You can’t have your banana and eat it

“In his ‘Wrath of dethroned white males’ (see underneath), Professor Malegapuru Makgoba has dared to offer a biological explanation for the power structure that prevails in the new South Africa. Makgoba is perhaps the leading theoretical Africanist in our country today. I am sorry, therefore, to bother him with Eurocentric logic, but his argument represents a tautology,” writes Dan Roodt.

In his “Wrath of dethroned white males” Professor Malegapuru Makgoba has dared to offer a biological explanation for the power structure that prevails in the new South Africa. According to him, the white male has been “dethroned” and should now learn to adapt to a subservient, even submissive, role within our society.

Until now, Social Darwinism or the model of society as a competition for resources where the fittest will survive and prosper, has often been associated with notions of European superiority. After all, Europeans from a minute area in north-western Europe managed to get on to little sailing boats to colonise and rule the greater part of the Earth for a few hundred years. Britain is said to have conquered 100-million people in the Indian sub-continent with 800 soldiers and 2 000 Indian auxiliaries.

Makgoba’s view of African male dominance therefore represents a novel departure from a previously Eurocentric idea. However, he is not the first South African to take an interest in biological explanations for human behaviour or politics. Two of his predecessors would be Eugene Marais and Jan Smuts.

Marais was keen on the study of primates, especially baboons, and wrote two books about them, The Soul of the Ape and Burgers van die Berge. The great Afrikaner physician, journalist, poet and intellectual stressed the similarity between human and baboon behaviour, including an occurrence where he observed human boys and young baboons playing together, making clay figures and imitating one another.

This extraordinary incident is recounted in Burgers van die Berge. It fits in with Makgoba’s view that imitation and “aping” are normal features of both human and baboon societies. Nowhere would Marais, however, advance the notion that imitation was solely linked to hierarchy and dominance.

Makgoba is perhaps the leading theoretical Africanist in our country today. I am sorry, therefore, to bother him with Eurocentric logic, but his argument represents a tautology. Because black males are in power, he deduces that they are both dominant and “fitter” than white males. However, it could be that they are dominant for reasons other than their fitness.

Not so long ago, Mathatha Tsedu, the then editor of the Sunday Times, caused quite a ripple when he wrote in his column on July 13 2003 that black men sometimes display a lack of prowess. He quoted an anonymous Cabinet member who had told him: “When you come from where we come from and you then have to realise that if you want something done quickly you have to rely on whites, it is really debilitating. You bleed internally, but our very own comrades do not work. There is generally no work ethic.”

Of course, there could be a debate about what attributes an alpha male should have in human society. Should he be intelligent, physically strong or both? Should he be a good manager, highly numerate and literate, disciplined and with a good work ethic? Or are these but the traits of a tame white baboon and are universal criteria for primate success such as aggression, reproductive prowess and dominant behaviour more important?

Makgoba’s assessment leans toward the latter interpretation. However, I do not think that the same conditions of Darwinian survival pertain in the human world as opposed to the animal world. Human beings display altruistic behaviour uncommon in many species so that they would not necessarily subjugate the weaker members of their society as happens in a primate hierarchy.

Take the nuclear project at Pelindaba that existed under the previous government, for example. A handful of white Afrikaner males produced six nuclear bombs, deadly enough to kill millions of people in one fell swoop. In a straight Darwinian contest, they should have used that power to eliminate their black male rivals forever, thereby ensuring their own dominance within Makgoba’s scheme of rivalry between white and black males. Yet not only did they refrain from using the bombs, but they handed over power to the black males and peacefully dismantled their own lethal weapons.

Biologically speaking, such behaviour is absurd. No male baboon would be caught dead playing into the hands of his rival. Yet this is precisely what we have seen in South Africa.

At another level, however, one could argue that a form of social Darwinism is still operative at every level in a capitalist society where individuals and companies are selected for fitness through economic competition. This leads to a further contradiction in Makgoba’s argument, for while exalting black male fitness over white male weakness, he insists on affirmative action and black economic empowerment.

Because of racial-preference measures in our society, Darwinian competition, even at the more civilised economic level — as opposed to brute contests with bared teeth and flailing limbs — is flawed.

Either black males such as Makgoba will have to discard racial preference so that the real Darwinian contest may begin, or they will have to continue invoking sympathy for the poor, downtrodden black male having been disadvantaged by centuries of colonial oppression and racism. In other words, they will have to choose between Darwinism and altruism.

As they would say in the baboon world: you can’t have your banana and eat it.

Originally published in the Mail & Guardian on 1 April 2005

Wrath of dethroned white males

by Malegapuru Makgoba
In the primate family, to which humankind belongs, there are certain heritage features which display “clear dominance relationships among members, and the proclivity to imitate”, hence such terms as “aping and monkey business”. Alienated. Quarrelsome. Spoilers. Certain white males exhibit all the symptoms of the dethroned male baboon.

A critical factor of human development and leadership is “our primate heritage” as defined in the book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, by Howard Gardner, Harvard University’s distinguished psychologist and professor of education.

In the primate family, to which humankind belongs, there are certain heritage features which display “clear dominance relationships among members, and the proclivity to imitate”, hence such terms as “aping and monkey business”.

These heritage features are most pronounced in males who compete for control of the social cluster, for protection of offspring and possession of the most desirable females.

Baboons or bonobos, for example, are often headed by a dominant male with pretenders to the throne hanging around. The dominant male ensures that progeny are not only his through reproduction, but also that all members of the colony imitate him. He becomes the “gold standard”. Ultimately the dominant male is dethroned by a younger and fitter male, only to repeat another variation cycle of hierarchy, dominance and imitation.

The dethroned male becomes depressed, quarrelsome and a spoiler of the new order until he gets ostracised from the colony to lead a frustrated, lonely and unhappy life. This is our “primate heritage”.

I use this example because baboons are familiar to most South Africans; they are among our closest primate relatives genetically and a totem for some Africans. African people have been referred to as bobbejaan and at times shot and killed by certain white males who apparently “confuse or mistake” us for baboons.

More importantly, I use this example because humankind is reflective and should do better than our primate relatives; also because the dethroned white male in South Africa is playing the same role as dethroned baboon troop leaders do.

The primate practice teaches us that information is not sufficient to bring about change; that change often only occurs when it is enforced on even such a highly sophisticated species as humankind.

A group of dethroned white males called “Die Boeremag” are recently alleged to have been plotting a coup and even entertaining the exciting thought of assembling all Africans on the N1 and then chasing or marching them to Zimbabwe. In their naïve logic, Zimbabwe belongs to Africans and South Africa belongs to whites.

Another group of white males are languishing in a Zimbabwean jail for masterminding a coup in Equatorial Guinea; a group of white male farmers have emigrated to Nigeria; and some white males are alleged to be causing “instability in the Free State”.

Recently, Justice John Hlophe to his credit raised the issue of racism within the Cape Division of the judiciary as largely ascribed to and associated with white males. Many prominent Africans have complained repeatedly and with increasing frequency over the decade about “alienation and institutionalised racism” within the academic, church, corporate, media, sports and public/government sectors of our country.

As the transformation of our society deepens, like the peeling of an onion, more racist white males are being caught, fingered out and revealed. Surely we must by now recognise and respect that Africans who have been victims of racism over centuries and generations understand better than the perpetrators about what racism is, means and feels.

We must equally accept that 350 years of racist experiences and socialisation cannot be overcome in 10 years of freedom. The request for “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” masquerades as a quest for memory loss. Regrettably, whenever an African raises this issue, the white male response has been “to play the man rather than the ball”.

Racism, a socially constructed phenomenon with no biological basis, is a complex system of symbols and meanings that continues to modify over time as a consequence of both societal structural changes and political struggles. A segment of white males continues to deny the collective body of African experiences and instead wants to monopolise and to dictate the definition and appropriate meaning to racism. If and when they do accept the existence of racism, it is often detached and projected. Lately, many African students at campuses of higher learning are complaining about “racism, alienation and social exclusion”. The main culprits are the younger generation of white males imitating their elders.

Similar symptoms of the dethroned are evident in the caustic, negative terms in which the debate about black economic empowerment is framed; in the ways in which black executives are vilified; and in the way in which employment equity is always viewed through the prism of its impact on the longevity and well-being of the (dethroned) white male.

The dawn of the new dispensation has retired a segment of previously dominant and ambitious white males prematurely. This segment has lost its power, authority and a sense of purpose in society. Whether intended or unintended, conscious or unconscious, a sector of white males have an adaptation problem.

They have become bitter; but this also has become a serious problem for our society and a major obstacle to our democratic transformation. Some members of this group, which is out of kilter with the mindset of liberated African society, have become spoilers — across a wide range of activities. It has become not only ungrateful but also oblivious to Ubuntu. This group does not seem to understand the word “reconciliation”.

All these take place in the midst of a society making every effort to reconcile its horrible past and to transform itself into a just, equitable and non-racial society. The creation of a non-racist society will emerge to a large extent through the conscious confrontation of the current pervasive racism by all.

It is crucial here to indicate that not all white males display this obnoxious, arrogant, racist behaviour we continue to experience 10 years after liberation. In fact, to the contrary, many white males have made great strides, great sacrifices and significant contributions to this evolving equitable, non-racist and non-sexist South Africa we are creating through our Constitution and our African renaissance vision.

But the group of spoiler white males, just like the male baboon or bonobo, was once a dominant force through colonial and apartheid conquests. Over centuries this group defined that which was civilisation as opposed to that which was barbarism. He defined that which was liberal as opposed to that which was autocratic. Even when he excluded women, blacks and the uneducated classes in society, he still called this liberal philosophy.

He defined culture, morality, ethics and the shape and form of wealth distribution according to the way it suited and advantaged him. He created and bequeathed the world an illiberal, unjust, unequal, racist and sexist society. Over centuries and through dominant enforcement he ensured that his mindset or world view was imitated without question by those he presided over. This dominant white male has had an unparalleled and unrivalled opportunity in which to shape the history and future of the world and humankind according to his image.

But as history and nature would have it, unfortunately the white male in his prime was never able to conquer everyone. The great Arab and Chinese histories and cultures continued to challenge the monolithic culture of the white male. The indestructible and experiential cultures of the Africans remained impervious and alive despite centuries of imperial invasion and concerted efforts to obliterate these.

With the demise of the empires and of Western values, even the stiff upper lips of these white males begun to quiver. This white male feels ostracised from society and is leading “a frustrated, lonely and an unhappy life away from the herd”.

We now have a predominantly African government presiding over an African country and a predominantly African society with dominant African values. This African force will follow our primate heritage of cultural social clusters, dominance and imitation, with modifications made by our Constitution, which respects human dignity, diversity and non-sexism. It will also be influenced by the context of the 21st century, globalisation and the greater mosaic of interdependent cultures.

Africans will transform and reconcile this society by ensuring that the fingerprints of their African culture, value and knowledge systems and notions of social order are embedded in and are the blueprints of a future South African society.

Africans will not transform this country through previously dominant foreign rules, values or cultures. No dominant group ever transforms society through subservience and alien values. This would simply be against our primate heritage. When the English were dominant we were anglicised, when the Afrikaners were dominant we were Europeanised, now that Africans are dominant we must Africanise and not apologise for our Africanness.

The white male should instead be excited by the new prospects of imitating Africans. When we say “Mayibuye iAfrika” we mean it and mean business. Democratic governments are representative of the will, values and aspirations of the majority and not the will and aspirations of a whingeing white male minority.

While Ubuntu will continue to influence our drive for reconciliation, let there be no doubt that sooner or later African dominance and the imitation of most that is African shall permeate all spheres of South African society

This message should be loud and clear just as the writing is on the wall for all to whom South Africa belongs. All modern democratic societies celebrate diversity around a common vision, in our case an African vision. It should therefore become common sense that the white male soon learns to speak, write and spell in an African language; that he, like Johnny Clegg, learns to dance and sing like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He should learn kwaito, dance like Lebo, dress like Madiba, enjoy eating “smiley and walkies” and attend ‘“lekgotla” and socialise at our taverns.

He must soon accept, value and imitate the things that matter dearly to Africans. The sooner this white male gets out of his denial mode, the sooner he will receive treatment and proper African rehabilitation. Surely, our white male group can and should do better than the baboon or the bonobo.

Malegapuru Makgoba is the vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and writes in his personal capacity

Originally published in the Mail & Guardian on 25 March 2005