There are too many examples of corrupt and lazy politicians who don’t inspire confidence, says the writer. Picture: THE TIMES
A police inspector holds up the South African flag outside the Gauteng legislature. Picture: THE TIMES

IF WE distort or deny our past, we endanger our future. In the past few days, a trend seems to have emerged in the national debate — apartheid denial. At least three articles have appeared which, in different ways, deny or downplay the damage apartheid did to the country and its black majority. This distorts history, insults most citizens and fails to understand the damage which our past continues to do to our present.

One of these articles claimed that Nkandla was worse than the apartheid era’s information scandal, in which government money was used to wage covert war on the system’s opponents. Similarly, another insisted that corruption now is worse than under apartheid — then it was "incidental", now it is "systemic". Another, a review of Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron’s new book, claimed that to be white, poor and gay under apartheid was no different to the experience of black people at that time.

None of the authors were on the fringes of the debate — all three are respected journalists or commentators. And so their position seems to be not an extreme view but one deeply embedded in mainstream thinking.

None of their claims stand up to scrutiny. Outrage about Nkandla is justified, but the money was not used to protect a system that denied basic rights to all but a small minority. To claim that corruption under apartheid was incidental is laughable — the entire system was corrupt, since it rested on the seizure of the property of the majority by the minority. Corruption of the Nkandla sort — misuse of public money for personal gain — was rife. But we knew less about it because the law made it difficult to expose it — now it does not.

Poverty is harsh and discrimination against gays is a gross human rights abuse. But whites who were poor and gay did not have to carry a pass to avoid arrest in the cities. They were not uprooted from their land and sent to starve in rural ghettoes. They were allowed to work and trade freely: they enjoyed free education. Blacks were denied these rights.

All three authors claim to oppose apartheid and they no doubt did not intend to offend black South Africans. But by failing to acknowledge the damage apartheid did to the vast majority, they tell black citizens that the pain they and their forebears endured was of no great importance. Unlike the Democratic Alliance, which repeatedly stresses that, however unacceptable our present ills may be, this country is a far better place than it was in 1994, they seem unaware of the message they are sending to much of the country.

But perhaps the most important reason for rejecting the claim that apartheid was not all that bad is that it feeds into a current fallacy, which sees our problems purely as the responsibility of those who have governed since 1994, rather than as what they are — hangovers from our past.

The Nobel Prize-winning economic historian Douglass North coined the term "path dependency" to describe how societies that seemed to have struck out in radical new directions stayed stuck in the patterns of the past. While much has changed for the better here since democracy began, North’s theory fits our realities.

Some of our institutions that now prompt great controversy are not new — they have simply been broadened to include black people. The labour laws, which attract so much ire, have merely tweaked a system introduced in 1924. Our courts, universities and schools have not changed dramatically — they have simply been broadened to include more people. That is progress, but ways of doing things that emerged under racial rule are still with us.

These examples of the past’s domination are a mixed blessing because they have retained much that is worth keeping. The same cannot be said of the fact that we remain a highly unequal society in which poverty is rife. Or that levels of violence are still too high. Or that people in the suburbs are largely free to speak and act while in the townships and shack settlements local power holders impose their will. Corruption also continues a past pattern — and it might be less of a problem if the burden of the past did not limit the private economic opportunities of many, prompting them to seek advancement in politics.

Our problem is not that we started out on a new path that self-seeking politicians hijacked. It is that we have not yet taken a fundamentally different direction and that both Nkandla and Marikana (about which apartheid denialists have far less to say) are symptoms of a present that has failed to break free of the past. To insist on this is not to let the governing party off the hook. It could have challenged the cosy club that prevailed before democracy — instead it chose to join it.

It is, rather, to recognise that our problem is a failure to create something really new, and that it can be solved only by recognising and seeking to change the impact of a past that some seek to deny.

• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.