“Populism flourishes on conspiracy theories, conjuring up sinister forces seeking to undermine people’s interests”

IN AN essay published in late September in The New York Review of Books entitled “Fear”, US novelist Marilynne Robinson accused certain extremist strands in contemporary American Christianity of being “unchristian” in that they peddle a noxious cocktail of “ignorance, intolerance and belligerent nationalism”. Had she written her piece, say, a week ago, despite her literary gifts, she might have found insufficient words in our lexicon to give adequate expression to the hate-fuelled festival of violence the Islamic State jihadists unleashed on hundreds of Parisians. Before Paris, there was Beirut; last Friday, the terror struck Mali again.

The three horsemen of prejudice itemised by Robinson find domestic expression and a somewhat different target in a new book by Prof Milton Shain: A Perfect Storm: Anti-Semitism in South Africa 1930-1948. He notes that the South African Jewish community lives today in broad conditions of peace and amity, despite the background noise generated by the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the occasional political tourism to these shores by Hamas. But for two decades between the world wars, “the South African Jewish community was under siege”. This was because for many whites, both English and Afrikaans speakers, “the Jew was an unwelcome challenge and a disturbing addition to society”. If you substitute the word “Zimbabwean” or “Somalian” for “Jew”, you will see how strong the xenophobic thread remains in contemporary SA.

This book is also a reminder that not all of 20th century politics was concerned with antiblack prejudices and practices by the ruling white minority. Many of the leading anti-Semites described in the book were “sincere” in their Jew-hatred and regarded the resolution of the “Jewish Question” as part of resolving the economic deprivation of the “poor white” population; in 1932, “poor” and “very poor” whites constituted about 56% of the total white population.
Another distinctly modern feel of this retelling of events from more than 70 years ago is how the thread of anticapitalism resonated back then just as strongly as it does with certain left voices in the current debate.

In the world view of the leading right wing anti-Semites of the 1930s, anticapitalism was fused with rising anti-Semitism. The most interesting and certainly most powerful political figure depicted in A Perfect Storm is the leader of Afrikaner nationalism of the day, Dr DF Malan. He emerges as both a crafty politician — determined not to be outflanked in anti-Jewish prejudice from the far right — and as a five-star opportunist, noting in an interview in 1931, “It is very easy to rouse a feeling of hate towards the Jew in the country”.

As leader of the opposition, he assiduously fanned these flames of enmity, but as soon as he achieved power as prime minister, he dropped anti-Semitism from his political repertoire and went in the opposite direction. Of Malan’s malleable anti-Semitism, the author records that once in power, Malan would switch from depicting the Jews as “inassimilable” to using their example as a model for Afrikaans survival.

While A Perfect Storm ends its account in 1948, some 67 years later, a great deal of the prejudice and populism described in the book has direct application today to politics both in SA and the wider world. In a speech delivered in Mexico last month, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille — herself the daughter of German refugees who fled the Nazi regime and arrived in SA after the Second World War — joined the dots from the past to the furies of the current debate in the world and in this country. Noting that the populism of the left and right has become “increasingly indistinguishable from each other”, she accurately states that “xenophobia sits comfortably with populists of all persuasions”. There is little difference, for example, between the ethnic scapegoating of Jews by Louis Weichardt’s Greyshirts in the 1930s and the antiwhite rhetoric of Julius Malema’s red overalls today, other than a difference in their uniforms and targets. Zille stated that “populism is a political response to a context of widespread public grievance and a pervasive sense of disempowerment. It divides society into ‘victims’ and ‘villains’, ‘saviours’ and ‘scapegoats’.” The presumed power and wealth of the 1930s Jewish community finds contemporary expression in the attacks, on all fronts these days, on the white community and any forces seen as critical of the leadership.
Back then, there was the issue of Jews being seen as agents for a foreign (Jewish-British) and malignant force dragging SA into the Second World War. Today, it is the “CIA” (for whom a deputy minister suggested the public protector was an emissary) or simply a “bloody agent”, to borrow Julius Malema’s put-down of a foreign journalist. Last week in Business Day, the African National Congress chief whip in Parliament mined this trope further, accusing the Democratic Alliance of supporting foreign interests and external capital in its standpoint on the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Zille notes that “populism flourishes on conspiracy theories, conjuring up sinister forces seeking to undermine people’s interests”. She provides detail of the contemporary basis that makes it “easy to mobilise a populist agenda on the agenda of race in SA”. Whites, in her view, “fulfil the criteria for becoming a scapegoat for contemporary SA’s problems and policy failures.”

One of the most interesting items Shain unearths in his book is an article written in 1937 by the editor of Die Transvaler, one Dr HF Verwoerd. His article provided an intellectually respectable case for the assault on the commercial and professional interests of Jews back then. And, most strikingly from the vantage point of today, it is perhaps the first time in SA that the concept of “representivity” and setting quotas to achieve ethnic targets in the professions and economy as a whole received an airing.

Shain summarises Verwoerd’s argument: “At the root of the conflict between Afrikaners and Jews, maintained Verwoerd, were material interests. The Nationalist did not hate the Jew… (but) Verwoerd accused Jewish businesses of employing only fellow Jews, thereby hindering opportunities for Afrikaners.’’ In similar vein, areas of conflict had been worsened by “Jews moving into the professions, thus further blocking Afrikaner advancement”. As a solution, Verwoerd advocated a piece of socioeconomic engineering “to remove the source of the friction, namely the disproportionate domination of the economy by Jews, by ensuring that Afrikaners received a share of commerce and industry proportionate to its percentage of the white population”.

Verwoerd’s plan was not implemented until 11 years later, when his party achieved power. But today you can trace a direct line between his proposals then and the theory and practice of employment equity targets and the strategy of black economic empowerment. To reprise William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

This article first appeared in Business Day