IN A café in upmarket Claremont, outside Cape Town, an as eloquent as ever Allan Boesak is giving his views about the old and the new South Africa, racism, poverty, Mandela, Zuma – and the future.
Talk, inevitably, centres on the mistakes, the refusal to listen, the “rainbow nation” phenomenon, and “Madiba Magic” and Boesak says his wife, Elna, has a wonderful expression to describe the South Africa of today.
“She says: ‘One of the difficulties is that we have taken something like racism and we were in such a hurry to act as if it no longer existed that we buried it in graves so shallow that all those ghosts arise and come back to haunt us at the slightest provocation’.”
It is vintage Boesak – the Boesak who has never hesitated to speak his mind about matters that affect South Africa and South Africans.
In the 1980s, he was one of a special group of activists who stood up to, and spoke out against the National Party during its most dangerous years, when its security apparatuses were prepared to torture and kill to defend apartheid, when fellow activists were in detention, on the run or dead, and when millions of ordinary South Africans were yearning for freedom, but never believing it would come in their lifetime.
But it came – sooner than most believed it would – in 1994. But 23 years of democracy has highlighted a bitter lesson for millions of South Africans….
Freedom is not a silver bullet for the eradication of poverty.
On the contrary, poverty in South Africa has proved to have a grinding resilience that strangles freedom – and makes it moribund.
Boesak points out repeatedly that the ANC government specifically is reaping what it has sowed over the years. He believes that far too many opportunities were lost because of stubbornness, dishonesty and political foolishness.
Who should be blamed for this?
Many people, says Boesak, including the icon of South Africa’s Struggle … its father of democracy: Nelson Mandela.
“To examine the present and contemplate our future, we need to step back to the seminal period of our fight for freedom,” he says.
“When I called for the formation of the UDF in January 1982, one of the issues I raised that needed to be tackled head-on was the question of racism and the National Party’s plans to get us embroiled in ethnic issues.”
Tricameralism, he says, was not meant for white people. It was something black people had to deal with.
“And so we had this ladder of privilege, with Indians on top, followed by the coloureds and then the Africans.”
“In our communities there was an internal hierarchy of whiteness. I said then what a dangerous thing this was. I used the words ‘playing with fire’ or ‘setting fire to our future’ – or something like that.
But these warnings were ignored.
And so to Mandela….
Boesak says he had three major differences with democratic South Africa’s first president.
“The one was that in coming out of prison, he reintroduced the language of racial categorization. He spoke openly about whites, coloured and Indians. But even more problematical was his response to black consciousness in an essay in a book compiled by another Struggle veteran, Mac Maharaj.
“In that essay Mandela takes issue with black consciousness – and with the black consciousness contention that race is a deceitful category that has no scientific basis and that it is a political and social construct,” Boesak points out.
“Arising from this therefore is that it is one’s humanity that counts more than the question of race or ethnicity, or any of that.” But, he says, Mandela disagreed.
“Instead, he made the stunning statement that one could not deny the reality of the texture of your hair, the shape of your nose and the colour of your skin.
“In a book I wrote, which was published in 2005, I dealt with this, and I said Mandela never understood how much he sounded like one of those seriously apartheid supporters who argued how important what you looked like was, and the colour of your skin.”
Boesak says that when Mandela introduced racial categorisation, it became the language of the ANC.
“I thought this was a serious mistake. I felt it would lead us to a space in which the whole issue of social cohesion and non-racialism would be called into question.”
“Why would you want to make these distinctions in terms of skin colour or ethnicity if it has not attached itself to some privilege – social, economic or racial privilege? What was that necessary for? Why would the ANC be interested?”
“But now, of course, we’ve seen where they’ve gone,” he says.
Boesak says children at school still have to fill in documents relating to racial categorization.
“When my daughter filled in hers, she wrote, ‘My skin-colour is Obama-beige’. Of course, they weren’t happy with that, but it gave her the opportunity to explain what she meant. But when you ask yourself where this comes from, you can see how the easily the ANC, not only in its leadership, but as an organization and then in its policies and language has embraced the language of apartheid, and all those things we considered the pillars of apartheid.”
“It is no wonder that 23 years later, we have no idea what non-racialism actually means. It is no wonder that something as fundamentally good in principle as affirmative action becomes a contentious issue because they refuse to apply it to all those who were disadvantaged,” Boesak argues.
“Suddenly we have hierarchies of disadvantaged people and hierarchies of suffering. And this is why the way we look at each other has changed. This, in turn, has changed peoples’ perceptions of what happened in the struggle. All of a sudden those who are not black, black, black could not have made any important contribution to the struggle. Why? Well, somma, some would say.”
“I’m not surprised that this has become one of our greatest difficulties today,” he says.
Boesak says another point of strong disagreement he had with Mandela was his insistence in bringing into government people who all their lives had been part of the apartheid, tricameral system and Bantustan systems.
“I tried to explain to him that certainly in the Western Cape we did not need these people. They couldn’t bring us votes and they undermined our credibility and integrity,” he says. “How do you explain to ordinary South Africans who had suffered under these people, these collaborators with the apartheid government?” I asked.
“Now, all of a sudden you’re giving them places of honour. And you’re doing this while those who really struggled and really sacrificed are being set aside. How can you really move towards a genuine democracy when half the people in the key positions and departments come either from the old apartheid hierarchy, the homelands regime or the tricameral parliament which we in our angry days would describe as people with a mindset of colouredism.
This, says Boesak, was “politically just foolish”.
“What, of course, I did not know then, and what the leadership of the ANC did not share with us was that these had already been discussed and agreed upon in their series of secret talks – unofficial negotiations – pre-negotiations, I call it, since 1985.”
Boesak says yet another issue over which he differed with Mr Mandela and the ANC was on the closing down of the United Democratic Front.
“I will always regret very much that I allowed myself to be pressured, not just by acquiescing, but also being on a stage when the announcement was made.
“They asked me to speak, and I did. It did not come from my heart, but I spoke – and that should never have happened.
“I’m ashamed of that moment.”