Lessons learnt look­ing back in time

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

BEN Ma­clen­nan’s Apartheid: The Lighter Side came up on Fri­day’s Stoep, in the course of con­tem­plat­ing when our era will be blessed with Trans­for­ma­tion: The Lighter Side.

So, of course, week­end search­ing took place, and Murphy’s Law put in a show­ing. Hav­ing made my way through 99.9% of thou­sands of books in ev­ery cor­ner of the house, I stum­bled upon Ben’s slim vol­ume an arm’s-length from my desk while reach­ing for a fire lighter. (Very very early on a July morn­ing, win­ter actually does feel like win­ter.)

There are peo­ple who think Murphy’s Law is a joke, like some think the 50-50-90 law is a joke – any time you have a 50-50 chance of get­ting some­thing right there is a 90% prob­a­bil­ity you’ll get it wrong. No, these things are Guid­ance. The Peter Prin­ci­ple, too, that every­one gets pro­moted up to their level of in­com­pe­tence. I don’t know why that one was ever sup­posed to be a joke.

Mr Peter might have used a po­liter term than “in­com­pe­tence”, but his point is ex­actly how things ought to be. Where bet­ter to get pro­moted to than the point at which you start fray­ing at the edges? Your next pro­mo­tion is the one you are go­ing to screw up.

Any­way, The Lighter Side re­vis­ited con­tains quite a shock. It has plenty of “light” – all right. I open it at ran­dom to find Pro­fes­sor An­drew Mur­ray, fa­mous war­rior of the Pub­li­ca­tions Di­rec­torate, in the Cape Times of Fe­bru­ary 20, 1987: “Peo­ple have a silly idea that there must be free­dom of the press and no re­pres­sion. They don’t re­alise that ideas are also a source of evil.”

Be­low him, a poster by the Blanke Bevry­d­ings Be­weg­ing, call­ing for the mil­i­tary repa­tri­a­tion of non-whites out of South Africa, is banned. Be­low it, so is a pe­nis-shaped choco­late. Be­low that is TV per­son­al­ity Jus­tice Tshungu ex­plain­ing that the movie Cry Free­dom should be al­lowed for whites over 21 and blacks over 30.

There is the Sec­re­tary for Jus­tice proud of progress towards all courts hav­ing sep­a­rate en­trances for Euro­pean and non-Euro­pean pris­on­ers, sep­a­rate docks, sep­a­rate wit­ness boxes and sep­a­rate seat­ing.

There are som­bre ar­gu­ings over whether Je­sus was white or coloured, and there’s a pas­tor say­ing only white peo­ple can say “Our Fa­ther” be­cause God is white. An­other ex­plains that heaven’s “many man­sions” are for the sep­a­rate races.

Prime Min­is­ter John Vorster an­nounces that dis­crim­i­na­tion must be elim­i­nated, but not in a way that cre­ates a mul­tira­cial so­ci­ety.

There’s plenty that’s funny, but what is more strik­ing is how much is not. Hurts that are ev­i­dent to every­one in our time were taken as mer­ri­ment in their own time. Ja­cob Ku­malo, work­ing at a Swellen­dam ho­tel, is fined 5 (or 30 days) for crimen in­juria; he of­fered a hand­shake to greet a white woman guest. An East Lon­don court shunts a Na­tive woman wit­ness to five suc­ces­sive points in the room to avoid her sul­ly­ing the Euro­pean wit­ness box.

Then there are in­nu­mer­able com­ments tak­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween races as a cen­tral truth of how the world works. This doesn’t come just from apartheid ide­o­logues; it’s any­one from Gary Player to Bantu Holomisa to Harry Op­pen­heimer. Now, it reeks of wrong in a way that it didn’t in its own time. It’s not that those peo­ple were that dread­ful, but that those times were that back­ward.

I end learn­ing a les­son, again (apolo­gies, my pathol­ogy): that to­day’s think­ing about race/de­mo­graph­ics and di­vid­ing hu­mans by their birth will be as em­bar­rass­ing in 2057 as 1977 think­ing is now. Cheers!

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