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South Africa: An Ominous Lull

Speaking at the 50th Anniversary Conference of the South African Institute of Race Relations this month, Dr. Francis Wilson, Professor of Economics at Cape Town, gave a lucid analysis of the politico-economic workings of the neo-apartheid system. He drew a diagram.

This showed a core area where the wealth is: the gold mines, the diamond mines, the coal mines, the industries, the rich white farm land, a broad zone hinging on Johannesburg:

Round this core (A), five concentric circles:

Circle B: the nonindependent Homelands, like KwaZulu.

Circle C: Transkei and Bophutha Tswana, recognized as independent states by South Africa only.

Circle D: The old colonial territories, now internationally recognized and members of the United Nations—Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho.

Circle E: Other neighboring African states: Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe Rhodesia.

Circle F: More remote African states: Zambia, Tanzania.

Between the circles and the core there has been, and still is, a pattern of “oscillating migration”: people coming to work in the core and going home again. But—and this was Dr. Wilson’s central point—the outer circles (especially circles D and E) from which the bulk of the migrant labor force used to be drawn have become progressively less important. Much more of the labor force is now being drawn from near the core itself. The politico-economic significance of the independence of places like Bophutha Tswana is that the independent states have then no claim on the resources of the central government (although ex-gratia grants may be made to them).

This is convenient in various ways: for example, South African unemployment statistics are reduced by several hundred thousand through the disappearance from South Africa of Bophutha Tswana and Transkei. This process also permits a certain amount of “deracialization” at the core. Blacks are to be allowed to join Trade Unions, but migrants not. “What seems to be happening,” said Dr. Wilson, is “a gradual move to replace skin color with political boundaries.”

It is in this sense that apartheid is dead, or dying, or not very well. The peoples whose labor originally developed the mines can now be cut loose to fend for themselves, within limits.

So presented, the policies of neo-apartheid sound infinitely cold, crafty, and greedy. Coldness and craft and greed are there, obviously, but there are also other forces at work. Fear is one: fear of the internal and external consequences of the provocation racial apartheid presents. The need to find a substitute for this seems to be felt as keenly as in the need to produce synthetic petrol, as insurance against sanctions. (“Our Chemistry Department,” I was told at the University of Potchefstroom, “can make petrol out of anything black.”)

A more unexpected force at work, among the political class which rules South Africa, is, I believe, guilt. This is a complaint from which political Afrikanerdom has been traditionally almost entirely immune (as regards blacks that is; coloreds are a different matter). One of the great political strengths of the Volk has been the sincerity of its conviction that apartheid is morally right, and of divine inspiration. White guilt in South Africa has traditionally been a monopoly of English-speakers, including Jews, and these remain the principal supporters of the Institute of Race Relations. Traditionally, Afrikanerdom has mocked the kind of people who support the Institute of Race Relations—and also resented them, seeing them as using a feigned sympathy with blacks as a weapon for getting at Afrikaners. Today, however, the mockery is largely stilled, Afrikaners are increasingly uncertain and looking for answers, and the Institute’s patient exploration of race relations no longer seems ridiculous or hypocritical.

The University of Potchefstroom is traditionally a leading center for conservative Calvinist thought, an important contributor to the culture which developed apartheid, a theory of racial separation considered to be rooted in the Scriptures and willed by God. I spent a day on the Potchefstroom campus. It is a tidy, cheerful little place rather awkwardly split by a railway line. Graffiti reflected a hearty, extrovert student body, confident of the approval of the elders. I was hospitably received by the rector and several members of the faculty: grave, courteous, careful-spoken men. They talked about race. Calvin, it seemed, did not teach or condone racial inequality, nor did they themselves teach or condone it. They did not, curiously enough, refer to the Bible, nor did I ask them about it. It would have sounded somehow rude. They were moderate people, verligte, they supported the effort to get away from racial discrimination, but they would go further than the government is prepared to go: they felt (or several of them did) that the official proposition that the more than one million inhabitants of Soweto were transients, even if they were born in Soweto, was not sustainable; they should be treated as permanent residents.

At the same time…this was where the going got difficult. Universal suffrage—that is, black power—should not be tried. “There must be no ‘winner take all.’ ” That phrase recurred. They knew I had met Dr. Motlana, chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten, and they warned me not to be taken in. People like Motlana talked as if the blacks of Soweto were united, but the realities there were tribal rivalries. True, these rivalries were at present partly submerged in a common resentment against the whites, but if white power were to ebb, the old rivalries would re-emerge. It would be, one man said, “a new Mfecane“—a repetition, that is, of the tremendous inter-tribal slaughter of the period of the great nineteenth-century Zulu migrations.

So: no racial inequality, and no transfer of power to blacks either. Where to go, then? The answers were not clear, at least to me. Words like “accommodation,” “juxtaposition,” “consociation” loomed up vaguely: they seemed to portend shadowy new extensions of the neo-apartheid system. There was nothing said that Dr. Motlana could even begin to discuss without losing his whole constituency immediately. All these formulas implied the negation of progress toward majority rule: a black leader who negotiated on that base would be ousted by the young radicals of Soweto.

The impression I carried away with me from “Potch” (as it is affectionately known) was of good men who had inherited certainties, which no longer seemed certain, and who were now groping their way, in considerable intellectual, and some moral, discomfort.

The word most frequently heard about the Afrikaner mood today is “uncertainty.” Partly this is an effect of “Muldergate,” the revelations of illegal activities that caused President Vorster to resign this spring. The discovery that one’s trusted leaders have been breaking the law, and in a ridiculously incompetent manner at that, is in itself unsettling. But at a deeper level, Muldergate was not so much a cause as an effect of uncertainty. An older, more assured generation of nationalist leaders would not have considered comments in the foreign press all that important—certainly not important enough to warrant the fraudulent diversion of South African public money in order to grease the palms of a parcel of inky foreigners. But of course that older generation worked in a different society. It was based, for one thing, on inherited stabilities of rural life, whereas contemporary Afrikanerdom is largely urban, and partakes of the general urban jumpiness. Then, too, there were relatively few articulate, educated, militant blacks; now there are all too many. Then the enemies of white South Africa were at a distance, beyond the cordon sanitaire of Rhodesia and Portuguese Angola and Mozambique. Now the enemies are at the gates.

Also, when uncertainty once sets in, the very effort to re-establish certainty on a new basis can be itself unsettling. I suspect that the so-called “ending of petty apartheid” is a more significant phenomenon than is often allowed for. Only a tiny number of blacks are directly affected by the “deracialization” of top-class hotels like the Carlton in Johannesburg. But the symbolism of “no apartheid at the top” is powerful, and tends to subvert the whole system.

Whatever the order of the causes, the malaise of uncertainty is a palpable fact, reflected in the behavior of a government which, while trying to move in a direction indicated by the verligte Dr. Piet Koornhof (that is, the “ending of apartheid,” replacing skin color with boundaries), finds itself obliged to include in its ranks the apostle of palaeo-apartheid, the formidable Dr. Andries Treurnicht, who contradicted Dr. Koornhof’s statement in America that apartheid was dead.

A good many people, I suspect, would like to move very cautiously forward with Dr. Koornhof; at the same time they are aware that it may become necessary to run like hell back into the shelter of the laager, under the stern command of Dr. Treurnicht—or someone even tougher. The growth of this malaise is ominous for the future of white South Africa. Historically, one of the conditions precedent for revolution is a loss of certitude on the part of a large section of a dominant exclusive minority—as happened in France in the late eighteenth century. That condition has now been attained in South Africa.

Revolution, for all that—or transition of power by any other means—is still no more than a distant rumble, below the horizon. The rulers of South Africa dispose of a fearsome apparatus of repressive power, and the will to use it is not lacking, even if the ends for which it is to be used have lost something of their old distinctness. The “end of apartheid” signals sent out to the world may have given the impression that South Africa is becoming, in a general way, more liberal. Neither the police nor the blacks know about that. It is true that, since the Biko case, and the terrible publicity it brought to South Africa, the lives of political detainees are considerably more secure. But the relations between the police and blacks generally have not improved. While I was in Johannesburg a black girl of twelve was in hospital. She had jumped out of a fourth floor window, out of the apartment in which she was baby-sitting, because the police arrived, on one of their routine searches, and she was frightened of being questioned. There was no suggestion that she was suspected of any offense. The press agreed that the incident showed that there was a need for some improvement of the image of the police among the black community. The police show no signs of being worried about this.

I heard something of their routines through a young white man, who had elected to do his two years National Service in the police, in a city which shall here be nameless. He found that the police were expected, as a matter of routine, to see that every cell in the local jail was kept full. If they were not full, it was not a sign that the crime rate was dropping; it just meant that the police weren’t doing their jobs. No nonsense about “white gloves” in that town. He also found that torture of suspects by electrode was used as a matter of routine in breaking-and-entering cases in which young blacks, of fourteen or fifteen, were being held.

Now, if I were a South African editor, I should be extremely unlikely to publish the above statement. If I did so, and sought to escape punishment, I should have to produce my informant—to the great prejudice of his own future in South Africa—and even so, I might still not escape heavy penalties. Section 27A, inserted in the Police Act (1958) by the Police Amendment Act (1979), provides as follows—I quote from the South African Government Gazette for June 13, 1979:

Any person who publishes any untrue matter in relation to any action by the Force or any part of the Force, or any member of the Force in relation to the performance of his functions as such a member, without having reasonable grounds (the onus of proof of which shall rest on such person) for believing that that statement is true, shall be guilty of an offence and on conviction liable to a fine not exceeding R 10,000 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.

The defense forces, the prison services, and those who run the mental hospitals are already protected against investigation by similar legislation. So far from South Africa becoming “more liberal,” what is happening is that that section of the population which inherited genuine liberties is seeing those eroded, for its protection. White South Africa is likely to undergo, within itself, “many varieties of untried being”—Edmund Burke’s phrase about the French Revolution—in the long years before its domination ends.

I caught a glimpse of one of the more probable of these varieties at a meeting I attended at Maseru, Lesotho. This was at the Congress of the Association of Sociologists of Southern Africa. The Congress met during the day in a cinema which in the evening was devoted to blue movies. These, together with a casino and a vast cavern full of fruit machines, are the main attractions of Maseru in the eyes of its South African neighbors.

We, in any case, had our own sociological version of blue movies. A young man contributed a paper on “The South African Armed Forces—Its Military-Industrial Complex and the Politics of Change.” He was thin and taut with a sort of controlled dedicated intensity about him. He had been in military intelligence and was now employed by “the mining industry” as a political analyst. His name was Pierre A. Nel. I thought him one of those intellectual military idealists (there are also other names for them) such as were heard from, for example, in France during the Algerian War, in the Congo, and in Vietnam. I had not expected to meet an Afrikaner version, yet, but there he was.

Much of his paper was waffle—and the things he did to the English language ought to have been left to the evening showing in our cinema—but he did have some interesting things to say. The most significant sentences in the paper itself were: “… Because of its intimate ties with the larger [Afrikaner] ethnic tradition, the Army also has been marked by its apolitical stance (sic), and its subservience to the civilian Afrikaner leadership (sic). However, within the last two years this ethnic-military formula has begun to be questioned by the Afrikaner elite itself.”

I had the distinct impression that Mr. Nel was not just speaking for himself. His message, expressed more directly in off-the-cuff remarks than in the paper itself, was clear enough. The civilian establishment—including the police—was tainted and discredited. The military were clean, and waiting in the wings. He was at pains to stress that the military leaders were more liberal in racial matters than the civilians. What was meant by this was that they wanted to widen the basis of recruitment, and also to promote some suitable nonwhites: yet another version of the death of apartheid.

The military are known, already, to exert considerable influence over the government of Mr. P.W. Botha, and the more sensible of them are probably content, at present, to wield that influence and leave the unpopularities of power to the wretched civilians. In any case, the military are believed not to be in agreement among themselves about whether, for example, to see the South West Africa-Angola “front” as “a valuable training ground” or as “the wrong war in the wrong place.” The civilians are swung in the direction of the “valuable training ground” by political considerations: embittered white Rhodesian immigrants have already provided encouragement and ammunition for the nationalist hard-liners; Mr. P.W. Botha does not want a new and nastier wave of embittered Afrikaners and Germans from South West Africa. In these conditions, South Africa retains control over South West Africa (Namibia) in clear breach of international law and courting the risk of general and mandatory United Nations sanctions. The coming of these would mark a distinct deterioration in the position of white South Africa, and every such deterioration brings nearer the day when power will pass to the soldiers—more likely “at the request” of the civilians than by vulgar coup.

The lull is a Rhodesian lull. As long as the fate of Rhodesia hangs in the balance, the Republic of South Africa is not at the center of international attention. As soon as a settlement is deemed, by African and international opinion, to have been attained, the pressure will come back directly on South Africa again, with little prospect of any future lull.

For a time—up to the Lusaka Conference—white South Africa was greatly comforted by the personality, words, and image of Margaret Thatcher. After her Canberra statement, to the effect that Britain would not be likely to renew sanctions against the Muzorewa government, Die Transvaler wrote: “The definite lead coming from the Thatcher government on the Rhodesian question is like a breath of air blowing across the sub-continent.”

After Lusaka, the lead seems less definite, the “breath of air” more like that most unwelcome breeze, the “wind of change” sniffed by Mrs. Thatcher’s hero, Mr. Harold Macmillan, in South Africa nineteen years ago.

Nonetheless, there are white South Africans who continue to hope that Lusaka was not what it seemed: that Mrs. Thatcher may win international acceptance for a “Zimbabwe,” in which the realities of white supremacy will not be seriously touched, although they may be more decently disguised. It might be possible for Mrs. Thatcher to lift sanctions, if the blame for the breakdown of the Lusaka formula were seen to rest squarely on the leaders of the Patriotic Front.

Meanwhile, for South Africa, the lull continues, increasingly uneasily. The lull may be expected to last about as long as the substantial base of the Smith-Muzorewa version of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. The present pre-eminence of the verligte tendency in Afrikanerdom may be expected to last about the same length of time. A major influx of white Rhodesians following the collapse of the Muzorewa internal settlement (or any post-Lusaka variation on Muzorewa) would carry a powerful emotional message: “This is what comes of concessions to blacks! This is where it takes you in the end!”

Dr. Koornhof would find it hard to survive that. With black power established on the Limpopo, civilian rule in South Africa might not survive for very long either.

In the meantime, there is the lull, with the malaise underlying it, while belated white notions of “deracialization” bump and grate against the novel implacabilities of black consciousness. It is a peaceful period, politically, in the Republic of South Africa, and some have seen much hope in an apparent thaw. I wish I could share such hopes, but I can’t.

I think of a young black woman refusing a white woman’s overture of friendship at the end of Mass in Maseru, and of what that symbolizes for the political future of neo-apartheid. And I think of the words with which the Herald in Murder in the Cathedral describes an uneasy lull and prefigures a storm:

Peace, but not the kiss of peace.
A patched-up affair if
you ask my opinion.

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