Bring these angels of

09 October 2011 - 03:19 By Jonny Steinberg
Image: Sunday Times

Forget the 'golden age' - we have many useful things to learn from the flawed legends who led South Africa to freedom

Before he became the first president of the ANC in 1912, John Dube founded the newspaper Ilanga laseNatal. Among the articles he solicited were diatribes against Natal's Indians. One piece, which Dube headlined, "The Indian Invasion," complained that Indians take "our children's bread ... beneath our eyes ... Whatever little earnings we derive from Europeans, go to swell the purses of these strangers, with whom we seem obliged to trade."

Other correspondences Dube solicited warned that Indians lived like animals in squalid homes and were thus prepared to work for wages far lower than black people would accept. Dube would not have been sorry had South Africa's Indians been chased back across the ocean.

The contempt Dube felt for Indians was returned in spades. When black people expressed outrage at a new poll tax announced in 1904 - a sense of outrage that would grow into the Bambatha Rebellion two years later - none other than Mohandas Gandhi scoffed at all the fuss. "A little judicious extra taxation would do no harm," Gandhi declared. Indeed, it might do Africans good, forcing them from idleness into honest work.

By today's standards, Dube and Gandhi would be condemned as racist bigots. Even Julius Malema would battle to get away with such talk. Yet they are among the ancestral spirits that guide us.

I do not raise this point simply to make mischief; I have something more serious to say. The ANC's centenary will be celebrated soon, and a lot of people will talk sentimental nonsense about Dube and the spirit of 1912. The ANC's standard-bearers will argue that, as the true inheritors of Dube's mantle, only they can complete the struggle for freedom in SA. The organisation's detractors will warn that Dube would not even recognise the corrupt beast the ANC has become. They will say it is time for others to pick up Dube's spear.

These two rival stories lift Dube and his peers above the Earth and make them angels. They imagine the ANC somehow cocooned itself from the dirt and sweat of history, that it hit the hard South African ground only on the day Thabo Mbeki came to power.

Telling this story is unproductive. To measure ourselves against these fairy-tale characters is simply confusing. In the back of our minds, we know all this talk is pompous and empty, that it cannot guide us to any destination in the real world.

We should rather take Dube's prejudices seriously, for they have much to teach us. He railed against Africans' dependence on deep Indian pockets. One need only whisper the name Gupta to know that Dube would recognise today's ANC. Dube's newspaper spoke of Indians living like squalid animals, and thus working for wages no black person would accept. He would surely recognise today's "Indians": the Zimbabweans, Angolans and Congolese who come to our shores and work for wages many South Africans regard as beneath their dignity. Three years ago, card-carrying members of Dube's ANC drove many of these people from their townships with sticks and stones.

So Dube's prejudices are alive and well. What should we learn from this?

We have convinced ourselves there was once a golden age. It ended when a crop of corrupt and greedy people hijacked our country's high offices and brought us down. But the real world is never that simple. There was no golden age. That black people suffered under apartheid did not make them or their leaders angels. They lived in a brutal and unforgiving country, and their souls were scarred with the jealousies and prejudices that come with hardship.

The most important lesson is this: Dube's prejudices live on because the problems with which he grappled live on. We thought that freedom would deliver work more dignified than the jobs apartheid offered. For many, it did not. As long as this persists, those prepared to sweat long hours for poor pay will be called makwerekwere. We thought freedom would deliver wealth to many black people. It turned out not to be that easy. As long as this persists, "tenderpreneurs'' will use political access to get rich in the name of freedom.

I am not saying we should be satisfied with today's leaders, or that we do not deserve better. But we will not get far if we use the ANC's centenary to spin wide-eyed tales about the past. There are no angels descending from the heavens to save us. We have only ourselves - scars, prejudices and all.