Can Scotland learn any lessons from apartheid-era South Africa?

The SNP are like the Afrikaner nationalists of 1948. They achieved so much of their agenda by ruthless chicanery without ever seeing the world they actually lived in, and ended up with so much less.

That was the message I received from a friend who’s visiting South Africa at the moment. He has relatives in Scotland, England and South Africa and is a thoughtful kind of guy. But he’s there, not here, I can’t ask him about it and I thought I’d better set about decoding it.

For younger readers, and I know you’re not all the ‘coffin dodgers’ one particularly vile nationalist imagines, I might need to explain some context. My guess might be right because my kids all went through Scottish secondary schools and although they seemed to study a narrow period in European history repeatedly they hadn’t got a clue what I was talking about when I mentioned apartheid.

In 1948 the all-white and nearly all-Afrikaner (Dutch-speaking) National Party came to power in South Africa determined to maintain white supremacy in the country. They did it by the system of apartheid, roughly speaking ‘separate development.’ An elaborate system of racial discrimination and segregation kept the whites at the top of a pyramid of wealth and power, placed the coloured (mixed) race and Asian minorities in the middle, and had the Africans (‘Bantu’) at the bottom.

It was a cruel and heartless system whose ramifications extended to every aspect of life. But for decades it seemed to be very successful. The West saw the country as a bulwark against communism, the economy thrived, it was ordered, at least in comparison with disasters like the ex-Belgian Congo further North, and life for the whites was wonderful. At least, if they closed their eyes to the treatment of the other racial groups in the country.

I spent six weeks in South Africa in the early 1970s when apartheid was probably at its height and could vouch, if you wanted me to, for how repugnant the system was.

But as long ago as 1960, British prime minister Harold Macmillan had addressed the parliament of the country and warned them, in a famous phrase, that

The wind of change is blowing through this continent.

The National party, its power by then firmly entrenched, wouldn’t hear his message.

And this is where I go back to my friend and his view that ‘the SNP are like the Afrikaner nationalists of 1948. They achieved so much of their agenda by ruthless chicanery without ever seeing the world they actually lived in.’

Of course, the way Africa was changing in 1960 was very different from Europe and the wider world over half a century later. I’m not going to fall into the trap that the SNP hate so much of comparing them with an extreme political ideology. But there are some parallels. There is an element of ‘ruthless chicanery’ in some of the things they do – their domination of all the institutions of parliament, their centralisation and control of public services, their intermittent campaign against the BBC and the ‘MSM’ (mainstream media), even their ‘named person’ for every child in Scotland. And at a less elevated level than policy, there’s a constant  feeling that ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us.’

What they’re not good at is ‘seeing the world they live in.’ At a time when the basic political units in the world have been getting larger, they want to make theirs smaller. Much smaller. During the independence referendum and since they had the chance to see the consequences of separation for the economy of Scotland. They couldn’t or wouldn’t take it. They are not good at seeing the world they live in.

The tragedy for the whites in South Africa (at least those who were content with the system of apartheid) was that they ‘ended up with so much less.’ And that’s exactly what Scotland would get if it became separate. The ‘freedom’ that the vocal minority crave is a spurious one. A separate Scotland would be no more democratic in real terms than it is at present and separation would probably bring decades of hardship as it did to newly-independent Ireland and Norway last century. We would end up with ‘so much less.’

I know nationalists won’t agree. If any of them read this they will probably respond with counter arguments that I can already guess at. I don’t pretend that this brief note is a fully argued case for the status quo. But I’m sure my friend got it right when he said that the SNP cannot or will not see the world they actually live in. and if they succeed in their goal of separation they will indeed end up with so much less than they have now.

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One Response to Can Scotland learn any lessons from apartheid-era South Africa?

  1. Sam Duncan says:

    Of course there are parallels. They’re nationalists. Certainly, taken to its extremes, nationalism ends up in conquest and genocide, and nobody is accusing the SNP of even aspiring to that. However at their heart, all nationalist movements share the same core ideology: that of the state and the nation being one, rather in the way that the communists saw the state and proletariat as one. National-ism. Mussolini’s “everything in the state, nothing outside the state” wasn’t simply an expression of a personal lust for power; it was a description of nationalism: the nation as a single corporate entity, with the state at the top, manning the controls.

    “One Scotland”, anyone?

    Until recently, I didn’t appreciate that the SNP really were nationalists. I assumed, rather lazily, that they were simply non-ideological seperatists, and therefore, as long as they didn’t achieve their ultimate goal, actually relatively harmless. But in power, they’ve shown their true colours: that domination of parliamentary institutions, the centralization of power, the “control freakery”… none of it is coincidence. It’s nationalism.

    “They did it by the system of apartheid, roughly speaking ‘separate development.’”

    And it’s worth noting in the 21st Century context that this was sold to the public, at least in the beginning, as being as much about protection of non-white South African cultures as that of the whites.


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