Letter from South Africa

Vorster; drawing by David Levine

I flew out of Johannesburg on a visit abroad two and a half months after the first black school child was killed by a police bullet in Soweto. Since June 16, when the issue of protest against the use of the Afrikaans language as a teaching medium in black schools, long ignored by the white authorities, finally received from them this brutal answer, concern had been the prevailing emotion in South Africa.

Concern is an over-all bundle of like feelings in unlike people: horror, distress, anguish, anger—at its slackest manifestation, pity.

There was no white so condemnatory of black aspirations, so sure of a communist plot as their sole source, that he or (more likely) she didn’t feel “sorry” children had died in the streets. Black children traditionally have been the object of white sentimentality; it is only after the girls grow breasts and the boys have to carry the passbook that chocolate suddenly turns black.

There was no black so militant, or so weary of waiting to seize the day, that he or she did not feel anguish of regret at the sacrifice of children to the cause. Not even a mighty rage at the loathed police could block that out.

I was away for the month of September. Henry Kissinger came to South Africa to discuss the Rhodesia settlement with Mr. Vorster; six children were killed while demonstrating against his presence. A day or two after I arrived home in October, a girl of fifteen was shot by police at the Cape. The six were already merely a unit of the (disputed) official figures of the dead (now 358), some adult but in the main overwhelmingly the young, in unrest that has spread from blacks to those of mixed blood, and all over the country by means of arson, homemade bomb attacks, boycotts, and strikes. The fifteen-year-old girl was added to the list of fatalities; no one, I found, was shocked afresh at the specific nature of this casualty: the killing of a child by a police bullet.

Like the passing of a season, there was something no longer in the air. People had become accustomed, along with so much else unthinkable, to the death of children in revolt.

I try to recognize and set out the reasons for this acclimation before daily life here, however bizarre, makes me part of it.

When striking children met the police that Wednesday morning in June in the dirt streets of Soweto and threw stones that promptly drew bullets in return, who would have believed that the terrible lesson of white power would not be learned? The lesson for these children wasn’t free, any more than their school-books are (white children get theirs for nothing); they paid with the short lives of some of their number. No one could conceive they would ever present themselves again, adolescent girls bobbing in gym…

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