Saul Musker: Final word: Empathy and humility must triumph over arrogance and aggression

The response to my recent column on the resurgence of white nationalism in South Africa was characterised by hostility, defensiveness, and outright aggression. While this reaction helped inadvertently to prove my point, it reflects a continued inability by many white South Africans to exercise humility or empathy in the context of an ongoing debate about land restitution that has caused deep fault lines in our society to resurface.

After publishing my column, which argued that “South Africa’s white nationalists are their own worst enemy,” on 11 September 2018, I received a barrage of attacks on Twitter from white South Africans accusing me of being “a turncoat” and “another Jewish communist”. These enraged responses were entirely predictable, reflecting the same paranoia, fear, and fragility that I pointed to in my original article, and are hardly worth addressing. However, the full-length reply by Gabriel Crouse, an associate at the Institute of Race Relations (whose director recently defended the “Judeo-Christian ethic” in South Africa), is worth taking seriously and responding to – both because its arguments are dangerous, and because it tries to disguise its right-wing position as a moderate one. First, if you can bear to look beneath the smugness and self-satisfaction of Crouse’s reply, there are a few sensible points that we actually agree on. We appear to agree that Ernst Roets’ recent submission to the Constitutional Review Committee of Parliament on expropriation without compensation was “hysterical” and misguided. We also agree on the fact that land restitution must take place for property that was stolen under apartheid (and earlier) legislation such as the Natives Land Act and the Group Areas Act, although Crouse makes this point only implicitly. Finally, it is in fact common cause between us that white South Africans should not be arbitrarily or collectively punished for the crimes of apartheid. Although Crouse rails against the “straw-manning” of AfriForum by its opponents, he misconstrues my own argument to make it seem as though I support racial retribution: Musker… clearly likes the idea that ‘after centuries of unchallenged power and privilege’ some white people must be punished, urging them not to be ‘hysterical’ or ‘fragile’ about this prospect.” In fact, the original paragraph from which Crouse selectively lifts individual phrases is as follows: The hysterical response of some white South Africans to the prospect of land reform is evidence of an underlying paranoia and sense of fragility. The fear of displacement, after centuries of unchallenged power and privilege, finds expression in increasing attempts to portray the white minority as victims. And the fear of vengeance, itself a tacit acknowledgement of the legacy of apartheid, prompts people like Mr Roets to seek assurances from white leaders abroad.” My intention was to demonstrate how a pervasive sense of insecurity among many white South Africans, propelled by an internal recognition of the brutality of apartheid and fear of the anger that it generated among black South Africans, has in turn fuelled a dangerous resurgence of white nationalism in the country in a particularly aggressive form. Groups like AfriForum propose a narrative that white South Africans should not feel “guilty” about their past, because they did not “steal” any land and in fact “contributed” to the development of the country. At best, this campaign whitewashes and sanitises the extreme indignities and abuses of apartheid, a system which was installed by and for white South Africans and perpetuated by their active support and tacit complicity. At worst, it encourages the confidence of outright racists and apartheid denialists, and does damage to the possibility of reconciliation and progress. Nowhere, though, do I suggest that white South Africans should be taxed or punished based on their race alone – instead, I make the point that the behaviour of white nationalists is hurtful, harmful, and self-defeating. This is not an argument that Crouse apparently wishes to engage. It is clear, instead, that his aim is to defend AfriForum’s submission to Parliament (in substance, if not tone or delivery), and to paint its critics as biased, unfair, and disingenuous. Crouse, at the beginning of his piece, accuses me of not having listened to Roets’ full submission in Parliament, as I question whether Roets “had heard of the Natives Land Act”. Roets did indeed make passing mention of this and other legislation during his address. But, in keeping with the regular approach of his organisation and others, he sought purposefully to diminish its significance. So clearly provocative, so arrogant and hostile, so historically inaccurate and contextually insensitive was his submission that one could hardly remember the few paltry concessions he saw fit to make. Nevertheless, Crouse seeks obliquely to defend AfriForum’s position. In this regard, he presents us with a false binary (another trick that he claims to despise): If white people in this broader sense should be punished for the sins of apartheid there is no reason why a few farmers should take the hit on behalf of the rest of the group. The sacrifice should either be made on a voluntary basis, with apparent believers in white collective guilt like Musker offering themselves up, or through a special fine for being white levied by the state.” This betrays a logic common to many white South Africans, which holds that not all whites were perpetrators under apartheid, and not all should be punished. Crouse argues that it was the white supremacist apartheid state that “stole” land, and “no white state or agent is still around to be punished for those crimes.” He sarcastically insists that “if there are any private white individuals around who stole land post-1913 they should be named, shamed and dealt with by the courts immediately”, obviously presuming that no such persons exist. This is an absurd argument. Injustices were perpetrated under apartheid both by the state, with the active or tacit support of white citizens, and by individuals who benefited from those injustices, such as white farmers who knowingly seized stolen land with the aid of racist legislation and state enforcement. Even if those original criminals have since passed away (some have not), their descendants continue to be unjustly enriched by the situation that has persisted. In the same way that property, artwork, and wealth that was seized from Jewish families by the Nazi regime in Germany and given to non-Jewish citizens has been located, confiscated, and returned, so should assets be reclaimed in post-apartheid South Africa. It is incumbent on the current state to rectify continued injustices and to restore the rights of its citizens. This may require expropriation in certain cases, where legitimate land claims exist and the cost to the state of compensating its occupiers would be exorbitant. At the same time, this does not mean that property should be seized arbitrarily purely by virtue of the race of its owners – this would clearly be unjustified, and would have harmful economic consequences. Herein lies a resolution to Crouse’s dichotomy: the state must expropriate land that was seized during apartheid and return it to its rightful heirs, and need not compensate those who have benefited from it inappropriately. The basis for this programme of restitution must not be the race of property owners, but the history of the land itself and the gross rights violations that occurred. There is a broader point to be made, however, that Crouse misses. Although not all white South Africans own land that was seized under apartheid legislation, they do all continue to benefit from the structural inequality that the apartheid system produced. Crouse blithely dismisses the usefulness of “collective guilt”, but ignores the concrete ways in which people like me and him are still advantaged by the far greater wealth, security, and level of education that white South Africans received. This reality is inescapable and undeniable. It is a moral duty of every South African to acknowledge it and to work towards greater equality, which will necessarily entail losing the automatic advantages that belonging to a powerful and wealthy race group continues to afford. This may not mean that all white South Africans should be “punished” or taxed by the state – that would be a divisive and counterproductive policy – but it certainly means that we should proactively acknowledge our responsibility to embrace and support redress. It also means that we have a particular duty to act with empathy and humility in a country that remains divided and hurt by the legacy of apartheid. Perhaps the most egregious error that Crouse makes is his contention that the response of MPs to Roets’ address in Parliament was “unethical” and should be condemned equally. Again putting words in my mouth, he construes my argument as claiming that “Roets’ speech robbed our elected representatives of self-control” as if MPs like Mncedisi Filtane “had no command over [their] own behaviour”. On these grounds, he accuses me and fellow columnist Melanie Verwoerd of “treating black adults as children”, a practice which he suggests “has a long and sordid history”. The obvious attempt to equate us with outright racists is underhand and, to be frank, sickening. It is also rhetorically manipulative: Crouse tries to position himself as the protector of black dignity, in an effort to deflect criticism and mask the real implications of his own argument. He clearly thinks that he is being very clever in doing so, but the attempt is transparent. Let us pause here to take in the full meaning of his argument. He implies that the angry reaction of black MPs to the AfriForum submission was inappropriate and unreasonable. In the face of Roets’ antagonistic remarks, they should have responded with greater reserve and “rationality”. There are three serious problems with Crouse’s objection. First, he neglects to mention that several of the MPs who condemned Roets in similar terms where white – including Steve Swart of the ACDP and Nick Koornhof of the ANC. Acknowledging this would undermine his own crude argument that the black MPs on the committee behaved irresponsibly and irrationally. Second, and more important, he indulges the familiar trope of dismissing expressions of black pain in the face of white aggression as “emotive” and “irrational”. Would we expect a Jewish audience, in response to the open antagonism of a Holocaust denialist, to respond with polite reprimand and further questions? Would we condemn them for expressing frustration, even rage, at the arrogance and hurtfulness of such a position? Of course not – the blame must be laid squarely at the feet of the antagonist, whose actions are designed to evoke such a response. In short, what Crouse calls “the eagerness to slam Roets while leaving the MPs’ bad behaviour unnoted” could easily be rewritten as “the resolve to condemn white nationalism and apartheid denialism while refusing to condemn the black people that it targets and offends”. To expect black South Africans to calmly endure the indignity of Roets’ speech is to ignore their humanity. To condemn them for pushing back is to insult their autonomy and intelligence. Finally, Crouse assumes that the response of Filtane and other members of the committee was unreasonable and overblown. In fact, Roets made his submission to Parliament on behalf of over 200,000 white members of AfriForum. MPs were correct to interpret this as a serious matter, rather than the lunatic ramblings of a lone provocateur, and to respond with outrage. The fact that such a large number of white South Africans seriously support Roets’ position is a real danger to the success of post-apartheid South Africa. And their attitude is an important factor in the design of a policy response to the challenges of restitution and reconciliation. MPs reacted maturely and with the appropriate condemnation – indeed, videos of their replies were widely shared and praised in the aftermath of the hearing. The point is that tone matters. Too many white South Africans remain oblivious to the profoundness of the injustice of apartheid and the deep and ongoing pain of black South Africans. The mistake made by Crouse and Roets is similar: gesturing vaguely towards paths that might be taken, and then stubbornly moving in the opposite direction. DM