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With CHOGM 2018 round the corner, former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford asks this challenging question

There was a time when South Africa presented itself as a model for reconciliation and political change through good-will gradualism. When the appalling apartheid regime agreed to abolish itself, all South Africans had an equal free vote. President Mandela led “a rainbow nation, at peace with itself and the world.”

Now, after more than two decades of uninterrupted rule by Mandela’s own party, is this tone of inclusive optimism giving way to a vengeful snarl? No-one exemplifies this snarl better than Julius Malema, a busy vociferous lumpen-Marxist demagogue. Here is Mr Malema in March calling for a mayor in the Nelson Mandela Bay area to be “removed” because he has a white skin: “Go after a white man … We are starting with this whiteness … We are cutting the throat of whiteness.”

Mr Malema is an MP in South Africa’s parliament. That parliament has now voted by a large majority to support a motion he proposed to change South Africa’s constitution to allow land to be seized and redistributed without compensation. Civil war? Disaster? Not yet at least, as constitutional law experts ponder what might be done to effect this policy.

What’s going on here?

Between 1987 and 1991 as apartheidat last ran out of road, I was First Secretary at the UK Embassy in South Africa. My youthful Embassy colleague was John Sawers, who went on to have a much grander career than me and ended as Chief of MI6.

My own job was to find out what I could about the ideological intricacies of the then South African political spectrum. This meant getting to know people from the mainly ‘white’ Afrikaner ruling National Party and other even more nationalist parties/groups at one end of that spectrum, through the ANC and its South African Communist Party (SACP) allies and on to the ‘black’ nationalist/radical movements at the other end: the mainly Zulu Inkatha party, the Black Consciousness tendency (the Azanian People’s Organisation, AZAPO) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

These different organisations disagreed on profound issues of human identity. What were South Africa and its problems about? What in principle should be done about them? What was the core issue? Race? Class? Colonialism? Freedom? Prosperity?

Very roughly speaking, three rival views of ‘race’ were in play:
• ‘Multi-racial’ meant accepting that separate races existed and devising a constitutional/political balance between them. This was favoured by Inkatha and in a sense by the apartheidAfrikaners themselves. Some radical Afrikaners favoured abandoning South Africa and creating a modest homeland for themselves.

• ‘Non-racial’ meant accepting that different races existed but refusing to take this into account in political/constitutional arrangements: all people are equal, one person one vote etc. This was the policy of the ANC/Communists.
• ‘Anti-racial’ meant rejecting the very idea of separate races: “There is only one race, the human race”. The Pan Africanist Congress focused on the injustice of colonialism from a wide African nationalist position that championed ‘indigenous’ Africans: “Italy for the Italians! Russia for the Russians! Why Africa for everybody?”

Black Consciousness activists, whose inspirational leader Steve Biko had been murdered in prison in 1977, represented a sort of hybrid view.  They saw ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’ and ‘race’ as a state of mind, rather than a phenomenon of biology. Their slogan was “Free the land – free the mind!”Only toppling psychological ideas of supremacy and inferiority could lead to true liberation for all South Africans, albeit with radical policies aimed at addressing historical wrongs. They saw the name of their own country as itself a demeaning colonialist creation: they called it Azania instead.

Why does any of this matter now? It matters because in South Africa and in almost every country of the world it is impossible to avoid political outcomes that take an explicit or implicit view of human identity as part of a wider view of history.

In South Africa the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa, comes from a Black Consciousness rather than ANC/Communist intellectual tradition. He is also a successful businessman. Hence President Ramaphosa’s careful words on the land issue-of-issues, aiming to reassure global investors that the calamitous policies of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwewon’t be the model for land reform in South Africa:

“The taking of land from the indigenous people in this country was the original sin … This is a profound responsibility that has been given to our generation …

In dealing with this complex matter, we will not make the mistakes that others have made … We will not allow smash-and-grab interventions …

We must see accelerated land redistribution as an opportunity, not as a threat.”

In other words, President Ramaphosa agrees that South Africa cannot be at peace with itself until the deepest historic injustices of land ownership have been faced, and in some way redressed. Malema’s rhetoric is revolting. But he’s on to something profound.

Thus, the question. What do we all do with our history?

Down the centuries the world has seen empires come and go. When World War I started much of the planet was dominated by different broadly European empires: British, German, Dutch, Belgian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish and Russian empires. Of these formidable powers, only the Russian empire now remains, in the uneasy sprawling form of Russiaitself. These imperial overlords were, roughly speaking, ‘white.’ The vast majority of the inhabitants of their colonies were ‘black’ or ‘brown:’ these mighty empires in varying degrees all had histories of exploiting slavery.

Almost all their former colonies are now separate states and UN members, each building its own identity and policies. Yet the consequences of history linger on. In attitudes, land ownership, wealth, opportunities, traditions, schools, roads, and so on. In most cases, these countries’ very land borders were defined not by the ‘indigenous’ people living there but by faraway European colonial map-makers watching each other with a beady eye. What in all this should be changed? Gradualism or revolution?

These questions arise in Europe itself. Communist Polandwas a Soviet/Russian colony. When communism collapsed in favour of modern market democracy, the leaders of Solidarity drew a ‘thick line’ against punishing or even excluding former communists active in Soviet oppression. Nearly three decades later hot debate continues. Yes, this pragmatic approach has seen Poland surge forward by most economic indicators. But was it morally just?

Thus 53 Commonwealth Heads of Government representing over two billion people gather this Spring in London. There will be all the usual lofty talk of shared values and ambitions expressed in the usual shifty comparative language: a more sustainable future; a fairer future; a more secure future. All proclaimed with studious care not to create new international bureaucracy to do anything really different.

This CHOGM will have added interest: Commonwealth leaders will be intrigued to find out what the UK plans to do with trade and investment as part of Brexit. Will the UK be open to radically new ideas, such as opening its markets to cheap Commonwealth food products outside the EU’s odious Common Agricultural Policy? Or will Brexit be more of the same wearing different legal trousers?

As CHOGM leaders tuck into their excellent banquet in London hosted by HM The Queen as Head of The Commonwealth, what will they think they’re doing? Doffing their caps to cunning British legacy ‘whiteness’? Making the best of the cards history has dealt them in an optimistic, inclusive (and cynical) spirit?



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