By Grant SaffProfessor of Global Studies and Geography
The agenda on display at the recent Republican Convention revived uncomfortable memories of my time living in apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. While apartheid is correctly remembered as a program of white domination through de jure racial segregation and oppression, it was much more encompassing than this. From 1948 until 2004, South Africa was ruled by a procession of white Afrikaner Calvinist men, whose vision was the establishment and maintenance of a white Christian Afrikanernation. To this end, they saw themselves as valiantly upholding Christian values and Western civilization against a vast array of outside threats; everything from communism, liberalism and humanism to The Beatles and American television.
All-white state schools taught under the auspices of a uniform curriculum, known as “Christian National Education,” which was explicitly designed to provide justification for white rule and to prepare students to defend and uphold the values of the nation. Each school day began with a prayer, and lessons included civics and military training for the boys. Central to this ideology was a distorted history curriculum that neglected all-black African history, and showed how the arrival of whites brought the flame of western civilization to “uncivilized,” hostile Africa. This narrative promoted the idea that white South African “civilization” was under a “total onslaught” orchestrated from Moscow.
This ahistorical, narrow vision of society was kept in place by laws prescribing not only racial policy, but also strict censorship of art, literature, music and film. This censorship took many forms, from the outright banning of “offensive” material to censoring selected parts of newspapers and movies. By the 1970s the banned film list was varied enough to include “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Battle of Algiers,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
The government also controlled the message and content on the radio stations, which were the predominant form of mass entertainment. Despite being the economic powerhouse of Africa, television was not introduced until 1976, mainly because of fears that it would promote “foreign” values that would corrupt society. Once introduced, the state placed it under strict government control, with news and programming tailored to suit the government’s message.
South Africa was a country were the white men who ruled the country believed with absolute certainty that their values where those that the rest of society should live by. To this end, abortion was outlawed forcing thousands of women each year into dangerous illegal abortions (disproportionately affecting mostly poor black woman), gay rights were non-existent (and laws against homosexuality were strictly enforced), guns for whites were plentiful, patriarchy was entrenched and all forms of entertainment (including sports) and commerce were strictly forbidden on Sundays.
While pursuing a welfare state for Afrikaners and rigidly controlling the black labor market, the state preached the dogma about the need to preserve the “free” enterprise system. The few white Afrikaners who opposed the system were seen as traitors to the volk (nation) and to criticize apartheid was, in the eyes of the government and their supporters, tantamount to being anti-South African. Apartheid South Africa was not only based on racial falsehoods, but also on the complete self-delusion of ruling Calvinist elite that rammed their narrow ideological vision down the throats of the rest of society.
So what has the above to do with the current Republican agenda? Clearly, no one would accuse the Republicans of trying to push apartheid racial ideology, but they are increasingly identified with restricting minority voting rights and attacking the ability of the families of illegal migrants to live among legal citizens. This is a view of a narrow society, where selfishness and intolerance masquerade as individualism and faith; where an inclusive United States has been replaced by “my way or the highway”; where knowledge and learning are seen as elitist; where science is replaced by fundamentalist dogma and collective economic and social rights are seen as socialist threats to the gospel of unfettered capitalism. While those espousing this ideology may seem respectable and reasonable, there is no good that will come from this restricted notion of who we are. What is also similar to white South Africa is the way that many Republicans respond to criticism; you are not just wrong or misguided, but anti-American and unpatriotic. The agenda is thus nationalistic, xenophobic, anti-intellectual and restrictive of civil liberties. While mainstream Republicans may deny the above as a caricature of their beliefs, by letting the most vocal fringe of the party define their message they have become complicit in any consequences that are bound to ensue. In my past, I have seen this Republican vision for our future. Believe me; we don’t want to go back there.