What Sparks said in public is the stuff of suburban dinner table conversations – Xolela Mangcu

Xolela Mangcu 1Rather alarmist than complacent

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.

24 thoughts on “What Sparks said in public is the stuff of suburban dinner table conversations – Xolela Mangcu”

  1. integration requires that we are able to acknowledge all characteristics of others…the age-old stuff of negating all positive characteristics (and indeed even prohibiting their mention) on the basis of the glaring negative attributes and behaviors others may have and display is, I suspect, a cornerstone of fascist culture ..so now, as in our ugly past, we seek to control and vilify utterances on the basis of currently nationalistic imperatives .that masquerade as humanist imperatives.. who , may I ask, is served by this , except of course the new dominators who try to reestablish hegemony… be brave, South Africa! I hope our children are free to admire qualities in humans who may have also had horrid qualities and did or will do terrible things ..and not be persecuted for doing so

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is it possible that a professor can be THAT stupid? Sparks is a journalist, not a politician. Journalists report facts while politicians distort facts. Fact is that Verwoerd was highly intelligent i. e. clever. He was an academic of note and became professor in a discipline not that different from that of Prof. Mangcu. He achieved this by the tender age of 26. Prof. Mangcu should be able to appreciate this a an indication of intelligence/cleverness particularly if he compares it to the academic records of Malema (made martic by the age of 21) and Zuma (never made matric). Verwoerd was clever and he was a politician. That makes him a clever politician whether you like it or not. It also does not express admiration. It merely states a fact. I tried to keep it simple so that even professors can follow the logic.


  2. Sorry guys : what Sparks said can ONLY AND ONLY be judged upon the very meaning Sparks HIMSELF ALL ALONE MEANT for it, and NOT AT ALL on all sort of misinterpretations, reinterpretations, stupidities, ineptitude, let alone, paranoiac emotional reactions of “right”, “left”, “liberal”, “conservative”, anti-this, anti-that, pro-that, pro-this, and so on …
    And that goes as well for WHATEVER WHOEVER SAYS … 🙂 🙂 🙂
    Now of course, many would have much preferred a … stupid … Verwoerd …
    But then, as it happened, and that was NO LESS than God’s action, Verwoerd was clever …
    So were many many other politicians who were hated by many …
    However, hating someone, so sorry, need NOT necessarily make that person stupid … 🙂 🙂 🙂
    Perhaps, Attila, for instance, was more clever than Mandela : after all, Attila managed nearly two millennia ago to come from Asia to the middle of Europe on horses, conquered everybody, killed nearly everybody, and nearly conquered even ancient Rome …
    The Germans, for instance, who no one calls stupid of lazy, did NOT manage to go from Berlin to Moscow less than a century ago, even with tanks, let alone on horses …
    The Vortrekkers, on the other hand, DID come from the Cape to Transvaal with ox-wagons …
    And so on …
    So that, try – no matter how HARD it may be for you, and GROW UP : to be “clever” need not always mean to be “wise”, let alone to be “good” …
    After all, to be “good” is one of by far the most SUBJECTIVE and EMOTIONAL qualities …
    No wonder that those who are not quite grown up can hardly at all handle it … 🙂 🙂 🙂


  3. Mr Mangcu
    You must be a clever man to be an associate professor but you are also a liar (Hitler did not start killing the Jews until sometime after the 1938 Times cover) and obviously a self avowed Stalinist, neither of which diminish your intellect. So despite you lies and your politics you are still a clever man! The same could be said of Verwoerd!

    I am not an apartheid supporter – there is no doubt that Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha lead this Nation down a dead end street and created a weapon of hatred which you use so competently. (so did Eugene Tereblanche for that matter). But there are some inescapable facts that not even you cannot ignore.

    1) Globalization was always going to occur. Like osmosis, it is a transfer of knowledge, skills and technology from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. It results in significant but stressful changes in the population being globalized. Colonization was just an early form of globalization. The unfortunate part of this is that this process was interrupted by the 3 World Wars.
    Had this process not been interrupted and politicized by the Cold War it would have been much better for all involved.

    One of the realities of this process is that the less developed party is prone to domination by the more developed party – this happened the world over. Remember, that 200 years ago, the wheel was a foreign concept to the indigenous inhabitants of this country. Of course this breeds both superiority and inferiority complexes which have to be eliminated.

    2) The simple truth is that Rhodes was a visionary and loved Africa and the Africans. He wanted to develop Africa from Cape to Cairo and certainly did much more for Africa than that tyrant Shaka who you no doubt admire. (Dingaan was probably more of a hero than Shaka.) Your problem is that you judge Rhodes by modern day thinking and not by the thinking of when he was alive. Abraham Lincoln was more of a racist than Rhodes ever was. And there are well recorded quotes from both that prove this statement. Unfortunately, all you concentrate on is the negatives.

    3) Rhodes and his ilk were the reason why the Black population of Southern Africa exploded after the Boer War. They brought order, healthcare, European know how, crops, cattle and sheep to the country which had a huge positive impact on the sustainability of life among the Black population of the country. Your very existence is almost certainly as a result of this process and people like Rhodes.

    So think again – and try to stop blaming your woes on a person who died over 100 years ago.
    That is the trap of the victim, the loser; winners don’t think like that. Your attack on Alistair Sparks who has apposed injustice all his life, for a throwaway comment that never intended hurt is exercise in futility. Your hero Jacob Zuma/the ANC has done more damage to the people of this country in the last 10 years than you can ever imagine. But maybe that is the cost of the dead end street we were lead down!

    You wear your bitterness well! Its almost as you are following in Verwoerd’s footsteps!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. ” (Hitler did not start killing the Jews until sometime after the 1938 Times cover)”
      You have ignored Kristallnacht, November 1938. So you are wrong.
      Even if one might argue about a month or three, one way or another, that clearly does NOT make Prof Mangcu a liar. Your piece is a lot more inaccurate than his.

      And I say that even if one may question the conclusions he draws after he saying,
      “… 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.”
      How much more would that apply to someone who ‘loves’ Hitler, rather than merely saying, with obvious reservations, that he was ‘smart’?

      The H-man has more closet admirers than we can be comfortable with, I think.


      1. I certainly didn’t ignore Kristallnaght which was in November ’38. The Time Magazine cover was in Jan 1938 and the the real killing only started in 1941. So my facts are absolutely accurate.

        Mangcu’s credibility has always been an issue, not only in this piece and I am certainly not alone in this view.

        I think there are many more admirers of Stalin who was just as bad as Hilter.


        1. OK. How about Dachau then? (1933) Of course, nobody died there, did they?
          And the the ‘Nuremburg Laws’ (1935) that made it all legal?
          Sure, all that wasn’t what you call the “real killing”, just kind of ‘practice runs’, eh?

          You are doing exactly what you accuse others of – making a ‘bad’, then dodging about.


          1. Wow, you really know how to split hairs. Mangcu said.
            “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.” You can say what you like a be as obtuse as you like but this is not a statement of fact. The gas chambers were not being used In Jan ’38 . Get you fact right and read your history before taking me on! Otherwise don’t waste my time!


          2. Just to set the record straight (after Hugh’s reply of May 17),
            the Time Magazine in question seems to have been 02 Jan 1939 (NINE not eight), although the ‘Man-of-the-Year’ award itself was decided in,and for, 1938.

            But the real question is: why does Dr Mangcu, who probably has little or no personal experience of Verwoerd, round upon Sparks (who DOES) for saying Verwoerd was ‘smart’; whereas he merely chides another for ‘loving’ one of the biggest and most pointless mass-murderers in history?
            And he does that in spite of his own argument.


  4. Mr Randall
    Your comment about Rhodes misleading. I do not know how Rhodes loved Africa and Africans if he staunchly upholds the fact that the indigenous people of Africa should be disenfranchised and “treated like children”. I do not know how he was a good man for exploiting the minerals on African soil for WHITE IMPERIALIST gain. I am really finding it hard to understand how Rhodes loved Africans, maybe there’s some book you read about Rhodes that I haven’t.
    Next, the issue about Shaka, it’s amusing how someone who isn’t of colour will always pull out the “Shaka is a tyrant” card. You’re probably going to point out the fact that he used militant means to grow his empire, well duh, prophet Mohamed(p.b.u.h) used the same means to grow the Islamic faith. The damn British too pulled the same stunts with their Christian crusades.
    Furthermore, i don’t know if you read any [credible] history books but the only thing boers brought to this country was European know how, The Africans had a proper system of rule,they had proper healthcare. They were perfectly fine until boers started “asking for land” from the likes of Moshoeshoe as they trekked to wherever they were trekking. You make it seem like they(the Europeans) shipped sheep and cows to south Africa.
    It’s sad really, how are man of colour can give his opinion and be criticised and then attacked by political affiliation(as though all black people support ANC) and then told to stop blaming the past and “move on”. The view from a high horse must be nice huh…


    1. Firstly, Rhodes was a Liberal and is quoted as calling for “equal rights for all civilized men south of the Zambesi”. Secondly he is also on record as stating that ” he could never accept the position that we should disqualify a human being on account of his colour.”
      Yes Rhodes was an Imperialist. As such he was a Victorian British Nationailst. I have never heard of him calling for Black people to be disenfranchised. Incidentally I never said “Rhodes was a good man”. He treated all comers as units of labour. And he treated the Boers even worse. What I said was that he was a visionary and will add this – he left all his wealth to the people and the and Rhodes Scholarships have done a lot of good over the years. As for the statement that he loved Africa – the simple proof of this is the fact that he asked to be buried in the Matopos, a place he loved.

      You assume that I was referring to Shaka as tyrant because of the mfecane but I wasn’t. I was referring more to the fact that he had his own children murdered and his order to kill between 6000 to 8000 of his own people for not mourning the death of his mother enough. And of course Dingaan’s motivation for killing Shaka.

      As for the Africans having a proper system of rule – it was a simple tribal system and they were subjects of and lived in balance with nature. When time were bad the died! It was only when they were exposed to the advantages that were brought about by globalization that they could shake of the “yoke of nature”. Please explain why else we experienced the huge growth of the Black population in SA after 1900.

      Yes, the settlers did bring sheep to SA – (sheep are not indigenous) and the cattle they brought where certainly bigger than the indigenous Nguni cattle.

      Finally skin colour is not a factor in any of my arguments. Mangcu criticized Sparks, I responded by criticing Mangcu. Race has nothing to do with this. And democracy was totally alien to Africa culture but has clearly been embraced because it makes everyone equal!


      1. Mr.Randall.

        Do tell me this please ..how is your comment any different to what the majority of white folk have been saying to black people for the past 21yrs which has been “Apartheid/colonialism is gone now can you get over it”?

        “We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories”
        In your great intellectual capacity what do you think this meant for the native?
        Was this his way of showing “love” he “supposedly” had for Africa and its people as you would have us believe?

        “Rhodes was a Liberal and is quoted as calling for “equal rights for all civilized men south of the Zambesi”
        Well Mr.Randall as history has taught us your people never saw the native as a human, which is why they constantly spoke of “Civilising the savage” which ironically is something that the current generation of white people keep saying to black people whenever there are issues that directly affect white people particulary when talking about history and the sins committed against the native to achieve the “previlege” white people enjoy in Africa and inparticular South Africa today.

        Mr.Randall please read your comments well because in-reality all that you have just said is what we have to hear over the years and be warned these type of responses aren’t going down very well with the youth of today, they are viewed as responses of “racial arsonist”.

        “Get over it we brought you civilisatin” “Apartheid is gone now can you get over it” is you have said over and over.


        1. When I read you reply, I was a little confused. Had I really said those sort of things to you? So I re-read my reply to you and it was clear that you had ignored everything I said and simply attributed your own generalisations about White people on me. You did not respond to even one point I made!

          But more importantly not once did I address you as a Black person or defend White people in my response. My reply was simply a collection of facts – if you disagree with any of them please do.

          And as for the Rhodes “quote” that you used – it is simply a lie to attribute that to him. And this has been proved to be the case over and over. Rhodes would never have used the word “slaves” – remember the British were instrumental in abolishing slavery in 1834 and there was a general antagonism towards it from the British public. So no – Rhodes did not say that.

          And as for this “us and them” and “your people” approach that you have – I see it as extremely destructive and even racist. You generalise about a group of people and that is the basis of racism. History has thrown the people of the country together – we can either work together for the greater good or set about killing each other like the Syrians are doing.
          Your choice I am afraid!

          So I suggest you read my previous reply very carefully – because you will not find one point in it that justifies to your response.


        2. But let me ask you this Mli, you put people in power, like Jacob Zuma who is so obviously a thief and whose only interest is self interest, Nzimande, Gordham, Muthambi, and Davies who is a communist and now in charge of trade and industry and you wonder why we have a 40% unemployment rate and the lowest growth rate in Africa. Apartheid didn’t put them in power, you did. So stop blaming everyone else and take responsibility for changing our dire situation in this country. In 15 years time the White people you despise will comprise 1% of the population. They are not your enemy. Your enemy are the people who are stealing your future.


  5. “Sparks … 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.” In that case I suggest you question your powers of reasoning.


    1. Firstly Spark wasn’t expressing admiration, he was making a statement of fact as he experienced it.
      It was a common view that Verwoerd was extremely intelligent – just research him and you will have to agree. Although his ideas of segregation based on race cannot be justified they don’t make him unintelligent.
      I seem to remember a headline some years ago that read “wife killer was a good father.” Being a good father didn’t however justify the murder! Now do you understands or is this reasoning still beyond you?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. @AdvDali_Mpofu: That genius Verwoerd brought us Bantu Education,homelands,Group Areas,dompas,banned organisations,hangings,etc.What a jolly “smart” fellow!!


  7. Cape peninsula university of technology stands on the ruins of District Six. Why hasn’t it been demolished as an affront to human dignity and unacceptable benefit of Group Areas Act? Is it because it’s utility us evaluated in terms of current values? Verwoerd’s intelligence was a statement of fact, with Sparks reflecting on what he saw in Parliament years ago. Manqu creates a straw dog fallacy by using “admiration”, which was never said or implied by Sparks in the way averred. I admire how clever, intelligent and cunning the Devil is (if he exists), because the results are plain to see – he’s winning against God, in my book. That doesn’t mean I admire evil. I admire Jacob Zuma for how cunning he is, he has gotten so many in the top echelons of the ANC to rape their consciences and ethics, or to keep quiet and do nothing to stop what he’s doing to our institutions. A man breaks the law to do a favor for the Guptas and he is demoted, then made an ambassador! But admiration for how someone uses resources is recognition of someone’s creative use of resources, for me.


  8. Verwoerd had his Ph.D and was already a full professor at age 26. You’ve got to be smart to do that, Xolela. It’s not even a debate — it’s a fact.


  9. Osama Bin Laden was very smart! Doesnt mean to say anyone liked the guy! intelligence can be used for good or for bad. How saying someone is smart means they endorse that person is illogical thinking.


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