Apartheid: Britain's bastard child
Hélène Opperman Lewis
In the title of the book, apartheid is described as “Britain’s bastard child”. A “bastard child” is one born out of wedlock – an “illegitimate” child – and in some traditions has the further connotation of paternity not being acknowledged by the father, thus has no rights of inheritance, no claim to use the family surname and no claim of kin to the “legitimate” family. It is presumably the aspect of acknowledgement that the author is seeking to denote – that Britain spawned this offspring during its wild sowing of its seed, and chose not to acknowledge the paternity because of the reputational damage it might sustain.
The “wedlock” reference can, further, lend itself to a useful analogy:
We’re in a fictional marriage counsellor’s office. A couple, Mr and Ms Jacobs, have arrived for their appointment, precipitated by Mr Jacobs’s extra-marital affair.
MC: So, Mr Jacobs, I believe you have been having an affair?
MrJ: Yes, but it wasn’t really my fault.
MrJ: You see, things were pretty stressful at home, with the new baby and all …
MC: Of course. Ms Jacobs, did you find the home environment stressful, too?
MsJ: Yes. A new baby is a big adjustment.
MC: Did you also have an affair?
MsJ: No, of course not! I had a baby to look after!
MC: See, Mr Jacobs, your wife also found the environment stressful, but she didn’t respond to it in the same way you did. Why did you choose to have an affair?
MrJ: Well, I didn’t really choose it. See, my ex-wife – we were high school sweethearts, together since we were kids. She cheated on me right through the relationship, made me feel bad about myself … I needed to feel good about myself again.
MC: By making Ms Jacobs feel bad about herself, in turn?
MrJ: It wasn’t about her; it was about … what I needed. I mean, I’m sorry she got hurt, I didn’t mean to hurt her, but I was so stressed and I needed to feel good about myself again.
MC: So you chose to have an affair. You didn’t stop to think about the impact on Ms Jacobs, or your kids …
MrJ: I know it was wrong, okay, but it wasn’t like a choice I made. I didn’t choose to hurt them. I just … I had a bad childhood. Loads of abuse. I didn’t develop good coping strategies as a kid. I didn’t know how to deal with the stress, and so I responded in a silly way, because I didn’t know better. I just needed to feel better about myself.
MC: You’re saying someone else is to blame for your affair? Someone held a gun to your head and made you cheat?
MrJ: No, no one “made me”. But it wasn’t … I was unhappy. I didn’t know what to do.
MC: You were unhappy. Did you speak to your wife? Did you tell her you were unhappy?
MrJ: She told me to deal with it, that we had a baby now and I had to grow up and be a father.
MC: Did you tell her you were so unhappy you were thinking of having an affair? Did you discuss alternatives?
MrJ: No, of course not. I didn’t see any alternatives. If I left, people would think I was a really bad person, abandoning my wife with a newborn. It wasn’t like making a rational choice. I was hurt. I needed to do something to feel better about myself …
In the pop psychology world, the deflection of accountability for one's choices is referred to as blameshifting. The “blameshifter” understands his argument as explanation; others may see it as rationalisation, or excuse, or justification. In a situation like the marriage counselling scenario depicted above, the counsellor aims to expose the inconsistencies, internal contradictions and cognitive dissonance in the “blameshifter’s” account, forcing him to confront his deflection and take accountability for his choices. Once he “owns” his choices and can see the pattern of behaviour that led him to make those choices, the rationale suggests that he will be more conscious of his agency in making a choice the next time he is faced with a similar dynamic. But proponents of this view claim that until the person “owns” his choice and accepts his culpability without seeking to minimise, deflect or deny accountability, he is at risk of repeating the flawed behaviour pattern. Watch enough daytime TV, or spend enough time in online relationship fora, or read enough airport books, and the message is clear: only by accepting responsibility and accountability for our choices, both good and bad, can we live fulfilled, fully actualised lives.
Which brings us to Apartheid: Britain’s bastard child (Hélène Opperman Lewis). The easiest way to sum up this book is via the aphorism “hurt people hurt people”. Of course, not all people who have been abused go on to abuse others; nor do all abusers have a history of having themselves been abused. The author states up front (p 15) that the aim is to explain, rather than justify, the Afrikaner’s “creati[on of] apartheid” (13), which she is at pains to denounce as a “vile institution” (15). Yet, while she initially describes this “creation” as a “choice” (13), she later (434) reprises her aim as
… not … to find justification for apartheid, but to shed light on the historical events and psychological factors that made it inevitable.
This tension between “choice” and “inevitability” manifests throughout this text in the choice of language. Outrages perpetrated by Britain are recounted with emotive language and/or active verbs (examples include p 81’s description of “British predation” and p 58’s depiction of British colonists attempting or intending “to extinguish the indigenous population”), while equivalent misdeeds committed by the Boers are described in the passive voice (rendering the perpetrator invisible), such as (90) “often … the incomprehensible was done”, when describing the Boers’ enslavement of black children and young black wives after battle – which she further rationalises by the “common practice” argument. If the Boers were merely doing what everyone else was, and the actions were carried out by unidentified actors, then how can they be to blame – especially if their actions were the direct, inevitable consequence of what was visited on them? While the book makes plain its purpose to “explain” rather than justify, it is hard to imagine how these parts of the text would have differed if the latter had been stated as the explicit aim.
This book positions itself as a “psychohistory”, which is variously defined within the opening pages as a “psychological approach in [sic] a nation’s history” (13), a “case study steeped in history” (15) and an attempt “to explain the ‘psychological why’ of history” (17). As noted in the Author’s Note (7), psychohistory differs from conventional history in its open embrace of subjectivity:
Psychohistorians have traditionally been much more open to acknowledging the author’s connections and involvement with the subject and reject the pseudo-objectivity of mainstream historians.
Indeed, the author states her interests up front as an Afrikaner – the phrase “my people” is peppered liberally throughout the text – but, unlike other social scientific methodologies which eschew the tyranny of positivism, there is no setting out of what might constitute attributes akin to “validity”, “generalisability” or “reliability”. The reflexivity found in, for example, confessional ethnography is absent here – we are presented with the account and asked to accept it on its own merits, without being given the tools to weigh it in its own metrics. We are told that the text was “peer reviewed”, though what that means is unclear: are these “peers” who reviewed the text other psychohistorians, commenting on the methods and standards of the field? Other Afrikaners, commenting on authenticity of narrative? Other psychologists, commenting on rigour of the analysis?
It is at the level of analysis that I found the text problematic: the “so what?” aspect that flows from what might otherwise pass as anecdote in an account. Working in qualitative enquiry, I have found Maxwell’s constructs of validity useful. He distinguishes (2012:133-48) between three levels of validity, which have bearing on this text:
Descriptive validity concerns itself with the factual accuracy of the account. In this text, there are two main types of account: historical accounts, via secondary sources, and the author’s account of her own responses, inserted into the text at a couple of points. The text is well referenced, leaving the reader free to check the accuracy of the account provided against the original documentary sources. Sources range from more rigorous academic texts to literature, blog and anecdote, all presented equally and none framed as being of greater reliability than others. What appears to matter to the author is not the rigour of the source, but the content – voices that agree or add texture to the point being made are included, and others ignored. This can, of course, lead to accusations of confirmation bias, and questions about the silences and absences in the text arise. However, it is not at this level that my main concerns with the book arose. The account gelled broadly with the CNE version of history I was taught at school, with few departures (I don’t recall being told about rape and sexual assault in the concentration camps, unsurprisingly). While I believe the account is partial – in both senses – my sense is that this was intentional on the author’s part, because of wanting to construct an “owned” history. Which leads to the next level.
Interpretive validity concerns itself with the meaning of the account to the participants – akin to what ethnographers term an “emic” view. This, I believe, is the strength of this book. If someone wanted to know how an Afrikaner (of a certain type) felt about his history, this book provides a good insight from which to begin. The author’s situation of herself and her responses into the text amplify this, and the frequent use of emotive descriptors in retelling of historical accounts helps to shape this understanding. However, where I feel the book falls short is in its innocence of intersectionality. Afrikaners are presented as a monolithic entity – with the implication that all Afrikaners would necessarily respond to their history in a similar way. The author’s comment about “examin[ing] the impact of this painful history on [herself] and look[ing] at the ways in which it still resonates in the psyche of [her] people” is not borne out subsequently in the text – rather than exploring how multiple Afrikaner subjectivities receive and perceive the “inter/transgenerational trauma” and how this resonates in their psyches, the author’s particular reception and perceptions become generalised and are projected onto all Afrikaners. Individual psychotherapy clients’ stories are recruited to this end, too – where they support the narrative. Again, the silences and absences are telling.
Theoretical validity concerns the external sense-making of the account: what ethnographers might term an “etic” view. Beyond describing what happened, and how those within that worldview construct meaning of it, analysis at this level draws out concepts and categories from the prior two levels, seeking to explain relationships between these and to explain how the constructs fit together through generating or invoking theory. This is missing in this account, despite the calls to psychohistorical gurus. The book itself never rises beyond the assumption from which it began – that humiliated people go on to humiliate other people – and the author herself appears unable or unwilling to step into the theoretical validity space. By way of contrast, authors such as Schultz (2000) and Van Maanen (1988, 2010) write convincingly about the reflexivity and reflectivity involved in research where one is both the subject of the research and the research instrument. That awareness and rigour appears absent in this book. I would have expected to see far greater self-awareness in the book – not just comments on her emotional responses to reading her source material – but real engagement with the cognitive dissonance, the internal contradictions, the silences and absences within the text.
For example, in several places she rails against “the arrogant English” for their prejudice against Afrikaners. In one such account (p18), she recalls:
I’ve often heard comments like: “You know how Afrikaners are?” or “He’s a typical Afrikaner.” … “But I am one,” I sometimes say, to which the speaker responds, “No, not like you.” Considering themselves fair-minded, non-judgmental and liberal, these people operate in complacent unawareness of their stereotyping.
Perhaps the ambiguity in the phrasing of “their stereotyping” is deliberate – the author may have intended it to refer to the stereotyping by “the arrogant English”, and yet, without being conscious of the irony, the author herself devotes considerable energy to the stereotyping of “the English”. Aside from this, it is unclear who exactly the “English” are. The author appears to use the term interchangeably for white English-speaking South Africans, irrespective of their ancestry, South Africans of English (in the UK sense) descent, and British people. These disparate groups are all painted with the same brush, and opposed to the monolithic construct of “the Afrikaner”. Interestingly, in a discussion on affirmative action (314), “English and Jewish businesses” are mentioned as if they are separate entities, ie “the English” is considered a separate category to “Jews”. English-speaking South Africans of non-British ancestry other than Jews perhaps have not registered on the author’s radar.
When recounting the injustice visited upon the Boers who were drafted into the army as “British citizens” (70), the author tells us that “unlike others, they were not paid” – though we read on the next line that neither were British settlers, completely undercutting the argument of the Boers having been singled out for poor treatment.
Compare also the horror with which the author discusses the rape of the Boer women during the Anglo-Boer War (219-30), with the casual dismissal of the rape by Dutch settler men of indigenous and slave women as “close friendships” (24). Likewise is the insistence that it was only with the British that “disdain for what they considered the "lesser races" arrived (24), despite the author uncritically reporting the presence of slaves and admitting that some Boers “acted scandalously” (393) in their treatment of indigenous people.
The psychological impetus to consider trauma visited on one’s own people to far outweigh that visited on others – especially by one’s own people – would have made for interesting reflection in the text, yet this is absent. Everything done to the Afrikaner is amplified by emotive retelling, while that done by the Afrikaner (or the Boer, or the Burghers) is minimised, blamed on the British or ascribed to a few rotten apples without reflective comment. There are addenda discussing [white] racism and prejudice, written in a detached, more academic style, but the author-centred “my people”-identified perspective is absent from these.
Britain’s culpability for great wrongs is beyond question – and only the most hardened colonialist would seek to defend Britain’s actions in Africa (southern or elsewhere). Yet, the premise of the book (“I only did it because he did it first”), while purporting to explain, does begin to read as apologising after several hundred pages. Yes, the British did terrible things. Yes, some of these were done to Boers. Afrikaners went on to do terrible things, too – but the Boers had done terrible things before the Brits arrived, which can’t be blamed on the Brits (beyond “everyone was doing it”), and blaming the Brits doesn’t absolve the Boers/Afrikaners, just as blaming the Afrikaners for apartheid doesn’t absolve white people collectively for supporting, sustaining and benefiting from the system, even if they personally did not vote for the National Party. (The old definition of a liberal comes to mind: one who votes for the PFP – as it was then; now the DA – but thinks, “Thank God for the Nats.”) We are all culpable, but perhaps not in the way the author seeks to spread blame. Perhaps there are some direct descendants of British colonisers who may be appalled and shocked into sense by reading of the horrors committed by their forebears, but I suspect that – if those people read the book – they would be rather few. Far more numerous are the millions of white beneficiaries of apartheid who benefited through no direct action of their own, and who (and whose children) continue to benefit, who deny responsibility because they (or their ancestors) did not have a direct hand in creating apartheid. Beating them over the head with a heavy tome (which could use some editing for length, to remove repetition and to ensure that lengthy pieces contextualising characters and events are included with our first introduction to those characters and events, and not subsequently) is unlikely to proselytise, and more likely to alienate. Perhaps it would be more useful translated into Afrikaans, for newer generations of Afrikaners seeking to understand a “volkseie” perspective on their history.
I came to this book interested in inter-/transgenerational trauma, as a South African, and read it as a case study of the Afrikaner as a particular case of such trauma. I left unconvinced, which is a pity. I think the study of inter-/transgenerational trauma has much to offer, particularly to the generations recovering from the brutalities of apartheid and being expected to “get over it” a mere couple of decades after its formal dismantling.
Maxwell, JA. (2012). A realist approach to qualitative research. Los Angeles: Sage.
Schultz, U. (2000). “A confessional account of an ethnography about knowledge work”. MIS Quarterly 24(1) 3-41.
Van Maanen, J. (1988). Tales of the field: on writing ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Van Maanen, J. (2010). “You gotta have a grievance: locating heartbreak in ethnography”. Journal of Management Inquiry 19(4) 338-41.