Had the entire country been forced to remain housebound in May 2019, during the general election, this would have regarded as an unequivocal act of oppression. Yet, when this was in fact done in April 2020 it was hailed as an act of ‘decisive leadership’.

To those who think the turmoil of human history can be reduced to a 15-minute Looney Tunes short, the former is plainly an act of ill-intentioned electioneering, and the latter is plainly an act of well-intentioned statesmanship. This saps history of most of its important lessons.

When the once-great Thuli Madonsela condemned the United States Supreme Court for striking a blow against race-based college admissions – arguing that these policies have good intentions – I responded on Twitter by pointing out that even Apartheid was motivated by good intentions. Good intentions cannot cure race law of its inherent badness.

Perhaps naïvely, I did not consider this a contentious statement. I thought every politically conscious South African had at least heard the saying that ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’ and intuitively grasped its wisdom.

CS Lewis also remarked pertinently that, ‘Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive’.

‘Whitewashing’ Apartheid

Instead, I was accused of ‘whitewashing’ Apartheid by claiming that it was motivated by good intentions; that I sought to excuse its injustices by focusing on its intentions (precisely the sentiment I was criticising Madonsela for, in fact).

What seemed to be lost on my interlocutors was that it was they who were cleansing a significant part of the reason why Apartheid was so perverse. The perversity of Apartheid being motivated by its inventors as being in ‘everyone’s best interests’ is an important historical lesson, which the Twitter left would rather not learn.

This paternalistic attitude is something the architects of Apartheid should be condemned for, but instead, the attitude itself is denied. Rather than acknowledging this insidiousness, my interlocutors would have us believe the architects of Apartheid were cartoon villains: the type of paper-thin creatures motivated by nothing but pure hate and malice.

Distorting history by simplifying it

There are reasons why oppressive characters from history are often treated in this fashion.

When oppressors are exclusively irrational and exclusively hateful, we need not do the legwork of identifying and understanding what motivations truly gave rise to their conduct. This is convenient, but there is a cost: the mistakes they made on the road to becoming oppressors become invisible to us.

The architects of Apartheid believed that race and culture were entwined, and that racial groups could, thus, not be treated equally at law. By implication, the individuals pigmentally associated with those races (whether they had ‘primitive’ or even Westernised cultures) were also not treated equally with individuals of other races. 

In their view, the ‘more advanced’ white (presumed Western) civilisation had to be protected from the ‘backward’ black (presumed ‘primitive’) civilisation (and vice versa) by keeping them apart – a neat and clean separation that did not account for individual reality.

This is completely invisible to those who argue Apartheid was motivated purely by bad intentions. To them, the architects of Apartheid were formed and scripted to hate black skin and ensure white businesses made excessive profits. They overlook that the architects of Apartheid thought of themselves as good people doing the right thing.

‘Our guys’ always have good intentions

More than this, however, treating oppressors as ill-intentioned, evil cartoon characters also helps us excuse the conduct of political actors on our side, because we know that they do in fact have good intentions – those are, after all, our intentions as well.

When Ebrahim Patel banned flip-flops from being sold during lockdown, government supporters were reassured that he did this with good intentions. When the Electoral Commission attempted to have an election unconstitutionally delayed, the same group was silent, if not defensive. The apparently ‘bad conduct’ on the part of our team is not, in fact, bad, because it is motivated by good intentions.

This is the fantasy that helps us cope with the unpleasant reality that our own group would also, under a certain alignment of circumstances, oppress others. It is the fantasy that helps us avoid crucial historical lessons, because if we truly had to learn those lessons, we would need to make some emotional and psychological sacrifices.

In this case, the thing that makes my interlocutors feel good – and which they do not want to sacrifice – is the fabricated notion that the South African government is engaged in the ‘empowerment’ of the black majority, and that all it needs to do to pull it off is refine the policy and get rid of one or two corrupt comrades.

If my interlocutors had to really learn from history, and understand that bad policy remains bad policy with bad outcomes even when motivated by good intentions, they would need to recognise that much of the political mythology under which South Africa is governed is just that: myth.

The excessive focus on intention (and the concomitant assignment of purely ‘bad intentions’ to oppressors), then, serves to simplify (but completely distort) history for those who cannot or do not wish to do the work of understanding it in detail. It also serves a defensive function: our in-group always has good intentions and therefore the in-group can never do wrong.

History’s lessons

The endless cycle of oppression – denying civil liberty to individuals and freedom of association to communities – will only end when we start to take history seriously and learn the lessons it desperately tries to teach us. We can only see history for what it really is if we drop the mental insistence that all the bad people from history were Disney villains with purple skin and red eyes.

History will rarely be kind enough to us to offer people who were so plainly and superficially evil.

The worst injustices in human history were committed by people who thought they were doing the right thing. The phenomenon of ‘bad intentions’ does exist throughout history, but it is rare, and the burden to prove it is significant. Merely pointing out Jan Smuts’s or Hendrik Verwoerd’s condescending racism is inadequate, as bigotry is insufficient to qualify as the desire to do harm. Smuts and Verwoerd undoubtedly believed in white superiority, but this does not mean they wished to impoverish or humiliate the black majority.

Their oppressive conduct was far more insidious: they sincerely believed they were engaged in a good enterprise.

The lesson we must learn is that injustice has an inherent nature that does not change based on the motivations of those perpetrating it. This would place us irresistibly on the path of understanding that only liberal constitutionalism offers a sustainable and just future for humanity.

I have not revealed anything new in this column. As I said: I thought the statement that Apartheid was well-intentioned was already widely understood. This is not a special insight, ‘spin’, or a ‘hot take’ that I have – it is simply a natural phenomenon of political action throughout history. Apartheid was motivated by good intentions, because of course it was. That does not excuse it – in fact, it gives far more strength to our just condemnation of it.

[Image: wal_172619 from Pixabay]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Martin van Staden is the Head of Policy at the Free Market Foundation and former Deputy Head of Policy Research at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Martin also serves as the Editor of the IRR’s History Project and its Race Law Project, and is an advisor to the Free Speech Union SA. He is pursuing a doctorate in law at the University of Pretoria. For more information visit www.martinvanstaden.com.