Whose borders are they anyway?

Supporters of Palestine spend a lot of time making the case that Israel is an apartheid state. And their antagonists spend as much time trying to rebut that charge, mindful of the reputational damage it will do if it’s made to stick. What doesn’t get asked though, ever, is why this really matters. What exactly do we mean when we use the word apartheid, and how did it come to occupy such a prominent place in the post-war pantheon of evil?
The answer is both more complex than is generally assumed, and more uncomfortable.

It’s helpful to distinguish three discrete aspects; one historical, one semantic and one practical.

A surfeit of racism

Firstly, as regards the racial animus that underpinned South African Apartheid, this was taken directly from the standard Euro-American world-view that held for about 300 years, from the mid 17th century. That was the period of colonial expansion and it was explicitly based on the idea of a natural ranking of civilizations, and of peoples. Even progressive intellectuals bought into this way of seeing, until the 1930s, which is how the communist party got to say, in 1922 and without irony, “workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.”

South Africa got to be a pariah partly through bad policies but more so through bad timing. Had the National Party launched its political program a generation earlier, it would likely have gone unremarked; paternalism, segregation and a qualified franchise were punted shamelessly in the colonies at that time. Racism wasn’t even a word yet, not in the way it’s used today, and some 15% of American adults were members of the Ku Klux Klan.

That all changed, of course, after the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. By 1960, what had been a truism a generation earlier had become completely anathema. The “civilizing mission” wasn’t nearly complete, but within a decade it was impossible to talk about race, in good society, and there were fifty new countries in Africa. All of them had seats in the UN, though the greater majority suffered unelected governments, unviable economies and untenable borders. At the same time, courtesy of the same guilt-addled zeitgeist, South Africa became the uber moral villain.

Rallying against apartheid became the primary form of left-liberal public expression, and no one had the temerity to point out that:
(a) the SA demographics bore no comparison to those of any other country (partly because it had not experienced a 19th-century genocide);
(b) on the basis of that demographic profile, the challenge facing white South Africans was entirely unique (involving not just a moral choice but the surrender of power);
(c) all the energy that went into this particular struggle was a great boon to the ex colonial powers in that it diverted attention from what should have been a campaign for post colonial justice.

That the left was instrumental in this narrow-focused vilification campaign should be a source of profound embarrassment; but that’s not how these things work, sadly.

A scarcity of words

Turning, secondly, to the matter of language usage, there are a lot of ways of defining apartheid, all with different implications and connotations. Courtesy of a few decades of jaundiced attention, what most of us picture, reflexively, is “whites only” beaches and benches, overcrowded migrant labor compounds, staggering wealth inequality and snarling policemen demanding to see a “dompas.” That was all real, mind you, and unpardonable, but the critique of the system didn’t stop there.

Using the American civil rights struggle as their template, progressives around the world demanded “one person one vote in a unitary state” and had no truck whatsoever with Verwoerd’s grand plan of ethnically-defined statelets or homelands. The idea of “separate development” was rejected out of hand, along with the whole notion of group (as distinct from individual) rights. The fact that the Verwoerdian version was badly skewed in favor of whites made it easy (and highly satisfying) to assail – but it’s still quite extraordinary that the principle itself got so little credence, or attention. There are good practical reasons for not dismembering South Africa – and for focusing on shared values, symbols and goals – but savaging secessionists is not helpful. I’m a patriot – my credo is “I’m sorry, I’m staying and I’m ready to share” – but I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we conflate nervousness about simple majoritarianism with KKK-type racism. The fact that “racism” is the only word we have to describe a wide spectrum of attitudes is a real (and remediable) problem.

An absence of vision

I think we’ve got to push on with our one state project, but subject to a single (significant) change. We’ve been sold the concept of the “rainbow nation,” but frankly that’s an absurdity. The description assumes that the borders of South Africa make sense and that its citizens have some kind of common bond, like a shared language, culture, religion or mission. It was on this basis that Nassim Taleb defined the nation state, as such, as “Apartheid without the political incorrectness” – but that description was never remotely true in Africa. The borders we are living with today were drawn up in Berlin, in 1886, without the faintest regard for the demographic realities on the ground. The entities they define are hopelessly fractured, again with a handful of exceptions, and South Africa is the leader of the unfortunate pack.

Becoming a nation is beyond us, no matter how hard we try. And it’s also beneath us. The 60 million human animals who happen to be living here – including at least 5 million “foreigners” – have a unique opportunity, courtesy of our tortured history. We’re living in a microcosm of the world as a whole, which is a forbidding burden, but also points to a grand vocation. Like it or not, and wittingly or otherwise, we’re participants in a giant scale experiment in the mechanics of world government. If we can keep on getting along, and getting by, we’ll have completed an improbable journey; from pariah to paragon, from bonfire to beacon, from exemplar of hopelessness to exemplar of hope.

This is not meant to be an apology for the old order in South Africa, let alone a paean to latter day nationalism. Rather it’s a challenge to those on the right side of history to own up to some serious moral and strategic missteps. Being dismissive of the concerns of minorities was one thing; but being blind to (or silent about) the perverse sanctity given to colonial borders was an unpardonable betrayal of true internationalism.

South Africa got transformed, unquestionably for the better, but the lessons of the last fifty years have still not been properly internalized. Progressivism is in deep denial about the resilience of non-class loyalties, and, partly as a result, incapable of articulating a coherent position on either the nature of the nation state or on trans-national wealth redistribution.

An outline of a plan

So how about this, by way of atonement and renewal? What about a gathering of non-doctrinaire progressives, in Maseru, to address the big issues of our time? There’s climate change, obviously, and a (truly universal) basic income grant, plus curbs on population growth and cranked up taxes on the seriously rich – but given the intractability of those topics, and in order to set the scene optimally, I suggest we start with the following:

* Why is Lesotho an independent country; how is it different from the Transkei (and other “bantustans”); and should it be formally incorporated into the RSA?
* How did it happen that in 1989, the very year apartheid ended, the world stood quiescently by as the Balkans got re-Balkanized? How could the left in particular not register the glaring irony of implicitly endorsing separate development in Central Europe even as it savaged the same practice in Southern Africa?
* Allowing that the Palestinians have been dealt a bad hand by history, and are deserving of both a viable, contiguous state of their own and sizable reparations; how can we expect the Israelis to abandon or even compromise their hegemony in the absence of pan Arab recognition of their right to a Jewish majority state, complete with meaningful security guarantees?

There is an obvious alternative, mind you, and that is we just stick with what we know best. With clever analysis, vocal solidarity – and deeply nourishing outrage.

About the Author
Long time member of the world's most despised minority: white, male, straight, affluent, Jewish, South African lawyer (lawyer-turned-businessman actually). Fairly regular op ed contributor to various South African publications, notably Business Day.