13 September 2000





The recent National Conference on Racism has highlighted a number of key issues and tendencies that none of us can afford to ignore.  Foremost among these is the tendency to blame white South Africans for all the ills and problems of the country.  Together with this was the tendency to view the past in the starkest constructions of black and white, good and evil.


According to this authorised version of our history the ‘freedom struggle’ represented the distillation of righteousness, while apartheid was the apotheosis of all evil.   Its sole purpose was the repression and exploitation of black South Africans based on the belief, imputed to whites, that they were inherently superior to blacks.  Because most whites voted for the former government, they are indelibly marked with the stain of apartheid.  And because ‘all whites benefited from apartheid’ even those who opposed the former government bear a share of the guilt.


In terms of this analysis whites are relatively ‘rich’ – not for the same reasons that Americans, Canadians and Australians attained first world standards – but because they exploited blacks.  Black South Africans, on the other hand, are poor and deprived not for the same developmental reasons that have caused poverty and deprivation elsewhere in Africa and the world – but solely because they were all victims of apartheid.


This analysis increasingly culminates in comparisons between apartheid and Nazism – which was one of the most reprehensible ideologies of the last century, based as it was on totalitarianism, racial superiority, global military aggression and genocide.  Thus according to President Mbeki, in the speech that he addressed to the National Conference on Racism


“the apartheid system constituted a latter-day manifestation of the crime against humanity that Nazism and fascism had imposed on the European, Asian and wider world, more than a decade earlier”.  


This is a very serious charge – one that we cannot ignore since Nazism was one of the most reprehensible ideologies the world has ever seen.   It was brutally totalitarian and without a system of law or any restraint on the dictator.  It exterminated more than six million Jews and held many more millions of its opponents in slavery.  It unleashed a war of naked aggression that led to the deaths of more than 50 million people.  So, we cannot take comparisons with Nazism lightly or dismiss them as rhetoric.


Whites are also often viewed, not really as native Africans, but as a manifestation of what President Mbeki has referred to as a ‘special form of colonialism’. Based on this reasoning, it is not surprising that some blacks evidently regard whites as interlopers and as their moral inferiors who have a duty to pay reparations for the sins of their past.


I suspect that this analysis is at the root of the Government’s reticence to condemn the illegal land invasions in Zimbabwe.  And I cannot escape the conclusion that it lies at the heart of much of the crime that is directed against whites and particularly against white farmers. If whites are perceived to have stolen the land they farm; if their possessions are the fruits of exploitation, why not take them back?


Any attempt to question this analysis runs the risk of calling down an avalanche of angry accusations that those involved are trying to ‘defend’ or ‘justify’ apartheid.  So let me at this stage place on record once again the sincere apology for apartheid that I made to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on 15 May 1997:


I said that apartheid was wrong. I apologized

“in my capacity as the Leader of the National Party to the millions of South Africans

Who suffered the wrenching disruption of forced removals in respect of their homes, businesses and land;

Who over the years, suffered the shame of being arrested for pass law offences;

Who over the decades, and indeed, over the centuries, suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination;

Who for a long time were prevented from exercising their full democratic rights in the land of their birth;

Who were unable to achieve their full potential because of job reservation; and

Who in any way suffered as a result of discriminatory legislation and policies.”


I said that this renewed apology was offered  “in a spirit of true repentance in full knowledge of the tremendous harm that apartheid has done to millions of South Africans”.  Unfortunately, my apology was simply brushed aside by the TRC.  I suspect that the collective act of contrition that some are now calling on whites to perform, would meet with equally little recognition.


Having said this, it is essential that we should bring some balance to our view of the past.  After all, one of the meanings of reconciliation is the balancing of accounts.  The reality at the moment is that no such balance exists, despite, or perhaps because of, the best efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Let me then place the following points on record – without in any way trying to ‘justify apartheid’ or detract from the harm that it did:


The prime motive of successive National Party governments was not some or other wish to repress or exploit black South Africans. Our prime motives were the following:

Neither is it altogether clear that all whites necessarily benefited so greatly from apartheid.  The reality is that   between 1970 and 1995 their share in personal income declined from 71% to less than 50%, while the personal  income of blacks increased from 19,9% to more than 37%.  Also, during this period real incomes of whites also declined, while those of blacks – and particularly urbanized and unionized blacks – increased quite substantially.  Today, the incomes of whites are determined not by the ‘advantages they derived from apartheid’, but primarily by their talents, entrepreneurship and hard work.   It is for this reason that white South Africans have such a good reputation in the international job market.


It is also not true that white South Africans today represent a very rich or privileged community  compared with standards of income and living in North America and Europe.  According to the last census, only some 14% of  whites earned more than  R96 000 in 1996, the equivalent of less than US$20 000 at the exchange rate of the  time.   35% earned less than R42 000 –  or less than US$ 9 000 per annum.

Neither is it true that South Africa can be simply divided into two nations, one white and rich and the other black and poor.  According to recent analyses whites now make up less than half of the people in the country who earn more than R60 000 per year.  Already, by 1996 340 000 black South Africans earned more than 650 000 whites.  More than 2.4 million black South Africans had higher educational qualifications than more than one million whites.


Many hundreds of thousands of black South Africans worked for the previous government.  Many thousands held senior positions and received the same remuneration as their white counterparts.  In this context, who can be described as the advantaged and the disadvantaged?  And should the children of relatively advantaged black South Africans enjoy automatic affirmative action preferences over the children of less advantaged whites?  And if so for how long?

Another unpalatable truth is that despite the undoubted repression and unacceptable brutalities that    accompanied the cycle of revolutionary insurgency and state counteraction, Freedom House, an New York-         based institution with impeccable liberal credentials, consistently found during the 70s and  80s that black South Africans enjoyed more civil and political rights than their counterparts in most of the     independent African countries from which the ANC operated during its period of exile.


Finally, it is also untrue that the new South Africa is solely the creation of those who fought on the side of the revolutionary movements.  It was not wrested from an unwilling and defeated party on a bloody battlefield.  Rather, it was the result of an enormous and unparalleled generosity of spirit on the part of all the parties involved.  At its inception the new South Africa belonged to us all and for a time we all rejoiced.


The reality is that the situation in South Africa was, and remains, far more complex than the black/white, good/evil analysis will admit.  It is extremely dangerous to generate stereotypes of whole peoples or to try to allocate collective guilt or other negative characteristics to any group or community. This, after all, is at the root of most racial prejudice. When such generalizations become the official view of the state, they assume an even more sinister and potentially disastrous nature.  We must understand that there are good and bad people on all sides of the debate and that they should be judged by their actions and motives and not according to the colour of their skin.


We must not, and should not, forget the past and the grave errors that we have made. We must learn from those mistakes.  As Archbishop Tutu said at the conclusion of the TRC proceedings we must never again tolerate a situation where any South African suffers from discrimination because of his racial origin.


And yet that is precisely what is now happening.  Rationalise it as you may wish, the reality remains that today in South Africa, citizens of this country are being subjected to state-sanctioned racial discrimination in the guise of affirmative action.  Once again, no sensible person would deny the need to transform our society and to develop more representative institutions.  But here, also, we require balance. Does this mean that no white South African can any longer hope to make a career in the public service?  Does it mean that no serving white official can look forward to promotion, regardless of his merit? The reality is that tens of thousands of whites now perceive themselves to be sidelined and unwanted – simply on the basis of their race.  How long will the reality of this state-sanctioned racial discrimination continue?


We must consider past actions of all parties in the context of their time and not through the prism of our own narrow ideological constructions and prejudices.  Neither must we allow the past to dominate our view of the present and the future.  We will always find it much easier to reach agreement on future goals than on past enmities.  We must all commit ourselves to working for the success of our new society.


The reality is that white South Africans are longing to make a contribution to the new South Africa.  The country desperately needs their talents and their resources – but talents and resources that are freely given, rather than coerced through reparations.


Some people are now calling on ‘rich whites’ and ‘companies that benefited from apartheid’ to pay some form of reparations to assist with the development of the least privileged sections of the population.    We already have such a system.  It is called taxation. It has been used for several decades with great effect to channel massive resources from the privileged sections of our community to the less privileged.  White taxpayers bore the brunt of the costs involved.    For several decades white South Africans have been paying more than 70% of the taxes paid in South Africa.   According to the World Bank by 1989 they were on average paying 32% of their incomes in tax with only 9% of their being expended on their own social services.


This gave them what the World Bank described as one of the highest relative tax burdens in the world.  For decades a sizable proportion of their total incomes has been transferred to programmes aimed at the development of less advantaged sections of our society.   During all my years in government I cannot recall that I ever heard white tax payers complain about this burden.  They continue to pay it without complaint precisely because they realize that their tax rands are making an essential contribution to the development of their fellow South Africans and that this is in the interest of us all.


Also when it comes to the question of reparations, one should not forget the sacrifice that white South Africans made when they agreed to the historic compromises that established the new South Africa.  They did not agree only to surrender state power;  they made the greatest sacrifice that any people can make:  they agreed to surrender the right to exclusive national self-determination that for more than three hundred years had been the central theme of their history.   When they did so, they put their faith in their fellow South Africans and in the constitution that we negotiated together. That constitution guaranteed basic rights for all South Africans, including assurances that no South Africans would ever again be subjected to racial discrimination; that all South Africa’s cultures  would be treated equally and that the status of no language would be diminished.  They did so on the basis that we would put the divisions of the past behind us and build a new multicultural nation in which all South Africans and all our communities would be equal.


We require balance between those provisions of the constitution that prohibit racial discrimination and that guarantee equality before the law, on the one hand – and those that seek to address the imbalances of the past, on the other.   Thus the objectives of the Employment Equity Act are in many respects laudable:  black South Africans need to build up a representative stake in the economy;  they need to occupy rungs at all levels of the corporate ladder.  However, were the goal of regional representivity at all echelons to be carried through to its logical conclusion, it would mean that ultimately every single company, newspaper, school, institution and organization would come under the control of the local regional majority.   This would not be a prescription for equity, but for racial domination.


White South Africans dearly wish to be a full part of the new South Africa that they rightly feel they helped to create.   But they cannot play such a role if they are bundled into the same category as Goebbels, Himler and Eichman or if they and their communities are regarded as the unfortunate manifestation of ‘colonialism of a special kind’.   They are eager to make a material contribution to the development of the economy and the efficient administration of the state, but affirmative action makes it increasingly difficult for them to do so.


The spectre of racism has returned to haunt us. It is the negation of everything for which we strove during the heady days when we came together to create the new South Africa.