Struggle with a contentious question


To summarise what I say in pieces like “A topic I don’t really want to think about” (December 2019): A combination of factors allowed white South Africans to oppress and exploit black south Africans for over a century, despite white South Africans being in the minority, and despite centuries of sometimes successful armed resistance against white expansion into lands considered by black tribes to be in their jurisdiction.

For their exploitation of this combination of factors, white South Africans have to make peace with their consciences – or make peace with their forebears.

Here’s the controversial point: If it is true that adults are to a large extent responsible for how we experience reality, then black South Africans have to make peace with themselves – or with their forefathers and -mothers.


Am I saying that the oppression and exploitation experienced by black South Africans was their own fault? This is a highly contentious question, and I struggle with it.

If it had been impossible for black men and women since, say, 1880, to offer more successful resistance to the frequent attempts by ordinary white people to exploit and oppress them, and to the laws and regulations of a white government, despite the fact that there were seven or eight black adult men and women for every white adult man and woman, then one must conclude that white people are simply smarter than black people, or more powerful than black people, or both. I refuse to accept this. This is the argument of white supremacy.

An alternative explanation is that a majority of black people accepted their fate, and simply hoped for better days. But what does one say to such a person – who just accepts his or her fate and hopes for a better tomorrow? What would you, the reader, say if it were your brother or sister or friend? Would you encourage such an attitude?

I understand if this were people’s attitude. It’s human. It’s normal. Most people do it. But – then you shouldn’t later blame the world, society, or other people who are bigger or stronger than you – or who you consider to be bigger or stronger than you – for your experience of reality! Be honest and admit it: We were just human. We accepted our situation and hoped for better days, while we could have made a bigger difference, much earlier, if we had been more active in our resistance.

And for the record: I am not just talking about armed resistance and violence. There are numerous historical examples of the effectiveness of passive resistance. Especially if you surpass your oppressor in numbers.

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Some people would want to remind me of the virtual omnipotence of the apartheid state, of how brutal the security police could be, and how laws and regulations made it difficult for ordinary black men and women to move forward in life. No reasonable person denies this.

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Seeing that I have gained momentum with topics one shouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, here’s another: The groups of Afrikaans-speaking farmers and their families who packed their ox-wagons in the 1830s and moved from mostly the Eastern Cape towards the interior of South Africa, were they powerful? Armed black warriors confronted them in various places, attacked them, and in some cases completely wiped them out – old people, men, women, and children. Yet on their own, without any help from other powers, they established lives for themselves in Natal, the Free State, and the old Transvaal. How did they do this almost a hundred years before they could use the military might, infrastructure, and laws and regulations of a modern state?

And now that we’re on the subject, the Battle of Blood River has always been a fascinating topic. As far as I know, no historian doubts the numbers on the day – on the one hand between 400 and 500 adult Voortrekker men, older boys, and servants, and on the other hand, 10,000-15,000 hardy and trained Zulu impi’s. How did it happen that the Voortrekkers achieved such a decisive victory? Was it just the fact that they had muzzleloaders and a small cannon? Suppose thirty men with knives in their hands storm one man with a revolver. The man with the revolver has enough bullets, but he can only shoot six at a time before he must reload! How on earth can he remain standing?

[22/02/21: According to historian Victor Davis Hanson, free citizens, for a variety of reasons, make better soldiers than their enemies on the battlefield who are less free. I reckon the Boers at Blood River were freer than the warriors of the absolute monarch, Zulu king Dingane. Three other factors played a role in the Boer victory: a compact battle formation, a barricade consisting of ox-wagons from behind which the burghers could shoot, and sufficient ammunition that was readily available in the heat of battle. These factors also enabled a British contingent of about 150 troops at Rorke’s Drift in 1879 to fight off thousands of Zulu impis (stone walls from a kraal and bags of meal provided the barricade). When a British army at Isandlwana that was twenty times larger than the group at Rorke’s Drift failed to implement these measures, they were annihilated by the Zulus.]


People who have been exploited or oppressed, or whose ancestors experienced exploitation and oppression in an earlier historical period, must accept that they or their ancestors were to some extent responsible for their own predicament by accepting the situation and not resisting harder. Accepting responsibility is empowering yourself because you recognise you or your ancestors had the power to do something about the situation – even if you or your ancestors failed to push back harder, for a variety of reasons. Stick to a victim narrative, and you do the exact opposite. You remind yourself and your children and their children at every opportunity that you do not have the ability to successfully put up resistance in challenging situations. In the short term, you can make political gain if people are sympathetic, but what is the long-term price you and your children and grandchildren are going to pay for this position?

I think it’s better to say: “We had the power to push back, but we didn’t do it … or we didn’t push back hard enough, or not enough of us did it. They smuggled with our heads; made us think we were too weak to resist. But we had the power and didn’t use it. This is something for which we must take responsibility.”

The day you take responsibility is the day you are no longer a victim – when you stop thinking of yourself as a weakling.