Poor governance, not racism to blame for Schweizer-Reneke divisions

The only solution for racial division is good governance and mutual recognition and respect between people and communities, writes Flip Buys.

Events in Schweizer-Reneke and the predictable interpretation of those as being continued apartheid and racism have reminded me of my own family history.

My grandfather survived the British concentration camps and did not have a proper formal education. In the wake of the Anglo Boer War and the scorched earth-policy of the Brits he was one of many Afrikaners who migrated to Johannesburg to eke out a living in the mines.R

Like most of his contemporaries my grandfather did not like the city and the then British capitalist system. The historian, Dan O’Meara, could have had grandpa in mind when he said: “The structure of South African capitalism offered few opportunities to those whose home language was Afrikaans. The economy was dominated by ‘imperialist’ interests. Its language was English, and Afrikaans-speakers were powerfully discriminated against. Promotion and advancement required both proficiency in a foreign language – that of a conqueror – and virtual total acceptance of the structure of values dominant in the economy.”

A strategy based on three legs

My grandfather’s generation wanted to modernise without anglicising because, for them, it would signify the final victory of British imperialism. The Afrikaners of those times paved an Afrikaans way to modernisation, by first modernising Afrikaans and by then modernising themselves by means of Afrikaans.

The pillars of that modernisation strategy were Afrikaans, the establishment of sound mother language schools, universities and colleges, and the creation of banks and businesses by enterprising pioneers. Political power only followed at a much later stage. The economic growth that came as a result of this three-legged strategy solved the Poor White Afrikaner issue of the time within two decades.

Dashed expectations

After 1994 black people naturally had great expectations of the economic benefits that come with political power. Such expectations were nourished by the ANC’s promises of a better life for all and a comprehensive state-driven transformation policy.

However, after two and a half decades of ANC rule the high expectations turned into (often furious) disappointment as they did not deliver on promises.

Although the ANC made symbolic changes by changing the names of towns and streets, for ordinary people very little has changed. Traditional townships have fallen into further decline, and services in what used to be historical Afrikaans towns have also become appalling. In addition, black people – almost like the Afrikaners of old – want to modernise without westernising.

Everyone wants the benefits of modernisation, such as consumer goods and proper service, but many feel the economy, infrastructure, town planning and the workforce still reflect too many Western rather than African values. As contradictory as it may sound, protests for modernisation and modern service delivery are driven, at least in part, by protests against westernisation.

The continued existence of Western systems and institutions in African towns is apparently experienced as continuing apartheid.R

The North West Province has been plagued by two decades of poor governance. It has virtually almost destroyed the infrastructure in the province’s towns, and most of the historically black schools have been left dysfunctional. This has led to many protests and uprisings across the province during which, for example, Schweizer-Reneke’s municipal offices were burnt down.

The residents of the smaller towns bore the brunt of the municipal implosions, becoming its main victims. Their poverty got worse as the weakened state of the infrastructure of their towns became poverty traps instead of becoming platforms for economic growth.

As a result of the failure of the ANC’s project to develop black entrepreneurs in the townships, those “dormitory towns” have slipped further into poverty because the residents still have to spend their meagre income in the historically white towns. That explains why the poor feel that after 25 years they still have to invest in the “rich” instead of the other way around.


The white and black inhabitants of small towns such as Schweizer-Reneke have corresponding and contrasting experiences of the transformation project. Everyone is angry about the deteriorating services and decaying towns. However, although the white inhabitants feel they have lost much, the black people feel they have won nothing.

White inhabitants have lost the management of “their” towns while black people feel that their political control has made no economic difference. The overwhelming political power in the hands of black people and the failure of the ANC project to turn it into economic prosperity, have led to a sense of injustice and continued disadvantage. This is exacerbated by the visible economic prosperity of a group of white people reinforcing the feeling that apartheid continues to exist.

In fact, most of the white people in these small towns have also been impoverished, and the relative economic prosperity of a small group takes place despite the failed municipalities and not as a result of continued “privilege” (apartheid).

As a result, most white and black residents no longer have a sense of ownership of “our” town. Most of them feel that “they” are running the towns into the ground.

Steadfast scapegoats

The incident at Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke was like manna from heaven for politicians who, with reason, are feeling anxious about the effect of the smouldering dissatisfaction on the upcoming election. In order to try and recruit thousands of votes, the same politicians who have been invisible for years, reacted faster than the Flying Squad to exploit an incident of alleged racism against four children.

White racism is the steadfast scapegoat to convince black voters to return to the polls again – and it is exacerbated by the vicious rivalry between the ANC and EFF. It also fits seamlessly into the existing narrative of most journalists who themselves are disappointed with the meagre economic fruits of political power. White racism simply sells more newspapers than a deficient (black) local government.

Continued economic inequality is presented as “proof” of the existence of apartheid and white racism. At the same time, total silence is maintained about the unequal distribution of political power despite it being abused to hammer a powerless grade one teacher and an exposed primary school into the ground.

As the American political scientist Pierre Van der Berghe said, it is easy to disguise racism as democracy if your constituency contains a demographic majority.

That is why Helen Zille said in 2015 at the 60th International Liberal Congress in Mexico City: “Whites fulfil all the criteria for becoming a scapegoat for contemporary South Africa’s problems and policy failures – just as ‘the British’ remain the scapegoat for populist racial nationalism in Zimbabwe, 35 years after independence”.

The only solution for racial division is good governance and mutual recognition and respect between people and communities. It is high time the government of North West took the hand of cooperation extended by Afrikaner community organisations as far back as two years ago, with the aim to assist with the functioning of the towns in the province.

– Buys is chairperson of the Solidarity Movemen


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