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Tuesday, 28 October 2008

'You can't have your banana and eat it', by Dan Roodt

from BAB's A List, South-Africa

Dan Roodt (Ph.D.) is the author of “the polemical essay,” The Scourge of the ANC. The following op-ed, “You Can’t Have Your Banana and Eat It,” has to be one of the most elegant and elevated logical eviscerations I’ve read in a while. Take it from someone who deconstructs arguments, week in, week out. Suffice it to say that Roodt utterly dismantles Malegapuru Makgoba’s atavistic boorish thesis. Enjoy.

You Can’t Have Your Banana and Eat It
By Dan Roodt

In his “Wrath of Dethroned White Males” Professor Malegapuru Makgoba has dared to offer a biological explanation for the power structure that prevails in the new South Africa. According to him, the white male has been “dethroned” and should now learn to adapt to a subservient, even submissive, role within our society.

Until now, Social Darwinism or the model of society as a competition for resources where the fittest will survive and prosper, has often been associated with notions of European superiority. After all, Europeans from a minute area in north-western Europe managed to get on to little sailing boats to colonise and rule the greater part of the Earth for a few hundred years. Britain is said to have conquered 100-million people in the Indian sub-continent with 800 soldiers and 2 000 Indian auxiliaries.

Makgoba’s view of African male dominance therefore represents a novel departure from a previously Eurocentric idea. However, he is not the first South African to take an interest in biological explanations for human behaviour or politics. Two of his predecessors would be Eugene Marais and Jan Smuts.

Marais was keen on the study of primates, especially baboons, and wrote two books about them, The Soul of the Ape and Burgers van die Berge. The great Afrikaner physician, journalist, poet and intellectual stressed the similarity between human and baboon behaviour, including an occurrence where he observed human boys and young baboons playing together, making clay figures and imitating one another.

This extraordinary incident is recounted in Burgers van die Berge. It fits in with Makgoba’s view that imitation and “aping” are normal features of both human and baboon societies. Nowhere would Marais, however, advance the notion that imitation was solely linked to hierarchy and dominance.

Makgoba is perhaps the leading theoretical Africanist in our country today. I am sorry, therefore, to bother him with Eurocentric logic, but his argument represents a tautology. Because black males are in power, he deduces that they are both dominant and “fitter” than white males. However, it could be that they are dominant for reasons other than their fitness. [Emphasis added]

Not so long ago, Mathatha Tsedu, the then editor of the Sunday Times, caused quite a ripple when he wrote in his column on July 13 2003 that black men sometimes display a lack of prowess. He quoted an anonymous Cabinet member who had told him: “When you come from where we come from and you then have to realise that if you want something done quickly you have to rely on whites, it is really debilitating. You bleed internally, but our very own comrades do not work. There is generally no work ethic.”

Of course, there could be a debate about what attributes an alpha male should have in human society. Should he be intelligent, physically strong or both? Should he be a good manager, highly numerate and literate, disciplined and with a good work ethic? Or are these but the traits of a tame white baboon and are universal criteria for primate success such as aggression, reproductive prowess and dominant behaviour more important?

Makgoba’s assessment leans toward the latter interpretation. However, I do not think that the same conditions of Darwinian survival pertain in the human world as opposed to the animal world. Human beings display altruistic behaviour uncommon in many species so that they would not necessarily subjugate the weaker members of their society as happens in a primate hierarchy.

Take the nuclear project at Pelindaba that existed under the previous government, for example. A handful of white Afrikaner males produced six nuclear bombs, deadly enough to kill millions of people in one fell swoop. In a straight Darwinian contest, they should have used that power to eliminate their black male rivals forever, thereby ensuring their own dominance within Makgoba’s scheme of rivalry between white and black males. Yet not only did they refrain from using the bombs, but they handed over power to the black males and peacefully dismantled their own lethal weapons.

Biologically speaking, such behaviour is absurd. No male baboon would be caught dead playing into the hands of his rival. Yet this is precisely what we have seen in South Africa.

At another level, however, one could argue that a form of social Darwinism is still operative at every level in a capitalist society where individuals and companies are selected for fitness through economic competition. This leads to a further contradiction in Makgoba’s argument, for while exalting black male fitness over white male weakness, he insists on affirmative action and black economic empowerment.

Because of racial-preference measures in our society, Darwinian competition, even at the more civilised economic level —as opposed to brute contests with bared teeth and flailing limbs —is flawed.

Either black males such as Makgoba will have to discard racial preference so that the real Darwinian contest may begin, or they will have to continue invoking sympathy for the poor, downtrodden black male having been disadvantaged by centuries of colonial oppression and racism. In other words, they will have to choose between Darwinism and altruism.

As they would say in the baboon world: you can’t have your banana and eat it.

Mail & Guardian Online

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