A visitor to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg walks past an enlarged print on exhibit from Ernest Coles book The House of Bondage. Photo: John Hogg

I witnessed it in Bosnia and in Serbia, as well as in Rwanda, and it is a phenomenon that has been well documented in Germany and Chile. Perhaps it was inevitable that it was going to happen here: a denial of the ugliness in our past, an attempt to reinterpret history in order to deodorise the nasty smells of apartheid.

One rarely finds one of these new revisionists arguing that apartheid should be brought back or even that it was a laudable ideology. They’re slightly subtler: apartheid wasn’t all bad; it was based on noble intentions; black South Africans didn’t only suffer under apartheid, it benefited them too.

The corruption and ineptitude of the present ANC government and its uncaring attitude toward the poor and the rural are grist to the mill for these people. Education, crime and unemployment are worse now than under apartheid, they love to point out.

These apologists usually focus on the economy and the material benefits some black people enjoyed during the apartheid years. They get great joy in comparing the plight of blacks in SA with those in the rest of Africa after the uhuru years.

Even during the harshest days of apartheid, large numbers of citizens of independent black countries streamed to SA to find safety and jobs, they say.

Black youngsters received as good or better education under apartheid as they’re getting now, and mostly in their mother tongue, which the ANC government can’t emulate. Substantial black middle classes were developed in the tribal homelands. The apartheid state’s black universities turned out more and better graduates than most other universities on the continent. And so on.

Even historian Hermann Giliomee, a senior academic with no history of collusion with apartheid, wrote a piece recently asking for a rethink of the impact of apartheid. If SA had become a simple democracy during the 1950s or 1960s, the majority would probably have insisted on a socialist system and that would have destroyed the economy for all, he says. Democracy and rapid racial integration would have made the stability and economic growth during the 25 years after World War II impossible and black development would have suffered most.

Apartheid denialists just love it when confronted by the irrational declarations that have become so popular lately: that millions of people were killed during apartheid; that apartheid was a form of genocide.

Apartheid was evil enough. It doesn’t need hyperbole.

Some of these people’s arguments have elements of truth. SA does have a better infrastructure and more sophisticated economy than other African states and white South Africans did have something to do with that. Whites have indeed contributed much to our country’s development.

But I find the whole debate, the effort to discuss only the economic and infrastructural aspects of apartheid, repulsive.

An old friend of mine told me something at the weekend that made me write about this today. She was one of very few black pupils at a convent school. Every time something was reported missing or stolen and the culprit sought, she felt guilty, even though she was never the thief. She found herself going through her pockets to search for the missing object, just in case she was the guilty one – she was the black kid, after all.

The real evil of apartheid wasn’t the rough treatment meted out to blacks by white policemen. It wasn’t separate schools or benches per se, or even the fact that only whites could vote.

The real evil was what apartheid did to millions of black people’s minds. Actually, that damage started long before the Afrikaner nationalists took power in 1948 and turned racial separation and white rule into an ideology called apartheid. It started during the earliest colonial times, first under the Dutch and then the British. The Afrikaners just took it to extremes and formalised it into law it after 1948.

There was never any “separate development”, never any “separate but equal”. Blacks were made to understand that they were inherently inferior to the Europeans; that their culture was primitive; that the country of their birth belonged to whites and they had to settle for tribal reserve land.

The damage of forced removals, the dompas system, job reservation and the migrant labour system that destroyed families for generations is still having an effect today.

We cannot know what would have happened if SA had become a democracy in 1910, when it became one state.

We cannot know what would have happened if the white government had listened to British prime minister Harold Macmillan in February 1960 when he warned them to heed the “wind of change”.

But we do know for sure what immense damage white minority rule and apartheid inflicted in the 20th century.

That’s the damage whites need to help undo now. It is their moral responsibility. I certainly see it as mine.

The Star