Apartheid denialism drives a knife into belly of black SA

19 February 2012 - 02:31 By Mondli Makhanya

A FEW years back, a Dutch friend rode into town and asked to visit the Apartheid Museum. It was a big deal for this individual as her parents had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the '70s and '80s.

When she was a youngster, they had taken her to protests at the headquarters and outlets of the Shell oil company, which was heavily invested in apartheid South Africa. Her bond with South Africa was strong and she was dying to see what it was her young self had been fighting against.

Like most residents of this magnificent place called Johannesburg (the city that the Almighty created on the eighth day after a solid rest), I had never been to the Apartheid Museum. It was one of those things that I was going to do some day.

The experience was a mind-blowing one. It should be compulsory for all 50 million South Africans - plus the five million Zimbabweans in our midst - to visit the museum at least once.

My Dutch friend was emotional and nearly broke down as she witnessed what mankind can do to mankind.

About two years after this I had the macabre privilege of visiting the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Arguably one of the most poignant modern history museums, it affects you deeply. When you walk out, you can't but wonder how Israeli politicians, most of whom have been to the museum, can visit so much suffering on Palestinians.

It was with this in mind that I listened to Freedom Front+ leader Pieter Mulder's input on land reform this week.

Coming just a year before the centenary of the 1913 Native Land Act, which dispossessed Africans of their property and apportioned 83% of land to whites, Mulder's speech was the crudest form of denialism about South Africa's evil past. He drove a sharp knife into the belly of black South Africans and rubbished one of their the most painful moments.

This is what he said: "Africans in particular never in the past lived in the whole of South Africa .... There is sufficient proof that there were no Bantu-speaking people in the Western Cape and northwestern Cape."

Translation: Shut up you darkies! We whites were right to mess you up all these decades.

The debate about land reform is an important one and one which needs emotions taken out. This son of peasants has previously written in this space that our country is wasting time, money and energy trying to get an urban-inclined population to love the land. Just observe the hundreds of thousands of hectares of fertile land that lie fallow. So why would you want to interfere with commercial farming in order to satisfy a mythical desire for agricultural land?

But that is beside the point. And it was certainly not Mulder's point. The point Mulder was making was that the past was not that bad.

This is a sentiment that, unfortunately, is held by a lot of white South Africans. Every day a steak knife is driven into hearts of black South Africans by the denialism of their fellow citizens.

This denialism takes the form of (supposed) ignorance about the sins of the past, dismissal of the past and straightforward racism.

Just the other day there was a horrible racist incident that hardly raised an eyebrow because such things happen all the time. Liz Hleza, a Virgin Active gym member, was racially abused by a white man because she kept shouting "yebo" during her exercises. (OK, I sympathise with the white dude on that score ).

Hleza told The Star newspaper that the man had gone into racist overdrive and called her a kaffir .

"He also told me that I was born walking on four legs with a tail, and I should go back to the bushes where I belong and make that noise there."

Even after they had gone to the manager's office, he was unrepentant.

"He said 'You bloody kaffir, you are a cockroach and next time I come to the gym I will bring Doom to spray you with.'"

This was a particularly aggressive racist who mouthed what he believed. There are many like him who say such words to black South Africans.

But the vast majority practise their racism subtly in the way they treat and speak to blacks they come across. Speak to any black person on any given day and they will relate a story of a racist incident they or a person close to them has experienced in the previous seven days. This is not because they are sensitive beings; it is a reality of our country 17 years after the diminutive archbishop told the world we were the "rainbow people of God".

His aspirational message was not wrong at all. He was saying we could become that if we put our minds to it.

In order to get there, however, white South Africans will have to recognise that apartheid was no joke. It was real and painful. No apology is required. Just an acceptance of the depth of the evil that their countrymen and -women were subjected to.