In 1999, apartheid’s last leader, former South African president F.W. de Klerk, explained to me his motivation for writing an autobiography.
“I wanted people to look at our history in its proper time frame. The same mistakes that we made were still being made in the US and the ex-colonies. Then we carried them on for around 20 years longer. It was a time when we thought it would go away,” he said.
De Klerk talked a lot of nonsense that morning, comparing South African apartheid to the EU and insisting it was him, not former South African president Nelson Mandela, who ushered in non-racial democracy.
However, on the subject of “history’s time frame,” he was on point. For most of the last century, apartheid was not the exception of one nation, but the rule for much of the world that described itself as “civilized.” On Feb. 1, 1960, 17-year-old Franklin McCain and three black friends went to the whites-only counter at Woolworths in Greensboro, North Carolina, and took a seat.
“The day I sat at that counter, I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration,” he says.
Two days later, then-British prime minister Harold Macmillan addressed the South African parliament in Cape Town with an ominous warning.
“The wind of change is blowing through this continent,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”
They did not like it, but it happened anyway.
In the three years between Macmillan’s speech and US civil rights leader the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream speech,” Togo, Mali, Senegal, Zaire, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Nigeria, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Tanganyika and Jamaica all became independent.
Non-racial democracy is a relatively new idea to the West; racism is not. The notion that the people should govern may have been around since ancient Greece, but throughout that time, the issue of who counts as people has been continually contested and episodically reassessed.
Last week, the US Supreme Court reassessed the nation’s history of voter exclusion and decided the contest was over. The court gutted a key element of the 1965 voting rights act, which demanded that areas with a history of racial discrimination at the polls get prior authorization before changing their election or voting laws.
“There is an old disease, and that disease is cured,” Washington lawyer Bert Rein argued, when opposing the act before the court earlier this year. “That problem is solved.”
US Chief Justice John Roberts agreed, arguing that the provisions were based on “40-year-old” facts.
It is difficult to imagine a less propitious week for that argument. No sooner had the court pronounced racism dead than its skeleton emerged from cupboards galore and started doing the can-can on prime time.
The day before the ruling, the trial of George Zimmerman opened in Florida. Zimmerman, who is half white and half Hispanic, shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, claiming he looked “suspicious.”
He was neither charged nor arrested for several weeks, and then only after nationwide protests.
Zimmerman, who had never met Martin, referred to the boy as a “punk” and complained to the police dispatcher: “They always get away.”