Alistair Sparks’ Verwoerdian slip gives me an opportunity to pick up on the issues of accountability, including accountability for our apartheid past.
Evil people know what they are doing. Indirectly, Sparks draws attention to how intentional and bloody-minded the architects and key implementers of apartheid were.
And so they must be held accountable. They must face judgement; they must be subjected to a process where all is laid bare and clear findings are made about their deeds. Even though ‘tactics of transition’ and political considerations may in the end influence the actual punishment, they must be made to answer in public for the system they imposed.
My take is that Sparks’ action in praising Verwoerd was not an accident. He is clever enough to know what the fallout would be, but I don’t think he could stop himself. He was venting his bitterness or what talk show host Hajra Omarjee called “his hostility towards the ANC”. But in doing so, he became less careful, artful or gaurded about his attitudes and consciousness regarding a thoroughly dehumanising and violent system.
His comments also reflect a general sense of disengagement from black people.
Sparks has done us a favour. He has reminded us that black people – together with ardent democrats and anti-racists from other groups – are sometimes and in some senses on their own.
In this regard, it cannot be taken for granted that everyone who happens to be liberal understands the depths of apartheid. It cannot be assumed that, at some points, those of liberal bent do not dismiss or miss the utter seriousness of what happened.
This is not about blame. If I were born into a white and 'liberal' context, I would be in the same boat – unless I proactively opened myself to authentic engagement with black people about the pain of racism. It is about taking responsibility for the present; it relates to seeing things as they are and taking responsibility to work for deeper levels of transformation than we have had so far.
This brings me to the man who is sometimes regarded as the superspook, Niel Barnard and his new book Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss. I again reference Sparks when I say Barnard knew very well and precisely the evil of the apartheid system. He was advisor to the highest decision-makers of the apartheid system, and typically provided the information on which executive decisions regarding repression were based. He played this role in the repressive eighties. This was the period when the Cradock four were killed, when massacres took place, when apartheid assassins roamed at night and when government fuelled the bloodbath between Inkatha and the UDF.
Barnard presents an urbane and sugar-coated view of those times, even as he does concede, when pressed, that he saw the need for a “tough security hand maintaining stability” and the need to “keep the country under control” in those times. As Barnard sees it, he and PW Botha should actually be viewed as the icons of negotiation. He plays up the role that he played in negotiations – it was he rather than De Klerk who was there from the beginning.
The Sparks issue also allows me to refer again to the big men of the old order whose likeness and form are captured in stone or bronze. There are people who would have us believe that the misdeeds of these men can be ascribed to “the times”. In those days, as one caller to a radio station put it, many people were doing it – seizing land, killing off people and treating black people as inferior (a la Cecil John Rhodes). So Rhodes should not be judged by what this caller termed “standards of today”.
But it isn’t true that those driving colonial domination were innocent or naive. People had choices then as they have now. This is why Olive Schreiner condemned Rhodes. She saw him for what he was, a man who knowingly perpetrated evil in the form of atrocities, enslavement and plunder. A man who built his own power through robbing others of their humanity and their lives.
Considering the numbers of people involved in implementing apartheid’s harsher measures, one can ask: why were so few people made to account via the Truth and Reconciliation process or through the application of the criminal justice system. Why is there so much impunity? Small wonder that, according to a report in The New Age recently, Eugene de Kock once said: “(I) just want other people to be here with me (in prison). I don’t deserve to be outside, they deserve to be here. We all deserve to be here”.
Although I use Alistair Sparks’ comments to advance my concerns about accountability, I concur with those who have expressed disgust at his remarks. I deplore the fact that, of all South Africa’s leaders, Sparks chose to doff his hat to Verwoerd, and that he cites only white people among those he considers clever politicians.
I align myself with columnist Onkgopotse Tabane when he tells Sparks in an open letter: “You probably also have no idea what the fuss is about when people are outraged at the Wits SRC President stating that he admires Hitler for his ‘organisational skills’. Your statement is a version of the same.”
When liberals are under pressure and forced to surrender their privileges, (for some) a great gulf develops between their liberalism and their actions in the present. Others, thank heaven, find a deeper meaning of true liberalism – one that aligns with the marginalised, one that calls for sharing of the country’s wealth and one that demands redress for historical wrongs.