The Fire This Time

Waiting: The Whites of South Africa

by Vincent Crapanzano
Random House, 358 pp., $19.95

Freedom Rising

by James North
Macmillan, 336 pp., $19.95

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 in South Africa, because one could make a lot of money. But most of that confidence has drained out of Wyndal, it seems. Crapanzano found almost nobody prepared to give him the cynical but candid explanation that he was gambling on one more privileged lifetime before the deluge. The unnamed “Most Bigoted Man in the Valley,” who was eighty-four, suggested that blacks could have the vote in a thousand years’ time but rejoiced that he would not be there to see it. Glen Ross, the worst employer in the valley, said that there should have been a Hitler in every country but that unfortunately this was no longer possible in a “sophisticated” world that had even abolished the cane in prisons. Apart from such froth from blowhards, the lords of creation in Wyndal proved remarkably self-pitying. “Their present seemed devoid of the vitality that I associate with leading a fulfilling life. It seemed mechanical, numb and muted.”

Here is a ruling caste that has almost lost contact with its old legitimation, and is casting around for a new one. There is a whiff of Lenin’s remark that one precondition for a revolutionary situation is that the ruling class should lose the capacity to rule. But Crapanzano’s Wyndal people reminded me more of Diotima’s circle in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, debating schemes to raise the Austro-Hungarian empire to an even higher plane of moral splendor while, in reality, the entire structure of the empire was about to collapse around them. Like the Wyndalers, Diotima and her friends were trying not to admit to themselves that they were merely waiting for an “end,” and were doing their best to sublimate the violent emotions that gather in such a period. “Waiting,” says Crapanzano,

produces in us feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and vulnerability—infantile feelings—and all the rage that these feelings evoke. We seek release from these feelings, from the tension and suspense of waiting, from the anxiety of contingency, in many, often magical ways.

The most interesting “magic” that Crapanzano came across was an upsurge in the valley of “charismatic” and revivalist religion, affecting both Anglicans and the fringes of the Dutch Reformed Church itself. There was weeping, speaking with tongues, second baptisms in cold mountain streams: the “infilling of the Spirit.” In one way, as the writer presents it, this rush to spiritual experience seemed a symptom of the Wyndalers’ powerlessness to handle their social and political environment, made even more ominous while Crapanzano was there by an outbreak of rioting among the Coloureds of Cape Town. It was a retreat into inward self-validation through the conversion experience.

Crapanzano, with his own faith in the “vitality that I associate with leading a fulfilling life,” found this pietism unhealthy, and sometimes urged his subjects to show more energy. But if one concludes, as I do, that any turn toward political activism by the white community is likely to make the situation in South Africa worse rather than better, a cult of “inwardness” can be seen to have its uses. When inevitable change reaches its critical stage, people who give priority to the condition of their souls are less likely to use physical force to resist it.

The religious revival, however, also reinforced the grotesquely distorted perception of the outside world common among Afrikaners, a view of a “savory remnant” of the elect who are threatened by a coalition of conspiracies but who are promised ultimate salvation through an apocalypse. Paranoid perceptions like these are still around in Western societies, usually in imperiled cultures that fancy themselves superior to their challengers. Many Ulster Protestants believe in a secret alliance between the Kremlin and the Vatican to destroy Reformation principles and liberty in Northern Ireland. In 1958, the French pieds noirs settlers in Algeria were seized by the madness of the “ralliement,” a quasi-religious conviction that the millions of Moslem Algerians had suddenly been transformed into French patriots who longed to atone for having been so misled by the conspiracy of Nasser, Khrushchev, and world Jewry.

In Wyndal, Crapanzano saw normally practical young farmers and their wives meeting in barns to hear warnings against the cult of world Satanism. This cult was led, they were told, by the secret convent of the “Illuminati,” whose members included President Carter, Mr. Brezhnev, the South African capitalist Harry Oppenheimer, and Mrs. Thatcher. Antichrist had already been born, on either February 4 or 5, 1962, and although still rather young, would embark on his mission in a few years’ time. The children of light would be saved, but might have to pass through the time of tribulation first.

Crapanzano cautions against the notion, widely held abroad, that the Calvinism of the first Dutch and Huguenot settlers in the Cape led them to identify the category of “elect” with white and of reprobate with black. It was only in the nineteenth century, he maintains; with the arrival of English and Scottish settlers, that the saved and the damned began to be crudely identified by skin color. In Wyndal today, the lack of curiosity about nonwhites is so great that neither Afrikaner nor “English” compare their identity problems to those of other races around them. The life of the Coloured farm workers is thought of as uproarious, violent, promiscuous, perhaps reflecting white fantasies, but an “anti-world” better left uninspected. This indifference is tense rather than relaxed, for many whites—Afrikaners especially—were raised and loved by black nannies and played with nonwhite children until the traumatic moment when the nurse suddenly vanished and the black playmates suddenly became “unsuitable.”

Confessing that “it is possible to have a certain sympathy even for people whose values one finds reprehensible,” the author himself looks ahead in fear to what may become of his white acquaintances in the valley. “I myself find the question of South Africa’s future distressing.” Bloodshed, if not a blood bath, and suffering seem inevitable. And Crapanzano adds: “I find that I cannot take easy refuge, as I look at South Africa, in the Western conviction that there are solutions to all problems.”

The young American who writes under the pseudonym “James North” also denies himself that easy refuge. After four years in southern Africa, traveling often as a hitchhiker, in contact and to some undisclosed extent in collaboration with resistance groups, he concludes that he can make only two predictions. “There will be increasing violence. The violence will last for a long time…. But it is within our power to help them shorten the time of bloodshed.” It’s curious, in fact, how consistently James North refuses to speculate about what the future “Azania” might look like, given the habit of South Africans—noticed by Crapanzano—of shuffling through decks of improbable negotiated settlements. These range from a white “Afrikanerstan” in the Karroo desert to hopelessly complex commonroll franchises in which the vote of one white property-owner is weighted to be equal to the votes of four Coloured leaseholders or sixteen Zulu laborers.

North keeps clear of all this. If he supports the African National Congress and its project of a multi-racial socialist democracy, as he implies, he does not actually say so, and his account of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement, which ran against ANC doctrine, is fair and positive. North intends to bring the American reader a detailed impression of what South Africa—and Zimbabwe and Namibia—are like to encounter. He does this partly through dozens of Studs Terkel-ish conversations with people of every color and conviction, met by appointment or through the accident of hitchhiking, and partly through sections of factual and historical information.

Freedom Rising is an important book because, riding on the flood tide of American moral indignation about apartheid, it is going to give that indignation the background knowledge and “feeling” for South Africa that is often lacking. It will probably appeal widely to the young (North was in his twenties when he wrote it) and lay foundations for many opinions, much as Hedrick Smith’s book The Russians did in the period of East–West détente.

The whites that North talked to, especially the Afrikaners, were much more aggressive and confident than the worried people of Wyndal. North’s first discovery was that apartheid was not just a larger version of “the racial system that prevailed in the American South before the 1960s.” The segregation and the racism were there, but

apartheid is in fact an enormously complex, sophisticated, and modern system of racial and economic domination. It employs the most advanced technology, much of it obtained from the West, to regulate the life and work of millions of people. I was to learn that the computer is as characteristic a tool of apartheid as the sjambok…, the animal hide whip the police still use and venerate.

Afrikaner truckers and steelworkers he talked to were convinced that “the government was carrying out sweeping and fundamental reforms in the apartheid system.” But these “reforms” meant that there was no need to change their personal attitudes, which is some cases had become even more extreme. Some fancied that technological progress would make the whites less dependent on black labor, although, as one said, “I don’t say push all the kaffirs into the sea—where would we be without them?” Many subscribed to the new propaganda concept of “total onslaught,” the idea that the Soviet Union has now launched its final do-or-die offensive against South Africa through the black states to the north. Most young white males now do active military service on “the border,” which can mean the frontiers with Zimbabwe and Mozambique or the guerrilla war against SWAPO in the north of Namibia and southern Angola. On “the border,” many fantasies of violence can now be acted out in conflicts that produce numerous “kills” but suspiciously few prisoners.

Total onslaught,” a slogan invented by clever South African generals, has proved a useful political instrument for P.W. Botha. It enables him to suggest a national emergency so great that changes in the apartheid structure must be brought about if South Africa is to survive in its present form—“adapt or die!” as he once put it. But this is just manipulation. Botha’s problem is not the external threat of “communist” guerrillas but the conservatism of his own Afrikaners at home. James North thinks that Botha may have miscalculated, in any case. His tinkerings with the race laws and with the Constitution have done nothing to divide or appease black hostility, as the riots and massacres of recent months have shown, but they have brought about a historic political schism in the Afrikaner people. Botha got a 66 percent majority from the whites in the 1983 referendum on Coloured and Indian chambers of Parliament, but half the Afrikaner vote defected and he won only by accumulating the more “liberal” English vote.

In a rare speculation, North wonders whether, in the end, Botha will be obliged to stage a Putsch and rule through a military junta in order to impose any new round of reforms. “Petty apartheid,” the laws against sharing bathing beaches or against sex between different races, may seem nonessential parts of the great engine of exploitation whose driving mechanism is control of the movement of black labor between the industrial areas and the black “homelands” (reserves).

But that is the view of an outsider. As North rightly says, racism for whites in South Africa is not just a view or a result of ignorance; it is “a vital part of identity as they live through every day.” In the end, there is a growing contradiction between white parliamentary democracy and the needs of the system of domination that supports it. This is the contradiction to watch during the next few years.

There is a slight air of mystery about what James North was doing in southern Africa for four years. He writes in the preface to Freedom Rising that be went there “because I wanted to see for myself” and meant to stay for no longer than a year. But then, he says, he was “so caught up in the unfolding history” that he stayed on, based for much of the time in independent Swaziland and posing, on his forays through South Africa and Namibia, as a “geography student.” He was close to successive ANC leaders in Swaziland, one of whom was murdered by a car bomb while he was there, and through these and other contracts was able to meet black activists throughout the Republic. He presents some memorable portraits, backed with long conversations, of young black militants and intellectuals in Soweto. But the most impressive part of the book, to my mind, is his account of the “Bantustans,” the black “homelands” with their fictional independence which the white areas use as their reserve of labor.

The condition of the “homelands” is the second grand contradiction of the South African system. North rightly calls them “an archipelago of misery.” Arid, hungry, and increasingly overcrowded, as unemployed or unlicensed blacks are deported out of white areas and dumped in “homelands” which, in many cases, they have never seen, the Bantustans are approaching catastrophe.

Another one million black people are slated to be forcibly moved. The new deportations will only increase the danger of collapse in the fragile territories. The regime’s policy already constitutes murder of some degree. As government leaders push the scheme relentlessly forward, they will certainly raise the amount of suffering, disease and death, if they have not already, to a level that can only be defined as genocide.

Freedom Rising appears just as Congress is rejecting the policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa and legislating a first, very moderate package of economic sanctions against the Pretoria government. One of the useful messages of the book, however, is that mere disengagement, by itself, is not enough. South Africa is now preparing to deal with “total onslaught,” internal and external, in its own way, and the worst is probably still ahead. As North writes, “South Africa is now in a position that is in many ways analogous to Nazi Germany during the 1930s—a regime that is already evil but that may still not have committed its greatest crimes.” What is required of the United States, in North’s view, is not simply that support for the regime should cease, but that it should be replaced by a new and quite different version of “engagement” in southern Africa as a whole, whose aims should be, first, to prevent a general war in the region (in which South Africa might use atomic weapons) and, second, actively to assist the forces which are fighting for a new “Azania.”

This is asking a great deal. North is rather guarded about what sort of “liberation” South Africa might expect. He saw a great deal of the struggle that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, but comments, somewhat feebly, that there is “an authoritarian strain in Zimbabwe that already is troubling. But there is good reason to hope that despite the danger a democratic way of life will win out.” The South African Communist party is powerful, if not dominating, in the African National Congress outside South Africa. It is highly unlikely to retain its influence within a liberated “Azania,” but any American administration must face the prospect that the political forces it may have to support, if it is to do anything useful for the future of South Africa, will not be bourgeois liberals but in some ways tougher and more radical than the Sandinistas.

The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is one of the most moving and penetrating books about political imprisonment I have read, worthy to stand beside the prison memoirs of Silvio Pellico, the nineteenth-century Italian Carbonarist who founded the genre. Breyten Breytenbach is the greatest Afrikaner poet of his generation, a writer in prose and verse whose work is now known throughout the world. He left South Africa to live in Europe, where he married a Vietnamese woman of high courage and determination. In 1975, he returned to South Africa under an alias, as the emissary of a small revolutionary organization named “Okhela.” This group was a left-wing splinter from the African National Congress; it rejected the “Stalinist” line of the South African Communist party and felt that its multiracial approach was losing the ANC many opportunities for activity. The membership of Okhela was white; its first and only coup was a raid on the South African embassy in Bonn which revealed damning details of West German cooperation with South Africa in Pretoria’s attempt to acquire the capacity to build nuclear weapons. Breytenbach’s mission was to contact white militants within South Africa and, eventually, to arrange for them to receive guerrilla training abroad.

He still does not know who betrayed him. But he was watched and followed throughout his mission, and arrested at Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg as he was boarding the aircraft for Paris. Okhela fell apart, and its guiding spirit, Henri Curiel, was murdered by unidentified killers in Paris.

Breytenbach was not tortured physically. But he was an Afrikaner from a well-known family (his brother was a famous leader of counterguerrilla operations in the regime’s service), and he was treated as “the sheep that strayed…the bosom-adder.” They sentenced him to nine years in prison, of which he served seven, the first two in solitary confinement. How did he survive? His answer is that he did not survive.

I’m the Lazarus. I came back from that paradoxical paradise and have no life left. I have lived it. What remains is gratuitous, free, no attachments, no importance. I have no affairs. I have no interests. These too have been scorched clean.

In the period of interrogation, he studied his new masters. He noted—again—their hermetic mental world, their combination of passionate admiration for Israel with anti-Semitism, their certainty that the Communists were dedicated to seizing “their” gold and diamonds, their twisted, keyhole obsession with sex, and their need to flaunt their power. Colonel Huntingdon, for a while head of the interrogation team, once took him to his own house for a family lunch and then, without warning, ushered Breytenbach into a room where his wife was waiting. When Breytenbach was taken back to his cell after hearing his sentence and broke down, Huntingdon sat with him, savoring this apotheosis of sadism, and then himself burst out into a long confession of how the work of interrogation had warped his own psyche.

In solitary confinement, “parts of you are destroyed and those parts will never again be revived. You are altered in your most intimate ways exactly because all objectivity is taken away from you.” But a different sort of objectivity could be found as the prisoner “discovered openings”: things became themselves with a philosophical intensity; a snatch of birdsong, a cigarette were themselves in a new way; “a blanket really is a blanket.” All around him, in Pretoria Prison, were blacks singing as they awaited execution. On death row, blacks get the white diet—but on the last night, a condemned white gets a chicken, a black only a half-chicken.

As conditions eased a little, Breytenbach settled into the rhythm of prison life. He made one bad mistake. In a misconceived effort to outmaneuver his captors, he wrote a letter offering to co-operate with the security police “in the name of the preservation of Afrikaner culture,” an error that was at once used against him. But when a warder appeared in his cell and, whispering, offered him a gun and an escape route, he had the sense to see the trap. He was nonetheless tried again, for planning to escape and carry out various implausible acts of terrorism, but was acquitted. Soon afterward, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town, where there was at least a glimpse of mountain and sea.

At Pollsmoor, Breytenbach was able to get a good look at the appalling conditions of black prisoners, crammed into stinking and overcrowded cells and abandoned to murder, torture, and homosexual rape at the hands of prison gangs. The authorities paid little attention to this: “It is finally of little importance to them if prisoners want to exterminate one another…. Those wielding power, they who believe themselves to be superior, are inevitably moral decadents.”

Breytenbach continued to enlarge and meditate on the discoveries that he had made in isolation. “It is important that you consciously…assist at the putting-down of the I” which must disappear “for a sense of movement to be actualized.” Then, without warning, he was dressed in a borrowed safari suit and driven—dazed at the sights and smells—to an interview with a high member of the government in a Cape Town hotel. Questions about his future behavior were asked. A few days later, equally suddenly, they told him: “As from this moment you are free unconditionally.” He saw tears in the jailer’s eyes. He was taken back to Cape Town and delivered to his wife. Within a few days, they were in Paris.

His first action in liberty was to compose this marvelous book. It is, essentially, a personal testament about identity and suffering, about brutality and its impact on those who strike and those who are struck, about the ancient theme of complicity between torturer and tortured, interrogator and victim. But Breytenbach also has things to say about opposition to the South African system which—now, especially—deserve close attention.

He remains uneasy about Communist influence within the ANC, and asserts that the South African Communist party “has the nerve center of the liberation movement in its control.” He repeats his allegiance to the ideals of Okhela. But his years in prison have led him to doubt the ultimate value of underground resistance work. The clandestine tradition is weak in South Africa; more seriously, it can corrupt those who work in it and it encourages sectarianism. “What is it that makes an underground cell of militants any different from a spy cell, an intelligence network of the masters? Don’t we here see the mirror and its own mirror image?”

Breytenbach goes on:

Maybe we ought to settle for the slower processes; maybe we must, very paradoxically, extend our confidence to the people and whatever mass organizations the people may throw up…the liberating concept is exactly to give over to the people the way a fish gives itself over to the sea…the idea of breaking a structure becomes exciting. The concept of the fuck-up is a liberating idea.

Reading those words, some of his old comrades may conclude that Breytenbach “did not survive” in a political sense, that his will to fight was broken. The startling decision by the South African authorities to allow this book to be published there is probably a clever propaganda move to spread criticism of the ANC by one of its most illustrious followers, but—inevitably—it has led opponents of the regime to raise questions about what Breytenbach now believes. It seems to me that he answers these questions conclusively when he writes:

Man suffers because of his separation from the boundless, Anaximander said. If there is a life force, Apartheid goes against it. Surely what we live towards is a greater, even metaphysical, integration, however hazardous and dangerous. And just as surely we are inspired to do so by a profound sense of brotherhood. Apartheid is a mutation of power and greed. No religion can justify it, except that warped doctrine the Afrikaners have fashioned from their desert faith. Their god is a cruel, White interrogator.