The busts of HF Verwoerd and other former apartheid leaders in Orania, Northern Cape. Picture: THE TIMES
The busts of HF Verwoerd and other former apartheid leaders in Orania, Northern Cape. Picture: THE TIMES

For an organisation that claims to cherish liberal values such as the free exchange of contradictory ideas and that aims to pursue factual accuracy, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has certainly taken a strange position on Forum Film’s latest documentary, Disrupted Land. In his recent column, AfriForum’s disgraceful and immoral documentary, the IRR’s Gareth van Onselen goes on an impressive flight of fantasy regarding AfriForum’s views.

He aggressively attacks the organisation for purportedly believing what Van Onselen has conjured up in his own mind without any evidence.

AfriForum has made many statements in the past that could be regarded as controversial. We have also never shied away from defending our views, and we will continue to do so. What AfriForum cannot do, however, is defend a position that is falsely attributed to the organisation. You would think that a senior researcher such as Van Onselen would know that attacking someone with fabrications only serves to discredit yourself and your organisation.

Van Onselen seems to have lost the plot in two short minutes of Disrupted Land, while completely disregarding every fact that doesn’t serve to strengthen his imagined view of what AfriForum stands for. Even though AfriForum has never shied away from its view that forced dispossessions are an injustice and that the injustices that happened under apartheid must be corrected (a point that is also made in Disrupted Land), Van Onselen erroneously claims that AfriForum regards apartheid as “a totally benign and benevolent affair”.

If this had been AfriForum’s view, we would’ve defended it. The problem is — it isn’t our view, and Van Onselen’s claim of such can therefore be nothing more than malign dishonesty or gross negligence.

What seems to anger Van Onselen is that AfriForum did not spend enough minutes on repeating the common-knowledge mantra that apartheid was an evil system

Van Onselen makes the brilliant point that you can tell a lot about a person or an organisation by what makes them angry.

Judging from the column, Van Onselen and the IRR seem to get extremely angry with narratives that do not align with their own — so angry, in fact, that they are prepared to push for such views to be shut down (with reference to the IRR’s demand for the documentary to be retracted unconditionally and in its entirety). 

Other than the apparent position of Van Onselen and the IRR, what angers AfriForum is a distortion of the facts.

Van Onselen regards the comments on apartheid as “technical truths” (that is, he doesn’t deny their accuracy), but then accuses the organisation of rewriting history. If he is implying that AfriForum is rewriting history with truths, then I guess we should take it as a compliment. The fact remains that, contrary to what Van Onselen would like his readers to believe, AfriForum has always pointed out many injustices of the apartheid system and also described forced dispossessions as an injustice that must be corrected.

What seems to anger Van Onselen is that AfriForum did not spend enough minutes on repeating the common-knowledge mantra that apartheid was an evil system, and too many minutes (well, two minutes, to be precise) on bringing “technical truths” to the table that are not part of the mainstream narrative.

What I find particularly interesting about Van Onselen’s attack on the supposed evil views he has conjured up and attributes to AfriForum, is that the IRR’s attack in this regard seems to have yielded to the “20-to-two rule”. The significance of this concept and the importance of not succumbing to it has long been stressed by the IRR.

The rule’s concept was formulated during the struggle against apartheid as a criticism of the political narrative. It amounts to the following: if you wanted to say two sentences about the atrocities committed by the ANC, you firstly had to say 20 sentences about the atrocities of the apartheid system. If you criticised the ANC without also sufficiently criticising the apartheid system, then your criticism should be regarded as problematic.

Imbalance of atrocities 

The IRR has long warned that we should be able to point out the atrocities committed by the ANC and the atrocities committed by the apartheid system independently, without succumbing to pressure that you can only criticise the one if you sufficiently criticise the other. I can only conclude that the IRR has since changed its position.

Even more bizarrely, the IRR also took a principled stance that the hateful views of Andile Mngxitama should be heard, while demanding that the comments by a historian about an important part of history that doesn’t form part of the mainstream narrative and that amounts to “technical truths” should be “retracted unconditionally”.

The IRR was aware before the publication of the film that AfriForum intends to publish a follow-up on Disrupted Land that will focus precisely on that which the IRR now claims to have been neglected by AfriForum. The plan was discussed with the IRR, and the IRR has even contributed to the content of this follow-up. Despite this, the IRR has decided to publicly attack AfriForum, using selected information.

The IRR’s attack on AfriForum is truly unfortunate. Even though the IRR speaks from a different perspective than AfriForum, the IRR is supposed to be an important ally in the battle for the free exchange of ideas — especially controversial ones. AfriForum believes that differences with respected allies with whom agreement on important topics exists should be discussed privately, and has done so in the past, and with the IRR.

The IRR followed a different strategy by attacking AfriForum publicly without warning, thus forcing AfriForum to also respond publicly.

• Roets is deputy CEO of AfriForum.