To visit South Africa in 1974 is a little like revisiting the American South before the civil rights movement. An early morning ritual captures some of the flavor of race relations: a black servant sweeps into your hotel room at 6:30 or 7:00, says “good morning, bass” with an exaggerated cheerfulness that seems subtly aggressive, and deposits a tray of coffee and a morning paper beside your bed. If you want to take a bus somewhere after breakfast you will probably find yourself standing aside while a large number of “nonwhites” queue up. In Cape Town, the double-decker buses often require the statutory “nonwhites” (Africans, Coloureds, and Indians)1 to ride on the upper deck; and it is not unusual for a bus to arrive full on the top and empty on the bottom. As a member of the privileged white caste you sit down among the vacant seats, leaving a crowd of black people waiting at the curb.

Everywhere you go signs in both English and Afrikaans direct you to separate rest rooms, waiting rooms, entrances, counters, and even phone booths. Many “amenities” are not even duplicated; the plush cinemas, theaters, and concert halls—prime sources of entertainment in this land without television—generally provide no separate sections or even performances for blacks. Virtually all the restaurants and cafes seat whites only; if blacks want precooked food they must get it from take-out establishments. The more accessible beaches in Cape Town and Durban are also for whites only; “non-Europeans” may not even set foot on the sand. If they want to bathe in the ocean, they have to take long hot rides on segregated buses to remote stretches of coast where there are no whites to be offended by the sight of dark-skinned people enjoying themselves.

Besides being socially privileged, white South Africans are also well off, even by the most extravagant American middle-class standards. A typical white has a spacious and modern house or apartment, a well-tended yard or garden, and a late-model car. He probably works less hard than his American counterpart, goes more frequently on outings and vacations, and has something that Americans of comparable income and status can rarely afford—one or more full-time servants. In this land of cheap and abundant black labor even members of the rapidly diminishing white working class have servants.

Affluence, or at least its display, is so intimately associated with whiteness that it has come to be regarded as a racial prerogative. Until recently a small number of relatively well-off Coloureds lived in small enclaves in some of the white middle-class neighborhoods of Cape Town. Under “Group Areas” legislation passed by the Nationalist government, they have been forced to move into the new Coloured “townships” out on the dusty and barren flats to the west of the city, where it is difficult to maintain a middle-class existence because of high crime rates and a lack of public services and facilities. The richer Indians of Durban have had a similar experience. The result of much of this legislation is to ensure that most whites will never encounter a “non-European” who is not poor and performing menial tasks. This situation serves to reinforce the traditional white belief that blacks exist only to serve them and that poverty is an innate characteristic of “inferior” races. Even liberal whites refer to “the people” or to “South Africans” when they obviously mean only the white minority of the population (about one-sixth of the total).

It is often supposed outside South Africa that the whites live in constant fear that a black revolution will strip them of their privileges. My own conversations with whites did not bear this out. Perhaps in the early and mid 1960s, in the wake of international revulsion to the massacre of black protesters at Sharpeville and during the sabotage campaign launched by African nationalists who had been forced underground, something approaching panic swept through the white population. But the ruling oligarchy rode out the storm of protest, saw foreign investment climb to new heights after a temporary falling-off, and ruthlessly and effectively suppressed the resistance movement.

Today there is anxiety, mainly about developments in Rhodesia and the Portuguese colonies, but no panic. Indeed the pro-apartheid elements seem supremely confident of their ability to maintain control indefinitely. And the small minority of whites who are genuinely opposed to racism concede that there is no immediate threat to minority rule and put their hopes in the long run. Almost no one, in other words, shares the view common in the outside world that South Africa is a time bomb set to explode any day. Instead of a sense of crisis there is a pervasive atmosphere of normalcy, disturbing to the moral sensibilities of a few, but obviously gratifying to the overwhelming majority of white South Africans.


The self-confidence and apparent strength of the Nationalist government were clearly demonstrated during the campaign for last April’s elections. Although most of the black population is in effect under totalitarian rule, the regime still tolerates a spectrum of political opposition from within the dominant white caste. If one could forget that five-sixths of the population were excluded from voting, one could suppose that a free election was going on and that the outcome might make some difference. In university constituencies in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, splinter parties ran openly on the platform of universal suffrage and majority rule. The Cape Town group actually blanketed the city with posters calling for “black majority rule now.” These were first taken down by the police, but when the English-language newspapers, which are often critical of the government, publicized this blatant interference with the “free electoral process,” the posters went back up and stayed there for the duration of the campaign.

“The Alliance for Radical Change,” as the Cape Town group was called, held some public meetings during which the whole structure of white supremacy was denounced and repudiated. The atmosphere of these meetings was tense because of the obvious presence of agents of the Bureau of State Security and the efforts of pro-apartheid hooligans to disrupt the proceedings with stink bombs, fire-crackers, and shouts of “Communism.” The speakers were clearly taking personal risks; now that the election is safely over the leaders of the movement may well wake up one day to find themselves “banned.”2 Nevertheless the toleration of these tiny radical parties even for the brief span of the election campaign suggests that the government feels it has little to fear from youthful white dissenters. Although the radicals emphasized that they were in the election not to win votes but to publicize a point of view, it must have comforted the regime that the radicals got only a handful of votes.

More of a real force is the established liberal opposition, the Progressive party (or “Progs”), represented in Parliament for many years by Helen Suzman. The “Progs,” who favor a color-blind qualified franchise which would allow some educated and property-owning blacks to vote, did surprisingly well, increasing their parliamentary representation from one to six. But they did not win their seats directly from the Nationalists but rather cut into the ranks of the regular opposition, the United party (UP).

The Progressives’ main issue in the campaign was not the evils of Nationalist rule but rather “the quality of the opposition.” This is a genuine issue within the narrow sphere of white politics. The United party has clearly degenerated into an ineffectual collection of tired professional politicians who are unable to decide whether they should oppose the government because it has gone to unnecessary extremes in its white supremacist policies or because some aspects of “separate development,” especially the promise of independence and limited additional territory for the nine African tribal areas (or “Bantu Homelands”), actually constitute a long-range threat to white control in South Africa.

Probably the only thing that keeps the United party alive is the fact that some English-speaking South Africans who have no real quarrel with the government’s policies still cannot bring themselves to vote Nationalist because of their prejudice against the Afrikaners who thoroughly dominate the majority party. Still the UP also lost four seats to the Nationalists. As a consequence, the election resulted in an increase in the strength of both the right-wing Nationalists and the liberal opposition, at the expense of the conservative center. But perhaps the most important fact about the election is that the Nationalists actually increased their overwhelming advantage over the combined opposition and now have 123 out of a total of 171 seats in the House of Assembly.

In no danger of losing their huge majority and with the opposition parties spending most of their time attacking each other, the Nationalists were able to run a more relaxed campaign than usual. They offered no new extensions or applications of apartheid to the electorate, nor did they harp on the “black danger” within South Africa as they have done in the past. Their sole issue was “national security,” especially against guerrillas on the borders, and they asked the voters in effect to give them a blank check to do whatever necessary to combat this “external threat.” Hence nothing has really changed. As before, the Nationalist majority will give automatic assent to whatever legislation the government demands in the name of white security.

The new Progressive members will back up Helen Suzman in her criticisms of some aspects of Nationalist policy, particularly on civil liberties, but they will have no real power to affect the decisions of the ruling oligarchy. In fact their attacks may actually serve the regime by helping it to maintain its facade of democratic legitimacy.


Perhaps the soundest judgments on the meaning of the election were made by the radicals, who made it clear, despite their participation, that they see no possibility of significant change through a system of electoral politics that can do no more than express the will of the white minority. It is unrealistic to expect that a majority of the whites will vote to give up the economic and social advantages that they derive from apartheid. So long as all whites are shielded from poverty, hard physical work, and low status by an elaborate system of legalized economic and social discrimination, and so long as artificially low black wages are used to subsidize artificially high white wages and profits (leading to a per capita income differential of approximately ten to one between “Europeans” and Africans), there will be little impulse for change from within the white community.

If the whites have too much to lose to surrender power and privilege simply because the system is patently unjust and undemocratic, it would seem to follow that power must either be taken from them by force or that a situation must develop in which the price of trying to maintain oligarchic rule is greater than the sacrifice involved in giving it up. Either possibility would require that blacks establish some kind of power base that will enable them to take the initiative away from the government. Many courageous and uncompromising South African opponents of apartheid, especially those whose activities have sent them to prison or into exile, have given up on any notion that a real transfer of power can occur in nonviolent and evolutionary ways. To them the regime seems too oppressive and inflexible to yield to anything except guns in the hands of the Africans.

This is the current view of the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that led the nonviolent struggle against apartheid in the early years of Nationalist rule and only turned to sabotage and guerrilla warfare when official suppression left it no alternative.3 Operating from exile, the ANC sees the South African struggle as closely tied in with guerrilla activity in Rhodesia and the independence movement in the Portuguese colonies, and foresees the gradual spread of open conflict southward until South Africa itself is engulfed. For them power in South Africa will change hands only after a successful liberation struggle following the Algerian pattern.

For obvious reasons, this point of view cannot be openly stated within South Africa itself. To be heard at all critics of government policy must explicitly repudiate “terrorism” or violence in any form. The most that can be done is to argue that the government must make concessions to blacks to ensure their loyalty against the “external threat” of guerrilla infiltration from the north. It is also understandable that opponents of racism and apartheid who have to live in South Africa—and this would include many blacks as well as whites—are reluctant to see a bloodbath on their own soil so long as there is any conceivable alternative. Some are also convinced that the revolutionary prognosis is unrealistic given the government’s vast military and economic resources. Consequently the domestic anti-apartheid movement, at least the one that appears on the surface, is now devoted primarily to identifying the internal forces that might be used by blacks to gain leverage within the existing system.4

The books under review are helpful in weighing the respective merits of these strategies. No Neutral Ground and Justice in South Africa are both by former South African lawyers who were harassed, persecuted, and eventually driven into exile because of their work on behalf of individuals and organizations considered subversive by the government. Neither gives us much reason to expect gradual reform. Joel Carlson tells how he tried, as a white civil rights lawyer, to win justice for Africans victimized by apartheid and the draconian security legislation passed in the 1960s. Sachs’s book is a scholarly account of the development and character of legalized racism, paying special attention to the courts. Both books thus complement each other: Carlson conveys vividly the day-by-day, case-by-case experience of trying to break down walls of official injustice, while Sachs provides a broad historical and juridical understanding of how this oppressive situation came about. Neither book carries much in the way of ideological baggage. Both authors are content, on the whole, to let the facts speak for themselves, confident that what they describe is outrageous in itself.

What emerges from both accounts is that the South African government, unlike some other authoritarian regimes, carefully conceals its oppressiveness within the forms of legality. Carlson usually won his cases when he had an unassailable legal point, which bears out Sachs’s observation that the judiciary has generally been faithful to its narrow professional duty of upholding the law. What makes the system unjust and dictatorial is the racist nature of the laws themselves, and the fact that a government that can push any legislation it wants through a docile white parliament has no need to rule by decree. Carlson records more than one instance where he won an acquittal because of a loophole in the law only to see that loophole quickly closed by special legislation.

Because all the voters, lawmakers, judges, and juries have come from the white minority, it has been possible to observe many of the outward forms of Western democracy and legality while in fact justice is denied to the African population. Sachs records how Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, defended himself in one of his trials by boldly denying the jurisdiction of the court. Africans, Mandela argued, were not legally bound to obey laws passed by a parliament which did not represent them and they could not be guaranteed a fair trial in courts where all the judges and juries were white.

Recently, however, as both writers show in detail, the government has relied on the principle of parliamentary supremacy over the legal system to remove even the most rudimentary procedural rights of those suspected of political offenses. Sachs sums up the current situation:

Persons held under security laws…may be detained not merely on the grounds that they have committed an offense, but on the grounds that they have information about the commission by others of an offense. Suspects or potential informants may then be held indefinitely in solitary confinement without access to counsel or the courts, and may be detained incommunicado until they have answered all questions to the satisfaction of the Commissioner of Police. No court of law may pronounce on the validity of such detention or order the release of such detainee.

He goes on to point out that the government also possesses the power to keep any information it considers prejudicial to public security from the attention of the courts: “Thus an ex-detainee could be prevented from giving evidence of alleged tortures or other irregularities.” Carlson provides some concrete and convincing illustrations of the use and abuse of such powers. He describes, for example, his long and ultimately successful struggle to expose publicly the torture and even murder of detainees by the security police.

After reading these utterly damning accounts of South African injustice, one can easily agree with the conclusion that Carlson came to just before he decided to emigrate: “The structure of the system in South Africa was beyond repair. It was too rotten, too unjust, too cruel to be salvaged. The violence it perpetrated on people every day could be abolished only by overturning the regime, which then would have to be totally rebuilt.” But then the nagging question returns whether any such revolutionary overthrow is likely in the foreseeable future, and, if not, whether there is something to be done other than simply waiting for things to get worse before they get better.

Carlson and Sachs may convince us that the regime deserves to be overthrown, but they also show quite clearly that the government will act with awesome power and ruthless determination to crush any individual or movement that tries in any practical way to initiate serious change. Certainly the ruling group has been notably successful up to now in stamping out any attempts to carry on revolutionary activity from within South Africa. So long as the government possesses the solid support of most of the white population, the largest and best-equipped army in Africa, a brutally efficient (as well as efficiently brutal) secret police, and numerous devices to control, fragment, and demoralize the black population there seems little chance for sudden and radical change from within. Outside intervention is of course possible, but even that seems unlikely at the moment despite the recent developments in the Portuguese colonies that are bound in the long run to alter the power situation in Southern Africa.

Both Heribert Adam’s Modernizing Racial Domination and Peter Randall’s A Taste of Power directly describe this apparently unbudgeable oligarchy. Adam’s book is a dispassionate sociological analysis while Randall’s is both an up-to-date factual report and a suggested program of action by South African opponents of the regime. The books are aimed at different audiences: Adam’s book is for international scholars and intellectuals, and Randall’s is intended to influence general readers of all races within South Africa, who unfortunately will not be able to read it, because it was banned shortly after publication. His book draws on the work of a group of anti-apartheid South Africans—mostly liberal academics but including some blacks—who spent four years studying the contemporary situation and the prospects for a changed society. A Taste of Power is in fact the final coordinated report of Spro-cas (The Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society) paid for by the South African Council of Churches.5

Both books share a common perspective: they hold out some hope for black liberation through a gradual and essentially nonviolent shift of power from the white minority to the black majority. At the same time, however, both authors reject the naïve view, once common among liberal whites in South Africa as well as in the United States, that whites can be converted from racism simply by an appeal to conscience or long-term self-interest. On the contrary, both see the growth of black consciousness as the principal force which will induce the white minority to give ground.

It is Adam’s view that opponents of apartheid have usually been too sanguine about the chances of overthrowing it by revolution because they have seen it “simply as the outdated relic of a dying colonialism” and have not recognized the extent to which it has evolved into one of the world’s “most advanced and effective patterns of rational, oligarchic domination.” For him the key to understanding the regime is not its alleged ideological dogmatism and irrational inflexibility, but the pragmatic and technocratic elite ruling it, which can make adjustments and even compromises that serve its immediate interests. Since he regards these interests as fundamentally economic he envisions the possibility of long-run “deracialization” as a consequence of pressures emerging within the economy as well as from some inherent contradictions in the apartheid program itself.

Although more cautious in their predictions and less concerned with the theoretical aspects of the situation, Randall and the Spro-cas commission come to generally similar conclusions. While they concede the intransigence of the “white power structure,” they also detect “some accommodation to meet a changed reality.” The government capitulated to Coloured students who went on strike last year at the University of the Western Cape (a new, all-Coloured institution), and granted—in the wake of the recent work stoppages by Africans in Durban—a limited right to strike for African workers. A statement repeated from an earlier commission report acknowledges on the one hand that “white supremacy is no delicate plant which will wilt in a slightly changed political, social, or economic climate,” but affirms on the other that apartheid is not “necessarily like an eternal oak which will grow ever more massive and tough until destroyed in the fire of revolution”; for “there are potentially powerful contradictions [in] the basic patterns of inequality.” Conflicts, not necessarily violent or revolutionary, may, in the long run, “change the pattern of our society.”

The “contradictions” lie in the conflict between the needs of a modern industrial system and the barriers to black economic advancement created by labor regimentation and the industrial color bar, as well as the possibility that apartheid itself, under its present guise of “separate development,” will defeat the expectations of its architects and provide the foundation for greater black bargaining power and influence over society.

The first argument is the more familiar of the two; South African liberals have been saying for many years that repressive labor policies and capitalist economic development will eventually turn out to be incompatible. The second contention is newer and seems to concede that some aspects of “separate development” are now irreversible and that change will have to come through manipulating the system and turning it against its creators.

Adam, a product of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school of sociology, employs a sophisticated dialectical argument to show how these contradictions are likely to work themselves out. Taking into account the criticisms that orthodox Marxists have made of the gradualist liberal-capitalist program in South Africa, he acknowledges that up to now capitalists have benefited more than anyone else from the migratory labor system, low wages, and denial of the right of black workers to organize. There has been, he admits, no fundamental conflict between government policies and the “economic rationality” of South African businessmen. Nevertheless, “while economic development may reinforce white supremacy in the short run, it also undermines it in the long run.”

South Africa, he maintains, is now entering a stage of technological development which requires a highly trained and permanent labor force. The system of oscillating migration which recruits black workers without their families to work in industry for terms of nine to eighteen months and then shunts them back to their reserves or “Homelands” (a system now involving about 50 percent of the African work force) will not for long provide the productivity required by a modern industrial system.6 Since there are not enough whites to fill an increasing number of skilled positions, Africans will have to be trained for them, and “the investment in this training and increasing dependency of an enterprise on its qualified workers necessitates a relatively stable labor force.” As a well-trained and permanently urbanized African working class develops so does “white vulnerability [to] nonwhite labor pressure.” Randall and Spro-cas make precisely the same point; after quoting Adam on the prospects for the economic integration of blacks, they develop his suggestion that a more strategic position in the economy will prepare the way for effective black trade unionism—when the blacks become “organized for hard bargaining.”7

So much for the conflict between apartheid and economic development. Beyond this is the further contradiction that apartheid allegedly contains within itself. Here the argument resembles that of the black power advocates in the United States who see separation as a necessary prerequisite for improving the bargaining position of the black community. The first efforts to translate this idea into South Africa came from militant students in the all-black universities established by the government in recent years to justify its new policy of excluding token blacks from the English-speaking universities.8 But the radical, student-led “Black Consciousness” movement was severely hampered when its principal spokesmen were banned. A more solid foundation for a black power challenge developing out of the apartheid structure itself may be the separate political institutions created to rationalize the exclusion of Africans, Coloureds, and Indians from white-dominated governing bodies. These institutions are now becoming centers for black political activity and aspirations.

In a sense, this is exactly what the government intended; it sought to deflect black demands for participation in the central government by creating separate representative councils and “Homeland” governments that would have little real power but might nevertheless provide a safe outlet for group feeling and even nationalist impulses.9 This strategy was designed both to contain black desires for equal political rights and to fragment the “nonwhite” population into as many sub-groups as possible. Hence the African population is promised political autonomy within nine distinct tribal “Homelands” and the Coloureds and Indians are each offered their own representative councils.

What has given hope is the tendency of these “political sub-systems” to become not only safe forums from which government policy can be attacked but also the source of ever-increasing demands from the officially recognized black leadership that real power, and not just its trappings, be granted to black political bodies. The Homeland leaders, most conspicuously Chief Gatsha Buthelezi of the Zulus, have become increasingly outspoken in their criticisms of the government’s failure to live up to its own promises, and have even questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of official policy. They have not only demanded vast increases in the amount of white-owned land scheduled to be added to the Homelands, but have also begun to articulate the grievances of their “migrant” tribesmen working in the “white” cities.

Buthelezi, who has emerged as the leading spokesman for blacks seeking to reform the system from within, has even proposed a scheme for a South African federation that would turn apartheid into a real system of “power sharing” on the highest levels of government.10 Furthermore the Homeland leaders have begun to work together in their efforts to put pressure on the government. They recently held a “summit conference” to coordinate strategy, thereby showing that they were unwilling to fall victim to the tribal parochialism the government had hoped to encourage through the Homelands policy. Buthelezi has also sought to establish common ground for tribalized Africans and the Indian and Coloured population (which of course have no conceivable “Homelands” within South Africa); last year he addressed a mass meeting at a Coloured community near Cape Town in support of the striking students at the University of the Western Cape.

Adam’s book was completed before this conflict between the government and the black leadership became so intense. But much of what has recently occurred would seem to bear out his thesis that “imposed separate political activity will not only function as a collective bond, heightening consciousness by sharpening the issues along the lines of racial stratification, but it will also bring the subordinates gradually into a greater position of power than their token political incorporation would produce.” He foresees a period when the government will have to bargain with blacks on an increasingly equal basis. “South Africa’s political dynamics,” he concludes, “dialectically strengthens the antagonists of white domination by the very process of their separation and exclusion until the subordinates themselves have accumulated sufficient power for their own liberation.”

Randall is even more optimistic, feeling that already “the initiative for change is passing into black hands.” He believes that a combination of economic integration and growing “black consciousness,” fostered to some extent by the segregated institutions designed to undermine it, has given blacks a “taste of power” that will only be satisfied when South Africa becomes “an open pluralist society.”

This pluralist model for evolutionary change clearly makes more sense than the traditional South African liberal conception of slow progress toward “a common society” through the political incorporation of middle-class or “Westernized” blacks. Furthermore the stresses and contradictions perceived by Adam and Spro-cas are undoubtedly there and will have to be dealt with in one way or another by the ruling group. But both Randall and Adam may overestimate the pragmatism and ultimate rationality of the white power structure. I wonder if the whites will really consent to a transfer of power even if it turns out to be the only way to save their economic prosperity and avert a violent upheaval. Racism may have an economic origin, but when it also functions as a ruling class ideology it takes on a life of its own. The South African white community seems to me to resemble a potentially embattled ruling class more than a “pragmatic oligarchy.” If this view is correct it would mean that the whites are concerned not only with keeping the direct economic benefits they derive from the system but perhaps even more with the preservation of a way of life in which the central elements are white domination and black subservience.

I find it hard to believe that they will ever compromise voluntarily to the extent of actually abdicating their dominant position. The evolutionary trends described by Adam and Randall are certainly conducive to a “crisis of rising expectations” among blacks, but I doubt that the whites will be willing and able to satisfy steadily rising black demands. At some point they are likely to jettison risky experiments with indirect rule and accept the inevitably violent consequences of attempting to reimpose direct and repressive white domination over the entire African population. If that happens the long anticipated revolutionary holocaust will finally break out and the collapse of white rule will be near. The new “evolutionary model” would then turn out to be a description of the preconditions for a South African revolution.

This Issue

October 31, 1974