14 August 2012

Nostalgia for the Bad Old Days: The National Party and Beyond

Ivo Vegter wrote a compelling opinion piece for today's Daily Maverick that deflates "The Myth of the Competent Apartheid Government." In the midst of the post-freedom struggles of the African National Congress (ANC) with crony capitalism and corruption, some (mostly white) South Africans have started looking back with nostalgia to the bad old National Party (NP) days as not quite so bad. Mr. Vegter points out that the NP was even worse (and more than just a bit racist):
The ANC of today is no more corrupt than the old NP. It is not less competent, no matter how different it might appear to whites who only noticed their own preferential treatment under apartheid, but now live as equals with their fellow South Africans. It is not more inefficient, either. The only difference is that the ANC’s problem is 10 times larger: it promised to provide a better life for all, not just some.
The NP economic dream only felt dreamy for the 10% who benefited. Protectionism and other unwise state meddling in the market created a giant patronage machine for the whites -- and hurt economic growth. The economy, Mr. Vegter asserts, suffered greatly compared to what a free (and educated and efficiently run) South Africa could have yielded. Heavy-handed economic planning resulted in a loss -- and a loss is precisely what post-apartheid South Africa is headed for under the ANC, warns Mr. Vegter. (His brief solutions ring a bit hollow and libertarian, but you might be hollow and libertarian yourself after thinking too much about the NP and ANC governments.)

In South Africa, whites are not the only ones nostalgic for the apartheid era. A recent study by Leslie Bank and Clifford Mabhena, "Bring Back Kaiser Matanzima: Communal Land, Traditional Leaders, and the Politics of Nostalgia" (2011), examined the nostalgia exhibited by many rural blacks in the Transkei for the rule of Kaiser Matanzima. Bank and Mabhena cite Kaiser Matanzima as "the ultimate apartheid sell-out and despot," but recognize the powerful sense of security created by his patronage system; the greater ability of men to find work as migrant laborers; and other socio-cultural factors. The people of the Transkei get more (budget constraint-wise) under the ANC when you look at schools, roads, clinics, and government grants. Nevertheless, many still think that life was better under Kaiser Matanzima because the ANC is linked with an erosion of community life and agriculture. Bank and Mabhena conclude that "the politics of nostalgia is essentially a response to social exclusion and the difficulties people face in connecting with the state and to each other."

Nostalgia for the bad old days is hardly unique to South Africa. It seems to pop up wherever there are big serious governmental changes that result in big serious economic and/or social upheaval. Look at Serbia after Milosevic, Russia under Yeltsin, or interwar Germany. The list will only grow as the Arab Spring turns to economic winter: Egypt after Mubarak; Libya after Gaddafi; and Tunisia after Ben Ali. Once the mooring of authoritarianism (or patronage) rots away, the state no longer provides certainty. The people (or privileged groups) lose their sense of security. When faced with the present pain of tough economic times or bad new governments, the people seem to forget about the pain of yesteryear.

If people forget why the bad old days were so bad, however, they risk ending up with a future that is even worse: look at what happened to post-1933 Germany and Russia under Putin. (Serbia is doing relatively okay so far.) South Africa should take care to avoid distorting the past, or all of the socio-political baggage will stand in the way of the right path forward.


Johnny D said...

When a system or ideal like "communism" or "apartheid" goes, the people who had those systems ingrained into their mentality during the impressionable years of their youth, now find themselves meeting old age in a world which has eschewed those ideas completely, and they are left to wonder what place their lives have in this new "heretical" world. Politicians seeking supporters offer these disillusioned factions a chance to reenvision the world when everything was "as it was... as it should be"
Nevermind the fact that the past can never be recreated; it's the unending struggle to recapture the past that sends the old guard to the ballot box. I have some sympathy for these people, even if they are racists or nationalists, because I know one day when the US chucks democracy and consumerism into the bin of used up ideas, my old ass isn't going to know what to do without ye old Dunkin Donuts drive-thru. Any society which desires to advance and grow, needs to listen to the voices from the past, even the darker chapters.

Jeff said...

Thanks for the comment, Johnny.

You make a great observation -- insecurity about finding a place in a new system drives people to make radical/reactionary electoral choices (especially in systems with may parties). Witness the popularity of the Le Pens in France; the success of Fidesz in Hungary; etc.

I particularly agree with your final assessment: societies need to reckon with the past, not sweep it under the rug. Despite some of the failures of Germany's de-Nazification process, there was definitely a socio-cultural emphasis (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) on reckoning with what had happened. Despite South Africa's efforts with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I would argue that the matter of reckoning with apartheid is far from complete. To the extent that the wounds fester, it will leave a harsher political landscape for the future.

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