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The Just Cause

Joseph Lelyveld had been the New York Times man in South Africa for only eleven months when, in 1966, the South African government served him with notice to leave within a week. For the next decade, that government was to bar entry to New York Times correspondents. When Lelyveld boarded the plane he had “a feeling of lightness, of freedom as a palpable sensation.” This could not have been because he himself had been either one of those straining at the oars in the galley of apartheid, or one giving orders up aloft. If he had borne any weight at all, it was the reputation of a journalist who sought the truth and wrote it, an officially declared enemy of apartheid; on any New York evening he could have been at ease as a self-(critically)-styled “naive democrat” among those who believe in the “Western solutions” to apartheid the South African government dismisses as simplistic.

Yet, fourteen years after, when he learned in a roundabout way that he might be allowed to reenter South Africa, he asked his paper to send him back. China, India—“No place I had ever been had gripped me as wholly and intensely as South Africa…the scale of the land and its antagonisms, and the vividness of personality that came with them.” This book is about what he found when he returned to South Africa in the early 1980s. It is given depth by the previous experience not as a reference point, but in the existential tie between Lelyveld and the country he had thought to shed like any other assignment.

Lelyveld was unfree when he flew away home in 1966. Even if he did not know it, he had lost (overcome?) the Manichaean objectivity that is the journalistic ideal. Even if he does not now know it, it is clear that he came back not only out of professional fascination but also out of a need for what he calls moral clarity. The world is bleared within its moral obfuscation as surely as it is wrapped in its atmosphere. If you are in search of clarity within yourself as well as (professionally) in others, where better to test yourself and them than in the thickest murk? South Africa is the elaborate set of the last colonial extravaganza, and the final reel in the archive of institutionalized racism. It is also the place where even an outsider must proceed with outstretched hands, ready to come up hard against the lumber of his own moral ambiguities. Wholly without vanity or a sense of the power of the “man with the word,” Lelyveld might be embarrassed to hear that his strikingly honest self-confrontation is present in his book like the face, unattributed, caught in the edge of the lens when a historic group photograph was taken. If the unnamed one is neither an accomplice to the group nor exactly his brother’s keeper, he bears at least the name of a measure of human responsibility for what happens in the world. We learned that there were no lookers-on to Nazi Germany.

When Lelyveld was frog-marched out of South Africa in 1966, the millennial concept of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd (assassinated later that same year by a white madman in what seemed a Dostoevskian enactment of the subconscious will of many sane victims of apartheid) was confidently accepted by his National Party, by Afrikaners in general, and, in my opinion, more English-speaking whites than Lelyveld would credit. There was going to be the triumph of achieving the impossible: white supremacy and justice. The country would be divided into nine (finally ten) ethnic “homelands” eventually to become “national states,” and taking up a little over 13 percent of what had been the black man’s homeland before the whites came. The other 86 percent would be South Africa: an ample, white man’s country.

On the journalist’s return he was at once pitched into the bump and grind of the Grand Apartheid plan as it was being carried out. “It seemed likely that Verwoerd was revolving in his grave…. My time machine seemed to have landed me in Oz.” But it was Bophuthatswana, now alleged to be the only and rightful homeland, the “national state” of two million black people of precolonial Tswana origin, who, “by virtue of its existence, were no longer deemed to be South Africans.” Not only were these “homelanders” born and living and working all over South Africa—their “homeland” was “at least seven places, scattered across three South African provinces, surrounded on nearly every side of each fragment by the huge holdings of white ranchers and farmers.” (The Batswana surely have a claim to my house and garden in white Johannesburg as the eighth, since relics of a vast seventeenth-century Tswana settlement have been discovered to underlie our neighborhood, which is over one hundred miles from the nearest of Bophuthatswana’s numerous borders.) So Lelyveld found himself not in South Africa but in Sun City, the prototype “glossy casino resort” which, in humbler if no less bizarre versions, in “homelands” even poorer than Bophuthatswana, I have seen rise on the veld in the neon guise of development. Freedom—to watch pornographic movies and gamble, activities outlawed in “South Africa”—is available in these places to South Africans of all colors. Bophuthatswana at least has a platinum mine as well; the single share of the black majority in the country’s copious and strategic wealth.

During Lelyveld’s absence from South Africa there had been other changes unforeseen by the visionary Verwoerd. The black population, which had risen by 90 percent while the white had managed to breed only a 30 percent increase, was not, as was promised for the 1970s, entirely kraaled1 in the “homelands.” The prosperity of whites on the one hand—industrial development with its constantly expanding need for labor—and blacks’ desperate economic need on the other—no jobs, and overcrowding on the little spits of agricultural land where the flags of the new “national states” were staked—brought 800,000 black laborers to white South Africa as “migrants.” On its borders, the buffer colonial states between it and black Africa—Rhodesia, Angola, and Mozambique—had collapsed and become black-ruled, bringing closer refuge and bases for black South African political exiles. Apartheid itself, Lelyveld found, was now dismissed by government spokesmen as “the propaganda concept of the last decades”; by the time he left once again in 1983, a referendum (for whites only) had been held in which a new constitution providing for the enfranchisement of Indians and people of mixed blood, but not of the black majority, had been given an enthusiastic mandate by English-speaking as well as Afrikaans-speaking whites even while it caused a definitive right-wing chip to fly off the granite of Verwoerd’s 1960s support.

So now there were white Afrikaner opponents of the government (on the charge that it was surrendering to almost-blacks the little finger of power that would lose the whole hand to blacks), as well as a black majority towering with final, terrifying frustration. But what created apartheid originally as a means—the determination to keep ultimate power in white hands for ever—was unchanged. And by then Lelyveld had used his time, his intellectual energy, and sixth-sense sensibility to seek out and make explicitly intelligible in this book all the new-fangled means by which, under whatever schemes, terminology, or justifications, that end is still being pursued. His summation of the evasions of this fact has never been bettered: apartheid is not an abandoned propaganda concept but “a statement about reality amounting to a denial of that reality.” He is quoting not a black nationalist or Marxist but a nineteenth-century English novelist (Trollope!) when he writes, “South Africa is a country of black men—and not of white men. It has been so; it is so; it will be so.”

In twenty years, one in ten blacks has been forcibly removed to make way for whites. In Durban Lelyveld saw the site of a black man’s home now become a shopping-center parking lot in a neighborhood gone white, with a white gospel church and Afrikaner high school. A commonplace. He “took that same tour in many South African towns and cities, visiting neighborhoods from which blacks and browns had been hounded on no basis other than skin color.” I once remarked to a young woman, watering her garden, that it used to be part of the church ground in the black township of Sophiatown; she had never heard of Sophiatown, which had been incredibly renamed “Triomf” in the triumph of the first removal of urban blacks from their homes in the early 1950s.

This year there has been a government moratorium on further forced removals, in response as much to the “bad press” they give rise to abroad as to protest at home. Now a government-appointed commission has recommended, under the name of “Co-operation and Development,” the “consolidation” of the forty bits and pieces that make up the “homeland” kwaZulu by the forced removal and relocation of 200,000 people, only a handful of whom are not black. But Mangosuthu “Gatsha” Buthelezi, Chief Minister of kwaZulu, knows he dare not accept this particular reward for being the single black leader of any consequence the government is prepared to talk to, and to promote for the improvement of their own image in the outside world. He has said that he will have nothing to do with the recommendations.

The official opposition in the white chamber of Parliament, the Progressive Federal Party, the spokesmen of the important, white-owned sugar cane industry in the kwaZulu area, even leaders of the conservative white political parties in the region, have rejected with fear and horror the lifting of the moratorium. All agree that such removals will fire the crucible in which an alloy of black misery and frustration is being smelted into revolution. Yet in many other areas the threat of removals has long hung, and continues to hang, over smaller communities trying with the help of a few concerned whites, principally the women’s organization, the Black Sash, and the Legal Resources Centre, to defend in the courts their communal rights to land and property. The majority of whites, having felt in these instances nothing to fear for themselves, have shown no concern.

For me, the banality of apartheid merits a paraphrase of Hannah Arendt’s famous dictum. Lelyveld dredges a deeper perception. Apartheid has become

the screen that hides the vast reality of black South Africa from the vision of most whites. (By “reality” I mean simply human experience….) Hardly anywhere do whites now have to live near blacks—excepting those blacks, 120,000 in Johannesburg alone, whom they keep in their backyards to tend them as servants—and hardly anywhere is it ever necessary for them to see where blacks live, except occasionally at a distance from a passing car…. The ripples from these dislocations quickly vanish from the memories of whites the way a pond recovers its glassy surface after a stone has been thrown, so the resentment in the depths, among blacks and browns, is beyond their [the whites’] comprehension.

  1. 1

    Kraal: Afrikaans term for cattle enclosure adopted by Afrikaners to describe the home, village, or chief’s headquarters of black rural people. Nowadays blacks condemn this insulting usage.

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