Sampie Terreblanche: Afrikaner Political Economist who Spoke Truth to Power to Both the NP and ANC

To sum up Sampie Terreblanche simply as a ‘maverick’ intellectual would perhaps be unfair

To sum up Sampie Terreblanche simply as a ‘maverick’ intellectual would perhaps be unfair. His progression from an Afrikaner nationalist to an advocate of its demise to an African National Congress (ANC) supporter to a fierce critic of the ruling party was certainly spectacular and often dramatic. But each step in his fifty years as public intellectual and political economist was preceded by deep soul-searching and intense discussions with his close friends and family about how to best serve the common good.

Terreblanche may ultimately be remembered for his fearlessness in speaking truth to power, and a public intellectual who constantly reminded apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa of the injustice inherent in economic inequality. It did not matter whether it was the apartheid government during the era of turbulent clashes under former presidents John Vorster and PW Botha or the ANC government whom he accused of selling out its own marginalised constituency. His harsh judgement came fifteen years after he eagerly participated in unofficial ‘talks about talks’ with the then banned ANC in exile, paving the way for formal negotiations and a political settlement.

His critique of the ANC’s economic policy was long in the making as Terreblanche wrestled over his extensive academic career as a political economist with apartheid’s economic injustice, which he came to fear, may theoretically be too entrenched to overcome without a tearing down of elite structures. This theoretical perspective was paralleled by his intense involvement in processes that marked the attempted transition out of the morass of racial capitalism.

Terreblanche also hit the headlines for arguing that a ‘wealth tax’ ought to be levied in South Africa to help the transformation of post-apartheid society and for writing a definitive book on systemic inequality in South Africa. Twenty years ago, Terreblanche said about the redistributive logic of taxing the rich to overcome apartheid: “The income could be used to set up a restitution fund to help alleviate the worst poverty in South Africa". Writing in November 2017 about widespread scorn he received in 1997 from TRC liberals, neoliberals and ANC nationalists alike, he said: “The proposal elicited strong disapproval. One newspaper caricatured me as an alien apparition from outer space.

The elite rejection of a more redistributive road to justice galvanised Terreblanche’s resolve to write his seminal 2002 book ‘A History of Inequality in South Africa: 1652 - 2002’ in which he first accused the ANC of betraying its constituency and warned about the dangers of South-Africa’s "incomplete transition". Published on the eve of the ANC 2002 leadership conference, the ruling party castigated and effectively cast him out. Yet, the book became a standard bearer on the topic, with seven reprints and well over a thousand academic citations.

Ten years later, a follow up book ’Lost in Transformation’(2012) elaborated more powerfully on his earlier analysis. He argued that the transition process and post-apartheid state was captured by the United States and Britain along with big corporations, with the ANC mere collaborators. He called it an ‘elite conspiracy’ in which a small ANC elite had knowingly betrayed the masses. This made impossible a democratic capitalism that could hold to account powerful interests.

Two more books on inequality followed. His last of thirteen books, Western Empires, Christianity and the Inequalities between the West and the Rest (2014) described more than 500 years of dispossession since capitalism's origins. Among others, it anticipated the right-wing populism that is sweeping through the U.S. and Europe.

Born in 1933 into an Afrikaner National Party (NP) family near the small Free State town of Edenville, he chose law over farming. After three years at Stellenbosch University, he switched to economics – a move that would define his life. After a Masters, awarded cum laude, he accepted a post at the Free State University, and threw himself into a PhD, marriage and fatherhood. In 1965, he became senior lecturer in Stellenbosch, where he moved into a relatively modest house where the family lived for the rest of his life; and he was soon promoted to professor.

Given his NP background, he was drawn into the Broederbond early on, of which he would be a rather controversial member – passionately outspoken until his resignation after two decades in 1987. Although loyalty, honesty and fairness were among his outstanding character traits, he was not afraid to break ranks to publicly take on the Afrikaner ’verkramptes’ (arch conservatives) in the then establishment. Yet to many he was during that time – along with some of his Stellenbosch peers – the face of the apartheid regime’s more progressive economic policies. 

His Damascus Road really started in the early 1970s when he was appointed a member of the ’Erika Theron’ Commission of Inquiry relating to matters concerning the Coloured Population Group (1973-76). Under social welfare intellectual and practitioner, Prof Theron, he experienced first-hand the pervasive poverty traps and injustice of a racial group that had been cast aside as lesser human beings. He often remarked that this period made him a more humane political economist and deepened his passion for justice.

In later years, he deeply regretted a decision not to leave the ruling NP establishment behind at that juncture. Instead, at the time, he believed he could use his insights to accelerate reform from the inside. In addition to his theoretical work, numerous calls on public platforms and in newspaper articles agitating for urgent reform followed. As deputy chairman of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) board, he was indeed able to curtail the influence of a long-standing ultra-right political management. Several critical books (in Afrikaans) saw the light, in which he finally concluded that a transition to true economic justice might not be possible without a violent tearing down of the structures of injustice.

In the end, it took Terreblanche another ten years after 1976 to make his "Stellenbosch jump to freedom", painfully but definitively severing most of his Afrikaner nationalist ’veins’. A decisive turning point was P.W. Botha’s disastrous 1985 Rubicon speech. A group of senior Stellenbosch professors formed the Discussion Group 85 agitating for intense reform, with Sampie as chairman. They penned a ‘perception document’ that demolished long-held NP propaganda-pillars such as the Total Onslaught and suggested a rapid policy reform process. The government rejected this out of hand during several meetings. While their document was not published, it has been remarked that the proposals were eerily similar to the programme officially implemented by FW de Klerk in 1990.

In February 1986, a last – almost violent – confrontation with P.W. Botha resulted in Terreblanche resigning from the NP the next day. Along with 27 other members of the Group 85, he issued a Public Declaration that rebuked the NP government’s inability to provide hope for the country or to embrace the scant opportunity left for meaningful change. This became known as the ‘Stellenbosch Revolt' in which over 300 academics signed the Declaration within days. Effectively it meant that the apartheid government’s reliance on intellectual and moral justification from Stellenbosch was shattered.

In the months and years that followed, Terreblanche worked passionately at several levels to facilitate a transition: calling for sanctions, penning dozens of articles, speeches and proposals and working towards reducing the NPs parliamentary majority. He helped establish the Democratic Party and became its first economic advisor and a council member (1989-90). Terreblanche was also active in numerous organisations working for transformation, from the arts and media to the ecumenical, although he was never a churchman.

Terreblanche also became a member of clandestine ‘talks about talks’ with the ANC in exile in 1987. Privately, he expressed fears even then that a ‘Catch 22’ was lurking in South Africa’s future. Would a true transition from Apartheid structures be possible given the overwhelming power of vested interests? He was all too aware of the infiltration and control of the meetings by the big corporates – from Anglo to Shell. Yet, he used every possible opportunity on public and academic platforms to advocate a peaceful transition to greater economic justice, among others, at countless international speaking engagements.

While embracing the 1994 political transition, he became increasingly concerned about the growing inequality and an apparent inability of the ANC to hold to account elite power blocks. In his last months, he again publicly emphasised the mistake that was the ANCs rejection of a wealth tax to support significant redistribution. In 1997, Terreblanche first proposed the idea of a wealth tax in testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) special institutional hearings on the role of business and labour under Apartheid. The new establishment’s rebuke was total. Yet, as Terreblanche wrote shortly before his death – today the distribution of income and wealth is indeed massively more unequal than twenty years earlier.

“The TRC and government’s failure two decades ago to make a systemic intervention into the structural inequalities of post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa has fed into a deepening of poverty and inequity. Unfortunately, this also means that the dangerous tensions between opposing groups is much worse than in 1997,” he wrote in late 2017.

Although many detractors labelled Terreblancheas a ’socialist’ or ’communist’, he maintained to the end that he was a social democrat. He regarded it his duty as political economist to foster the common good in society and to relentlessly test the strength of governance and power structures that ought to protect it. 

In one of his last interviews he said: “Wat ons moet doen is om hierdie lewe so te leef dat die wêreld ’n beter plek is wanneer ons gaan as wanneer ons hier gekom het. Dit is ons groot uitdaging” “What we ought to do is to live our lives in such a way that the world is a better place when we go compared to how we found it. That is our big challenge.” Terreblanche often jested that he was a child of the 1930s DDC (drought, depression and Calvinism) into which he was born and that these challenges shaped his moral and intellectual journey.

He was on the campaign trail until the end, agitating for the return of public land (commons) annexed over the years by wealthy property owners in his neighbourhood in Stellenbosch. He also complained about how Stellenbosch has become a town of ostentatious wealth. “There are many rich people here and they act like rich people and that is just horrible (aaklig)”. It earned him some wrath, but he was resolute. Fair is fair, and one should fight for it without fear or favour. This is how he lived his life.

Terreblanche himself may have wanted to be remembered for the thousands of students he tutored and mentored over a near sixty-year period of lecturing, mostly on economic history and economic systems, the bread and butter of his life that gave him intense joy and inspiration. It also earned him three honorary doctorates, among many accolades and awards.

It is unfortunate that he could not fully appreciate the tumultuous events in South Africa since early December 2017 – the sheer greed exposed in corporate scandals and the potential implosion of the ANC. Terreblanche predicted these turns while being vilified as an eccentric. But the stark reality of the poorest being neglected by the ruling elite reminds us again how South Africa ought to take to heart Terreblanche’s proposals for a more just and equitable society. 

Terreblanche fell ill a year ago, shortly after his wife Ina (neé Smuts) of 58 years passed away. He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in September 2017. He is survived by four daughters, Christelle Terreblanche, Marié, Kirsten, Louise van Zyl and Carine Terreblanche, and a son, Sampie. He also have five grandchildren, Nina and Gerhard Kirsten, Willem and SJ van Zyl and Sam Dupper.

* Written by Christelle Terreblanche, with contributions from family and friends. Inquiries: 083 232 4134.

For further information, refer to www.profsampieterreblanche.online.