Allister Sparks’ comments are a gift to those of us calling for radical change in higher education, says Xolela Mangcu.
In the greater scheme of white revisionism in South Africa, journalist Allister Sparks’s description of Hendrik Verwoerd as a smart man is not entirely surprising.
Over the past couple of decades, several prominent white politicians and journalists have found it easy to speak about the apartheid past with similar carelessness. Not long ago, FW de Klerk told CNN that apartheid was not all that bad, and that black people enjoyed democracy in the homelands. More recently, white students and members of staff at the University of Cape Town have been telling us how wonderful Cecil John Rhodes was for black people, his clear racist policies and murderous actions notwithstanding.
In the middle of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, I received a missive from a certain Ted Smith that reads as follows: “You write in the Sunday Times that black students at UCT shouldn’t have to face a statue of Rhodes on campus every day. So then why should I have to walk past a (tax payer-funded) statue of Mandela everyday as I walk through Sandton? His legacy, thanks to his ANC, is now one of reverse apartheid and a daily reminder of the barbarians who control this country. See? It goes both ways.”
Now, it is really immaterial whether this person was hiding his real identity under a pseudonym or not. For these sentiments are expressed with an amazing brazenness and frequency in a country that is supposed to have waged one of the most storied victories against racism. Put differently, the distance from revisionism to recidivism is no more than a short hop. Also immaterial is whether such racist remarks are part of a deliberate whitewash – pun intended – or just a subliminal Freudian slip. They have become commonplace enough to constitute a new racist culture in South Africa. What Sparks said in public is the stuff of suburban dinner table conversations.
There are some who say I am alarmist when I say that these inflammatory remarks contain in them the makings of what James Baldwin called the “fire next time” in race relations in this country. I plead guilty as charged. For the sake of our children, I would rather be alarmist than complacent. My purpose in this article is not to repeat the moral outrage that has been expressed in reactions to Sparks’ comments – even by those who would no sooner get behind their private walls than repeat the same sentiments in so many different ways. Sparks’ comments are a gift to those of us calling for radical change in higher education. I want to point specifically to the limits of the Western European culture that gave us both Alistair Sparks and Wits SRC president Mcebo Dlamini.
Sparks’ admiration for Verwoerd and Dlamini’s admiration of Hitler may on the face of it seem different because of the different demographics of the individuals who uttered them. I can see Sparks being utterly offended by comparison with someone as “unstable” as Dlamini. But as an intellectual exercise, their statements are rooted in an epistemological and conceptual framework that confuses power-wielding with leadership. This epistemological framework is based on an idea famously advocated by the Victorian scholar Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle essentially immortalised the notion that the history of human societies is the history of great men. His “great man” theory of leadership led to a certain fascination with power-wielders – from Mafia bosses to imperial figures such as Leopoldt II, Bismarck, Rhodes, Mussolini, Hitler.
Thus a 1938 Time magazine, arguably the most influential magazine in the Western world, decided to put Adolf Hitler on its cover as the Man of the Year. Time magazine valorised Hitler just as he was herding helpless Jews to the gas chambers by the millions.
When they were criticised for their decision, Time editors said they were not making a value judgement. All they were doing, they argued, was to offer a description of someone who was able to wield enormous influence over an entire society. Dlamini also said the same thing in his defence, and so did Sparks, who protested that his admiration for Verwoerd’s intelligence should not be confused for an endorsement of the man. How one can quite make a distinction between the two is beyond my grasp. Suffice to say such a distinction would be beyond the grasp of the people whose lives were deformed by the Holocaust and by apartheid.
However much Sparks may protest about being quoted out of context, there is no escaping that he said what he said in an effort to adumbrate his praise on Helen Zille. He certainly won’t fool me.
This conflation of power-wielding and leadership is a mistake that the distinguished scholar James MacGregor Burns sought to correct in his magisterial 1978 book, Leadership. Burns argued that while power-wielding was an empirical concept that could be applied to describe any situation where someone gets others to do as he or she wishes, transformational leadership was a normative, moral concept that should be applied only to acts that elevate the moral condition of a people. That is what distinguishes a Hitler and a Verwoerd, both extraordinary but ultimately evil power-wielders, from someone like Nelson Mandela, whose influence was morally elevating.
Ted Smith will disagree, of course, but in society we allow for such outliers. As the democratic theorist Michael Walzer puts it: “The challenge of democratic societies is to give such outliers a sectarian existence.” What is turning me into an alarmist is that the outliers are beginning to occupy the mainstream of white society through respected politicians and journalists.
And so let me just say three things that Mr Sparks would do well to consider. First, please take to heart James MacGregor Burns’s distinction between power-wielders and leaders. As Burns put it, “all leaders are actual or potential power-wielders, but not all power-holders are leaders”. Second, only in a country steeped in a Eurocentric, racist education can someone as stupid as Verwoerd be called “smart”. Only racist societies reward such stupidity with prime ministerial positions and professorships – Verwoerd was made a professor at 26 at Stellenbosch.
But a little modesty is always required when you rise to be a professor without competition from 90 percent of the population. In short, not only is “smart” relative to the pool of competition, but it is also an expression of a normative conception of the world.
A different political and epistemological framework – which is what transformation in higher education is about – would actually show how stupid Verwoerd actually was. Only someone with half his wits would have thought the way Verwoerd did about the future growth of this country.
The public transportation problems we have are directly related to the fact that Verwoerd really believed that a time would never come when black people would be in the urban areas or own motor cars. Only a stupid individual can think a society can flourish by having only a tiny segment of it receiving education while the rest, as he put it, would remain “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Only a really stupid man could really make-believe that South African could be Balkanised into different homelands, with people on one side of the street belonging to South Africa, and those on the other side belonging to Ciskei.
Only a white journalist reared in a particular epistemological framework can even remotely see Verwoerd as smart. What really worries me though is that these are the same folks who are taken to be the intellectual standard bearers in our universities and our media. The real losers are our students, if Mcebo Dlamini is any indication. Those who have rightly criticised Dlamini should now turn their critical gaze on the intellectual parentage in our universities and media that gives us such warped views of the world.
By Xolela Mangcu ,* Xolela Mangcu is associate professor of sociology at UCT.
This article was first published by Cape Times.