Nationalism: the mind becoming mucky

Nationalism: the mind becoming mucky

Still reading and thinking about nationalism in South Africa. Continuing in the same vein as last week’s blog, this week I’ve been reading biographies of various nationalist political figures. It started with Smuts and two not very good linked biographies of him by Richard Steyn, then moved to Steyn’s latest, which is on Louis Botha, and then settled into a long read of Lindie Koorts’ (2014) DF Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism [Cape Town: Tafelberg). This latter is much the better book. Although the three volumes by Steyn have been praised by reviewers, they are more suitable for popular readers without much of a knowledge-base. They use secondary sources only, with no sign of the use of relevant archive collections, even in the volume on Smuts and Churchill, with both men having left large well organised archives of papers. These are pot-boilers of a posh kind. Not so Koorts’ book.

Reading Koorts on Malan is to enter the world of meticulous, substantial, well-researched biography, where her facts and interpretations can be checked against her sources, most of which are primary ones. There is, however, a price to pay for this meticulous approach, which reminded me of the effect of reading Deborah Posel’s equally excellent book on the apartheid state after 1948. The rise of Malan, like the establishment of post-1948 policies, occurred step by step, item by item, development by development, change by change, with people acting in ways that seemed to them reasonable and even right and proper. Following in these footsteps, and appreciating why they did is they did and why some things unfolded but not others, is to become slowly implicated. Reading Posel’s book, the wood of the destructive evils of apartheid becomes lost in the trees of small policy debates and changes. Something similar happens with regard to the Malan biography, as the dour removed young cleric takes on warmth and even humour in a family context, unfolds in the admiration of his increasing numbers of political followers, and so on.

A notable feature of publishing in the South African context over the last two decades is that there has been something of a mushrooming of books appearing which can be placed under the heading of ‘new nationalism’, at least in part licensed by the appearance of Herman Gilliome’s The Afrikaners, itself a subtle example of this expanding sub-genre. ‘New nationalism’ is characterised by its recovery aspects, in seeking to rescue aspects of the Afrikaner past and position them as deserving of new consideration. This first came to sight when there was a rash of re-publishing women’s testimonies from the South African War – but without commenting on their repellent political features in, among other things, supporting racism and nationalism. Regarding these biographies, there is something of the same vanishing act. Smuts is presented as almost liberal if also of imperialist views, Botha’s approach to black people is seen as respectful paternalism, and Malan shapes up as supporting equal albeit separate rights for black people and whites. One of the reviewers of Koorts’s book has commented that it holds the balance well between setting out the record, and offering a perspective on this from today’s ethical and political viewpoint. For me, I feel that this is not so, that the balance has not been held, that a new perspective does not really come through as much as it ought. These are not admirable people, Smuts was not a liberal in any sensible understanding of the word, Botha was a patronising racist, Malan was a man who did and thought and believed great evil, and wrong was done to millions of people. This should never be forgotten.

The result of reading such books is to feel drawn into such a way of thinking and to bracket if not forget, which is what is meant by the title of this blog, of the mind becoming mucky through engaging with them. Yes, some women during the South African War suffered and wrote about this; yes, Smuts was a clever chap; yes, Malan started with complicated views… But then, turning from such things to, for example, the accounts that people gave during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is to bring the reader of these books up short with the stark dreadful reality. These people were in the service of nationalism, of the volk and fatherland, and how they behaved was in a context in which the large majority of people were despised and treated horrendously because viewed as less than fully human.

Last updated:  23 November 2018