Cornerstone Staff Portraits 2018 426B. rudi buys 1 copy

Dr Rudi Buys

FW De Klerk’s careless rejection of apartheid’s status as a crime against humanity shocked a nation.

The simple notion that apartheid was anything less insults the very real legacies of our fraught history with which every day South Africans continue to struggle.

Different to what De Klerk argued, the fact that the USA and UK at the time voted against the UN General Assembly declaring apartheid as a crime against humanity, does not make it anything less. The deep traumas that continue to trouble our nation offers all the evidence to prove the point that the UN-declaration is anything but incorrect. Therefore, what is not in question, and therefore could not be the reason for the intensity of rage that followed his comments, is whether De Klerk’s critique of the accepted definition of apartheid holds any water.

The continuing public rage reached global proportions with international news outlets joining local media in featuring much of the angry comment renouncing De Klerk.

Something else than mere definitions seem to be at play. Two analyses of how societies and social structures function offer productive ways to make sense of our rage – the theories of the social imaginary and of symbolic interactionism.

The “social imaginary” refers to the ways in which people and communities imagine their social reality and how they relate to others and their environments, as well as their understanding of what could realistically be expected of others and their environment, and what they imagine as the suitable norms and values that must determine their world and their expectation of it – our social imagination implies a certain moral order that underlies who we are and are becoming as a nation.

However, what we imagine not only creates our expectations of others and our world, but also normalises and legitimises what we think the world should be. This means that we design in our mind what we want the world to be, then look for evidence that it is so, and so convince ourselves that what we imagined in actual fact is real – the social imaginary. De Klerk’s comments upset our social imaginary.

Even if we continue to struggle with the legacies of racial injustices, we considered ourselves a nation that as one reject the wrongs of the past and together work to realise our imagined rainbow nation – this was our sacred sense of self now so violently interrupted by De Klerk’s comments.

“Symbolic interactionism” refers to the ways that people and communities interact with others and one another to create symbols of and to make sense of their world, and in return, how the symbols and symbolic worlds we create determine how people and communities behave and respond to their world.

We locate our sense of self as a transformed people and our country as a beacon of change and hope among nations in visible symbols and behaviours, which we recreate and replicate in many different small and big ways – in short, we create images and behave in ways that confirm our sense of a transformed nation.

De Klerk’s views revealed that our symbols and behaviours of unity may well not represent the reality of what they mean for the citizenry of a young democracy – the possibility that De Klerk’s views may be held more widely than we have come to believe.

The point of imaginaries is that they remain a matter of design: what determines the future is that citizens together author it, rather than what one voice may imagine or symbolise.


  • Rudi Buys is the executive dean and dean of humanities of the private and non-profit higher education institution the Cornerstone Institute.
  • Published in the Cape Argus on Thursday, 27 February 2020.