Helen in Orania

By Ronald Suresh Roberts

October 31, 2019

Back in 2007, the Sunday Times launched its ill-fated daily, The Times, with a kind of live dry-run, including the billboards that carried the spoof headline: “Mugabe Toppled in coup.” 

I immortalised this prank, the coup-porn of the local white imaginary, as the epigraph at the head of the Zim Chapter in Fit to Govern: “Two Nations? Zimbabwe and South Africa” (page 152). The point of the question mark was that far from remaining distinct countries, what white South Africa is talking about when it talks about Zimbabwe is never actually Zimbabwe, but South African neuroses. 

When the real thing happened, with tidiest of timing, precisely a decade later, the substantive theme of the chapter once more swung into view: “The word ‘Zimbabwe’ is the Pavlovian Bell of the white South African mind. Once the word rings out, all remnants of liberal good sense retreat, replaced by salivation and loud barking.” Hence the frenzy over the appropriate tone and content of the recent Mugabe obituaries, during which nothing new emerged; only the atavistic rehearsal of old anxieties by all of the usual suspects (such as Tony Leon) and native assistants, such as Eusebius McKaiser. 

McKasiser’s several and frenzied returns to the subject, desperately seeking to fix history forever on the inherently ephemeral radio-show format, brought back for me memories of the time when I edited the first piece of writing Mc Kaiser ever published anywhere: an autobiographical essay on his confessed tragic fate as a “coconut”. In a rather fine irony, I passed along my edit to James Sanders, my white male co-editor of Molotov Cocktail at the time, and McKasier’s ecstatically emailed Sanders over the improvements, which he credited to the white messenger. The laaitie remains oblivious to this day of the native intelligence in the background that truly improved his work. And his once again self-juniorising performance before discourse or figures of whiteness on Mugabe theme in 2019 tragically confirms the continuing salience of his old confessions, with which he founded his writing voice, with yours truly as a sceptical but liberal midwife.  

In fact, the most appropriate response to the rash of Mugabe memorialising was not even the Lecture delivered by President Mbeki in Kwa Zulu Natal (itself more a political reiteration and event than an intellectual innovation) than the simple re-publication of the original Letters From the President of the theme, by the Foundation’s website. 

As those indispensable letters remind us, the moral and political high watermark of democratic South Africa’s incursion upon world history will remain the era during which a sitting President led (with Dominique de Villepin of France) world resistance to regime change initiative across the planet, at the time when Zimbabwe was an entirely explicit fixture on Condoleezza Rice’s “axis of evil”.  And while De Villepin later repented of his fitful anti-imperialism by supporting obnoxious U.S. incursions in Haiti, only South Africa maintained moral and political consistency on this theme. 

That is why the more serious commentators even at dubious outlets such as Business Day 

Adekeye Adebajo) so conspicuously steered clear of the recent Pavlovian Mbeki-bashing, leaving the field to such lightweight parodists such as Tom Eaton. Peter Hain unctuously corrected “comrade Thabo” but relied upon the imagined authority of his personal testimony from a time as Minister of State for Africa until the irrelevantly early date of January 2001 (BEFORE 9/11) in order to say that there was never any “plan” to invade Zimbabwe—a supposed refutation of Mbeki that is, in fact, a confirmation, since Mbeki’s point is that the invasion was mooted but indeed could not be planned, precisely because of his opposition to it, along with others. These are, then, the daily bread of ordinary dishonesty and disingenuousness that is too familiar to bother about; merely recidivist noise. 

To find any genuine angle of interest, I would rather consider Singapore. From the retrospect of late October, we can already see how the Mugabe noise was in truth about (or prefigured) the current reorganisation of the DA. 

Here the likes of McKasier again missed the point when they scoffed at a trivial irony: that a radical Africanist ended in a Singapore facility, supposedly because Zimbabwe’s hospitals were in abject disrepair. To persist in this argument McKasier had to ignore the input of his guest (introduced as an “Oxford historian” Miles Tendi) who reminded him that Mugabe’s security concerns about the integrity of his treatment and the security of information about his true state of health were partial explanations for the displacement to Singapore.

But of far more substance for the basic Pavlovian frame are the many ways in which Zim and Zille chime together. Future students of discourse, asking what South Africa was talking about when it talked about the death of Mugabe, will not fail to locate how Tony Leon, the Muzorewa supporter, crept from the shadows to berate Mbeki and then to displace Maimane, the native assistant who remained sufficiently naïve (despite voting for Mbeki in 1999 before his turn to the DA) to place his native fate in hands of Tony Leon and Ryan Coetzee. Tragic!

Again, to understand why Mbeki would intervene in these DA developments as he did, one would need to consult the seemingly oblique angle of an old Presidential letter on “floor-crossing legislation” that was at the time before the Constitutional Court (see Fit to Govern, 135-36]. Beyond the technicalities of the day, the logic of Mbeki’s contribution at the time was essentially that non-racial normalisation would see the break-up of ossified political formations and the inexorable deracialisation of power as hegemony, rendering all” Fight Back” politics impossible.

Within that context and trajectory, the 2019 debates over Mugabe marked, then, the starting gun for the project of illiberal re-segregation of the Democratic Alliance; the remobilisation of the old white “Fight Back” to retake the party, marked by the restoration of Helen Zille as the new icon of White Male rage (never mind the gender). The double-conquest there, of course, is that Zille is, in turn, marking the backwards-turn from her starting point in 2007, which was a turn towards inclusion relative to the “muscular liberalism” of Leon before her. Zille displaced Leon during 2007 precisely on a ticket towards greater inclusiveness, again architected by Ryan Coetzee, in a forgotten piece of mini-treachery against Leon at the time. 

The return of Zille, in turn, provokes a re-reading of her mildly demented letter to James Selfe in mid-2017, over the procedural issues that followed her Singapore colonialism tweets. At the time the letter read as the ossified last cry of a defeated and embittered ideological skeleton, like the cobwebbed figure of Magda, in her rocking chair, in JM Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country. Zille sought to show through the example of Singapore that colonialism was not ALL bad. Zille’s remarkably wounded and self-pitying text itself requires close analysis, which I defer for another occasion. I will only say here that it is profoundly symptomatic of white morbidity and makes a companion piece to the text and career of N.P. van Wyk Louw, which JM Coetzee took as symptomatic of madness in the history of apartheid. 

Through the long letter, Zille’s stretched tropes, cramped legalisms, righteous bellowing against her unfair fate, compel decoding if not a diagnosis. Refusing so much as ever to utter the name “Maimane”, Zille instead oscillates without rhyme or reason between lower case references to “the leader” and the occasional erratic capitalisation of the same term (“The Leader”), sometimes in a single sentence, as though haunted alternately by versions of Maimane as “Brother Leader” Gaddafi, determined to silence all dissent. But that, as I say, is for another day.

But for the moment it is the sheer ignorance of all references to Singapore itself on all sides of this debate, that detains me. On the one hand, a very wide spectrum of ignorant opinion—Zille through to Ferial Haffajee—seem to see value in asking whether Singapore carries lessons upon the theme of how the legacy of colonialism can be repurposed. This “debate” assumes on all sides that Singapore is at all a product of colonialism, for better or worse. And all sides then seek to argue from this premise. Hence the untutored outrage of Eusebius McKaiser that Zille could dare find value in colonialism sets itself against the supposed verdict of all those (unnamed) “serious historians” invoked by Zille whom, we are assured, know that not ALL things about colonialism were bad. And Singapore is treated as an exhibit in evidence for this imagined argument.

What nobody has as yet paused to ask is whether Singapore is at all an example of colonialism? All sides of this pseudo-debate proceed oblivious to the fact that Singapore as a sovereign nation simply is NOT a product of colonialism at all, but of post-colonial racial self-partitioning after race riots broke out when an integrated postcolonial federation of Malaysia was launched from the pre-existing colonial entity of Malaya. Singapore had only the slightest history as a colonial entity unto itself and obtained its sovereign status by exit (Less Brexit than Sexit), not from British colonialism but actually from the Federation Malaysia which it joined after a referendum on 1962 and then left amidst race riots in 1965.   

This is obvious to me, perhaps for autobiographical reasons. Before my mother, Patricia Antonette Lopez was called to the London bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1965, she had first attended the stiffly competitive University of Singapore, that was then part of the recently decolonised entity known as Malaysia. Accordingly, I grew up knowing that Singapore was entirely a product of a fascinating politics of postcolonial self-partition, explicitly driven by race and the result of a kind of Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the rest of the decolonised territory (in technical terms, the Malaysian Federation voted to expel Singapore, at its request—like Brexit). 

This UDI created what was in turn a kind of “Orania of Asia” under Chinese ethnic leadership, liberated from Malay political dominance within the larger unit, and within which residual populations of Malays and Indians occupy designated divisions of labour and even residential segregation (or managed desegregation), together with entirely explicit practices of eugenics, within which for instance, social cruises were put on to promote intermarriage among professional elites through the 1980s. 

Only the small size of the population and the relative prosperity of even its bottom-most rungs estrange Singapore from the obvious soft-apartheid lens that befits it (more Benneton than Verwoerd). All its ethnic parts are enfolded within a strained discourse of multiculturalism that very much resembles Democratic Alliance “equal opportunity” lore. A couple of years ago I met a brilliant PPE student at Oxford who was there as an Indo-Singaporean scholarship student and specifically knew that he would return to work in the police services, doubtless to reach a high level and on a fast track, but still a policeman in the proper cultural place of Indians as a bureaucrats and lawyers (like my mother) rather than, for instance, Chines business, elite. Similarly, the current Chief Justice, Sundaresh Menon, was my classmate at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s and is (again like my mother) ancestrally a Malayali Indian from Kerala.

In summary: what Singapore readily signifies for South Africa now is a placard for the Grand Apartheid that never was. Had white South Africa successfully prosecuted its separation into an enclave surrounded by “independent” homelands, what you would have is something not unlike Singaporean prosperity under white (substituting Chinese) economic as well as political hegemony, with black perhaps in the judiciary (as are Indians in the Singaporean police and judiciary). The majoritarian Malays or Bumiputras are safely over the border. And all of these dynamics have remained invisible in South African discourse even during the fashionable invocation of Bumiputra empowerment models in the cause of “black empowerment” during the 1990s. It was precisely Bumiputra empowerment that the Singapore Chinese business elite was fleeing when it founded Singapore by secession in 1965!

You have to squint quite hard to see these realities, not least because of the energetically promoted Singapore national narrative that effaces them, and I would certainly myself have overlooked them but for my status as a native to Singapore, once removed. For that native, the South African debate over my Mother Country (or at least my mother’s country) seems profoundly un-intelligent. Properly understood (and she does not understand this herself) the atavistic appeal of Singapore for Zille is as an image of Grand Apartheid fulfilled, as it never will be in South Africa, because material conditions and the lack of post-apartheid partition forbid it.

**Roberts is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics

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