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 …

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Letters

Can South Africa Change? February 15, 1990