Waiting: The Whites of South Africa
Vincent Crapanzano went to South Africa “to study the effect of domination on the dominating.” He settled in a small town in the Cape he calls “Wyndal”—this “beautiful little fools’ paradise,” as one resident described it—and stalked its white population with the dedication of a professional anthropologist. He talked his way into the anxieties of Afrikaners and the self-doubts of the English, into the prejudices of farmers and the religious experiences of farmer’s wives. He was out to examine how the two white communities felt about each other (Wyndal is a traditionally Afrikaner valley into which well-to-do English farmers and retired businessmen have recently migrated), how they felt about the black (African) and Coloured (mixed-race) peoples around them, and what they thought would happen to South Africa.
Since he left Wyndal, the ground has again shaken ominously under white South Africa. The black townships have risen once more, in fire and slaughter. The cohesion of Afrikanerdom has been broken, as the new prime minister, P.W. Botha, has begun to dismantle some of the outworks of the apartheid system, provoking a historic split in his own community. The National party now depends critically on the English vote, while something between a third and a half of the Afrikaners show signs of disaffection. Opposition to Botha from the extreme right, from the old Herstigte Nasionale party (HNP), and now from Andries Treurnicht’s breakaway Conservative party, has become the most vigorous feature of white South African politics.
Crapanzano did not have great difficulty in persuading his thirty-seven interview subjects to talk. He says, “White South Africans seem always to be talking about their country, its problems, and its image abroad.” He found a mania for self-description, and a mania for clichés about other social groups. Much of this is familiar enough to the outside world, from the ravings about international communism to the inevitable slur: “You can take the kaffir out of the bush, but you can’t take the bush out of the kaffir.” More interesting is the inner desolation of almost all his Wyndal acquaintances: their inability to assess or account for their own situation in reasonable terms, their lack of any language with which to comprehend change, and above all their sense that they are “waiting” for some apocalyptic turn of events which they do not imagine they can influence. Crapanzano asserts that they are “morally crippled” by their failure to “give conceptual and emotional as well as legal and political recognition to South Africa’s majority population.” The solidarity—such as it is—between the whites of Wyndal seems to be a matter of shared pessimism, the solidarity of those whose boat has sprung a leak far out of sight of land.
The Afrikaners, at least, used to know why they were there: because the land was theirs and the blacks were provided to work it for them. Even the English used to be able to manage a half-honest answer: because life was good …