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South Africa: The Fire This Time?


In South Africa today, President F.W. de Klerk has disavowed apartheid and claims to be seeking a democratic solution; and Nelson Mandela, the effective leader of the African National Congress, has now agreed to negotiate with him. Allister Sparks’s The Mind of South Africa is a splendid guide to the new situation in which both leaders find themselves. As a South African journalist and a former editor of Johannesburg’s morning newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, which ceased publication in 1985, Sparks writes with close knowledge of the workings of apartheid. The first part of The Mind of South Africa deals with South African history down to 1948; the rest, more than half of the book, describes the apartheid era, about which he draws on his own experience. South Africa, he believes, is in transition to a better future, and later in this article, I shall discuss his conclusion in the light of my visit, during the last two weeks of March, to the southern Transvaal, Kwazulu, and Natal.

Sparks’s interesting account of the two forces that confront each other in South Africa today, Afrikaner nationalism and African nationalism, follows the lines of interpretation of most liberal South African historians, although many passages in his book are impressionistic rather than grounded in specific evidence, and, in continually emphasizing the contemporary significance of the past, he takes liberties that professional historians are loath to do.

He begins his book with a well-informed and warmly sympathetic account of the precolonial culture of black South Africans in which he tries to rebut the stereotyped views that prevail among many whites:

From the beginning, whites saw only those surface manifestations of African culture and the African mind that conficted with their own concepts of approved social behaviour. What they failed to see, because they were not disposed to get close enough to do so, was the complexity and subtle texture of traditional African social organization, the restraints on the exercise of chiefly power, the elements of grass-roots democracy, the balance between communal, family, and individual rights, and the pervasive spirit of mutual obligation and respect, the spirit of ubuntu [humaneness].

This somewhat idyllic picture is offset by Sparks’s accounts of ethnic violence by African people such as the Zulus, during the nineteenth century.

Sparks shows how the Afrikaners, whose National Party has ruled South Africa since 1948, inherited the Protestant sense of racial superiority which prevailed in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. It was carried to South Africa by the settlers who came with the Dutch East India Company (its supply station was set up at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652). There, they became “a white tribe of Africa…but they continued to refuse any identification with those black tribes.” In South Africa, this sense of superiority

was reinforced when they found themselves among people they considered dark, sinister, heathen, shiftless, and unclean—thus conspicuously lacking in the outward signs of grace—and which was evoked easily and powerfully later on when the myth makers got to work. In this initial stage it was not nationalistic, but when it blossomed forth as such in another two centuries, the nationalism emerged in a particularly fervent form: the sacral nationalism of a chosen people in their promised land, imbued with a sense of divine mission and equipped with a utopian ideology for reordering society that amounted to a civil religion.

The history of the British who began to settle in South Africa in the early nineteenth century, following the British conquest of the Cape Colony from the Dutch was, according to Sparks, one of economic achievement and political failure:

In truth the British created modern South Africa. Whereas the Afrikaners left Europe behind them, the English brought it with them. They opened up the country economically where the Afrikaners had merely penetrated it physically, bringing with them the spirit of a new age. They turned a subsistence-farming economy into a Wirtschaftswunder, discovering the world’s most fabulous deposits of diamonds and gold and using these to launch the continent’s only fullblown industrial revolution and build its most powerful economy.

The British dominated the Afrikaners economically and defeated them militarily, but they lost out to them politically, and the English-speaking South Africans are now a curiously helpless and rather pathetic community who do not identify with either side in the conflict of nationalisms they helped to create and cannot define a role for themselves in between.

Sparks retells many of the well-known stories of the devastating warfare among Africans in the nineteenth century initiated by impis, the regiments of the Zulu ruler Shaka, and the “Great Trek” of the Afrikaners, who left the Cape Colony to escape British control, defeated the Zulus, and set up independent states in the eastern interior of South Africa. He follows the standard interpretation of the origins of Afrikaner nationalism, stressing the influence of a small group of Afrikaner intellectuals who lived in the wine-producing district forty miles from Cape Town. Responding to the British annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 and writing in Afrikaans, which replaced Dutch as the vernacular of their people, they produced an Afrikaner nationalist version of South African history. The British victory over the Boer Republics in the war of 1899–1902 was, as Sparks says, an illusion.

Though the war had smashed the Afrikaner world, it had left its mind and will intact, indeed strengthened…. Out of the war came new heroes to worship, new martyrs to mourn, and new grievances to nurture.

However, Sparks goes too far when he adds, “The Boer people, man, woman and child, fought and suffered and died to preserve the independence of [the] republics.” In fact, few of the Afrikaners who lived in the Cape Colony assisted their republican kin, and some republican Afrikaners even fought on the British side.

Around the turn of the century, with the growth of the mining industries and the expansion of commercial farming, both whites and blacks moved to the towns. Sparks shows how Afrikaners were able to overcome poverty by gaining political power through the franchise. A year after Louis Botha’s South African Party won the first general election in the Union of South Africa in 1910, the parliament passed a law that gave whites a monopoly of skilled jobs in the huge gold-mining industry; and after J.B.M. Hertzog’s Afrikaner National Party won a general election in 1924, it established a “civilized labor” policy, which gave poor whites employment at uncompetitive wages. They thus directly benefited from the racial segregation and discrimination which denied black Africans the vote. Comparing the reactions of the two peoples, Sparks writes:

The black South Africans…have not responded by turning in upon themselves with the same aggrieved self-obsession as the Afrikaners. Their experience has produced a black nationalism, just as the Afrikaner sense of grievance produced Afrikaner nationalism. But it is not a narrow, narcissistic, exclusivist nationalism intent on preserving its own little volk and isolating itself in its self-centred anxiety from the rest of mankind. Black nationalism embraces mankind. It does not shrink from humanity, it wants to be part of humanity. “People are people through other people….” It is an open, inclusivist, integrationist nationalism. “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,” says the Freedom Charter adopted at an ANC-sponsored Congress of the People in 1955.

In this passage, Sparks sets out too sharp a contrast between exclusive Afrikaners and inclusive Africans. Some Afrikaners have always dissented from the narrow nationalist perspective, and many Africans do not act according to the fine ideals he evokes, as is shown, for example, by the violence that is currently tearing African society apart in Natal.

Sparks’s history of South Africa before 1948 ends with an account of the origins of apartheid, which was to become notorious as the policy of the National party after it came to power in the general election of 1948. He shows how the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in South Africa prepared the way for the new policy. Drawing on the ideas of conservative European Protestant theologians, notably the Dutchman Abraham Kuyper, it began to segregate its black from its white members in the nineteenth century. Sparks quotes a policy statement that the DRC adopted in 1935:

The traditional fear of the Afrikaner of gelykstelling [equality] between black and white has its origin in his antipathy to the idea of racial fusion. The church declares itself unequivocally opposed to this fusion and to all that would give rise to it, but, on the other hand [it does not begrudge] the Native and Coloured a social status, as honourable as he can reach. Every nation has the right to be itself and to endeavour to develop and elevate itself. While the church thus declares itself opposed to social equality in the sense of ignoring differences of race and culture between black and white in daily life, it favours the encouragement and development of social differentiation and intellectual or cultural segregation, to the advantage of both sections.

Sparks also calls attention to the contribution of Nazi ideology to apartheid, through the influence of Afrikaner intellectuals who had studied philosophy at German universities in the 1920s and 1930s. “Probably the most influential foursome in the development of the apartheid concept,” he writes, were Nico Diederichs, who was to become president of South Africa from 1975 to 1978, Piet Meyer, chairman of the board of the South African Broadcasting Corporation from 1961 to 1979, Geoff Cronjé, professor of sociology at Pretoria University, and Hendrik Verwoerd, minister of native affairs between 1950 and 1958 and prime minister from 1958 to 1966.

It was Diederichs who first laid the philosophical basis for it, Cronjé who first conceptualized it, Meyer who was its key backroom strategist, and Verwoerd who finally implemented it in its most absolute form.

Though scholars will admire Sparks’s intellectual range and the vigor of his prose, many may have some disagreement with him. Sparks not only makes huge leaps from the past to the present, but he also tends to oversimplify complex matters. For example, to say that “Overnight…[the discovery of diamonds and gold] turned a pastoral country into an industrial one” is to distort a very complex process of partial industrialization. Similarly, he writes that “at a stroke” the Native Land Act of 1913 “put a stop to the tenant and sharecropping systems,” whereas those systems persisted in some regions for more than thirty years.

Sparks is also excessively inclined to believe that moral considerations have an effect on national policies. He writes, for example, that after the Second World War a “revolution in racial attitudes…caused the great imperial powers of the West to withdraw their hegemony over billions of coloured people around the globe.” It was not as simple as that. European governments withdrew from their colonies in the face of mounting resistance from indigenous peoples, including bitter warfare in Algeria, Indonesia, and Indochina. Sparks also overrates the influence of ideas over actions when he treats Geoff Cronjé’s 1945 book, ‘n Tuitste vir die Nageslag (A Home for Posterity), as though it were a blueprint for what actually happened in South Africa, whereas the National party government was largely responding to changing circumstances. At no time did it reduce white dependence on black labor, as Cronjé advocated. (Scholars will also regret Sparks’s unqualified reference to “the opaqueness of the academic historians,” since Sparks is himself no more lucid than many of them.)

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