Pollak: South Africa Shows That Societies That Erase Their History Doom Their Future

George Washington (Patrick Smith / Getty)
Patrick Smith / Getty

Political movements become obsessed with destroying statues and renaming streets when they run out of other ideas.

I know this because I watched it happen in the early 2000’s in South Africa, where I lived for seven years — first as a grad student, then a freelance journalist, then a political speechwriter.

I lived in the heart of Cape Town’s Muslim community and volunteered several evenings a week as a tutor for high school students in Khayelitsha, a poor black township.

Many South African symbols and institutions had already been renamed in the mid-1990s as apartheid ended. The old blue-and-orange flag was replaced with a colorful standard that properly reflected the diversity of the “Rainbow Nation.”

The old national anthem, Die Stem, was replaced with a mashup that combined elements of that song with Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, a gospel hymn that was adopted by the anti-apartheid liberation movement.

Reconciliation was the common theme.

The country looked forward to a prosperous future as international sanctions ended, and new opportunities opened up for a rising black middle class. The new South Africa inherited a modern infrastructure and a world-class skills base, albeit concentrated among whites.

The new African National Congress (ANC) government steered between populist desires for economic redistribution on the one hand, and the need for economic growth and fiscal responsibility, on the other.

I arrived as a left-wing idealist, fresh from Harvard College on a Rotary scholarship. I had been born in Johannesburg, but my family left for the U.S. shortly thereafter. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and we watched events in South Africa with great interest. A few members of my family were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.

I was deeply enthusiastic about all the changes in the country, especially the new socioeconomic rights in the country’s Constitution.

Unfortunately, much of what I saw was deeply discouraging. President Thabo Mbeki, who was supposed to lead South Africa’s economic revival, became obsessed with race instead, blaming white racism for Africa’s HIV/Aids pandemic and rejecting antiretroviral medicines.

The education system offered early retirement to white teachers to create a more racially representative workforce — regardless of the effect on black students, who suffered worse education as a result.

At the time I arrived in South Africa, its electricity rates were among the cheapest in the world, and the state-run power company, Eskom, was preparing for privatization and foreign investment.

Instead, under pressure from the left, the ANC reversed course and turned the company into a vehicle for political patronage, as it did with other state-run companies. Today South Africa suffers from regular electricity shortages, and its once-promising economy barely hobbles along.

But there was one thing the ruling party could do: rename things. There were endless debates about renaming cities and streets.

In some cases, it was a matter of restoring an indigenous place-name. In others, such as Tshwane (Pretoria), the justification was murkier.

A few years ago, left-wing students attacked the statue of Cecil John Rhodes that stood at the entrance to the University of Cape Town, where I earned a master’s degree in Jewish Studies.

Once that was removed, the students burned artwork, attacking anything that looked like it was European in origin.

One of the paintings they burned was, in fact, the work of a black anti-apartheid artist. He had painted a protester holding a sign with the now-quaint slogan: “No to violence.”

These new fights opened up old wounds and racial divisions, at a time when the country ought to have been unifiying — when children were hungry and people were literally dying in the streets of a preventable disease.

That is not to say all of the statues or street names should have been kept. One major street in Cape Town was named for a Nazi sympathizer in the old ruling party. It was belatedly renamed for a liberation hero. That was long overdue.

My favorite story of a bad statue disappearing was that of apartheid-era figure J. G. Strijdom, whose giant head collapsed of its own weight in 2001, falling into a giant hole.

Otherwise, the obsession with replacing history was a waste of energy.

Here in the U.S., the sudden obsession with replacing statues and renaming things is a similar distraction for the left from its failure to solve the lingering social problems of cities that Democrats have governed for generations.

It is easier to tear down a statue than to confront the teachers’ unions that have a stranglehold on public education; easier to confront a vainglorious bronze pillar than to take on the environmental lobby that blocks factories or new housing developments.

People describe the current upheaval as feeling something like a civil war. And it is — within the left. These are leftists rising up against leftists.

They want so many new rules and regulations to create a more just society — but then demand the abolition of the police that are necessary to enforce the law. They demand economic justice — but then loot and burn stores owned by minorities and immigrants in inner city neighborhoods. The Democratic Party does nothing to stop it.

The party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has not spoken out in any serious way from his hideaway in Wilmington, Delaware, where his political handlers are preserving him from public scrutiny. The violence fills the leadership void.

There is no adult supervision as the trust-fund radicals hand out bricks to Black Lives Matter protesters and misquote Martin Luther King, Jr., claiming he supported riots, destroying the civil rights struggle’s proud legacy of non-violence.

It is tempting, from the outside, to let it all happen. The problem is that the left’s civil war is destroying things we all have in common.

When the mob’s rage extends beyond Confederate statues, and the statues of slave-owning Founders, to the statues of abolitionists and monuments to black Civil War soldiers, the issue is no longer racial justice but basic civility, the rules we must respect if our society is to survive, if our experiment in multi-racial democracy is to endure.

Some monuments and place-names are offensive, and should be changed — properly, through public consultation. But history is supposed to be difficult. We need to be reminded that even great leaders have deep moral flaws, that elected government can do terrible things.

Some monuments were erected as gestures of reconciliation, however flawed. How will we heal the divisions of the present, if we so easily discard what people did generations ago to bind the wounds of the nation?

I have been in this movie before, and I have seen that it ends badly.

South Africa is undoubtedly poorer today than it ought to be because it keeps fighting its history rather than building its future.

We Americans are in danger of repeating South Africa’s mistake. Just this week, the American Bar Association canceled a lecture by former South African President F. W. de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993. The ABA chose virtue signaling over listening to what De Klerk had to say about racism and reconciliation.

The United States is not a perfect country, but our mission is to become a “more perfect Union.”

Alexis de Tocqueville warned in Democracy in America, 200 years ago: “Absolute monarchies brought despotism into dishonor; we must beware lest democratic republics rehabilitate it.”

The tyranny in the streets today is a warning.

Democrats seem to believe they can ride the upheaval to victory in November. But the chaos will not stop there, unless it is defeated now.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). His new book, RED NOVEMBER, is available for pre-order. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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