Wednesday, August 11, 2010

History is not Progressive

Reading up on the history of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), I was amazed by the parallels that one can draw with the liberation of the African countries in the 20th century and South Africa in particular. It is interesting when drawing parallels to notice that the struggles that Haiti went through after its liberation are the struggles that South Africa is facing currently, the problems of rampant poverty, elitism, institutionalized corruption, infighting and political assassinations.

Haiti’s independence came to be referred as a defining moment for all struggles against colonialism and a fight for independence. An independent government was established but it failed to undertake a fundamental transformation that ensured the establishment of an egalitarian society. Instead the new government did not change the system that was used to oppress the population but instead adopted it to serve the elite that had been developed by the French in order to satisfy the needs of the motherland. This resulted in the Haitian population’s continued oppression under patterns established under French colonial rule. A system of minority rule over the illiterate poor entrenched by using violence and threats.

Travel forward in history to South Africa in 1994. The new democratic government in South Africa did exactly what led to the failure of the Haitian revolution, they did not change the system that led to the subjugation of Black people but instead sought to create a situation which accommodated the needs of a new Black elite and create conditions that would allow for the rise of this new elite. Where we used to have the Anglo Americans, we now have the Mvelaphandas and the Rainbow Minerals who continue to extract cheap labour from the poor at huge profits. Opening the system up for the new elite has tended to create new pockets of poverty. As a result the gap between the rich and the poor has tended to widen quite a bit resulting in a well known fact that South Africa has replaced Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.

We know that since its independence Haiti has been rocked by coups and counter coups as a result of comrades in arms turning against each other and failure of the elected governments to serve their constituencies. Failures that are as a result of keeping the oppressive system intact for the benefit of the new, democratic elites. One can argue that the new government has perfected what apartheid sought out to do, create wealth for a minority at the expense of the poor, only now the minority is no longer exclusively white or Afrikaner. One can understand condescending attitudes pervasive amongst white people towards the democratic government, it has excelled at mimicking apartheid, while at the same time condemning it as evil and its beneficiaries as even more evil! Double standards!

We are seeing a rise in political assassinations in pursuit of access to state resources, the system allows for systemized corruption, infighting within the ruling party has become the order of the day and some leaders within the ruling party have grudgingly come to acknowledge this. The removal of Thabo Mbeki was not based on any ideological differences, the break away of COPE was also not based on any ideological differences, it instead has the hallmarks of a scramble for access to state resources.

I am no student of history and though historians might say that mine is a simplistic analysis, the parallels between Haiti towards the end of the 18th century and South Africa in the 21st century are striking. This forces one to indeed conclude that history is not a good teacher at all.


  1. Profound Gab. I've always wondererd post 1994 when I look at the proceedings at parliament, everything is so dragged out and I always wonder why can't they use their power to change things and make it simpler. It goes back to your point, they left the systems as is so that they can accumulate as much wealth while in power irrespective of what they preach every day so called "Better life for all". Selfish thinking has never really produced positive results.

  2. Maybe history is not such a bad teacher as much as we are poor learners, I don't know. I can't help but also add that we do get a government we deserve. Our electoral system entrenches groups at the expense of individuals but then again, maybe I'm just an elitist, counter-revolutionary agent. On a different note, get yourself a copy of "Diamonds, Gold and War - the making of South Africa" by Martin Meredith, now he is a student of History.