A Lingering Effect of Apartheid

Apartheid lingers on in South Africa in so many more ways than just racial tension and structural inequalities. I don’t find this in itself surprising, but I haven’t come across much analysis of many current events and trends in terms of the past. More specifically, I haven’t seen much written in public, mass-consumed media that concerns itself with the relationship between the past and specific aspects of more subtle South African social trends. There are some areas like health, poverty, employment and education where the effects of Apartheid are widely and openly discussed, but there are others where this is not so much the case. (Well, at least that I know of – please do correct me should you find something I have missed.)

The widespread strikes over the past few months struck me as one such area that didn’t receive attention in ways I thought it might. The strikes were undoubtedly headline news and there were large numbers of articles dealing with the current political motivations and economic ramifications of the various strikes, but I didn’t read anything tying the violence that attended the strikes to the historical nature of labour unions and strikes in South Africa. The strikes of the 1980’s were violent in large part because of the Apartheid government’s response to the mass actions, but I found it really interesting to see how that carried through to the strikes while I was at home. Teachers, doctors and nurses in many places countrywide were seriously intimidated into not attending work during the public workers’ strike, and some were physically abused for daring to “defy” the strikes. The same held true for the metalworkers’ strike that followed the public workers’ strike. In these strikes, however, economic motivations drove the strikes rather than political disenfranchisement, so I noticed how many of the strikers took the same approach as for the strikes of two decades ago. To tell the truth, I am rather worried by how undemocratic the strikes were in some respects. I am not at all alone in that, but I am still surprised at how little I’ve read about the way this year’s strikes resemble those of the 1980’s in spite of the many changes that have occurred in the country.

I can actually see some very interesting theses and/or dissertations being written on exactly this topic, despite the trade union movement itself being such a rich vein of material. Nonetheless, I think there are other social phenomena that have roots in Apartheid but haven’t received any attention in the media I’ve been exposed to. I will post on those in the near future, so stay tuned.

[Historical side note: The 1979 legalisation of black labour unions in South Africa was one of the steps that allowed blacks to voice political and economic power. Trade unions were instrumental in organising mass protests against the Apartheid government throughout the 1980’s and their continued power is evident in COSATU’s role in the ANC’s tripartite alliance. COSATU = Congress of South African Trade Unions).]

The Cost of “Safety”

I read a recent email on Dave Farber’s Interesting People mailing list that surprised me somewhat. The email was in reference to the extreme level of phone tapping used by the FBI in fighting the “war on terror”, but the thing that surprised me was not the content of the email but the quotation the author, Ken DiPietro, referred to in the email. The quotation reads as follows:

Those who would give up ESSENTIAL LIBERTY to purchase a little TEMPORARY SAFETY, deserve neither LIBERTY nor SAFETY.

The quotation is generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but may be due to Richard Jackson or another member of the Pennsylvania Assembly. Irrespective, much has changed in the nature of the United States in the last two and a half centuries. Given the way in which the current US government has continually encroached on the liberties of US citizens and non-citizens alike over the last few years, I am hugely surprised that I have never seen or heard this quotation used by anyone opposing the current government.

I don’t know what context the quotation was originally used, so that may well explain why it’s been left to languish out of the spotlight, but I doubt that given the current political climate. The very reason the current government is able to infringe upon the “essential liberties” of its citizens is widespread ignorance and the fear it breeds. Were the quotation’s context not politically relevant to a pro-liberty politician, that self-same ignorance could allow the quotation and it’s possible originator to wow millions of people into a different viewpoint.

Unfortunately, I think that’s just a pipe dream, despite being an interesting thought experiment. The nature of life in the US has changed too much since the 1750’s, when the quotation made it into print, for it to have the same effect. The fervour with which people fought for freedom has disappeared. 9/11 made people realise that their freedoms and liberties could be taken away: freedom is taken as a given and the urge to fight for liberty has been misdirected. Instead of pursuing personal liberties in the US, people have been recruited to generate “freedom” for Iraqis and fight against terror as opposed to for freedom. So the quotation still raises an interesting question: what price is the US truly paying for its temporary safety?