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Can South Africa Change?

In the Name of Apartheid: South Africa in the Postwar Period

by Martin Meredith
Harper and Row, 252 pp., $25.00

South Africa: No Turning Back

edited by Shaun Johnson, foreword by Lord Bullock
Indiana University Press, 390 pp., $32.50

Inside Apartheid: One Woman’s Struggle in South Africa

by Janet Levine
Contemporary Books, 287 pp., $18.95

After Apartheid: The Solution for South Africa

by Frances Kendall, by Leon Louw, foreword by Samuel Motsuenyane
Institute for Contemporary Studies, 253 pp., $17.95

Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge

by Francis Wilson, by Mamphela Ramphele
Norton, 380 pp., $27.50

Can South Africa Survive? Five Minutes to Midnight

edited by John D. Brewer
St. Martin’s, 350 pp., $49.95


In the spring of 1989 I visited South Africa for the first time in fifteen years. When I had been there in 1974, apartheid was flourishing. Signs designating facilities for “whites only” or “non-whites only” were omnipresent, and I had the unforgettable experience of riding in unproud isolation on the lower deck of a double-decker bus in Cape Town, the top of which was filled to capacity with the black people who had been fortunate enough to get aboard at all. The sight of blacks left on the curb rather than taking seats in the virtually empty “white” part of the bus brought home the meaning of segregation as social humiliation and personal hardship.

The university where I was doing research had a handful of black students admitted under some loopholes in the educational apartheid laws (usually because they were studying, or supposedly studying, subjects not offered at all at the segregated black institutions popularly known as “bush colleges”), but they kept to themselves. The black protest of that period was in itself segregated, as militant young blacks, influenced to some extent by black power rhetoric imported from the United States, refused to make alliances with liberal whites, and rallied around the separatist “black consciousness” movement. The African National Congress, which had been banned in 1960, seemed to be no more than a memory within South Africa, and its longstanding goal of “nonracial” or “multiracial” democracy was likely to strike a dispassionate observer as utterly unrealistic.

When I came back this year for a month of historical research, I was impressed by the changes that had taken place. I had kept up to some extent with developments in South Africa and was of course aware that some aspects of apartheid had been relaxed or even abolished. But I was not quite prepared for the degree to which some of the most conspicuous trappings of segregation had disappeared. In the large cities that I visited—Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, and Cape Town—I found no signs of racially restricted facilities. As far as I could see, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, buses, and trains were open equally to all races. If Johannesburg of the 1970s was like Birmingham in the 1950s, then Johannesburg of the late 1980s was, on the surface at least, strikingly like the Birmingham of the early 1970s.

In some respects, Johannesburg seems more integrated than many large American cities. The lower-middle-class neighborhood of Hillbrow, which was all white when I was there in 1974, is now racially mixed to a degree that would be hard to duplicate in a similar neighborhood in the United States. The notorious Group Areas Act, which restricts residence in designated urban areas to members of a single racial group, is still on the books, but it is not consistently enforced, and the government has recently proposed to modify it by formally assigning “mixed” status to some neighborhoods. Public swimming pools are still segregated in Johannesburg, but pressure is building to remove this vestige of purely social apartheid. Desegregation of beaches has begun in many coastal cities. (Some beaches previously reserved for whites have been opened to all races, and the last two “whites-only” beaches in Cape Town have been the target of recent black protests.)

It would appear that the kind of everyday segregation that went under the name of Jim Crow in the United States is becoming a thing of the past in the major cities. (Since my visit, “white” hospitals, under pressure from nonviolent protesters, have begun to admit blacks.) Small towns undoubtedly lag behind, and municipalities under the control of the far right Conservative party have attempted to reintroduce mandatory segregation of public facilities. But successful black boycotts of white merchants are putting heavy pressure on Conservative local authorities to rescind these actions.

At the “English-speaking” “white” universities, the situation is again reminiscent of post-Jim Crow America. On their own initiative, these universities have recently carried out something very like the vigorous affirmative action programs of the late Sixties and early Seventies in the United States. There have been dramatic increases in the numbers of black students, who now make up close to one quarter of the total enrollment at the universities of the Witwatersrand (in Johannesburg) and Cape Town.

As in most American universities, black and white students have little to do with one another socially; indeed voluntary segregation in South Africa’s “integrated” universities also includes a black boycott of extracurricular activities, including sports. But black and white students come together to protest against the regime. While at the University of the Witwatersrand, I observed a demonstration of roughly a hundred students, about a quarter of whom were white, to commemorate the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. When all the participants raised their fists in the ANC salute and sang the ANC anthem, I sensed the immediate and practical meaning of the ANC’s nonracial nationalism.

The ANC position is that members of the white minority are not to be allowed to determine the content of South African nationality; but if they are willing to accept the ideas and symbols associated with a nation under black majority rule, most African resisters seem willing to regard them as compatriots despite the color of their skin and their European ancestry. Most black activists now reject the position of the black consciousness movement that whites should be excluded from the struggle against apartheid. I saw another example of racial inclusiveness when the leader of a black jazz band in Cape Town said he would lead a predominantly white audience in “the national anthem” at the end of a concert in a public auditorium. Clasping one another’s raised hands and swaying to the music, whites joined with the small number of blacks in the audience singing the ANC hymn. Many blacks and at least some whites are openly behaving as if a transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority has already taken place. Such scenes would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago.

But of course power has not really been transferred or even “shared.” “Petty apartheid” may be on the way out, but “grand apartheid”—the denial to Africans of the right to own land outside the 13 percent of the country “reserved” for them and the restriction of African political rights to the election of local authorities in “homelands” and segregated townships—remains in force. Furthermore, under the state of emergency first declared in 1985, and redeclared for a third time in 1988, all black protest activities and organizations are illegal. The difference one senses from the early 1970s is a new self-confidence and assertiveness among blacks that cannot be repressed by the kind of martial-law measures currently in effect. Blacks may not be on the verge of seizing power, but one gets the impression that they will never again be reduced to a state of acquiescence to white rule. On my earlier visit, I was often addressed as baas (master), but on this occasion even blacks with service jobs scrupulously avoided such terms and looked me straight in the eye in a way that would once have been regarded as “cheeky.”

Such impressions of a visitor raise more questions than they answer. To explain and assess the significance of the kinds of changes that I observed during my month in South Africa requires some immersion in the enormous literature on the recent history and current state of the South African republic. A good place to begin for anyone not already familiar with the history is Martin Meredith’s In the Name of Apartheid, a perceptive and readable popular history of South Africa since 1948. Although clearly opposed to apartheid and sympathetic to the blacks’ struggle for liberation, Meredith has no special ax to grind or panacea to propose. A journalist who also did historical research at Oxford, he is content to call our attention to the major elements in an unfolding story that has not yet reached its climax.

Meredith recalls the coming to power in 1948 of the Afrikaner Nationalist party, with its plan for total racial segregation, or apartheid, and he describes how the party imposed on South Africa an elaborate body of legislation designed to entrench white power and privilege for all time. He also describes the black political reaction to this systematic assault on such limited rights as blacks had managed to salvage from previous white supremacist governments. After a passive resistance campaign in the early 1950s had failed to stop the flood of apartheid legislation, African nationalist leaders, Nelson Mandela among them, tried to organize more militant protests, including mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. This led to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when dozens of blacks engaged in a peaceful march were killed, and the banning of the principal black protest movements. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Nationalist government increased its hold over the white electorate and maintained repressive policies that drove internal opposition to the regime far underground.

During this period the Bantustan, or homeland, policy was in its heyday; hundreds of thousands of blacks who were living in largely white districts were forced to move to already overcrowded black enclaves that supposedly would become “independent homelands.” A nightmarish form of racist central planning and social engineering resulted in blacks being shunted back and forth from the “white” urban and industrial regions to the homelands; the aim of the planners was to exploit black labor power while denying them any basis for political participation and democratic rights. Fullblown apartheid was very expensive, but, fortunately for the regime, South Africa was in a boom period and was receiving heavy foreign investment. Its growth rate was among the highest in the world.

By the early 1970s, however, the white leaders began to run into problems. As manufacturing expanded, a serious shortage of skilled labor developed that could not be met by the white population. In 1973, Prime Minister John Vorster began in a small and inadequate way to soften the policy of “job reservation” that had officially given white workers a monopoly of skilled occupations. (When I visited South Africa in 1974, I frequently saw blacks doing skilled construction work, although always under the close supervision of white foremen.) According to Meredith, relaxing the job reservation system was “the first significant retreat in the apartheid system since 1948.”

A wave of strikes by black workers in search of higher wages also began in 1973, and the government began to recognize that some of the fruits of prosperity would have to be allowed to trickle down to black labor if industrial peace were to be maintained. During the 1970s, black wages increased dramatically, and the black share of personal income in South Africa increased from 19 percent of the total to 29 percent. The Nationalist politicians saw that black labor had to be accommodated within an industrializing South Africa that lacked enough whites to man the factories. In 1980 they recognized and allowed negotiations with black trade unions, in an effort to bring them under control through the pressures of the industrial bargaining process.

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