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Letter from South Africa

I flew out of Johannesburg on a visit abroad two and a half months after the first black school child was killed by a police bullet in Soweto. Since June 16, when the issue of protest against the use of the Afrikaans language as a teaching medium in black schools, long ignored by the white authorities, finally received from them this brutal answer, concern had been the prevailing emotion in South Africa.

Concern is an over-all bundle of like feelings in unlike people: horror, distress, anguish, anger—at its slackest manifestation, pity.

There was no white so condemnatory of black aspirations, so sure of a communist plot as their sole source, that he or (more likely) she didn’t feel “sorry” children had died in the streets. Black children traditionally have been the object of white sentimentality; it is only after the girls grow breasts and the boys have to carry the passbook that chocolate suddenly turns black.

There was no black so militant, or so weary of waiting to seize the day, that he or she did not feel anguish of regret at the sacrifice of children to the cause. Not even a mighty rage at the loathed police could block that out.

I was away for the month of September. Henry Kissinger came to South Africa to discuss the Rhodesia settlement with Mr. Vorster; six children were killed while demonstrating against his presence. A day or two after I arrived home in October, a girl of fifteen was shot by police at the Cape. The six were already merely a unit of the (disputed) official figures of the dead (now 358), some adult but in the main overwhelmingly the young, in unrest that has spread from blacks to those of mixed blood, and all over the country by means of arson, homemade bomb attacks, boycotts, and strikes. The fifteen-year-old girl was added to the list of fatalities; no one, I found, was shocked afresh at the specific nature of this casualty: the killing of a child by a police bullet.

Like the passing of a season, there was something no longer in the air. People had become accustomed, along with so much else unthinkable, to the death of children in revolt.

I try to recognize and set out the reasons for this acclimation before daily life here, however bizarre, makes me part of it.

When striking children met the police that Wednesday morning in June in the dirt streets of Soweto and threw stones that promptly drew bullets in return, who would have believed that the terrible lesson of white power would not be learned? The lesson for these children wasn’t free, any more than their school-books are (white children get theirs for nothing); they paid with the short lives of some of their number. No one could conceive they would ever present themselves again, adolescent girls bobbing in gym frocks, youths in jeans, little barefoot boys with shirts hanging out as in a wild game of cops and robbers—to police who had shown they would shoot real bullets. But the children did. Again and again. They had taken an entirely different lesson: they had learned fearlessness.

Of course, white attitudes toward them began to change, even then. It was immediately assumed by the government and the majority of white people that since the issue of the Afrikaans language had been quickly conceded, and the children now demanded the abolition of the entire separate educational system for blacks, and then bluntly “everything whites get,” such intransigence must be the work of agitators. Among black people—among the outlawed liberation organizations inside and outside the country, and those perforce confined to balancing cultural liberation on a hair’s breadth of legality within it—all began to claim credit for the first popular uprising since the early Sixties. No one will know, for years perhaps, how to apportion the influence of the banned African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress—their leadership in prison and exile—in the development of schoolchildren’s defiance into the classic manifestations of a general uprising.

Neither can one measure how much of the children’s determined strategy was planned by older students of the black university-based South African Students’ Organization. There surely were—there are—agitators; if agitators are individuals able and articulate enough to transform the sufferings and grievances of their people into tactics for their liberation. There surely was—there is, has never ceased to be—the spirit of the banned political movements in the conceptual political attitudes and sense of self, passing unnamed and without attribution to their children from the tens of thousands who once belonged to the mass movements.

What neither the accusations of the white government nor the claims of black adult leadership will ever explain is how those children learned, in a morning, to free themselves of the fear of death.

Revolutionaries of all times, who know this is the freedom that brings with it the possibility of attaining all others, have despaired of finding a way of teaching it to more than a handful among their trained cadres. To ordinary people it is a state beyond understanding. We knew how to feel outrage or pity when we saw newspaper photographs of the first corpses of children caught by the horrible surprise of a death nobody believed, even in South Africa, would be meted out by the police. Blacks still burn with an anger whose depth has not yet been fathomed—it continues to show itself as it did at the Soweto funeral of Dumisani Mbatha, sixteen, who died in detention. Seven hundred mourners swelled to a crowd of 10,000 youths that burned 100,000 rands worth of the Johannesburg municipality’s vehicles and buildings. Yet—not without bewilderment, not without shame—black people have accepted that the weakest among them are the strongest, and thus by grim extension also accept the inconceivable: the death of children and adolescents has become a part of the struggle.

We whites do not know how to deal with the fact of this death when children, in full knowledge of what can happen to them, continue to go out to meet it at the hands of the law for which we are solely responsible, whether we support white supremacy or, opposing, have failed to unseat it.

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When you make men slaves you deprive them of half their virtue, you set them in your own conduct an example of fraud, rapine and cruelty, and compel them to live with you in a state of war….

—Olaudah Equiano
eighteenth-century black writer

White people have turned away from concern to a matter-of-fact preoccupation with self-protection. A Johannesburg parents’ committee has a meeting to discuss whether or not teachers at a suburban school should be armed, as they might once have planned a school fête. I bump into a friend who tells me, as if he were mentioning arrangements for a cattle show, that he and fellow farmers from a district on the outskirts of Johannesburg are gathering next day to set up an early warning system among themselves—one of them uses a two-way radio for cattle control, the gadget may come in handy.

Now it is not only the pistol-club matrons of Pretoria who regard guns as necessary domestic appliances. At the house of a liberal white couple an ancient rifle was produced the other evening, the gentle wife in dismay and confusion at having got her husband to buy it. Gunsmiths have long waiting lists for revolvers; 50 percent of small arms come illegally from Iron Curtain countries who call for a total arms embargo against South Africa at the UN.

Certainly, in that house a gun was an astonishing sight. Pamphlets appear with threats to whites and their children; although the black movements repudiate such threats, this woman feels she cannot allow her anti-apartheid convictions to license failure to protect her children from physical harm. She needn’t have felt so ashamed. We are all afraid. How will the rest of us end up? Hers is the conflict of whites who hate apartheid and have worked in “constitutional” ways to get rid of it. The quotes are there because there’s not much law-abiding virtue in sticking to a constitution like the South African one, in which only the rights of a white minority are guaranteed. Gandhi had our country in mind when he wrote, “The convenience of the powers that be is the law in the final analysis.”

My friend Professor John Dugard, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the Wit-watersrand University, says that if whites do not show solidarity with blacks against apartheid, their choice is to “join the white laager or emigrate.” Few, belonging to a country that is neither in the Commonwealth nor the Common Market, have the chance to emigrate. Of the laager—armed encampment—my friend David Goldblatt, the photographer, says to me: “How can we live in the position where, because we are white, there’s no place for us but thrust among whites whose racism we have rejected with disgust all our lives?”

There is not much sign that whites who want to commit themselves to solidarity with blacks will be received by the young anonymous blacks who daily prove the hand that holds the stone is the whip hand. They refuse to meet members of the Progressive-Reform Party, who, while assuming any new society will be a capitalist one, go farther than any other white constitutional group in genuine willingness to share power with blacks. They will not even talk to white persons (there are still no white parties that recognize the basic principle of Western democracy although they would all call themselves upholders of the Western democratic system) who accept one man one vote and the rule by a black majority government as the aim of any solidarity, and understand, as John Dugard puts it, that “the free enterprise system is not the only system” to be discussed.

The black moderate Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, whose position as a Bantustan leader fiercely attacking the government that appointed him has made him exactly the figure—legal but courageous—to whom whites have talked and through whom they hope to reach blacks, lately is reported to have made a remark about “white ultra-liberals who behave as though they are making friends with the crocodile so they will be the last to be eaten.” He also said, “Nobody will begrudge the Afrikaner his heritage if it is no threat to the heritage and freedom of other people.” It seems old white adversaries might be accepted but white liberals will never be forgiven their inability to come to power and free blacks.

Nevertheless, I don’t think the whites he referred to would be those with the outstanding fighting record of Helen Suzman, let alone radical activists like Beyers Naude of the Christian Institute, and others, of the earlier generation of Bram Fischer, who have endured imprisonment and exile alongside blacks in the struggle.

If fear has taken over from concern among whites, it has rushed in to fill a vacuum. In nearly six months, nothing has been done to meet the desperate need of blacks that seems finally to have overcome every threat of punishment and repression: the need, once and for all and no less, to take their lives out of the hands of whites. The first week of the riots, Gatsha Buthelezi called for a national convention and the release of black leaders in prison to attend it. As the weeks go by in the smell of burning, the call for a national convention has been taken up by other Bantustan leaders, black urban spokesmen, the press, the white political opposition. After five months, the prime minister, Mr. Vorster, answered: “There will be no national convention so far as this government is concerned.” Most of the time he leaves comment to his minister of justice, police, and prisons, Mr. Jimmy Kruger. The only attempt to deal with a national crisis is punitive. It is Mr. Kruger’s affair. He continues to project an equation that is no more than a turn of phrase: “South Africa will fight violence with violence.”

Three hundred and sixty people have died, of whom two were white. The police, who carry guns and still do not wear riot-protective clothing but army camouflage dress and floppy little-boy hats that could be penetrated by a slingshot, have not lost a single man.

Neither the prime minister nor his minister in charge of black lives, M.C. Botha (Bantu Administration, Development and Education), has yet talked to urban black leaders more representative than members of the collapsed Urban Bantu Councils. (They do not have normal municipal powers.) On their own doleful admittance, these are dubbed “Useless Boys’ Clubs” by the youths who run the black townships now.

Of the black leaders whom the vast majority of urban blacks would give a mandate to speak for them, Nelson Mandela and his lieutenants Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, of the banned African National Congress, are still imprisoned for life on Robben Island. Robert Sobukwe of the Pan-Africanist Congress is banished to and silenced in a country town.

Black intellectuals who might stand in for these have been detained one by one, even while whites of unlikely political shades continue to affirm a fervent desire to talk to blacks, just talk to them—as if 300 years of oppression were a family misunderstanding that could be explained away, and as if everyone did not know, in the small dark room where he meets himself, exactly what is wrong with South African “race relations.”

The government leaders refuse to meet the Black People’s Convention, perhaps in the belief that by not recognizing Black Consciousness organizations the power of blacks to disrupt their own despised conditions of life and (at the very least) the economy that sustains the white one will cease to exist. Fanonist theory of the black man as an image projected upon him by the white man takes a new twist; the white man goes to the door of his shop in central Johannesburg one September morning this year and fails to recognize the black man marching down the street shouting, in his own image, “This is our country.”

The government won’t speak to the Black Parents’ Association, formed originally to finance the burial of Soweto children in June. In this ghastly bond, the association moved on under the leadership of Nelson Mandela’s wife and Dr. Manas Buthelezi, an important Black Consciousness leader about to be consecrated Lutheran Bishop of Johannesburg. It became a united front combining youthful black consciousness inspiration with the convictions of older people who followed the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress.

Finally, the government does not consider speaking to the militant students themselves who are still effectively in leadership, sometimes preventing their parents from going to work (two successful strikes in Johannesburg). Daily and determinedly, they pour into the gutters the shebeen liquor they consider their elders have long allowed themselves to be unmanned by.

Meanwhile, since June 926 black schoolchildren have received punishments ranging from fines or suspended sentences to jail (five years for a seventeen-year-old boy) and caning (five cuts with a light cane for an eleven-year-old who gave the black power salute, shouted at the police, and stoned a bus). They are some of the 4,200 people charged with offenses arising out of the riots, including incitement, arson, public violence, and sabotage. Many students are also among the 697 people, including Mrs. Winnie Mandela, detained in jail for “security reasons”; the other week one hanged himself by his shirt in the Johannesburg prison, an old fort two kilometers from the white suburban house where I write this.* Several students, not twenty years old, have just begun that reliable apprenticeship for African presidents, exile and education in Britain. When, in September, Mr. Vorster met blacks with whom he will talk—his appointed Bantustan leaders—he would not discuss urban unrest or agree to a national conference of blacks and whites to decide what ought to be done about it.

There is a one-man commission of inquiry into the riots, sitting now. Mr. Justice Cillie, the white judge who constitutes it, complains that few people actually present at these events have volunteered evidence. In fact, the schoolchildren and students themselves boycott it, and for the rest, South Africans’ faith in the efficacy of commissions to lead to positive action has long gone into the trash basket along with the recommendations the government steadily rejects. The Cillie Commission keeps extending the period in which it will sit, as the riots continue to be part of the present and not a matter of clam recollection. January 27 next year is the latest limit announced. Historical analogies are easily ominous. But a commission of inquiry was Czar Nicholas II’s way of dealing with the implications of the “unrest” of Bloody Sunday, the beginning of the 1905 revolution.

A chain-store owner whose business has been disrupted by strikes and the gutting of a store has burst out of the conventions of his annual report to shareholders to say, “Decades of selfishness and smugness by South African whites is the principal reason for widespread unrest among blacks.”

Yet most changes suggested by whites do not approach a call for a national convention, with its implication of a new constitution and the end of white supremacy. Black certainty that nothing will bring equality without power is dismantled by whites into component injustices they can admit and could redress without touching the power structure. The Federated Chamber of Industries calls for job “reservations” discriminating against blacks in industry to be ended, and has the support of the most powerful trade union group and the opposition parties. The National Development and Management Foundation goes farther and calls for the ending of business and residential apartheid as well. Afrikaner big business, government supporters all, in their Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut ask for blacks to be given “greater” rights in their own urban areas and training to increase their skills.

Although the Progressive-Reform Party has demanded a national convention and the release of all people from detention, it was still necessary, before its 1976 congress agreed to change its education policy to enforced desegregation, for Helen Suzman to remind rank-and-file members that the separate-but-equal dictum for education had been “thrown out by the United States twenty years ago.”

With unprecedentedly strong criticism of the government coming from its own newspapers and prominent Afrikaners as well as the opposition, it is baffling to read that at the same time 60 percent of whites—an increase of 5 percent over the majority gained by the government in the 1974 election—support Mr. Vorster’s National Party. The reliability of this particular poll is in some doubt; but perhaps the contradiction is not so unlikely after all. It is possible to see a dire necessity for change and fear it so greatly that one runs to give oneself to the father figure who will forbid one to act.

For months the white political opposition parties—Progressive-Reform, United Party, and Democratic Party—have been trying to agree to some sort of realignment. If a liberal front comes about, it will trample the old sand castle fort of the United Party, the conservative official parliamentary opposition, already eroded by the departure of most of its politically vigorous members to the Progressive-Reform Party.

The numerical strength of such a front cannot be measured until it is known whether a major part of the United Party, which still polled 31.49 percent in the 1974 elections, will enter it alongside the Progressive-Reform Party, in the last few years grown from a pressure group to a real presence in parliament, with twelve seats and 6.25 percent of the vote. (The crankish Democratic Party has a minute following.) Only when the extent of United Party commitment is revealed will it be possible to estimate roughly what percentage of the 40 percent who voted against the government in the last election are liberals. There are rumors that some disaffected verlaigte (“enlightened”) National Party MPs may defect to the front too.

The declared aim of the front is to protect the rights of whites while giving Blacks, Coloreds, and Indians a direct say in government—which careful phrasing suggests its policy will be to the right of the present Progressive-Reform Party. The spectral raison d’être of such a realignment is surely not the chance of ousting Vorster’s government but of getting ready a white “negotiating party” to treat with blacks on a shared power basis when he finds he can no longer govern. The viewpoint of enlightened white politics now includes urgently the wide angle of acceptability to blacks, although they have no vote to be wooed. When Mr. Vorster can no longer govern, it is not likely any other white government will be able to.

No one knows whether the Bantustan leaders are, in their different circumstances, preparing themselves for a particular role on that day. They meet at a Holiday Inn at Johannesburg’s airport, exactly like Holiday Inns all over the world, down to its orgy-sized beds and cozy smell of French fried potatoes piped along with muzak, but deriving its peculiar status as neutral country outside apartheid from the time when it was the first hotel here to be declared “international”: not segregated—for foreign blacks, anyway.

From there the Bantustan leaders demand “full human rights for blacks and not concessions.” With the exception of the Transkei and Bophutha Tswana—the former having celebrated the homeland brand of independence on October 26, the latter soon to do so—they reject ethnic partitions of South Africa. Which means they walk out on the many-mansions theory of apartheid, abandoning the white government which set them up inside; and they identify themselves as part of the liberation movement for an undivided South Africa. They present themselves to the black population in general as black leaders, not tribal leaders. Is this a bid for power? If Nelson Mandela were to come back from the prison island, would they step aside for him? Has the most imposing of them, Gatsha Buthelezi, a following cutting across his Zulu tribal lines?

Whites believe so. He attracts large audiences when he speaks in cosmopolitan black townships. Many blacks say no; and the African National Congress in exile continues to deride the Bantustan leaders as collaborators, making no exceptions. Other blacks imply that the best of the Bantustan men are keeping warm the seats of leaders in prison. Among politically articulate blacks, this year’s is their (Southern hemisphere) hot summer of brotherhood. Tsietsi Mashinini, the student leader who fled the police to exile in Britain, suggests that the tremendous force his movement shows itself to represent is loyal to Mandela. It does not seem to matter to blacks whether it is a Gatsha Buthelezi or anyone else who is the one to say to whites, as he has, “The future is a Black future and we Blacks want our future now.”

From the Market Theatre, newly opened in what was the Covent Garden of Johannesburg, comes a strange echo—Cucurucu, Kokol, Polpoch, and Rossignol, asylum clowns in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, singing: “Give us our rights…and we don’t care how—We want—our re-vo-lu-tion—NOW.” The author granted performances on condition everyone could see the work and has donated his royalties to a Soweto riot victims fund. His play has never been performed before in a city atmosphere such as ours, it has never been heard as we hear it.

During the “quiet” years of successful police repression, before the young emptied the Dutch courage of shebeens down the drain and sent through people’s veins the firewater of a new spirit, there have been political trials in progress continually in South Africa. Not only those of blacks who have left the country for military training and re-entered illegally, but also those reflecting aspects of the struggle against apartheid carried on by an intellectual elite.

While the riots have been taking place, two young white university lecturers in Cape Town have given the black power clench and, avowing “no regrets,” have accepted long sentences under the Terrorism and Internal Security acts; their uncompromising personal suffering serves as proof of solidarity with blacks that must be granted even by those whites who abhor the white far left. In Johannesburg I have been to hear the trial of four white university students and a lecturer accused of trying “to change South Africa” by organizing black workers, who have no recognized trade unions. The five were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act, and the state’s principal evidence consisted of papers read at a seminar.

The backs of these young men in blue jean outfits suggested a pop group; but when they turned in the witness stand it was not to greet fans but to smile at the wife of one of them, whose hands, while she followed the proceedings, were working at a complicated length of knitting—the danger of active dissent does make risk of imprisonment part of the daily life of courageous people. Yet I felt events had overtaken them. The segregated public gallery was almost empty of white and black spectators. The struggle was a few miles away in the streets of Soweto.

But it is another trial, which has gone on almost two years, that seems to have the opposite relation to present events. Four years ago, the nine black members of the South African Students’ Organization accused under the Terrorism Act seemed to the ordinary public, black and white, to represent a radical fringe movement on the far side of the generation gap. The state’s evidence against them was literary and clumsily esoteric—it consisted of black plays in the idiom of New York black theater of seven years ago, mimeographed Black Consciousness doggerel that couldn’t compete with comic books, poetry readings that surely could appeal only to the educated young.

The paper flowers of literary rhetoric have come alive in the atmosphere of tragic exaltation and discipline that can’t be explained.

In the city streets of Johannesburg black people go about their white-town working lives as they always did: the neat clerks, waiters in their baggy parody of mess dress, dashing messengers in bright helmets on motor scooters, shop-cleaners, smart girls who make tea in offices or shampoo the clients’ hair in white hairdressing salons. Polished shoes, clean clothes; and most of the time, when the youngsters don’t stop them from boarding township trains, people get to work every day.

How do they do it? Daily life in Soweto is in hellish disruption. One-third of the country’s school-leavers may not be able to write the final exams of the school year that ends in December; not all schools in the Johannesburg area have reopened. Those that have function irregularly, either because militant pupils stop classes, or teachers suspected of sympathetic alignment with them are detained. Buses and trains don’t run when stoning and burning start; commuters crush into the big old American cars that serve as taxis or walk to stations outside the area. No one knows when his neighbor’s house may cave in, set alight because he is a policeman. If he himself owns a precious car, it too may burn, should he be suspected of being, or even be mistaken for, some less obvious form of collaborator.

While we white people picnic, Sundays are the most dreadful days of all in Soweto: funerals, the only category of public gathering not banned, have become huge mass meetings where the obsequies of the riot victim being buried are marked by new deaths and fresh wounds as the police attack mourners singing freedom songs and shaking black power salutes. A black intellectual whose commitment to liberation no one would question, although he risks the violent disapproval of blacks by still having contact with whites, tells me, “When I go home tonight, I don’t know which to be more afraid of—the police getting me when they shoot at anything that moves, or my own people getting me when I walk across the yard to the lavatory.”

White Johannesburg appears as it always was. Across the veld to the southwest Soweto has been severed from the city, to drift in its fury and misery. Refuse, carted away in municipal vehicles that are vulnerable symbols of white rule, is collected when it can be. The Johannesburg medical officer of health has warned of possible outbreaks of measles and diptheria in Soweto, and the reappearance of poliomyelitis; the white doctors and nurses who staffed most clinics have had to be withdrawn. It is no longer safe for any white to enter there. Only the white police go in; stand guard, their chrome whiplash aerials giving away the presence of riot squad cars and men in leaf-spattered jumpsuits at the crossroads where Soweto leads to Johannesburg. And the black workers come out every morning and go back every night, presenting faces that won’t distress the white city.

What may the clean, ironed clothes and calm faces carry concealed, of disease and violence, to a city that has cut such things loose from itself?

Postscript

A Johannesburg newspaper asks if I will accept nomination for the “Woman of the Year.” I decline. Someone else will have that honor, perhaps even a black woman from the small black professional elite. But this year the only candidates are surely Winnie Mandela, who came out of house arrest to stand between the police and the schoolchildren and be imprisoned, or any one of the black township women who have walked beside their marching children, carrying water to wash the tear gas from their eyes.

  1. *

    The South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg released on November 8 the following analysis gleaned from cases reported in the national press between June 16 and October 31: 1,200 people have already stood trial. Three thousand are facing trials not yet completed. Of the 926 juveniles tried and convicted, 528 have been given corporal punishment, 397 have received suspended sentences or fines, and one has been jailed.

    The minister of justice’s figure of 697 people detained for “security reasons” is broken down thus: 123 held under the Internal Security Act without charges pending against them; 217 held under the Terrorism Act who will either be brought to trial or released; 34 detained as witnesses; 323 held in cases “relating to security.”

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