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The Theater of Southern Africa


Formally, something called “majority rule” remains an accepted objective for Rhodesia and eventually South Africa. The right, including almost all African whites, are bitterly contemptuous about this. They point out quite correctly that African elections have been one-shot affairs, followed by phases of rule by civilian ideological elites, terminable only by means of military coups. They also point out that “majority rule” was not a condition existing in southern Africa before white colonization. As far as Rhodesia and the neighboring regions of South Africa were concerned, what preceded white rule were the militaristic frenzies and tyrannies of the Mfecane period. The white man may have taken over by violence and fraud (he did), but he did so in territories where these were already the governing forces.

Majority rule is a concept alien to Africa. It is a late growth of Anglo-American civilization. It is taken up in Africa, not with any intention of making it a reality, but as a weapon against a particular type of minority rule—white minority rule. The appeal to democratic values, officially dominant in the Western white nations, serves to delegitimize white rule in Africa.1 Once that is accomplished, what replaces white minority rule will be essentially what preceded it: black minority rule. The dominated will have the consolation of sharing the pigmentation of their overlords, as did the luckless subjects of the Zulu and the Ndebele.

The indignation of African whites at certain uses of the slogan of majority rule is understandable but inconsistent. Their own rule has rested not on fairness but on effectiveness. When an effective rhetorical weapon is used against them it does not help to point out its unfairness—what was so fair about the firearms with which they held power? And the democratic (or pseudo-democratic) weapon is remarkably effective, considering the very limited extent to which democracy is practiced in the world, and its nonexistence in Africa.

It is worth considering why the slogan of majority rule should be so effective and what the limitations of its effectiveness may be. It is effective, I believe, primarily because there is a desire for the severance that it implies. There has long been in the West a sense of guilt about the relation of its own wealth to the exploitation and poverty of the rest of the world. At the same time there is no question of our wanting to relinquish individually or collectively any of the advantages acquired by our guilty practices. The US and UK will want to maintain such access to the resources of southern Africa as they can and such influence over the regimes there as they can muster. We can, however, rid ourselves of some of our guilt by excommunicating personifications of it, in the anachronistic persons of the whites of Africa: the unacceptable faces of ourselves. The moral distinction between us and them is—we like to think—clear: we accept majority rule and they do not.

We are not, however, left alone to enjoy the comfort of that distinction. African nationalists, like Irish nationalists in the nineteenth century, know how to exploit guilt dramatically. Parnell used the House of Commons for his theater of guilt. Africans today can make use of an even more extraordinary theater: the United Nations. It is a theater whose conventions and traditions are exceedingly well suited to the drama of guilt: to accusations, exculpations, and rituals of propitiation. In the Forties and Fifties the United States provided the scripts and choreography for such performances and stage-managed them. Thus the United Nations—and in particular the General Assembly—was used for ritual legitimation of the United States’ decision to go to war in Korea, and also for ritual legitimation of the United States’ decision not to go to war over Hungary.2

In both cases, the rituals of legitimation were provided with parallel rituals of condemnation directed at the Soviet Union. But by 1956 Western powers—France, Britain, and Israel—were already themselves on trial. By 1958—at the time of the Anglo-American landings in Lebanon—it became evident that the United States was no longer in full control of the theater: for the first time one of the scenarios of the US delegation was rejected, through Arab influence. After the influx of new African states in 1960, the United Nations theater became more and more one of ritual condemnation of the white African regimes, and ritual pressure on the Western powers to apply material pressure to those regimes. This pressure was—and is—psychologically powerful, because of the following factors:

First, because of the reality of Western guilt feelings toward the non-white world;

Second, because of African and Asian—particularly African—awareness of such feelings and capacity to work on them;

Third, because of communist efforts to exploit the African reactions, and of African ingenuity in exploiting the fears inspired by the communists;

Fourth, because in the theater of the United Nations (as in the world) there are many more non-whites than whites, so that white rituals and rhetoric are at a heavy disadvantage;

Fifth, because of the institutional tone of the United Nations. This tone is one of lofty morality. It was so from the beginning, in the eloquent preamble to the Charter—drafted by a South African, Jan Smuts. Over the years, when it seemed politic for the United States to build up the United Nations as embodying “the moral conscience of mankind,” this institutional tone was strengthened still further. Today it is the non-white members who insist on representing the “moral conscience.” Every player on the United Nations stage feels constrained to act out a virtuous role. But the Westerners have to act out parts written for them by history in language of imputed and partly accepted guilt, and to act them in a manner reasonably satisfactory to non-white expectations.

There is also a sixth factor, more specific in character. The United Nations is situated in New York and the high moments of its drama reach American audiences live on television. Its dramatized race relations thus interact with the race relations of the American cities and with the politics of those relations. And those same relations then react, in their turn, on the politics of Africa—as happened in February 1961 when the Security Council gallery riots, after Lumumba’s death, helped to change the Kennedy administration’s approach to the Congo and set the stage for the fall of Katanga.

This sixth factor is tied in with all the others. Because, however, of the worldwide power and influence of the host country, the United States, it is worth looking at this factor in rather more detail.

It is worth noting first of all that this factor, unlike the others listed, does not necessarily, in all circumstances, work to the disadvantage of the white African regimes. An administration, like Nixon’s, which has virtually written off the black vote may also feel able to ignore the accusing rituals of the East River.3 It may even be tempted to try a little ritual defiance, appealing to a section of white voters; hence the presence on the US delegation, successively, of Mr. William F. Buckley, Jr. and Mr. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But ritual white defiance does not work well in that theater. If not perceptible to its immediate audience, it can give scant satisfaction to its domestic audience, and if perceptible to its immediate audience, it will be intensely unpopular with them (fourth factor above).

Such defiant behavior will then be correspondingly unpopular with the American professionals, both at the UN, in Washington, and in the African capitals. It will thus be seen as playing into the hands of the communists—a particularly destructive charge once the events of 1974-1975 in Portugal and Portuguese Africa made Henry Kissinger feel some of the same pressures, in relation to Rhodesia, as the Kennedy administration had felt in relation to the Congo.

The Carter administration has to feel these pressures too. But it also feels, as its predecessors did not, the tug of black feeling in the United Nations.


Over this junction of Africa and America Mr. Andrew Young has established an extraordinary authority. I think it is safe to say that he is respected in Africa, by African leaders, as hardly any American, and no black American, has ever been respected before. As Richard Wright learned in bitterness, Africans, and especially influential Africans, have tended to look down on black Americans—because they were slaves, because one’s ancestors might have sold theirs, because they were of mixed race, because they were often poor and ignorant, and because, when they had escaped these conditions, it was often in order to serve as a mouthpiece for white men, sometimes in relation to African matters, about which they had no real right to speak.

Andrew Young has a way of dispelling such dismal associations. He radiates confidence and intelligence, with just a touch of arrogance, of which he is comfortably aware. He is an easy, witty speaker; he knows how to be indiscreet and makes his indiscretions work in his favor. He has enormous charm, when he bothers to exert it. He has charmed President Nyerere—no mean charmer himself—and considering the wide, formal ideological gap between what he has to say and what President Nyerere has to say, the exertion of this charm has a certain political significance. In black America he necessarily has enemies; his qualities and attainments must arouse an envy which his style and manner can do nothing to disarm. But his admirers, even his worshipers, have to be more numerous than his detractors. He is a potent, living symbol of how far black people—some black people—have come in the America of today; there must be an awful lot of Moms who would like to see their boy grow up to be like Andrew Young.

I watched Andrew Young, in Washington, on last November 7, working a part of that constituency of his. He was talking to employees of Health, Education, and Welfare; more than half of them were black and all who put questions to him were black. He spoke effortlessly without notes; I found myself taking notes, more than I ever remember taking at a public meeting.

The first note was on the speaker’s entrance. It read: “Standing ovation. Slight yawn.”

The yawn was Mr Young’s; the effect was not offensive, but somehow pleasing. A woman stood on the platform beside the speaker. She was moving her hands: simultaneous interpretation into deaf-and-dumb language. This too seemed to make a point in the speaker’s favor.

Mr. Young began by taking on his critics—he had been charged with running out on the black community in the United States. That was wrong. The solution of domestic problems depended on international progress. The effects of the Middle East war on the American economy showed that blacks—last hired and first fired—felt the worst effects of such international crises. The new administration had established “a new climate” in international relations.

  1. 1

    A counterpart to this appeal is now foremost in the minds of the white rulers of Rhodesia. Cannot the democratic process also be used to de-legitimize the emerging power of a black minority? Therefore some of those who were most scornful about African democracy are now most impressed by its merit.

  2. 2

    See United Nations: Sacred Drama (Simon & Schuster, 1968) by the present writer and Feliks Topolski for examples of how the stage of the United Nations has been used to act out versions of political reality.

  3. 3

    See Anthony Lake, The Tar-Baby Option: American Policy Toward Southern Rhodesia (Columbia University Press, 1976).

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