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Will South Africa Explode?

Justice in South Africa

by Albie Sachs
University of California, 288 pp., $3.25 (paper)

Modernizing Racial Domination: The Dynamics of South African Politics

by Heribert Adam
University of California, 203 pp., $2.65 (paper)

A Taste of Power

by Peter Randall
The Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society (Johannesburg), 225 pp., £2

To visit South Africa in 1974 is a little like revisiting the American South before the civil rights movement. An early morning ritual captures some of the flavor of race relations: a black servant sweeps into your hotel room at 6:30 or 7:00, says “good morning, bass” with an exaggerated cheerfulness that seems subtly aggressive, and deposits a tray of coffee and a morning paper beside your bed. If you want to take a bus somewhere after breakfast you will probably find yourself standing aside while a large number of “nonwhites” queue up. In Cape Town, the double-decker buses often require the statutory “nonwhites” (Africans, Coloureds, and Indians)1 to ride on the upper deck; and it is not unusual for a bus to arrive full on the top and empty on the bottom. As a member of the privileged white caste you sit down among the vacant seats, leaving a crowd of black people waiting at the curb.

Everywhere you go signs in both English and Afrikaans direct you to separate rest rooms, waiting rooms, entrances, counters, and even phone booths. Many “amenities” are not even duplicated; the plush cinemas, theaters, and concert halls—prime sources of entertainment in this land without television—generally provide no separate sections or even performances for blacks. Virtually all the restaurants and cafes seat whites only; if blacks want precooked food they must get it from take-out establishments. The more accessible beaches in Cape Town and Durban are also for whites only; “non-Europeans” may not even set foot on the sand. If they want to bathe in the ocean, they have to take long hot rides on segregated buses to remote stretches of coast where there are no whites to be offended by the sight of dark-skinned people enjoying themselves.

Besides being socially privileged, white South Africans are also well off, even by the most extravagant American middle-class standards. A typical white has a spacious and modern house or apartment, a well-tended yard or garden, and a late-model car. He probably works less hard than his American counterpart, goes more frequently on outings and vacations, and has something that Americans of comparable income and status can rarely afford—one or more full-time servants. In this land of cheap and abundant black labor even members of the rapidly diminishing white working class have servants.

Affluence, or at least its display, is so intimately associated with whiteness that it has come to be regarded as a racial prerogative. Until recently a small number of relatively well-off Coloureds lived in small enclaves in some of the white middle-class neighborhoods of Cape Town. Under “Group Areas” legislation passed by the Nationalist government, they have been forced to move into the new Coloured “townships” out on the dusty and barren flats to the west of the city, where it is difficult to maintain a middle-class existence because of high crime rates and a lack of public services and facilities. The richer Indians of Durban have had a similar experience. The result of much of this legislation is to ensure that most whites will never encounter a “non-European” who is not poor and performing menial tasks. This situation serves to reinforce the traditional white belief that blacks exist only to serve them and that poverty is an innate characteristic of “inferior” races. Even liberal whites refer to “the people” or to “South Africans” when they obviously mean only the white minority of the population (about one-sixth of the total).

It is often supposed outside South Africa that the whites live in constant fear that a black revolution will strip them of their privileges. My own conversations with whites did not bear this out. Perhaps in the early and mid 1960s, in the wake of international revulsion to the massacre of black protesters at Sharpeville and during the sabotage campaign launched by African nationalists who had been forced underground, something approaching panic swept through the white population. But the ruling oligarchy rode out the storm of protest, saw foreign investment climb to new heights after a temporary falling-off, and ruthlessly and effectively suppressed the resistance movement.

Today there is anxiety, mainly about developments in Rhodesia and the Portuguese colonies, but no panic. Indeed the pro-apartheid elements seem supremely confident of their ability to maintain control indefinitely. And the small minority of whites who are genuinely opposed to racism concede that there is no immediate threat to minority rule and put their hopes in the long run. Almost no one, in other words, shares the view common in the outside world that South Africa is a time bomb set to explode any day. Instead of a sense of crisis there is a pervasive atmosphere of normalcy, disturbing to the moral sensibilities of a few, but obviously gratifying to the overwhelming majority of white South Africans.

The self-confidence and apparent strength of the Nationalist government were clearly demonstrated during the campaign for last April’s elections. Although most of the black population is in effect under totalitarian rule, the regime still tolerates a spectrum of political opposition from within the dominant white caste. If one could forget that five-sixths of the population were excluded from voting, one could suppose that a free election was going on and that the outcome might make some difference. In university constituencies in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, splinter parties ran openly on the platform of universal suffrage and majority rule. The Cape Town group actually blanketed the city with posters calling for “black majority rule now.” These were first taken down by the police, but when the English-language newspapers, which are often critical of the government, publicized this blatant interference with the “free electoral process,” the posters went back up and stayed there for the duration of the campaign.

The Alliance for Radical Change,” as the Cape Town group was called, held some public meetings during which the whole structure of white supremacy was denounced and repudiated. The atmosphere of these meetings was tense because of the obvious presence of agents of the Bureau of State Security and the efforts of pro-apartheid hooligans to disrupt the proceedings with stink bombs, fire-crackers, and shouts of “Communism.” The speakers were clearly taking personal risks; now that the election is safely over the leaders of the movement may well wake up one day to find themselves “banned.”2 Nevertheless the toleration of these tiny radical parties even for the brief span of the election campaign suggests that the government feels it has little to fear from youthful white dissenters. Although the radicals emphasized that they were in the election not to win votes but to publicize a point of view, it must have comforted the regime that the radicals got only a handful of votes.

More of a real force is the established liberal opposition, the Progressive party (or “Progs”), represented in Parliament for many years by Helen Suzman. The “Progs,” who favor a color-blind qualified franchise which would allow some educated and property-owning blacks to vote, did surprisingly well, increasing their parliamentary representation from one to six. But they did not win their seats directly from the Nationalists but rather cut into the ranks of the regular opposition, the United party (UP).

The Progressives’ main issue in the campaign was not the evils of Nationalist rule but rather “the quality of the opposition.” This is a genuine issue within the narrow sphere of white politics. The United party has clearly degenerated into an ineffectual collection of tired professional politicians who are unable to decide whether they should oppose the government because it has gone to unnecessary extremes in its white supremacist policies or because some aspects of “separate development,” especially the promise of independence and limited additional territory for the nine African tribal areas (or “Bantu Homelands”), actually constitute a long-range threat to white control in South Africa.

Probably the only thing that keeps the United party alive is the fact that some English-speaking South Africans who have no real quarrel with the government’s policies still cannot bring themselves to vote Nationalist because of their prejudice against the Afrikaners who thoroughly dominate the majority party. Still the UP also lost four seats to the Nationalists. As a consequence, the election resulted in an increase in the strength of both the right-wing Nationalists and the liberal opposition, at the expense of the conservative center. But perhaps the most important fact about the election is that the Nationalists actually increased their overwhelming advantage over the combined opposition and now have 123 out of a total of 171 seats in the House of Assembly.

In no danger of losing their huge majority and with the opposition parties spending most of their time attacking each other, the Nationalists were able to run a more relaxed campaign than usual. They offered no new extensions or applications of apartheid to the electorate, nor did they harp on the “black danger” within South Africa as they have done in the past. Their sole issue was “national security,” especially against guerrillas on the borders, and they asked the voters in effect to give them a blank check to do whatever necessary to combat this “external threat.” Hence nothing has really changed. As before, the Nationalist majority will give automatic assent to whatever legislation the government demands in the name of white security.

The new Progressive members will back up Helen Suzman in her criticisms of some aspects of Nationalist policy, particularly on civil liberties, but they will have no real power to affect the decisions of the ruling oligarchy. In fact their attacks may actually serve the regime by helping it to maintain its facade of democratic legitimacy.

Perhaps the soundest judgments on the meaning of the election were made by the radicals, who made it clear, despite their participation, that they see no possibility of significant change through a system of electoral politics that can do no more than express the will of the white minority. It is unrealistic to expect that a majority of the whites will vote to give up the economic and social advantages that they derive from apartheid. So long as all whites are shielded from poverty, hard physical work, and low status by an elaborate system of legalized economic and social discrimination, and so long as artificially low black wages are used to subsidize artificially high white wages and profits (leading to a per capita income differential of approximately ten to one between “Europeans” and Africans), there will be little impulse for change from within the white community.

If the whites have too much to lose to surrender power and privilege simply because the system is patently unjust and undemocratic, it would seem to follow that power must either be taken from them by force or that a situation must develop in which the price of trying to maintain oligarchic rule is greater than the sacrifice involved in giving it up. Either possibility would require that blacks establish some kind of power base that will enable them to take the initiative away from the government. Many courageous and uncompromising South African opponents of apartheid, especially those whose activities have sent them to prison or into exile, have given up on any notion that a real transfer of power can occur in nonviolent and evolutionary ways. To them the regime seems too oppressive and inflexible to yield to anything except guns in the hands of the Africans.

  1. 1

    Out of South Africa’s total population of about 23 million, there are roughly 16 million Africans, 4 million whites, 2 million Coloureds (a racially mixed group of diverse origins), and 700,000 Indians. Since the three “non-white” groups differ somewhat in legal status and are, to a large extent, physically isolated from each other, it is often necessary to refer to them separately. But all are discriminated against, and to emphasize the common elements in their situation and strengthen tendencies toward a united front against white supremacy, anti-apartheid spokesmen have begun to use the term “black” rather than the negative “non-white” to refer to all these groups taken together. I have tried to follow this usage. Hence when I use the term African I am not referring to the entire “black” population but only to the Bantu-speaking African segment.

  2. 2

    Banning, the principal sanction the government currently uses against dissenters who go too far, forbids an individual to leave his magisterial jurisdiction, engage in any kind of political activity, speak in public, be quoted, or even meet with more than one other person at a time.

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