Apartheid’s good old days….really?

It’s a risky business looking beneath the surface of the social media midden, but hard to resist when the subject is close to your heart. I lived and worked in South Africa in 1963-64, where the reality of apartheid became a shocking formative experience for me. I’ve since keenly followed the politics of author Alan Paton’s ‘Cry The Beloved Country’, his lament for the arrival of a  rigidly segregated  country.

Recently I came across a YouTube headline about the land-grab of white-owned farms in South Africa and was hooked. But the deeper I looked the more putrid the white South African’s comments became.  Still, beneath the anger, fear and bed-rock racism there were also inescapable truths.

For instance, the land-grab in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is likely to be repeated in South Africa, bringing with it incompetence, corruption, violence and a massive drop in food production.  Commentators also have a point in describing (unauthorised) attacks on white farming families as hate crimes and terrorism.

They are right too about the endemic violence in South Africa, and right about the government being racist and corrupt. Yet none of the many comments I read linked years of white domination to the current situation.

While there is no excuse for black on white violence, comments claiming that apartheid was a good policy explains much about the entrenched white racist attitudes. Even now a generation after the end of apartheid they are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the people they oppressed for so many years. And they are unlikely ever to do so.

To go about your life attending church, being a good citizen, teaching your children lessons in morality, but in a parallel world, while treating the black majority, your servants and labourers, no better than slaves, is almost impossible to understand unless you live a lie. To live that life without questioning the lie is to collude with the mass psychological blood-clot that prevents logical thought reaching your brain.

Cognitive dissonance is not peculiar to white South Africans; and I concede that not all white South Africans are racist. Given the right circumstance most people are capable of dehumanising groups of fellow citizens of different colours, faiths, culture. Even in modern times the examples are too numerous to list.

Yet the blind spot of 99% of commentators on the Youtube topic I read is still depressing. There is no acknowledgement that the farms were grabbed first by white settlers. No acknowledgement that the government they are nostalgic about was racist and corrupt. And no acknowledgement that the increased violence experienced by all South Africans now was routine for black people living in (and confined to) worker dormitory ‘Locations,’ during apartheid.

Sadly, despite having an African National Congress government for 20 years, poverty and endemic violence is still the lot of a vast number of increasingly impatient black people. Hope of change appears to have faded at the same rate the Mandela old guard faded from political life.

However, the ousting of the last president, the deeply corrupt Jacob Zuma, was significant, suggesting the democratic urge is still alive. Unless that was the African National Congress’s desperate attempt to hold on to power?

After all, echoing Zimbabwe, the man who took Zuma’s place, billionaire, was Cyril Ramaphosa, who had been Zuma’s deputy. While Ramaphosa talked of tackling corruption when he was elected, the fact that he appointed David Mabuza as his deputy, suggests attacking corruption is not a high priority.

In the meantime South Africa continues to lose thousands upon thousands of white professionals who are, in the short term, irreplaceable. They have flown and continue to fly to the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. I understand why they left. In their shoes I would leave. Yet some of them will be uneasy about  the poisoned legacy they left behind because Apartheid’s statistics contradict versions of the good old days:


Blacks,19 million

Whites, 4.5 million


Land allocation:

Blacks, 13%

Whites, 87%

Share of national income:

Blacks, <20%

Whites, 75%

Doctors to population:

Blacks, 1/44,000

Whites, 1/400

Infant mortality rate:

Blacks, 20% (urban), 40% (rural)

Whites, 2.7%

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.