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Can South Africa Change?

In response to:

Can South Africa Change? from the October 26, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Fredrickson concludes his article “Can South Africa Change?” [NYR, October 26, 1989] with a cautiously optimistic yes—but even as the South African government releases political prisoners and permits protest marches in Capetown it continues its persecution of blacks in a more obscure part of the country: the 10,000 inhabitants of Braklaagte have been notified that their commuity has been “incorporated” into the miserable and undeveloped homeland of Bophuthatswana and is no longer part of South Africa. Braklaagte has no cultural ties with the homeland and there is not one foot of contiguous border between it and Bophuthatswana.

Incorporation is the current device to achieve the government’s aim of forcing blacks to become citizens of the various homelands, generally desolate regions with few resources and high unemployment, to which they have been assigned on dubious suppositions of tribal, linguistic, or ancestral links to the different areas. South Africa, having created the homelands, claims they are independent countries, and the blacks thereby lose their South African citizenship. The previous policy of accomplishing this, forced removals—transferring black families to distant areas, bulldozing their homes, and then using the land for white development—has aroused protest throughout the world but it has not yet been abandoned. Incorporation is a subtler technique. It is done by a stroke of a pen in Pretoria. The blacks of Braklaagte may stay in their homes if they want to but they are now the residents of another country and must get all sorts of permits; they may retain their South African citizenship but that is a cruel trick, for the rulers of their new country, Bophuthatswana, have openly threatened that if they do not opt for citizenship in the homeland they will be regarded as traitors and face severe discrimination; they fear any children born to them will have only homeland citizenship; they will have no automatic rights and face the loss of the social services they now have in South Africa—meagre though they are, they are far preferable to those in Bophuthatswana, with its inferior schools, clinics, and pensions. Finally, instead of continuing to rejoice in their own traditions and their present highly reputable tribal leadership they will be subject to the administration of the few hostile blacks chosen and directed by South Africa who run the homeland (surely there could not be a more deceptive name for a place that is the exact opposite of a home). Repression, corruption, poverty, an inhumane bureaucracy, and loss of citizenship: these are the consequences of incorporation.

Since 1907 the people of Braklaagte have settled and bought and developed the land as a haven for themselves, their children and future generations and they without exception oppose this cruel and high-handed takeover. They have fought nonviolently through protest meetings, petitions, and legal action but all in vain; their opposition was ignored or curtly dismissed. And ten days after the court proclaimed the incorporation was valid they had their first dreadful experience of being, against their will, a part of Bophuthatswana: a schoolbus was stopped by a contingent of police and army soldiers and the students were ordered to get out and stand in two lines and say whether they were citizens of South Africa or Bophuthatswana—those who said South Africa were beaten by the soldiers with the butts of their rifles. A protest meeting soon afterward was broken up by security forces using tear gas, dogs, and whips. Houses of protesters were stoned and some set alight; some old people fled into the bushes. Members of youth clubs were sought out, arrested, and detained; some were beaten and lawyers and families were denied access to them. Suffering and strife lie ahead for the peaceable Braklaagte people, as has happened to the other communities who oppose incorporation; the government’s brutal methods in Moutse, for example, caused the loss of scores of lives, the loss of liberty to hundreds, and the whole community shattered by the crisis.

South Africa claims that Braklaagte is not part of the homeland and violent events there are not South African concerns. This is cynicism of the worse kind—having plunged the area into misery and chaos, it denies any involvement. The people of Braklaagte pray and hope for a reprieve but it is a slim hope indeed for, although another community has actually been reprieved, the government declares it “is unable to rescind or renegotiate a position.” And what causes the deepest depression is the fact that there is presently a bill before Parliament that would allow the minister in charge of such matters to incorporate any land “when he deems it expedient to do so” and also prohibits court challenges to these decisions.

In South Africa, it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Barbara Sykes
Harwichport, Massachusetts

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