Op-eds

FW debacle a diversion from more important debate

  • Howard Feldman 2018
The “FW de Klerk conversation” says a lot more about us than it does about him. It speaks to our attraction to the most basic of dialogue, and proves once again how much more comfortable we are with being outraged than we are with dealing with matters of complexity.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Feb 20, 2020

Apartheid was a crime against humanity. We all know that. And, most likely, so does De Klerk. Why he chose to answer the interviewer’s question as he did, only he and G-d knows, but given that he was an active member of the National Party back in the day, his outlook should hardly surprise us. More than that, I’m not sure why we should care.

Very simply, De Klerk is exactly who he has always been.

Like masterful magicians who make us look elsewhere, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have succeeded in diverting attention away from their behaviour at the State of the Nation Address (SONA), away from the content of the president’s speech, to have us all engaged in the most puerile of conversations. It has succeeded in getting us to debate something we all agree on.

With the reward being the feeling of outrage we seem to crave.

The EFF’s technique isn’t new. It repeatedly slings mud against a wall to see what sticks. Often, South Africans shrug off what it has to say without a second glance, but this time, because it used SONA as ground zero to launch, when millions of South Africans were paying attention, success was almost guaranteed.

And so, instead of the country debating the issues regarding Eskom, South African Airways, or youth unemployment, our pages and hearts are filled with outrage that a man who was a minister and an enforcer of the apartheid system didn’t think it was a crime against humanity. Is anyone really shocked?

Psychologists call De Klerk’s thought process cognitive dissonance. In essence, we all want to feel good about ourselves. According to social psychologist Dan Ariely, everyone cheats, and everyone lies. But we do so until we are no longer comfortable about what we are doing. This results in us either pulling back and curtailing our behaviour, or justifying why we do what we do. This is called cognitive dissonance, and I suspect that  De Klerk might be suffering from a bad case of it.

Even while keeping perspective, it’s important that Jewish South Africans don’t negate the offensive nature of De Klerk’s statement. It’s tantamount to Queen Isabella of Spain saying, “Yes, indeed, the inquisition was bad, but at least Jews got to travel.” It’s stupid, offensive, and it contributes nothing positive to critical dialogue.

We also need to be able to see these statements and those who make them for what they are. We need to strive not to get distracted to the point that we cease to have the conversations that are crucial. Every dialogue comes at the expense of another, and I believe that South Africa can hardly afford the cost that comes with debating something that everyone already knows.

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