Sometimes a technical definition of something matters significantly less than the demonstrable effects it has had. If Harvey Weinstein is acquitted of the various rape charges he’s facing, that would have no implications for the women he has abused (if he is indeed guilty, as I believe he is).
Defending conduct, or a system of oppression, by appealing to the fact that that conduct or system doesn’t meet some technical definition simply adds further insult to injury, and sometimes also serves to confirm that you’re just as insensitive or cruel as you appear to be.
So it is with South Africa’s last apartheid president FW de Klerk Foundation’s pained denial that apartheid constituted a crime against humanity, as well as a Democratic Alliance, main opposition party Member of Parliament’s endorsement of that view.
Whether former DA leader Helen Zille also endorses the view or was merely retweeting something of interest I’ll leave for you to decide, although my previous comments on her colonialism tweets are relevant here also, in that a-contextual insensitivity is something she’s displayed in the past.
The de Klerk Foundation asks “But was apartheid a crime against humanity?”, and you’d think we could just say “yes” and move on because we’re living in a country with vast wealth disparity, unequal employment, Penny Sparrow and so forth.
Then, we’d carry on talking about the best way to fix these things – whether Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Commission (BB-BEE) is implemented correctly; whether we should focus on a class or on race; hate speech legislation; or any one of the other members of a long list of policy levers.
Or, one could say something like: “well, technically apartheid doesn’t meet the threshold for being a crime against humanity, because the evil Russians rigged the United Nations vote. And, by the way, look over there! at the nasty things that other people have done, and at Julius Malema’s insults! FW de Klerk, I’d have you remember, ‘dedicated his entire presidency to the abolition of apartheid’!”
That last quote is legitimate, by the way, and is difficult to reconcile with the FW de Klerk that called a referendum to ask his fellow whites whether apartheid should be ended, seeing as that doesn’t scream personal dedication to me.
I don’t think he should be a guest of honor at the State of the Nation address, have roads named after him, or have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but I’m happy to let all that go. And, I don’t think Malema should bring Parliament into disrepute in the way that he does.
But FW de Klerk – and whites in general – got off lightly in the negotiated settlement, and still benefit from apartheid. It adds no value to the conversation to say that apartheid doesn’t meet an essentially arbitrary definition, because all that does is to tell black South Africans that they should “get over it”, and, in this case, be thankful that they weren’t sent to the Gulag instead – which is what the Russians would have done to them.
I don’t often agree with the South African Council of Churches – partly because they lost their spine quite a while back, and rarely say anything of consequence these days – but this call for the de Klerk Foundation to retract his statement is compelling.
*On February 17, FW de Klerk withdrew the statement, apologizing “for the confusion, anger and hurt that it caused”.