If at any point you want to stop reading, it is probably a sign that you should continue.
One of my Facebook friends said that the reason Sparks described Verwoerd as smart is that “Verwoerd actually managed to ‘sell’ a brutal racial suppression policy as a sophisticated plan.” He pointed out that “Sparks actually fought apartheid – and Verwoerd – when it mattered. Why ‘when it mattered’? Cause then opponents of the apartheid state were locked up and f***d up and could suddenly lose their lives. Skin colour did not matter. Whiteys were zapped big time as well. That is when Sparks spoke out”.
The clause “when it mattered” reminds me of the aphorism that “Pilate was merciful until it became dangerous,” except, this time it’s not about “when it was safe” to fight apartheid but “when it mattered.” So there were times when apartheid’s effects did not matter.
At any rate, genteel, middle-class feelings of guilt at reaping the fruits of a system that implicates one in its evil, is not the same as a visceral moral outrage at that system. Steve Biko spilled much ink and disillusionment on that distinction: the former waits for “the right time” to act, “when it matters,” that is when the second-classing of whole people groups becomes too blatant an eyesore to ignore, or when the embargoes knock the economy and the national rugby team is banned from playing on the world arena. The rest of the time this pseudo-moral outrage gobbles up as much as it can from the prevailing status quo, throwing the occasional question at its custodians to ease the gnawing guilt of benefitting unfairly from their work.
Sparks says that Verwoerd was smart enough to get white people to participate in an evil regime. In his accompanying silence on the black heroes who toppled that system with as little bloodshed as possible, I see that what counts for smartness is how cleverly those running the system hid its beneficiaries’ moral pollution and complicity from their explicit awareness, and not what it took for black political activists to topple it.
As struggle heroes unmasked apartheid to its white beneficiaries, the narrative of white whiteness (read, “moral spotlessness”) was disturbed along with the greater narrative of white ethicality (read, “We earn our wealth through hard work and nothing else so we are good fathers and husbands and Christians”) by the realization that there was a flaw in the formula. The sheltered world the apartheid government had created was suddenly exposed as a lie. Woeful, the thought that the pride taken in earning an honest living like a good, white Christian person could be sullied by the realization that the opportunity to do so was made possible by a government that exploited an invisible number of invisible people somewhere “over there.” Achievements are rendered unreal when one knows that one got an unfair head start. That’s the system the apartheid government were smart enough to sell to white people, and that was its greatest evil: the moral deceit it perpetuated on white people who subsequently had their self-understanding as good white Christians disturbed by the shocking realization of what they had bought into. The black people who outsmarted it intellectually and forgave its perpetrators morally are not worth a mention. Sparks’ most important story is a white story, and the affronted self-understanding and moral pride of white apartheid beneficiaries prompts words from him while the oppressed lives and struggle heroes who fought the system does not.
Where do I get off locating Sparks’ moral outrage at apartheid’s involving white people in something so morally “black,” when he may legitimately find apartheid morally offensive for what it did to black people instead? I get off from his list and his explanation for it, that’s where; I get it from the absence of black names. Now, Sparks said that apartheid was a crime against “humanity.” When the humans comprising that vast, wonderful abstraction called humanity do not have names, then the crime against humanity may as well be the crime of incriminating white people in what disturbed the narrative of white moral whiteness. The crime against humanity could be anything until names are named. And Sparks named names: his biggest heroes, and I imagine, victims, were white. So apartheid not only hurt white people by setting them up to have their pristine group image popped in 1994 when the resources to keep the illusion ran out, but also continues to hurt them by making them feel terribly guilty every time their focus is taken off of Helen Zille who has “smartly” managed to balance white privilege against the reality of the cost it exacted. It hurts like hell to discover that one may have benefited from the suffering of others. Who are those others? It does not matter; when the need to fixate on how one has lost one’s innocence and the corresponding belief that one was earning my way in life by fair means is that strong, one does not need to know who the others were. One’s greatest need becomes a “smart” politician who can fix one’s self-image as an innocent who achieves success fair-and-square.
By listing only white politicians and not black ones, Sparks reveals that what he was looking for was not any politician, black or white, who would remove the blood-red sin of apartheid, but a “smart” politician who would restore his self-worth as a good white person. That’s where white politicians come in handy. That the crime happened to be apartheid against black people is incidental; it was “sold” to white people who were “outsmarted” into parting with their moral whiteness. Terrible, this charlatan Verwoerd and what he did to white people.
Sparks’ list was about white people, by a white person, to white people – mostly men – and I submit it centered on recovering the pristine moral whiteness of being white. The black backdrop of black people’s suffering was a silent footnote. Helen Zille is the culmination of those who have kept white consciences feeling “white” despite the changes South Africa has undergone. She was the point of stability when white people did not know how to cope with how the past had served them. “Smart” politicians were politicians who firstly, sold white people the possibility of success without making them realize that they were soiling their moral whiteness – the most precious commodity in the universe, for whose sake black people’s lives were eventually unshackled when the toll on white consciences was realized – and after apartheid, “smart” politicians were those who kept white “success” intact despite the removal of its systemic enabler, which had previously soiled moral whiteness. “Smart” politicians are those who, during apartheid, recognized how history would later view white people. The only measures of smart I can derive from Sparks’ list speak to preserving the ideal of white righteousness.
Representing a brilliant checkmate for the narrative of white goodness, Helen Zille is the culmination of such “smart” politicians. If the ideological curve inherent in Sparks’ list is anything to extrapolate from, Helen Zille was a stroke of f****g genius, a coup de grace against any threat to the white community’s self-understanding as anything other than morally whiter than white. The list represents a smooth transition from the illusion of white goodness, to its reality, now realized without the cost on white consciences (and them, those black bodies).
Through Zille, the story of white people’s unfair gains from apartheid conveniently switches to the story of how black people are now doing it to themselves. For if anything else, Zille represents that to which white people can point to say, “If the majority just voted for this woman to be president, everything would be fine.” Why have a painful conversation about apartheid and black suffering if the “solution” is right there in all her smart, glorious whiteness?
Helen Zille is the smartest politician that Sparks has ever met. She is also the best anaesthesiologist he has ever met.
In the glaring absence of black names, the white experience becomes the audience to which “smartness” plays, and there is no other worth speaking of or to (for no other audience understands the need to maintain a good self-image as a fair-and-square achiever). White privilege is the ability to speak as though there is no other perspective. Appeals to clinical dictionary definitions of the word “smart” are an attempt to hide from this example of this white privilege. As I’ve said before, at its most innocent, Sparks’ hidden ideology finds its “normal” in a world where good black politicians are not needed for the actualization of justice in a country that is home to many black people; rather, “smart” politicians are needed to facilitate the transition from a whitewashed world experience that soils white consciences, to a world experience where the white conscience can rest in the knowledge that if those who were previously hurt just voted “smartly” they would stop suffering.
Yesterday on Twitter someone told me to “rise above” this whining. Make no mistake about it: the victim is at fault and guilty of making others feel bad. The victim robs the innocent of their innocence. My response to a twitter follower who told me that was that some things are so low it’s impossible not to be above them from the start.
My Facebook friend was not out of defenses. He dismissed Nelson Mandela as a candidate for a list of smart politicians. “Well, dude, you may not know it, but from when Sparks left school till 1994 ONLY white politicians ruled this country. And you may nog [sic] know it either, but Sparks was a PARLIAMENTARY reporter. Get it? White politicians were the ones he knew well up to 1994 and can pass judgement on (that is considered judgement on people, individuals, as POLITICIANS and not voicing ideological support by using the name of a party leader). Mandela? Mandela was actually NOT an operating politician. In his 5 years it was all about reconciliation and constructing a first democratic government and state. Mandela never ‘operated’ in parliament and never fought an election. Mbeki was the first one to do that. You may remember him in terms of the HIV mess up and the Eskom bad descision. And after him cane Zuma.”
Apartheid was a system that saw to it that black people could not be “real” politicians until 1994. But I think even by that hideous measure of who was a politician, Nelson Mandela should count as a post-1994 “smart” politician. If being President Nelson Mandela isn’t being a politician then I’m lost. Note how the system’s right to impute legitimacy to some politicians and not others goes unchallenged in my Facebook friend’s argument.
My poor-me everyone-hates-me black brain is too sore to think rationally about this any longer, but for the benefit of those who do not understand my bottomless rage at the Sparks’ speech I would like to believe I tried.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.