No, Zuma was not worse than Verwoerd. But you have the right to say so
Zuma is not off the hook, but comparing him with apartheid leaders shuts down a more complex question
For those who do not follow the Afrikaans press, you would have missed an interesting debate between North West University’s (NWU) political science professor, Theo Venter, and the Umkhonto we Sizwe Veterans Association’s (MKMVA) spokesperson, Carl Niehaus.
It goes something like this:
Venter makes the claim that the Jacob Zuma period in the presidency was worse than that of apartheid-era presidents and prime ministers going back to 1910. Niehaus loses his cool, insisting Zuma was a freedom fighter chosen democratically by the people of South Africa and that by making such a nonsense comparison, Venter demonstrates that he is an unrehabilitated racist.
The MKMVA and its allies will demand an inquiry into the conduct of Professor Venter. The management of NWU seems to oblige; there will be an investigation. For days afterwards the debate continues on social media, in print and on the airwaves. For many white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, including some with very liberal credentials, Theo Venter tells the truth and he should “staan vas” against his critics.
There are all kinds of dilemmas with the terms and substance of this debate. First there is the odious comparison of white supremacists who devastated the lives of multiple generations of black South Africans, with a venal, corrupted liberation hero who nevertheless sacrificed much of his earlier life for our freedom.
Here is the problem with comparisons of this kind: not only does comparing draw moral equivalence where there is none, it shuts down a more complex and necessary debate.
I felt the same way when my friend and mentor Dr Mamphele Ramphele made the claim that education is now worse than it was under apartheid. I understand what she is trying to say but the comparison is flawed – my students were mowed down, imprisoned and tortured by the apartheid government; there is no way that such a comparison is valid at all. And yet we insist on comparing, sometimes for dramatic effect and sometimes because of moral flaws in the reasoning of those who compare.
It is a great pity that in this debate the person drawing attention to the immorality of Venter’s comparison is Carl Niehaus, a man whose very public moral failings give him no grounds for rectitude of any kind.
It was the same Niehaus who famously promised to repay recurring debts using an inheritance expected from the demise of his mother; Magrietha Niehaus turned out to be alive and kicking in a Johannesburg home for the elderly.
Yet here you have one corrupt person defending another corrupt person against an argument that Zuma’s leadership was worse than that of DF Malan or HF Verwoerd.What the NWU professor revealed, in the course of the debate, is the troubling ways in which many white South Africans continue to think of apartheid.
There is still no sense among our white brothers and sisters of the dispossession, degradation and humiliation imposed on black South Africans over centuries and how that systemic oppression explains the poverty and inequality of the present.
That is why it is so difficult to have a sensible debate on the land question. White South Africans really believe that the land they occupy is their own, that it was obtained fairly, and that they worked really hard for everything they possess. Black people, in other words, are being irrational; if only they had worked as hard, everyone would have had ample land and adequate education and healthy bodies.
When apartheid is regarded as mere segregation and its policies as unfortunate mistakes that were corrected by the last white presidents, then one is capable of making offensive comparisons of the kinds heard in this revealing debate.
None of this lets Jacob Zuma off the hook.
He was indeed a corrupt and incompetent presidential leader who caused great harm to the economy of South Africa and the wellbeing of its people. But unlike his white predecessors, Zuma is being held to account in the courts of the land and might well be found guilty and spend time in prison. The last white leader presiding over apartheid would, on the other hand, receive the Nobel Prize and a Cape Town thoroughfare named after him. Go figure.
Beyond the debate, what should also concern the public is the decision of the NWU management, under political pressure no doubt, to launch an investigation into Professor Venter’s remarks. That is wrong. Venter can say what he thinks in this democracy, whether it is a personal opinion or a position drawn from research. As a South African citizen, he enjoys freedom of speech; as a scholar, he also enjoys academic freedom.
What the NWU leadership should tell Carl Niehaus and his ilk is this: “Good points in the debate. Now take a hike.”