Billman en die Hadedasang van die Verkramptes.

Recently the Creator was chatting fairly amiably with an intellectual and mentioned working on an article about South African politics during the early 1990s. Ah, said the intellectual (of Afrikaner extraction) then you will need to read R W “Bill” Johnson.
The Creator is a polite person, so did not pitch the intellectual over the cliff which happened to be conveniently close by. Meanwhile, another person of Afrikaner extraction named Chris Louw, author of “Boetman is die bliksem in”, blew his brains out, thus at least proving to everyone’s satisfaction that he was a person of strong passions and had at least enough brains to make a mess. And, still more recently, the Creator happened upon a collection of essays called “Can South Africa Survive?” which addressed what it quaintly called the “Johnson thesis” ten years down the track. The volume thus provided a kind of quality-control upon Johnson’s work (if going “Pooh!” when you open a can of rotten food can be called quality-control).
The connection between these elements is perhaps not obvious so needs to be established.
The Johnson thesis can be succinctly stated, as it is contained in Johnson’s woolly vapouring, “How Long Can South Africa Survive?”. It is that the white apartheid state is led by clever people who can reform their way out of any crisis, that if the apartheid state runs into any real trouble it can shoot anybody making difficulties, that the West will always stand by their apartheid allies while the USSR will not make waves, and that blacks are not a serious factor in South African politics.
Let us note that this was written after twenty-nine years of apartheid, a year after the Soweto massacre, just before the only black newspaper in South Africa had to be banned because its mildly liberal observations were feared to be the spark igniting a basement full of dynamite and light artillery. Just before the most prominent black intellectual and politician in South Africa had to be murdered. While the first guerrilla operations in South Africa were beginning, two years after FRELIMO and the MPLA took power in the Portuguese colonies neighbouring South African-controlled territories, while the Rhodesian regime was tottering towards its fall, while SWAPO’s operations in Namibia were already a serious threat to control of the north of that country. All this had to be dismissed as trivia by Johnson.
We then note that the UDF was formed six years later. Nine years later a permanent state of emergency had to be declared to secure white power. Eleven years later South Africa was kicked out of Namibia. Thirteen years later the white regime felt obliged to unban black political organisations. Seventeen years later the apartheid state was utterly undone. Hence it would seem that Johnson’s thesis has been quite effectively disproved. It might be argued that Johnson had a point inasmuch as a few people might have contended in the late 1970s that the apartheid state had only a few years to endure. However, only fools thought that in 1977 (even in 1985 it was hard for most to believe that the revolutionary situation then prevailing was going to lead to a successful seizure of power, and indeed it did not). So Johnson embedded a hard nut of validity in a vast mass of flabby authoritarian rhetoric legitimated by racist and Cold War fantasising.
It is interesting to compare Johnson’s thesis with John Kane-Berman’s contemporary “Whirlwind before the Storm”, which (published in the same year) presents the Soweto uprising as a serious crisis which might lead to something still more serious. Kane-Berman didn’t particularly like this prospect, and he subsequently moved over to a position very similar to Johnson’s except more practical (essentially, complete endorsement of the apartheid state and particularly its repressive apparatus, a position he still holds long after both have disappeared, so that he shares considerable ideological affinities with the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging). But all this only means that Kane-Berman was trying to live in the real world (and in a sense still does) whereas Johnson was living in a pretend universe.
Ow. What has this to do with Boetman? Quite a lot, actually. Louw’s book Boetman en die Swanesang van die Verligtes, which for you non-Afrikaans-speaking garbage means “Brotherman” (an Afrikaner diminutive apellation roughtly equivalent to “Little buddy”) “and the Swan-song of the Enlightened Ones”. You might well think that the Enlightened Ones were the ones who were enlightened, and hence opposed apartheid (because isn’t that what enlightened ones do?) and so how the heck could they be singing a swansong when they were still around? But it’s more complicated than that.
Under the old Afrikaner nationalist system there was a simple system of categorisation: you were with us or you were a Milnerite out to destroy the Afrikaner race and language. (Not much has changed since then in the minds of people like Dan Roodt.) However, this basically trapped Afrikanerdom in the rut of nineteenth-century nationalism, and so to enable it to break out of this, the concept of “loyale verset”, or loyal opposition, was borrowed from British parliamentary debate by Van Wyk Louw. Basically it was possible to introduce new ideas to Afrikanerdom (especially those entailing collaboration with large corporations) via this imaginary process.
Eventually, however, with the crisis of Afrikaner power in the 1970s, this was no longer enough. A right wing had splintered off from the National Party, articulating the racist authoritarianism which was the dominant but unexpressed ideology of the party. To demonise this grouping without actually denying it, it was defined as the “verkramptes”, “those who are confined” as opposed to everybody else who was therefore the “verligtes”. So the name was basically a rebranding exercise which turned all Afrikaner politicians and intellectuals into the good guys. To demonise those who were not sufficiently within the bounds of reason (but also provide another version of loyal opposition) the term “oorbeligtes”, or “the excessively enlightened” was thereupon developed. These were, of course, the people who took things Too Far Too Soon. There was a constant coming-and-going within this category, with people like Hermann Giliomee hopping in and out as circumstances made it convenient.
Chris Louw’s line, interestingly, goes right back to the days of the late 1970s (Hello, Bill!), when he was a junior Afrikaans reporter and getting donnered around by the verligtes who were running his newspaper and therefore hymning the glories of whatever came down from Tuynhuys and the Broederbond. While they were thus declaring that whatever was, was right, by appointment to his majesty die Groot Krokodil P W Botha, they were naturally also saying that it was right to send one’s Boeties off to the Border, or into the townships, or into the death-squads, or actually into whatever cesspool the regime proclaimed to be chocolate mousse that week. The common feature which all the verligtes had was that they would not go anywhere within hearing range of gunfire, nor dirty their hands with blood or even ink, since they needed to have clean hands to show to the outside community which did not understand the Afrikaner and thus might have been upset to see reality.
Louw pointed out that this entailed saying “Trust us and we will lead you wisely” while actually marching everybody off a cliff, afterwards saying “I have no idea why they chose to walk off that cliff”. There’s a certain parallel between this and some of Antjie Krog’s writings in Country of my Skull; like most people she and Louw (who later edited Die Suid-Afrikaan, a magazine run mainly by oorbeligtes like Krog) feel a bit more affinity with the reactionaries and thugs who actually did the dirty deeds and then came out and admitted it, than with the reactionary hypocrities who issued the orders which were then shredded and burned so that nobody could prove that they were issued, and even those reactionary hypocrites were better than the ones who cheered on the reactionary hypocrites and made excuses for the thugs while pretending not to do either.
Louw’s “Boetman” articles began a small debate within the Afrikaner intellectual community, a debate of a kind which has never really happened within any other intellectual community, about moral responsibility for crimes. (There were a few feeble efforts within Charterism in the early 1990s, regarding the question of censorship and political repression generally, which might have led to something, but all that was drowned, partly in a flood of liberal syrup generated by the TRC, and partly by the successful efforts of the white community to use both issues to disclaim their own moral responsibility for apartheid.) Of course the whole debate was speedily choked off, but it clearly struck a chord — which existed because there were such flagrant contradictions between what the verligtes said and did, and between what Afrikanerdom claimed to stand for and what it did stand for. But this was also because some Afrikaners had actually believed in the rubbish they had to listen to.
The problem with their English contemporaries was that for the most part they did not believe their rubbish. They knew perfectly well that it was all a smokescreen for the holding and exercising of power. But also they did not know this; thanks to doublethink they could proclaim rubbish without internalising it, so that they could later disclaim the rubbish, and then reclaim it when it was convenient. Thus they could negotiate a zigzag path, springing from turd to turd so as to traverse their cesspool without any sign of having been affected (unless, like Fred Vargas’s Commissioner Adamsberg in This Night’s Foul Work, you checked the soles of their shoes).
This is where R W Johnson comes in. He entered as a supposed leftist; back in the 1960s he was a Trotskyite, as they called traitors to the people and to all human decency in those days (a tradition which ought to be continued) and almost instantly shifted right, thus generating his absurd reactionary screed in 1977, then shifting into full-on endorsement of the apartheid state in the 1980s, writing articles which made Ken Owen look liberal, and thereafter devoting energies to providing a spurious intellectual screen for the dogmas of the white elite. So, nothing unusual there, but significant because his dishonesty always corresponded perfectly with whatever whites in power wished to hear.
This is where Louw was mistaken. The “verligtes” did not sing a swan-song; they merged inextricably with the English praise-singers of multinational capital. (This is why Hermann Giliomee is now so popular with English intellectuals,) They thus reinforced an already almost unassailable fortress of intellectual dishonesty which was meanwhile drawing in black front-people; Sipho Seepe, William Gumede, Moeletsi Mbeki, Jonathan Jansen — an endless list who do exactly what Johnson does; repeat the dogmas of white conservatism, mixed with the dogmas of Western imperialism. They are all squawking like hadedas – but less tunefully.
Many of the black front-people don’t do this anywhere near as well as people like Johnson and Giliomee, but on the other hand, they are black, and thus (at least in the minds of the occupants of the fortress) are better equipped to fool the majority. (Actually, the Creator’s impression is that most of these pseudo-intellectuals are viewed as jokes by those members of the majority who know that they exist; this is convenient, since the majority is thus not hostile to them while the pseudo-intellectuals can continue to draw their gigantic salaries in return for doing public relations for the status quo. Let’s face it, hardly any advertising actually changes anything, but no corporate body dares abandon its reliance on advertising, for fear of what might happen.)
It is particularly noteworthy that, although he is widely despised among actual intellectuals (even ones who have sold out to the ruling class) nobody made any obvious jokes about Johnson when he was attacked by necrotising fasciitis and nearly turned into a stinking puddle of toxic slime. (The jokes are so obvious that the Creator will not bother inventing them, but one remembers when Randolph Churchill had a non-malignant tumour removed; “How typical of the medical profession, to discover the bit of Randolph which wasn’t malignant and then remove it!”) Since South African intellectuals are extremely sarcastic towards anyone not in their club and unable to hit back, it is immediately apparent that this kid-glove treatment is because Johnson is well-protected and, in reality, considered part of the intellectual gang. Which is where we came in, with an intelligent and principled oorbeligte assuring the Creator that a worthless sack of fart-gas deserved serious attention.
But the core of the issue is that the current utterly dishonest and worthless South African intellectual climate is nothing new, and is not simply a response to the post-apartheid crisis. It has existed since long before the ANC took power and the fact that it has come to endorse and enthrone Zuma and his crooks simply shows its flexibility and corruption. The problem is not this fortress of intellectual dishonesty — it is that intellectuals with integrity have departed the field, at least beyond the boundaries of the Creator’s current incarnation’s immediate reach. This is a bit of a problem, don’t you think?


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