South African wounds too raw for colonial truth

South African wounds too raw for colonial truth, by Rian Milan. This is an interesting perspective:

Helene is an adherent of psycho-history, a discipline that applies Freudian analysis to the behaviour of nations in search of an answer to a great riddle: why does history repeat itself? The key factors, according to psycho-historians, are trauma and humiliation: when weak tribes or nations are conquered and subjugated by stronger ones, the humiliation festers and curdles and eventually leads to new wars in which the losers act out their pain by taking vengeance on their former oppressors.

Humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, Germans rally behind Hitler and start another war. Humiliated for centuries by their Tutsi overlords, the Hutu of Rwanda rise up and butcher their neighbours. And so on.

Afrikaners and the English:

Helene takes the view that the Afrikaner psyche was similarly disfigured by its humiliating encounter with the British empire, and she makes an interesting case. According to her research, the British looked down their noses at Boers from the day they landed in Cape Town, mocking them for their uncouth manners, stunted intellects and abysmal lack of sophistication.

This mockery reached a crescendo in the run-up to the Anglo-Boer War with Afrikaners routinely disparaged as sub-human in Jingo newspapers. After that came scorched earth, concentration camps and the volk’s devastation at the hands of the largest army yet seen on the planet.

Foreigners often ask why my late father joined the National Party and Ossewa Brandwag in 1939, expecting to hear stories of anti-Semitism and anti-black bigotry. No ways. My father grew up barefooted in a small town. In his childhood, Afrikaners were objects of ridicule for their English-speaking betters. They were ill-educated and often poor, earning around 60 percent of the average English wage, a statistic that put Afrikaners in much the same socio-economic position as blacks in white America in that period.

My father wasn’t even remotely obsessed with race. His politics were driven by humiliation. What he wanted, above all, was vengeance, or at least a chance to prove to the sneering English that he was their equal. This translated into lifelong support for a political party that put Afrikaners first, pumping money into Afrikaans education, building Afrikaans industries and creating civil service jobs for poor whites. Like most Afrikaners, he deliberately blinded himself to the humiliation this inflicted on blacks, and by the time he wised up, it was too late.

Blacks and whites:

So now we sit with a bad situation: millions of black people psychically disfigured by humiliation at our hands. According to Helene Lewis, science can now detect humiliation’s impact on the human brain and even trace its acid etchings on our genes. “Humiliation is the fuse of the time bomb on which South Africa is sitting,” she says. There is no pill to cure it. We just have to work through it. Which is why it is good that Zille started this conversation about colonialism. …

Picts and Romans:

[Britons are] descendants of the Picts that the Romans encountered on their first voyage up the River Thames in 55 BC.

In the eyes of Romans, those Picts were savages, half-naked, with skins daubed blue and bones through their noses. The Romans whacked them with ease and then enslaved them, forcing them to build roads and aqueducts and bath houses as part of what Romans saw as their civilising mission – introducing barbarians to the higher refinements.

At the time, it would have been impossible for humiliated Picts to acknowledge that Romans were a higher life form, but for their descendants, it’s easy. Why? Because time and pride has healed the British psyche, enabling the Pythons to laugh about Roman colonisation and recognise its at least partially beneficial legacy. …


Much as we hate to admit it, both Boers and blacks benefited in some ways from the British occupation and its legacy. It is of course an insult to expect black South Africans to agree at this point, but they will eventually, because that is a law of history. …

Aside from some clauses about economic rights, SA’s constitution is in perfect concord with late imperial thinking — human rights, free elections, independent judiciary, rule of law and critically, property rights.  Its coded subtext says, “We are now free, but we will continue to follow the course recommended by the empire.” …

Which brings us at last to the painful heart of the matter. Why this furor about Zille’s tweets? Because she’s posing a question South Africans are terrified to talk about. The constitution has come to mark the great divide in our society. On one side we have amorphous forces … trying to follow some variant of the course charted in our empire-influenced constitution. And on the other, Zuma and his primitive accumulationists, who’d prefer to gut the constitution, cut the judiciary down to size and annihilate mechanisms that prevent them from looting the treasury. …

The most powerful weapon in the hands of the [constitutionists] is one they’re too scared to use – like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, they believe that at least some of the colonial inheritance is good and should be carried forward — and not for the sake of whites; for the sake of the long-suffering masses, still yearning in every opinion poll for job creation and prosperity on the scale achieved by Singapore. The alternative is to follow Idi Amin and Mugabe into the abyss.

The Gordhan forces know this but can’t say it openly because it’s too dangerous, too controversial, and for blacks, too humiliating. We need to make it easier for them, and there’s only one way — ignore the slings and arrows, and pursue this forbidden conversation.

hat-tip Stephen Neil