.

Does this last bit sound familiar?

What makes Leon’s argument even more astounding is that important anti-corruption bodies and mechanisms, such as a free press, an independent corruption-investigating body and whistleblower protection laws, did not exist under a National Party government. Instead of these mechanisms, a culture of secrecy prevailed and large swathes the press lived under the thumb of the National Party, meaning that much could and was swept under the rug.

I don’t know how else to illustrate how false Leon’s premise was, how his omissions undermined his argument and how his subsequent comments contradicted what he’d said before.


Why do people write columns? I puzzle over this often, mostly because what I see published compels me to ask this, quickly followed by another question: why do I read columns?

Sometimes, as in the case of Leon’s column, these questions are peppered with expletives. In these instances, the cynical side of me thinks I read columns as a toxic form of self-harm, one candy coated in intellectual curiosity. But in my right mind I know I read columns to appreciate language and clear communication, and for a glimpse into other people’s perspectives and ideas.

Clear communication. Now that I’ve said it, I think this is probably the quality readers appreciate most in a column, whether they know it or not. The principles of clear communication are the entry point. Without considering them, whatever else the column has to offer is likely imperceptible and might as well go unwritten.

The onus is on the columnist to communicate clearly, regardless of word-count limit or the other limiting factors that may exist. That’s why columnists earn the big bucks.

One of the more important principles of clear communication that the columnist who wants to communicate clearly considers is: know and understand your reader. This columnist asks questions such as, who is going to read my column? What pre-existing ideas do they have about the topic? And about me as a trustworthy voice on the topic? How would I like the reader to respond? What is my most important message? What in the reader’s mind or the environment will create a gulf between the intent of my column and the outcome once read?

Sadly, too few columnists in this country know or are thinking about the reader. And the perspectives of the ones who do think about the reader are often blinkered by having been balkanised along racial, ethnic and class lines. How do you think about someone you do not know? You don’t.

Far too many columns end in the same scene: the reader and the writer duking it out over what was said and what was understood. What a waste.


I almost didn’t write this. Part of me thought, why bother? The rest of me began to doubt. I asked myself over and over again, why would Leon would think this is a good argument? Why would Business Day think it was fit to publish? Why would people come to his defence when I raised a stink about it on Twitter?

“…whatever the deficiencies in their political philosophies…”

It’s a standout line, this parenthetical expression that captures the premise of the entire piece. Apartheid is misunderstood or intentionally misrepresented as a merely deficient political philosophy or, at worst, a violent political system “which oppressed and disfigured this country, and its security apparatus did far worse”. The monster isn’t presented as what it was: an economic crime, also known as corruption.

bantu education

1982 Apartheid government spending on education per child. White child – R1,211; Black child – R146. [Click on image or here for more]

That way, the National Party politicians who signed off on orders to forcibly remove people from their homes and an education system that obliterated the future earnings of black children (and their children and their children and their children…) can be surreptitiously recast as intolerant to corruption and upstanding enough not to intervene in the prosecution fellow party members found to be corrupt. That way, that generation of politician, the ones who used this country’s public resources to oppress blacks, are said to have been party to brutal and violent crimes, yes, of course, but at least they did not steal and protect each other from prosecution.

This is apartheid denial* and it makes me weary and angry that I have to explain this a mere 19 years after the legal and political systems that enabled apartheid were removed. It makes me angry that FW de Klerk, who himself slept on corruption (page 37 of van Vuuren’s report) had no qualms about going onto CNN to whitewash apartheid as a conceptually well-meaning two-state solution when, even in concept, it was system of institutionalised theft that traced its roots to the barbarous 1913 Land Act and the poll and hut taxes and colonialist dispossessions that preceded it. It makes me angry that he was surprised people were angry and that he claimed to have been quoted out of context. It makes me angry that Leon and others were bemused at the reaction to his column.

I have to stave off violent impulses when I imagine what apartheid and the National Party will look like in the revisionist rear-view mirror of 2030, when the nearly lost battle against forgetting will be surely lost.

Do you know what also might soon capsize the ship of state, Tony? Apartheid-denialism-fuelled intransigence to social-justice imperatives and the need to transform this country’s economy, institutions and culture.


*This definition might be useful, adapted from German law: Apartheid denial is approving of, denying or belittling an act committed under the rule of the National Party government.

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