Playing the Nazi card

ANC propagandists who compare the apartheid state to the Third Reich are abusing history to score political points.

A uniformed "apartheid general" gives a Nazi-type salute to Tony Leon while thanking the Democratic Party leader for shielding him from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A strongly built man wearing an armband with the swastika-like, triple-seven emblem of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging emblazoned on it carries a banner proclaiming that the newly-formed Democratic Alliance "protects us against the kaffirs". Sandwiched between the two is Helen Zille, provincial minister of education in the Western Cape government, her arm raised toward Leon in what might be a Nazi-style salute. These caricatures in a pamphlet issued by the African National Congress in the Western Cape during the run-up to the December 5 local government elections are just the most recent example of the ANC's inclination to damn liberals as neo-Nazis.

One of the most blatant manifestations of this tendency was Dr Bukelwa Mbulawa's speech delivered to Parliament shortly after her election as an ANC MP in 1999. "There is no place for the resurgence of neo-Nazism as espoused by the DP under the uninspiring leadership of Tony Leon," she declared. In his bid to become leader of the Opposition in Parliament, Leon had abandoned the "noble principles" espoused by former stalwarts of the DP such as Helen Suzman and Zach de Beer and welcomed conservatives, racists and extreme right-wing activists into the party. Mbulawa even named the newcomers who had polluted the ranks of the DP with neo-Nazism and "white fascism": former National Party cabinet ministers Rina Venter and Tertius Delport, former newspaper editor Nigel Bruce and KwaZulu-Natal farmer and DP politician Graham McIntosh. Her speech was especially barbed because in the previous Parliament Mbulawa had been a DP MP, but was persuaded to join the ANC shortly before the 1999 general election.

About a month later ANC national executive member Dumisani Makhaye took up Mbulawa's theme in an article published in The Mercury. Noting with approval that his political colleagues in Parliament had branded the DP as neo-Nazi or neo-fascist, he accused the party - and its predecessors - of proclaiming the sanctity of private property but of having been conspicuously silent on the destruction of black property rights by the former government. "[The] DP has clearly and openly shifted to the extreme right, even in relation to the National Party, and has at every turn attacked the rights of working people with a special venom," he declared. "Whether fascism will not arrive in South Africa because of the DP or in spite of it is open to debate."

These denigrations of the DP - and its partner in the new Democratic Alliance, the New National Party - are asserted or insinuated as matters of undisputed fact. No attempt is made to reconcile the allegations with the DP's avowedly liberal principles. Makhaye's pronouncement that the DP and its predecessors were silent when black property rights were violated takes no account of repeated protests against forced removals by Helen Suzman when she represented the Progressive Party and the Progressive Federal Party in parliament for 30 years. Nor does it acknowledge the role of Peter Brown of the Liberal Party - another of the DP's political antecedents - who campaigned against the eviction of black tenants from farms and the forced removal of black people in Natal and was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act.

Mbulawa's speech, like Makhaye's article and the ANC pamphlet, can, of course, be dismissed as unrepresentative of ANC thinking, an excessive rhetorical indulgence that should not be taken seriously. But that would be a mistake. They are logical extensions of two theses that are deeply embedded in the ANC's collective mindset. The first, which dates back over 30 years, equates the National Party with Hitler's National Socialist or Nazi Party and apartheid with Nazism. The second, and much more recent thesis, equates opposition to the ANC government's policy of transformation and demographic representivity, however carefully qualified, as nostalgia for the apartheid past and thus as evidence of neo-Nazism.

Perhaps the most important and sustained expression of the thesis equating the NP (which governed South Africa from 1948 to 1994) with the Nazi Party of the Third Reich and apartheid with Nazism is contained in Brian Bunting's book, The Rise of the South African Reich. Now retired, Bunting, a dedicated communist and major theoretician, is a former MP. He was elected as a special representative of blacks in 1952 and then, after a long period of exile, in 1994 as member of the ANC.

First published in 1964 and revised and republished at least twice, his book documented the anti-Semitism of the NP in the 1930s and 1940s and the influence on its thinking of Nazism in a chapter entitled "Followers of Hitler". It noted that in 1940 the NP in the Transvaal "actually incorporated in its constitution a provision debarring Jews from membership". Another chapter entitled "South Africa's Nuremberg Laws" drew parallels between the Third Reich's racist laws and those of South Africa under National Party rule. As Bunting noted, apartheid-inspired legislation sanctioned racial discrimination, enforced segregation from cradle to grave except when blacks were needed as farm labourers and factory workers and as cooks and nannies, proscribed interracial sex and marriage, and - it should be added - sought to deprive blacks of South African nationality by imposing the nationality of ersatz tribal states on them.

Naturally Bunting's book was banned in South Africa. Copies were nevertheless smuggled in and widely read in original and samizdat forms. It was also read and discussed by the ANC in exile. In a statement to the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid in 1964 - the year in which Bunting's book was first published - Thabo Mbeki, then a young man in exile in Britain, alluded to the Nazi connection. Pleading for intervention on behalf of the ANC leaders indicted in the Rivonia Trial, including his father, Govan, he said: "Yet today he [Govan Mbeki] stands accused and his accusers, who only yesterday found glory in Nazi Germany, stand in the full twilight of their cynical and inhuman power."

Nearly 36 years later, as South Africa's second democratically elected president, Mbeki returned to that theme. "The destruction of the Nazi and fascist regimes in the world was one of the principal outcomes of the Second World War," he said in his opening speech to the national conference on racism in September. "The apartheid system constituted a latter-day manifestation of the crime against humanity that Nazism and fascism had imposed on the European, Asian and wider world more than a decade earlier."

In the same speech Mbeki appeared to minimise white opposition to apartheid. After arguing that the black oppressed could not distinguish between whites who "elected to enforce a racist system and those who were the involuntary beneficiaries of racism", he observed that "very few of our white compatriots broke ranks with the system of white minority rule to join the black millions who were in rebellion against racist rule." To laughter and cheers from the predominantly black and pro-ANC audience, he added, "You may not have been against us, which we only know from what you say, but you were not with us, which we know because you were not with us in the struggle."
Taken as a whole these comments seem to set at naught the actions of whites who chose to oppose apartheid within the parameters of the law, voting against the NP, challenging its buttressing ideology from pulpits, lecterns and newsrooms, participating in protest vigils and protest marches (at the risk of being abused, spat at and even physically attacked) and defying summonses to report for national service. The unspoken implication was that all but a handful of pro-ANC whites were active proponents or silent accomplices to fascism

Another speaker at the conference on racism, the articulate and erudite ANC frontbencher Pallo Jordan, reinforced that view when he scathingly compared the "collective amnesia" of whites about apartheid with the holocaust denial of many Germans who lived through Nazism. Jordan was responding to a white member of the National Union of Mineworkers who had launched an attack on affirmative action from the conference floor. Jordan later made it clear that he was only comparing the phenomenon of mass denial in the two countries, not equating apartheid policies with the holocaust itself. According to Brewer's Dictionary of the 20th Century Phrase and Fable the word "holocaust" is defined specifically as the extermination of six million European Jews by the Germans under Hitler.

Jordan was right to make his disclaimer, for the missing element in the equation of apartheid with Nazism has always been the absence in South Africa of evidence of a deliberate plan to exterminate blacks comparable to the Nazis' final solution of the "Jewish problem". ANC minister Kader Asmal attempted to grapple with that problem in the 1996 book that he co-authored with his wife Louise and Trinidad-born Ronald Suresh Roberts, Reconciliation Through Truth: a Reckoning of Apartheid's Criminal Governance. They wrote of "striking similarities" and "substantial overlap" between the two policies. They conceded, however, that "the systematic process of hi-tech Nazi exterminations had no equivalent in South Africa" and that apartheid was not "a duplication of Nazi policies". But they reasoned: "apartheid nonetheless amounted, under international law, to a form of genocide . . . There were no gas chambers, but there can be genocide without gas chambers, which is what many apartheid dumping grounds achieved."

But comparing the National Party to Nazis plays too well on the international stage to let such historical niceties get in the way. In June 1992, after the massacre of more than 40 Boipatong residents, an event which led the ANC to break contact with the De Klerk government, Nelson Mandela said: "Just as the Nazis in Germany killed people simply because they were Jews, the National Party regime is killing our people simply because they are black." (It later transpired that invaders from the nearby KwaMadala Hostel were responsible for the massacre without the alleged police involvement.) Less than a year later, in an address to the British Parliament, Mandela likened the "pernicious system of racism in South Africa" to the "similar system in Nazi Germany". In his evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Aboobaker Ismail, former head of Umkhonto special operations, justified the ANC bombings in which civilians died by comparing them with Allied bombing of German cities during the Second World War. These were considered legitimate targets, he said, because the Allies were seen as "liberators from the Nazi beast".

The equation of the NP with the Nazi Party now provides the rationale for the ANC attack on the merger between the New National Party and the Democratic Party. The ANC characterises the pact as an attempt by right-wingers, in the words of ANC propaganda chief Smuts Ngonyama, "to come together for a final onslaught". According to Ngonyama "The New National Party comes from the old racist National Party and the Democratic Party comes from the old United Party. Both their ancestors have been involved in quarrels on how best to oppress the African majority. That quarrel has ended and the two parties now totally agree that the African ruling party should be rigorously opposed at all costs."

The ANC's inclination to smear its white opponents as overt or covert neo-fascists might be an effective propaganda stratagem. But it is based on an inaccurate interpretation and application of history. The National Party certainly had a period of flirtation with Nazism. But in the end its leader during the war years (1939-45), D.F. Malan, fought and won a political battle for the soul of Afrikaners against the overtly fascist movements seeking their allegiance. By the 1948 election the NP had established itself as the premier political voice of Afrikaner nationalism. The fascist movements - Ossewabrandwag, the Grey Shirts and the New Order - were withering on the sidelines. The NP rejected the Führer principle, the idea of an infallible leader. Instead it practised democracy within its own ranks and advocated a restricted form of parliamentary democracy.

The rejection of Führerism, a fundamental tenet of Nazism, had an important consequence: NP leaders who had served their purpose or who had overrun their time were prevailed upon to give way to new men (Malan in 1954, B. J. Vorster in 1978 and P.W. Botha in 1989 come to mind). The advent of the three men who led the NP between 1966 and 1944, Vorster, Botha and F.W. De Klerk, was marked in each case by a new surge of reformism, taking the NP further away from the original apartheid doctrines. While powerful or kragdadige Afrikaners led the NP, none attained the status of Führer and none was able to lead the Afrikaner people to a Götterdämmerung. Instead there was a gradual process of reform and renewal, leading - in response to demographic, economic and political pressures - to abandonment of fundamental apartheid doctrines and eventually to De Klerk's momentous decision to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

While Malan rejected the fascist notion of dictatorship by a Führer in favour of a limited form of democracy for whites, the United Party of J.C. Smuts led South Africa into the war against Nazi Germany. Whatever its limitations as a vehicle for democracy in South Africa, the UP was a strong opponent of fascism in Europe and its local variants, particularly the Ossewabrandwag. And whatever his deficiencies as a reformer within South Africa, Smuts was not an admirer of Nazism. Acclaimed as an international statesman abroad, he helped draw up the UN charter and recognised that segregation had fallen on evil days.

Another pivotal Nazi notion, expansionist wars against neighbouring states to obtain lebensraum, was not adopted by the NP. On the contrary, as Heribert Adam noted in his seminal book on apartheid, Modernising Racial Domination, apartheid ideologues wanted to sacrifice land to neighbouring states in order to reduce the number of blacks within a territorially truncated South Africa. Military incursions into neighbouring states in the 1970s and 1980s was prompted by an attempt to create a cordon sanitaire against ANC guerrillas, not a quest for lebensraum.

Though some Afrikaner leaders flirted transiently with Nazism, Christianity was a far more important and enduring influence on the NP's ideological evolution. Long before the ferment of the 1980s when successive Afrikaner leaders concluded that apartheid was neither politically viable nor scripturally justifiable and when Afrikaner theologians were rejecting as heresy earlier attempts by their brethren to vindicate apartheid, Christianity critically influenced the evolution of apartheid ideology. As the Afrikaner political analyst Hermann Giliomee observed recently, Afrikaner theologians and intellectuals sought to provide apartheid with "an ethical basis".

Three early but seminal influences were the writings in the 1950s of Afrikaner theologians Ben Marais (Colour:Unsolved Problem of the West), A.D. Keet (Whither South Africa?) and the poet and intellectual N.P. Van Wyk Louw (Liberale Nasionalise). Two common themes ran through their publications: rejection of oppression as the solution to the perceived threat to Afrikanerdom by the black majority and, as a corollary, postulation of complete territorial segregation as an ethical alternative to baaskap. Long before NP politicians punted the notion of separate or parallel development, Van Wyk Louw was writing about a fifty-year plan to transform existing policy into one aiming at the eventual formation of two states, one for blacks and one for whites. That was his "new liberalism", his version of the political notion, "separate but equal". Van Wyk Louw's influence on Afrikaner thinking was profound and continued to percolate through Afrikanerdom long after his death in 1970. Afrikaner survival was not enough. As Gilomee put it, Van Wyk Louw stood for voortbestaan in geregtigheid or survival in justice. It became a powerful notion in Afrikanerdom, one that was taken up by a succession of Afrikaner religious and intellectual leaders in later years. Later flagbearers were Beyers Naude, of the Christian Institute, Fred Van Wyk of the Institute of Race Relations, and Johan Heyns, a moderator of the Nederduitse Geformeerde Kerk.

The trail that they started out on led after much soul-searching to the rejection of the central tenets of apartheid, including - on the grounds of impracticality - the idea of grand apartheid or territorial partition. It ended with the negotiated settlement that marked the birth of a non-racial South Africa.

Survival in justice is, of course, the complete antithesis of survival through suppression and subjugation. The onus is on those who equate Afrikaner nationalism with Nazism to demonstrate irrefutably that it entertained genocidal intentions towards blacks in the same way as the Nazis advocated the final solution for the "Jewish Problem". It is not enough to point to the massive disruption and suffering wrought by forced removals. Evil though relocation at gunpoint is, it is not evidence of genocide, particularly when the authorities responded to adverse publicity with attempts to improve the plight of the "discarded people", as the victims of relocation became known. Close study of forced removal in South Africa identifies the objective as a belated and futile attempt at territorial segregation of the races, not a genocidal campaign against black people. It is true, of course, that blacks were made to bear the cost, in terms of human suffering and lost lives, for plans devised by apartheid social engineers. But the reams of theorising about apartheid contain no equivalent of Mein Kampf sanctioning the mass murder of people deemed to be inferior.

If the apostles of apartheid were as ruthless and efficient as the Nazis - which is what the equation of the NP with the Nazi Party implies - it would be logical to anticipate a reduction in black numbers. That is not the case, however. Giliomee, quoting the demographer Jan Sadie, notes that the black population grew twice as fast in the last decade of white government as in the decade before the advent to power of the NP in 1948. Black life expectancy rose from 38 to 64 and infant mortality declined from 175 to 55 per 1000 births, he adds in an article published in Beeld. In retrospect it is clear that the faster than anticipated growth in the black population was a major factor in gradual loss of control over black people, particularly in the townships, by the white minority government.

The increase in coloured life expectancy and the decrease in coloured infant mortality is even more spectacular. According to figures quoted by Giliomee in his 1996 presidential address to the Institute of Race Relations, between 1950 and 1980 the life expectancy of coloured men rose by ten years and that of coloured women by 15, while coloured infant mortality fell by two-thirds between 1970 and 1985.

Devoid of the notions of Führerprinzip - the doctrine which lauds dictatorship, expansionist wars for lebensraum and genocide as a final solution, apartheid cannot, and should not, be equated with Nazism. The South African Communist Party (SACP) is closer to the mark when it describes the situation in pre-liberation South Africa as "colonialism of a special type". It has much in common with kindred forms of colonialism, in which the colonised society is structured and exploited in the interests of the colonisers. In a recent speech to the Justice Colloquium Penuell Maduna, the justice minister, concedes as much when he describes apartheid as "an offshoot of colonialism".

Many of the policies pursued under apartheid - control over the movement of indigenous people, denial or restriction of their civil rights, corralling of them into reservations, and placing them on the lowest rung of a racial hierarchy dominated by whites - are similar to those of colonial powers and settler governments elsewhere in the world. In apartheid South Africa, however, as the SACP notes in The Path to Power, the colonial ruling class and the oppressed colonial people were located "within a single country". Provided one recognises the importation of slaves to the Americas as a feature of colonialism, that definition can be held to apply to the Deep South in the United States before racial segregation was swept away by the civil rights campaign. Speeches by NP politicians when they began to implement apartheid policies after the NP's 1948 election victory show that their frame of reference was not Nazi Germany but the Deep South in the 1950s.

If there is scant historical justification for equating the NP's apartheid policy with Nazism, there is still less justification for characterising the policies of the DP, the NNP and, hence, the Democratic Alliance as neo-Nazi. Their policies endorse the values enshrined in the 1996 Constitution, including equal rights and opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of race. Their agenda is not vastly different from that of ANC. Though they question the means deployed by the ANC, particularly its commitment to equality of outcomes and its re-emphasis of race as a criterion for differential treatment, their vision of the future is essentially similar: a non-racial, democratic and open society. They share the same declared ends but believe their route is safer and shorter. They are actively seeking to recruit black people to their ranks, not to suppress them.

Perhaps they have attracted the vitriol of ANC propagandists because they are feared as potentially successful competitors for the black vote. The ANC, which still regards itself as the sole and authentic representative of the people, is demonising the liberal opposition just as it demonised its rivals during the liberation struggle. By constantly comparing liberals to the genocidal Nazis, the governing party hopes to inculcate in them a paralysing sense of shame and to undermine the opposition's constitutional right to exist.