Like much of Hannah Arendt’s thinking the three essays published in her book On Violence tends to need some further clarification and justification if it is to stand as one single theory. Her distinctions between violence, power and authority are interesting but just how power and violence function separately is, at least on first reading, unclear to me. But as Tony Judt pointed out, that despite her often wooly thinking, ‘Hannah Arendt was not afraid to judge, and be counted.’
And I think that with this in mind one should consider, as a white South African, a quotation from the third essay.
Rage and violence turn irrational only when they are directed against substitutes…We all know, for example, that it has become rather fashionable among white liberals to react against “black rage” with the cry, ‘We are all guilty’, and black militants have proved only too happy to accept this “confession” and to base on it some of their more fantastic demands.
Where all are guilty, however, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are always the best possible safeguard against the discovery of the actual culprits. In this particular instance, it is in addition a dangerous and obfuscating escalation of racism into some higher, less tangible regions: The real rift between black and white is not healed when it is being translated into an even less reconcilable conflict between collective innocence and collective guilt. It is racism in disguise and it serves quite effectively to give the very real grievances and rational emotions of the Negro population an outlet into irrationality, an escape from reality.
Moreover, if we inquire historically into the causes that are likely to transform the engagés into the enragés, it is not injustice that ranks first but hypocrisy. Its momentous role in the later stages of the French Revolution, when Robespierre’s war upon hypocrisy transformed the “despotism of liberty” into the Reign of Terror, is too well known to be repeated here; but it is important to remember that this war had been declared long before by the French moralists, who saw in hypocrisy the vice of all vices and found it the one ruling supreme in “good society,” which somewhat later was called bourgeois society.
If we are to take this piece of thinking seriously – and I think that we should – then we in the white and bourgeois communities of South Africa should look at three things without the filters of sentimentality or political correctness.
Arendt’s first point I think is an interesting one. There is certainly at this very moment the call of ‘we are all guilty’ amongst many white liberals in South Africa today. At times this might be the final conclusion of those who, like myself, suffer from the anxieties of white guilt created through the inactive voyeurism of viewing those living in inhumane condition from a position of privilege. Most recently I have also felt that acute secondary infection that results from this, that feeling that perhaps as a white person because of our history one should remain silent.
But I think that these sentiments and inclinations should be measured against what Arendt says, that is that that these confessions of collective guilt are a safeguard against the discovery of culprits both then and now. Then again there is the opposite to this sentiment: the ‘it wasn’t me’ syndrome, which also seeks to enforce the same safeguard. So, at least according to Arendt’s thinking, we are caught in some form of a paradox, in that both ways of thinking ‘we are all guilty’/’I am not guilty’ are the results of the same desire to defer responsibility. What is missing in both of these claims are: good faith, self-reflective judgment and personal responsibility.
What is more the call of collective guilt is more obviously mistaken when one considers its claim paints the likes of Jo Slovo, Denis Goldberg and Neil Aggett with the same brush as DF Malan, HF Verwoerd and PW Botha. And this simply can’t be right. Any theory that can do this is clearly wrong-headed and as Arendt suggests acts, whether intentionally or otherwise, to deflect blame and responsibility. Nothing can be gained from elisions in history. As tiring as this is to be saying after 22 years what is perhaps of the only importance is that all histories are given air and that white people, given their standing within society inherited via history, do not place themselves constantly at its center.
But there is something more to be said about this because what Arendt suggests is that there are people who can be held responsible, who were and are active in the system both current and past. Of course with the mention of Arendt it is difficult not to recall Eichmann. That is to say that a totalitarian regime’s power is sourced not only through violence but in the banality of its bureaucracy and the failure of those people to think of the moral implications of their actions. There are amongst us many who are guilty of these crimes – and they do not only have white skins. But if it is worthwhile relentlessly searching out the South African Eichmann’s, throwing aside the work of the TRC, one should take into account what Judt said:
The irony is that the Eichmann trial was a show trial, not in the sense of being rigged but in [its] primarily pedagogical function. The guilt of the accused in [this case] was never in question. Ben-Gurion was less interested in establishing Eichmann’s responsibility, or even in exacting revenge, than in educating a new generation about the past sufferings of the Jews, and thereby further strengthening the foundations of the still fragile Jewish state.
The question is then would any government pursuing this course of action reap the same benefits the Israeli state did with Eichmann?
But I feel again that this question of responsibility simply can’t be left here. As I have said there are those responsible for apartheid who are still amongst us but unlike the Eichmann’s and Eugene de Kok’s who cut rather miserable figures, there are those, and their organizations, that still benefit rather well from their ill-gotten gains. Take for example Naspers, the proxy propaganda arm of the National Party. It was founded by the very founder of the National Party, J B M Hertzog, and had as directors the very three men I mentioned earlier: DF Malan, HF Verwoerd and PW Botha. Naspers is of course the very same company which Business Day recently reported ‘became the fourth company on the JSE with a market value of more than R1-trillion.’ And just a cursory glance at its executive management reveals that it remains almost entirely white. The responsiblity such an organization has is big, to say the least, not only to its past but also its present. It is a history that can’t simply be shrugged off by saying that ‘we apologised at the TRC for what we did.’ At the very least some kind of reparations should have been, or in fact could be, paid – what these are should, I feel, be a matter for debate.
But it is Arendt’s final point that, I believe, is perhaps the most relevant. Or at the very least is relevant to a generation that had nothing personally to do with apartheid as well as those that did but refuse to accept it (this would include the likes of Naspers). That is to say that it is the danger that a position of hypocrisy can unwittingly direct on itself. To refuse to acknowledge that white people were better placed during apartheid and that ones current social position does not reflect at least partly this reality is a denial. We may not all be guilty of apartheid but within a vastly unequal society those who refuse to acknowledge their responsibilities to others, who are actively exploited, is hypocritical. We may not have collective guilt but we do have, as Slovo, Goldberg and Aggett (amongst others) realized, a responsibility to the down trodden and deprived of our society. To suggest otherwise is South Africa’s bourgeois hypocrisy. Here again I think Arendt is right when she suggests that it is hypocrisy that is the cause of anger and violence, rather than specific injustices. And this should be as much a concern for the ANC government as it is to the white and privileged.
But here I do not wish to speak for the government but only to the community that I grew up in. In the hypocrisy created by a largely white bourgeois refusal to accept responsibility for the current inequalities as well as the faceless claims of ‘we are all guilty’/‘I am not guilty’, whites are offering Arendt’s ‘substitute’. As such Arendt would no doubt argue the substantiation of this thing called ‘whiteness’ – which seems to be the claim that whites are born with inherent and essential racist proclivities – is helping no one. This notion acts both as a way of deflecting personal responsibility as well as being a substitute for the real crimes and injustices that have and are taking place.