Necessary Illusions: Postcolonial Untold Myths and Legends

By Mandisi Majavu · 8 May 2013
As Noam Chomsky once wrote, the vocation of “historical engineering” is as old as history. White liberalism has developed this vocation into a science, and one of the tools that liberals deploy when carrying out “historical engineering” is ethnic solipsism. This is why today the French revolution is globally recognised as an important historical event, whereas the Haitian revolution is not foregrounded in the study of the development of the 18th century social democratic theory. Similarly, as Zillah Eisenstein points out, it is partly for this reason that we take it for granted that the Enlightenment articulated the language of freedom and democracy in spite of its dependence on the slave trade.

I understand the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) campaign—the ‘untold story’, within this perspective. White liberalism in this country has always been well positioned to write and rewrite history. One of the challenges facing liberalism in post-apartheid South Africa is how to re-cast Helen Suzman’s white Progressive Party as politically radical like Alan Paton’s non-racial Liberal Party. This is partly what the DA’s campaign aims to achieve. For instance, in a speech delivered at the launch of the campaign, Helen Zille said the DA’s “strongest strand” has become “obscured, even invisible”. According to Zille, part of the DA’s story is about many liberals who “struggled bravely and often at great personal cost against apartheid.”

Although many commentators have not picked up on this, another objective of the campaign is to reassure other whites that even though the DA has grown and has recruited people like Patricia de Lille in its ranks, it has not departed from its liberal tradition. Hence Zille writes that “all DA members of today – regardless of their previous affiliations – are dedicated to the vision that Helen Suzman championed so long ago.”

In 2011, RW Johnson wrote that one of the challenges to the liberal tradition in post-apartheid South Africa is that as the DA grows “it has already become a very different party than the old Progs of Helen Suzman…” According to RW Johnson, the DA’s growth meant that the DA will be run by people who were not part of the liberal tradition. RW Johnson further pointed out that liberalism does not come naturally to those who are not of the elite Anglophone heritage. In his own words, RW Johnson wrote that in the past the party did not have to worry about its values being compromised because “… it relied on the young Anglophone ‘best and the brightest’ to whom liberalism came quite naturally via their schools, families and churches.”

RW Johnson is widely known for his racist rants. In 2010, 73 academics and writers from across the globe wrote to the London Review of Books (LRB) to complain about a highly offensive racist article that Johnson had published in the LRB. They argued that Johnson’s article was based on “highly offensive, age-old racist stereotypes”. As a result, the LRB was forced to apologise for publishing RW Johnson’s racist drivel. Here at home, however, the DA needs the likes of RW Johnson. The DA feels that Johnson and his cohorts have to be appeased and re-assured.

However, unlike RW Johnson, Helen Zille does not appeal to white prejudices in telling the ‘untold story’ of the DA. Instead she uses the same formula that authors of children’s stories utilize when writing children’s books. Chomsky explains that the formula is based on the principle that life is simple when there are heroes to admire and love, and villains to fear and despise. Accordingly, in the DA’s ‘untold story’, Helen Suzman is cast as a female protagonist who courageously and relentlessly fought against a brutal racist regime.

We are told, “She was the only MP who consistently and relentlessly fought against every apartheid measure the National Party sought to entrench in law.” She opposed the notorious Group Areas Act; she opposed the law that required every black South African to carry a pass book at all times. The message here is that we are to ignore the fact that Helen Suzman’s party remained closed to blacks until 1986, and our attention is directed to a make-believe world in which images of Nelson Mandela embracing Helen Suzman are used to create an impression that white liberalism in South Africa has not always, first and foremost, concerned itself with the interests of whites.

One of the main challenges facing liberalism worldwide is that historically white propertied men have used liberalism to justify colonialism and mass murder of indigenous peoples in places like Australia and the United States. In South Africa, white liberals made accommodation to the apartheid’s racist policies. For instance, the progressive Party restricted its membership to whites only. Additionally, the history of liberalism in South Africa reveals a political tradition that is elitist and non-revolutionary. Though in post-apartheid South Africa liberalism presents itself as an ideology that speaks for all, the DA’s political message is still rooted in elitism and whiteness. Hence the DA understands the lack of basic service delivery in post-apartheid South Africa as being due to government’s incompetence and corruption. Since the DA is not opposed to the government’s neoliberal policies, it draws on colonial myths and stereotypes of incompetent and corrupt black leadership to understand the social problems facing the black majority. Economically, the DA has yet to propose economic policies that are designed to benefit the majority of South Africans.

The main problem with the current government is not that it is incompetent, but that it abandoned a revolutionary vision, which is spelled out in the Freedom Charter for neoliberal policies. The main problem with the current government is that it has chosen to implement economic policies that benefit wealthy whites and the black elite. Like the Progressive Party, which made accommodation to racist apartheid policies, post-apartheid liberalism is not interested in fundamental societal change. The fact that the DA spends so much energy and resources peddling colonial myths and legends tells us that much.

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

First published by the South African Civil Society Information Service (


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