Because of who he was, because of his special stature, and because of the attendant circumstances, the death of Steve Biko symbolizes the ultimate consequence of apartheid with all its implications.
The obscene laws which constitute apartheid are not crazed edicts issued by a dictator, or the whims of a megalomanic monster, or the one-man decisions of a fanatical ideologue. They are the result of polite caucus discussions by hundreds of delegates in sober suits, after full debate in party congresses. They are passed after three solemn readings in a parliament which opens every day’s proceedings with a prayer to Jesus Christ.
There is a special horror in that fact.
This indictment will now seek to show that there is no valid apologia for those responsible; that they are culpable and indictable; that they are fit to stand trial.
Every year vast sums of South African taxpayers’ money are spent financing embassies, missions, films, advertisements, symposia, and lobbies to put what is referred to as “South Africa’s” case. I will now put the case for their defense in the manner in which they present it to the world. And I will reply to each point of their case.
This case is based on the claim that white South Africans have a right to determine their own destiny in this country, on the grounds that their forebears arrived here at the same time as those of the black people. This is untrue, and is a politically motivated fabrication given currency only in South African history syllabuses. Besides, it is totally irrelevant. Even if it were relevant, it would be no justification for 15 percent of the population to assume unjust political domination of the 85 percent. But the historical point of arrival of whites in South Africa is not at issue. Not one significant black leader in South African history has ever disputed the right of white South Africans to stay in South Africa.
They say that they are a minority of the total population only because, unlike the white colonists of America and Australia, they did not commit genocide upon the blacks as was committed upon the American Indians and Aborigines. Genocide was in fact practiced to a certain extent upon the indigenous Khoisan, but in any event a comparison of degrees of genocide upon indigenous people by white settlers in America and Australia generations ago is again not relevant to the moral and political issues here in this country today. Besides, the policy of apartheid has resulted in death for multitudes of blacks. While this may not validly be described as a calculated policy of genocide, it does not help to justify the results of apartheid.
A special claim is entered on behalf of Afrikaners as an African people—the first African Nationalists and the first to throw off the colonial yoke. It is said that the Afrikaners must defend what they have because they have nowhere else to go.
No black leader of any consequence denies that the Afrikaners are an African people with their own language and culture and as such have a place in this country. But this does not imply acceptance of the Nationalist assumption that such claims entitle the Nationalists to assume excessively more privileges or rights than other South Africans. As to the statement that they have “nowhere else to go” they are not special in that regard. They have no more and no less claim on any other area of the earth’s surface than any other South African community, be it Xhosa, Zulu, or English-speaking white. As well might a Welsh person claim that because Welsh people have “nowhere else to go” Welsh people have to subjugate, dominate, and oppress English people and Scottish people in preserving control of all Britain for fear that Welsh culture may be submerged by the non-Welsh majority.
It is a nonsensical argument, and its basic premise is not even true. Afrikaners who do not accept all the implications of living on the African continent and of accepting the reality of a black majority are no more prohibited than any other South Africans from emigrating to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, or anywhere else. If a minority can only preserve its culture by oppressing the majority in a common country, that minority culture has no moral right to exist in that country.
The Nationalists regard all criticism of apartheid as a demand for “one-person-one-vote,” which will inevitably mean black majority rule, a lowering of standards, and vengeful actions against the white minority by the black rulers. They see this demand as communist-inspired, with the aim of securing the Cape sea route and all South Africa’s valuable strategic minerals for the Eastern bloc.
The world community has tried for thirty years to persuade Nationalist Afrikanerdom to seek a realistic accommodation with the black majority in South Africa. For most of those thirty years there was no insistence on one-person-one-vote. And for generations not even the blacks insisted on it. Even recently some significant reforms away from racism, short of universal franchise, would have been welcomed by large numbers of blacks. But throughout this time Nationalism has refused to budge an inch from apartheid, using a one-person-one-vote alternative as an excuse. Today one-person-one-vote is only the least of the demands by blacks. They also want a significant redistribution of land and a fairer sharing of the wealth of the land.
Whether universal franchise in South Africa would inevitably lead to a lowering of standards is open to debate—a debate of interest only to whites—and so is the assumption that it would cause vengeful actions against the white minority by blacks. Again, these are not the most relevant considerations in the entire moral issue. It is not beyond the capacities of delegates of good will, black or white, to negotiate a fair deal for all concerned with reasonable safeguards for the white minority. As to the Nationalist government’s claim to be a bastion for the West against communism, such a “bastion” is a disaster and an embarrassment to the West, and must be a source of relish to the East. The West has already lost considerable credibility in Africa because it has not been as hostile to the Pretoria regime as the East has been, regardless of whatever cynical motives the latter might have for such hostility. If the West does not oppose the apartheid regime more positively it will soon provoke the enmity of all of black Africa.
As to the Cape sea route, it is a medieval myth. There is no Cape sea route. There is a vast ocean between South Africa and Antarctica, and to call that a sea route is like calling the Atlantic a sea route. Where minerals are concerned, it is true that South Africa has these in abundance, but if the whole world can be blackmailed on that score then one day some extremely radical black successors to the Nationalist regime may well turn such blackmail to their own account, against nations whose short-term priorities were unwise on this score.
The Nationalists maintain that the ideal system for South Africa is “separate development”—the balkanization of the country into ethnic territories which become autonomous and fully independent nation-states protecting the identity of each ethnic group. Territorial apartheid, or “separate development,” is a sham. Thirteen percent of the territory is allotted to 85 percent of the people, with that 13 percent of the territory fragmented among eight “ethnic groups.” It is a transparent method of “divide and rule.” It has no moral justification. There is more in common between, say, Zulu and Xhosa, culturally, linguistically, ethnically, and politically, than between English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites, who are regarded as one “ethnic unit” for political purposes. In 1976, Transkei was granted “independence.” Bophuthatswana’s was granted on December 6, 1977. But so strong are the fiscal apronstrings securing these “Bantustans” to Pretoria that they literally could not afford to exercise full independence.
The main indictment against the Bantustans is that black South Africa has never been permitted to exercise a choice on the matter by vote or referendum. The Bantustans were ordained in Pretoria, by whites, and most blacks of real political consequence see the concept for what it is—an obvious attempt to avoid accommodating blacks politically and geographically.
The claim by the Nationalist government that its motives are morally sound because the Afrikaner people are deeply committed to Christian principles is false. Their version of Christianity, which justifies apartheid, is rejected by leaders and theologians of all the major Christian sects—and the Nationalists know it. In fact, the Nationalist policy of apartheid can be said to contravene all ten of the Ten Commandments.
For example, the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” is contravened by legislation for a migrant labor system which separates the mothers and fathers of millions and makes it a crime for a wife to join her husband, if he is black, and if he does not have special dispensation to be near a white urban area.
The Seventh and Tenth Commandments, forbidding theft and the coveting of the goods of others, are surely apposite to land confiscation for political purposes. Indian and Chinese businessmen, in particular, have suffered eviction from “white” business districts under “group areas” legislation.
And the Commandment against “bearing false witness” is one of the most grossly contravened of all in South Africa by the Nationalist government. To imprison a person without charge, without evidence, without prosecution or trial of any kind and then to brand him by all manner of accusations, giving him no chance to defend himself, is surely bearing the most false witness possible against a human being. In Steve Biko’s case false witness was borne against him even after his death, with attempts by Minister Kruger and his Security Police to smear his name by allegations of crimes they never confronted him with in public during his lifetime.
As recently as December 1977 Premier Vorster told an American television interviewer that no citizen is ever banned simply for opposing the government. Since I, for one, was banned for precisely that, I know Vorster’s statement to be a lie.
It is claimed that South Africa’s blacks have a higher standard of living than blacks elsewhere in Africa; that foreign blacks stream into South Africa for employment; and that white enterprise has built South Africa up into the position of Africa’s most modern industrial state, with impressive agricultural and mineral development.
South Africa happens to be the most richly endowed country in Africa with mineral, agricultural, and natural wealth, a moderate climate and a more highly developed infrastructure bequeathed to it by the colonial power than was bequeathed to any other African state. What is of basic concern to blacks in South Africa is the position of blacks in South Africa vis-à-vis the white privileged people in South Africa. And the main argument is over civil rights in South Africa, not comparative standards of living elsewhere.
The same reply applies to Nationalist boasts that blacks come from neighboring territories to work in the South African mines. That is because the mines are where the minerals are, and the minerals are in South Africa. This is no answer to the question of why black South Africans are denied basic human rights.
The argument that whites built up South Africa and developed it into its present preeminence as a modern industrial state is also invalid, for not one single building or factory or house in South Africa was ever built without black labor—and cheap black labor, at that, in most cases. Nationalists often point out that whites pay most of the taxes in South Africa. This is a farcical claim, because Nationalists passed the legislation that prevented blacks from doing certain categories of skilled work, from receiving higher education in proper universities, and from thus achieving the earning capacities of most whites, upon which tax assessment is based. To prevent people from being able to earn enough to pay high taxes, then to deny them rights because they don’t pay high taxes, is the height of absurdity. For decades the entire social structure in South Africa has been designed to keep blacks politically and economically backward—and one of the Nationalist’s main excuses for withholding equal rights from blacks is that they are politically and economically backward.
The claim that there are still enormous reserves of interracial good will in South Africa is no longer true. Today most blacks have feelings toward most whites which vary from resentment to deep hatred. Unless the Nationalists can be compelled, soon, to the negotiating table to discuss and implement significant concessions granting at least minimal democratic rights to blacks, there will inevitably be racial war in South Africa. Indeed, it has already begun. This crisis is in a most dangerous flash point which could touch off the most elemental partisanship on a continental scale. How can South Africa claim it is not a threat to world peace? How can the world dare decline to involve itself with the issues being disputed there?
As to the claim that South Africa has a free press, let the assurance be recorded here by at least one South African newspaper editor that whatever tenuous claims in this regard might have been valid before October 19, 1977, the validity of such claims expired beyond all doubt with the detention of Percy Qoboza, editor of The World, and with my own banning. Percy and I were punished and silenced without charge or trial, simply because of what our newspapers represented—the aspirations of black South Africans for a fair deal.*
It is true that before that date some South African newspapers were able to publish the most trenchant criticisms of the Nationalist regime and of apartheid. Since that date this is no longer true. No South African editor can now be sure of what will happen to him if he annoys the authorities beyond a certain point—and that point is growing ever nearer the point of Nationalist preference. There were enough constraints upon editors before. We had to contend with more than twenty laws governing what could or could not be printed, and in recent years newspaper laws were passed which severely narrowed the boundaries within which we could attack apartheid. But we knew those boundaries. We knew how far we could go. However, on October 19, 1977, those boundaries were abolished, and the apartheid state took another giant step toward the enforcement of full conformity.
As to the commitment made three years ago in the United Nations by Ambassador Roelof Botha, that South Africa would move away from racial discrimination, this was a calculated piece of deception. What Botha meant was that apartheid would be abolished, but the discrimination would henceforth be based on “ethnic nationhood” rather than mere skin color. Laws would not discriminate against blacks, as such, but against Xhosa “nationals” of the Xhosa “nation” and Zulu “nationals” of the Zulu “nation” and so forth, all of whom happen to be black. This is why the new Nationalist catchword is “multinationalist” and the latest government line is to speak not of the races of South Africa but of the “nations” of South Africa.
While it is true that some token concessions in sport and hotel admission took place in the last few years, these were of so grudging and minimal a nature and extent that they did not amount to significant reforms.
The Vorster government points with pride to the country’s record of political stability and contrasts this with the instability of black-ruled states, citing with particular glee the tyrannical regimes of Amin and Bokassa, which do not have the South African tradition of impartial courts with their high caliber of judiciary. If political stability means long tenure of office, then Africa has rather a good record in this respect. Men like Kaunda, Nyerere, Kenyatta, Seretse Khama, Mobutu, and others have led their states for more than a decade.
In these terms, Nationalist rule for thirty years is certainly evidence of “stability.” But in South Africa’s case it is the stability of entrenched authoritarianism, with voting dice loaded against even the acceptable white opposition since 1948, and with a mass of measures to bolster and buttress Nationalist rule. Yet in spite of these artificial aids, South African “stability” is a brittle illusion. The country could explode into total racial war at any time. One small incident could spark this off, and while the regime has in the past managed to contain uprisings in localized areas by rushing police reinforcements to these areas, it has never yet had to contend with a general uprising of blacks all over the country at once. It is purely a matter of time before this happens, unless the regime can be brought to its senses and to the negotiating table.
Additional pluses in the pro-Nationalist argument could be the great personal charm and courtesy of the Afrikaner people, the friendliness and hospitality of South African whites generally, and the sincere belief by the majority of whites that politically they are doing the right thing in the interests of all race groups. As a political journalist and editor, I have had many dealings with Nationalist cabinet ministers. These men are not monsters. Their basic instincts are to be liked and understood and this tends to make them friendly and outgoing. The personal charm of the Afrikaner, and indeed of all the people of South Africa, makes the tragic circumstances of the country all the more heartrending. That in the midst of so much scenic beauty, so much mineral wealth, and such excellent human material there should be such hatred and tension only heightens the sense of tragedy.
The Nationalist government of South Africa believes that it represents the most advanced, the most civilized, and the most developed country in Africa and that its long tradition of orderly government should be recognized by the world at large. It resents what it regards as the “double standards” applied by the world—for example in appearing to condemn apartheid more than the gross excesses of the Amin regime. It asks that it should be treated as the government of any African country is treated in international dealings, and that South Africa should be judged by the same standard as any other African country.
But Mr. Vorster’s regime cannot have it both ways. Uganda has come into international disrepute only in comparatively recent times, since Amin’s accession to power. But the Nationalist regime has been in power for thirty years. Under no less than four successive Nationalist premiers—Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd, and Vorster—it has displayed a consistency of systematic repression that gives it a start of many years in the earning of international disrepute. The Ugandans know they are ruled by a maniac—but no Nationalist has ever claimed that Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd, or Vorster were maniacs. There are literally hundreds of apartheid laws which have been enacted since 1948, and they have been approved by many thousands of party delegates—none of them maniacs!
Apartheid is a carefully calculated, meticulously planned network of racist laws whose viciousness is equaled only by the deliberation of the process which gave birth to each one of them. The Vorster government should not boast of South Africa’s long tradition of parliamentary lawmaking. The fact of that tradition does not mitigate apartheid; it condemns it all the more.
Nationalist Foreign Minister Botha appeals for support from Britain and America on the grounds that “we fought with you in World War Two”—a statement of crass hypocrisy since his Nationalist Party not only supported Hitler but opposed the Allied war effort of the South African Army to the hilt. Extreme members, like present Premier B.J. Vorster, actually held office in the subversive organization the Ossewa Brandwag, which favored the cause of National Socialism against the principles of the Western democracies.
Having taken over government of this richly endowed, internationally honored state, the Nationalists have in thirty years plunged it into the position of an international outcast, a pariah, whose policies are deservedly loathed by the entire world community.
The Nationalist government, then, must not wonder why it is hated not only by most people everywhere but also by most of its own citizens. Nor must it ask to be judged by the same standard as any other African state. Nor must it claim any special consideration for unmerited endowment not conferred on any other African state.
The Nationalist government asks for special consideration on the basis of its claim that “South Africa’s problems are unique.” But South Africa’s “problems” are not unique. A multiracial society, handled with good will and honesty, is not a problem.
South Africa has only one major “problem,” and that is apartheid. And apartheid is certainly unique. It draws down upon itself the most uniquely unanimous censure of humanity in all recorded history.
Moreover, it persists three decades after mankind set its face resolutely against legislative racism and is promoted by a community which has had every educational and material advantage conceivable.
The Nationalists would reply that it is scandalous to equate the evils of apartheid in any way with the Hitler excesses under which millions of people were deliberately executed, and it is true that no Nationalist regime has ever been guilty of such premeditated physical murder on any scale. But they have committed spiritual murder, in a variety of refined ways, upon tens of millions of black South Africans since apartheid was codified in 1948.
They have waged brutal war on the human spirit against victims whose “crime” was to be born with a certain skin color. The destruction of human potential in these thirty years, through discrimination in education, health services, employment laws, living conditions, and environment, staggers the imagination.
One of the final claims made in its favor by the Nationalist government is that South Africa has a fair system of administration and justice and an independent judiciary. This claim, also, is no longer true. The Nationalists have finally destroyed the entire basis of the system of law inherited in 1948 from the Roman-Dutch legal tradition. All that is left is a tiny vestige of that once-proud legal tradition.
It is true that any South African citizen can still win a civil or criminal case—provided one has a great deal of money; one has the right judge and magistrate; and one is free to institute such proceedings. Today there are few independent judges or magistrates in South Africa where political cases are concerned. For example, most of the Transvaal Supreme Court judges are members of the Broederbond, Nationalism’s elite inner circle of party elders. The state simply will not prosecute political wrongdoers if they are Nationalist supporters. Police investigations of such matters are perfunctory and token—certainly not designed to secure a prosecution and conviction. The result is that acts of right-wing terrorism against critics of the regime are tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, encouraged.
Several years ago students of the University of Cape Town held a peaceful protest on the steps of St. George’s Cathedral against a government measure. Uniformed policemen formed up and charged them, assaulting them with batons and fists, and pursued some of them into the church to assault them there. Prime Minister Vorster’s comment was that he was proud of his police. “If they had acted any differently I would have been disappointed in them,” he said publicly.
Police, magistrates, judges, prosecutors, few indeed are completely free to pursue objective standards of justice. Most judges in South Africa adhere to the belief that their function in regard to statute law is solely to interpret and apply it—which means in effect, in many cases, to implement apartheid regardless of the principles of justice.
Some statutes have removed the onus from the state of proving an accused person guilty. This legislation has also facilitated the bypassing of courts, giving a politician (the minister of justice and police) the power to put people in jail or to ban them without any trial or judicial proceedings whatever. In all the thirty years of such legislation only one judge has spoken out in protest—Mr. Justice Kowie Marais, now a Progressive Federal Party Member of Parliament.
The question may be asked: how can such a regime, so hated by most of its citizens, have ruled for thirty years with every indication of steadily increasing power? The answer lies in the methods by which the Nationalist regime has consolidated its position since coming to power in 1948. Up until that year, Smuts’s United Party was in power. Although that party had a record of racism, there were indications of a liberalizing general tendency within it. The speeches of Smuts’s obvious heir-apparent, the brilliant Jan Hofmeyr, clearly indicated an intent to seek a fairer accommodation with blacks in the postwar years.
The Nationalists won a narrow victory by exploiting white fear of the Hofmeyr line, and by persuading enough white voters that their identity as a race group could be only protected by a Nationalist government applying what is called “apartheid” (separateness). Their win was by a slender margin of rural seats. In fact the overall vote-aggregate went against them, so that in respect of all votes registered they were a minority government.
Once in power they moved purposefully to entrench themselves. First they created six additional seats (all Nationalist) by creating six tiny constituencies of barely a couple of thousand voters each, for South West Africa, which had never previously been represented in the South African Parliament. Then they enlarged the Senate unconstitutionally, appointing dozens of party members as additional senators. This gave them a two-thirds majority of the upper and lower houses combined, which meant they could amend the constitution. They did so in order to take the vote away from “colored” voters whose votes were decisive in almost a dozen seats.
Then they passed bills removing from parliament even the white representatives of black and “colored” voters. Then they redrew the boundaries of the voting districts to favor Nationalist constituencies, and loaded the rural (Nationalist) constituencies to such an extent that in future elections for Parliament a Nationalist vote was worth almost two anti-Nationalist votes.
The opposition challenged several of these measures in the courts, but the Nationalists overcame that by appointing their own judges to the highest court of appeal, which ruled parliamentary statutes to be irreversible. Before appointing their own judges to the appeal court, the Nationalists had passed a statute called the High Court of Parliament Act, which created the farcical situation whereby if the National Party’s laws were ruled unconstitutional by the appeal court, parliament could convert itself into a higher court, with the party officials and members of the caucus sitting as judges.
The Nationalists then took over full control of radio broadcasting, and converted the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation into a propaganda medium for the National Party. A daily program, “Survey of Current Affairs,” relentlessly plugged the Nationalist line, and even news broadcasts were slanted to project the Nationalist interpretation through a combination of wording, emphasis, or omission. News reflecting adversely on the regime was either left out of the bulletins entirely or “doctored” to give the party angle. The general impression promoted by South African radio was, and is, that to be anti-Nationalist is to be unpatriotic—“un-South African.”
When television was introduced in early 1976 it soon became obvious that this was to be an even more powerful propaganda medium. In the months leading up to the 1977 general election, almost every telecast featured a Nationalist spokesman, usually in the guise of a cabinet minister, “explaining” some aspect of state policy or answering “questions” on which he was well-briefed beforehand, if he had not actually drafted them.
Opposition viewpoints were given only token projection, and black viewpoints virtually none at all.
School syllabuses were rewritten, school histories reshaped, and a different system of education for blacks, called “Bantu Education,” was designed. It was designed, in the words of Dr. Verwoerd, to equip the “Bantu” for a set of expectations in keeping with the “Bantu role” in South Africa. It was, quite simply, education of an inferior grade designed to keep black aspirations sufficiently low for white political convenience. As blacks described it, it was “education for serfdom.”
To strengthen Afrikaans “identity” and to keep Afrikaans youth from the liberalizing influences of English-speaking youth, all youth movements and service movements were duplicated. Afrikaners were encouraged to join not the Chamber of Commerce but the Sake Kamer; not Rotary or Round Table but Rapportryers; not Red Cross but Noodhulpliga; not the Boy Scouts but the Voortrekkers.
Legislation in Transvaal province compelled children of Afrikaans parentage to attend Afrikaans schools—the parents had no choice. Afrikaans universities received immense state grants and Afrikaans newspapers rich government printing contracts. Afrikaans trade and industry received similar state assistance, and Afrikaners were given all key posts in the Civil Service. Army, navy, and air force trainees were given lectures emphasizing the Nationalist view of politico-military issues and cadet programs in schools followed suit.
Today, therefore, white South Africa is largely a brainwashed society. Thirty years of Nationalist radio, military, and school propaganda have done their work. Only a few English-language newspapers fight vigorously against this trend, but their wings are increasingly being clipped by threats of even stronger newspaper legislation and by intimidation such as the detention and banning of editors and reporters.
Among the whites, the voices of reason are steadily being choked into silence. There is a growing sense of conformity. University students, even on the English-language campuses, are markedly more conservative than they were a decade ago.
The election result of November 30, 1977, illustrated all too clearly the almost complete success of decades of Nationalist propaganda as far as white South Africa is concerned. Only in a few metropolitan pockets are there still significant numbers of white liberal voters.
White South Africa is being placed on a war footing. Speeches by cabinet ministers and military chiefs, and even by many school principals and cadet masters, are all on the same theme: whites must prepare to fight “terrorism” and “communism.” The enemy is seen to be everywhere—on the borders, within the borders, throughout South Africa, throughout the world, in the United Nations, in the rural areas, in the townships. The threat comes from the East. The threat comes from the West. The threat comes from the North. The threat is even anticipated from the South—which is all ocean until Antarctica.
The war psychosis rages. And the majority of the whites respond to it.
Inferior education, poverty, and the successful silencing of radical black leaders as well as difficult general circumstances have made it virtually impossible for blacks to organize a significant, rational political response to Nationalist rule. One township of 180,000 blacks, Mdantsane, had for ten years exactly one telephone. Moreover, the townships, the black “universities,” the schools, and the rural areas are riddled with police informers. Any attempt to organize normal political resistance to apartheid’s abnormalities is soon identified and stamped out.
That is why Steve Biko and his associates realized that for any meaningful black political response to evolve, short of violence, a political association of blacks would have to concentrate on an initial enlightening program to remove negative or inferiority complexes; operate within the law to survive; and appeal to black youth in the hope that the new generation would meet the challenge of apartheid more successfully than the old generation had.
The Nationalist government was right in seeing Steve Biko as a threat to apartheid, but it was tragically wrong in the method it chose in response to this threat. Wrong both for its own sake and for the sake of all whites and blacks in South Africa, because Steve Biko represented, in my opinion, the last hope for a peaceful accommodation to resolve the growing South African race crisis.
If the Nationalists had allowed Steve Biko to operate unfettered, within the bounds of normal law, apartheid could have been negotiated out of existence within five years for the benefit of all South Africans of every race. Not only the blacks, but the Afrikaner Nationalists themselves, could have been liberated from the crippling fears which imprison them within the laager they have erected.
In killing Steve Biko, and in condoning his killing, they have forced black resistance to apartheid into dark and violent channels. They have rendered it almost impossible to ensure that when apartheid goes it will be removed in an atmosphere of political and social stability in which all citizens could look to the future with confidence.
A new generation of blacks is rising. It looks back to the past and sees the fates of would-be negotiators—Luthuli dead in banishment, Mandela imprisoned, Sobukwe ill in restriction, and Biko in his grave. And it looks ahead with no interest in negotiation.
So the situation in South Africa today is one in which whites and blacks are gearing themselves up for war, and for war on many fronts. The war on the borders will undoubtedly escalate further. Already news bulletins on South African television are carrying occasional items reminiscent of the early days of the Rhodesian war, announcing “large numbers of terrorists killed and two members of the South African Defense Force.”
Inevitably internal unrest will break out again—possibly with more general nationwide effect than in the 1976 riots, which were mostly confined to Soweto and Cape Town.
The white military and police forces are well equipped, and backed by a white civilian population almost unanimously in their support and a civil service dominated by dedicated Nationalists. White South Africa can certainly hold out to preserve apartheid against such onslaughts.
For a time.
Ultimately, however, they are up against the inexorable laws of arithmetic. They are vastly outnumbered by blacks within their own boundaries, and the younger leaders of the black population are growing increasingly militant. They know that history is on their side. They know that the entire African continent is on their side. They know that world opinion is on their side, and they hope to see such theoretical sympathy converted into meaningful sanctions and if necessary an effective internationally backed blockade.
The world hesitates at the moment to impose sanctions, which some claim would “drive the whites further into the laager,” but the world will be brought to the realization that whites are already in the laager and need no strengthening of the will to fight.
For many years I have believed that all hopes for peace in South Africa lay in internal developments and pressures. In common with many white liberals I tried my hardest to apply those pressures, to bring both parties to the negotiating table and to spread throughout the country the idea that calm, reason, and logic could be made to prevail. We white liberals tried to convert our fellow whites. We tried to convert not only anti-Nationalists but the Afrikaner Nationalists themselves to the view that reconciliation in a nonracist society was the answer. At the same time we tried to maintain our links with black leaders and the black masses, so that polarization could be avoided.
In retrospect, given the driving force of Afrikaner Nationalism and its powerful appeal to white racial fears of a black majority, this was an impossible task we set ourselves. We probably realized it throughout, but would not admit it to ourselves, being reluctant to accept that our fellow whites would never be converted through peaceful means to a higher, less selfish, vision of the human spirit.
When one thinks back now over all the years, and of all the white liberal leaders who tried to persuade their fellow whites to perceive the only peaceful solution—Alan Paton, Peter Brown, Nadine Gordimer, and many others—it appears at first to have been all for nothing. I think back to all the editorials I myself have written, all the speeches made all over the country for all those years, literally millions of words aimed against apartheid, and have to conclude that it all amounts now to a lifetime of futility as far as concrete political results are concerned. Yet I am sure we would all do the same all over again in those circumstances, even with little hope, knowing that at that stage of our country’s history these things had to be said and done, these gestures made, this vision upheld.
But now that role is over. Circumstances in South Africa are such that there is neither time nor hope for the conversion of most of the whites away from racism, through argument and debate internally, before the tidal wave of black anger breaks. In South Africa today, virtually all of the middlemen—the would-be conciliators between white and black—have been silenced by banning or detention.
While there are still voices of reason, like Helen Suzman and Alan Paton, they are not being heeded by most blacks or most whites of political consequence—the latter because they are blindly following the Vorster line and the former because they have abandoned hope of white compromise.
The Progressive Federal Party has some excellent individuals, and blacks obviously prefer them to the Nationalists, but blacks are increasingly becoming cynical about the PFP’s rejection of sanctions as a weapon against apartheid. They see the PFP as a party-political apostle of capitalism which puts capital interest rates above the black interests. In this way, the gray areas in South African political life are being washed away and the scene is increasingly being deep-etched in black and white.
The express train of white racism is now rushing at full speed on a collision course with the express train of black anger.
If the few concerned persons inside South Africa who reject apartheid can no longer do anything to avoid such a collision, what can a concerned world do to save the South Africans from themselves?
Before reply, this question warrants first an examination of the moral question—are national boundaries more sacred than serious issues of humanity? There can surely be little doubt that if the rest of the international community had been moved to “meddle” in a serious bid to divert Hitler from his evil course as early as the mid-1930s, millions of lives could have been saved and a world war avoided.
If the world had spoken with one clear voice in defense of those Jews of Germany in the 1930s, there would have been no extermination camps—but only if those words had been backed up by deeds, and progressively by selective sanctions, and ultimately by total boycott reinforced by blockade if necessary.
The same applies to Uganda and South Africa or any other repressive regime, whether communist or fascist or socialist or capitalist or black or white. In the cases of Uganda and South Africa the issues have been clearly and sharply defined for a long time, and the victims of authoritarian evil are easily identifiable—nothing is more identifiable than a majority!
And if a majority of a nation’s citizens can clearly be perceived to be under serious persecution or oppression or discrimination, and to be vehemently objecting to this, how can their brothers in the international community fail to respond to their plight?
In such a case there is not only a right to “meddle”—there is a positive duty. But it is the precise form of intervention that has to be carefully considered.
In South Africa’s case, for the sake of whites as well as blacks, Afrikaners as well as English-speaking, “coloreds” as well as “Indians,” international intervention should be constructively positive. Given that no development within the country itself can avert violence and bloodshed, and that only external intervention can do so, it follows that such intervention should be constructive both in its method and in its intent.
That intent should be to achieve the goal of compelling all the real leaders of all the groups in South Africa to come to the negotiating table before their followers start killing each other on a large scale.
Ideally, the route to this goal of peace should be equally peaceful. But this goal cannot be attained with words alone. Words, international words of censure and condemnation, have been raining down on South Africa for thirty years, with virtually no effect.
Therefore, henceforth, the mouths that utter these words must have teeth—teeth that can bite. And they must be prepared to bite if necessary. The only peaceful yet effective means of compelling the Pretoria regime to see reason and to meet in honest negotiation with the chosen leaders of the majority of their citizens is the employment of all the strongest pressures that can be brought to bear short of war.
There are many pressures that can be applied in many fields, economic, diplomatic, strategic, financial, and social. And they all add up to one word—ostracism. There has been a belief for many years that ostracism is a negative and destructive process, and this may well be so in certain contexts, but not where the Nationalist government is concerned.
Indeed, for many years I myself opposed the breaking of international links with South African associations—especially in the sphere of sport—until I was proven wrong by a young fellow South African named Peter Hain, who organized anti-apartheid demonstrations in Britain. As recently as 1970 I pleaded for the retention of sporting ties with South Africa on the grounds that South Africans could better be converted away from apartheid in sport by sporting friends abroad who built bridges of friendship through sports tours and were an educational influence. I argued that if South African sports people were ostracized this would drive them further away from reason and would confirm them in their prejudices in isolation.
Such links were preserved for many years, and the result was that apartheid persisted in South African sport. The white South Africans regarded the continuing tours from abroad as evidence that their approach was still acceptable in the world, that they were still approved of in spite of apartheid.
Then Peter Hain’s campaigns, and those of other South African exiles like Dennis Brutus and Chris de Broglio, began to take effect and South African participants were increasingly ostracized from the Olympic Games, international cricket, and from some of the leading rugby countries. The result was marked. There was an immediate softening of apartheid in sport in South Africa, and although token integration of South African sport is still too minimal to be significant, the lesson is plain.
The same happened in the international monetary sphere. As soon as the gold price was pushed down by the Americans, the Pretoria regime grew more reasonable on a number of issues such as Rhodesia and South West Africa.
Opponents of international pressure often argue that such pressure will have adverse effects in South Africa; that it will drive the whites into the laager and make them more intransigent.
Not so. They are already in the laager. Mr. Vorster’s recent election campaign was geared almost exclusively toward giving the world the message from white South Africa: “Do your worst!” There is really no alternative that the Vorster government has left the anti-apartheid world. He and his predecessors have proved that they regard “friendly advice” from abroad, unbacked by strong action, as weakness and condonation of their policies.
Has the time not come to take Mr. Vorster at his word?
For the sake of the majority of South Africans, that time has surely come. Indeed for the sake of the white minority as well, because the alternative, war, is in Vorster’s own words “too ghastly to contemplate.”
One of the most telling forms of ostracism of the Pretoria regime would be diplomatic ostracism—the closing of embassies, or at least the downgrading of diplomatic links to token status—and a much tougher policy on the granting of visas. The South African government has for years most improperly abused the right of withdrawing passports from its critics within its own population as a punishment. It should now be given its own medicine.
Predictable reactions to such proposals would be that they are too drastic, or “unrealistic,” or against the interests of the world communities themselves in view of mutual trade consideration. Countries which adopt that attitude are taking a short-term view which could adversely affect their long-term interests vis-à-vis South Africa under a future black government. Above all, they are betraying a callous indifference to the present plight of black South Africans.
If I could speak to every person on this globe, I would speak of my friend Steve Biko, who died naked on the floor of a prison cell after suffering torture and torment at the hands of men who represent an especially horrible form of evil—the evil of racism, which inflicts hatred and rejection upon its victims for being born with a dark skin. I would tell of how the society that bred such a system then exonerated his killers, condoned the laughter with which their superiors greeted the news of his death, and voted the man chiefly responsible for it back into office with an increased majority.
I would tell of how Steve Biko’s death, although especially tragic for me, was by no means the first of its kind in South Africa, nor the last, and that it was but the most publicized, most heightened dramatization of the ultimate effect of unbridled apartheid.
Steve Biko’s death could be regarded as a symbolic representation of the sufferings of all black South Africans under the apartheid system. His death was physical. Most of the deaths caused by apartheid are spiritual. There are countless deaths of morale and hope and self-esteem.
For many of his fellow citizens, Steve Biko ended such deaths of morale. He shattered many of the psychological bonds that used to shackle young blacks in South Africa. In terms of the spiritual self-esteem of young blacks in South Africa, particularly, he was a breaker of chains.
Perhaps that, far more than any other, was the reason why the System killed him.
In concluding this indictment, in calling for his killers to be brought to justice, I feel I must seek to imagine how he would want this to be done. It is probable that he would not want them simply to be identified as James Kruger and his security officers who happened to be stationed in the city of Port Elizabeth during the month of September 1977. It is probable that he would regard his real killers as all the people who support the Nationalist government of South Africa and its policy of apartheid.
It is also probable that he would not want them punished in a retributive or vengeful sense, but rather compelled for their own sake to perceive the enormity of their crime against his people. In other words, ideally, to be brought to justice by being brought to their senses and thereby enabled to enter into the inheritance of a fullness of life for themselves and for their children in the kind of South Africa he foresaw and worked to bring into being.
This indictment, having listed the evils of the apartheid system as charges against the accused protagonists of that system, having listed also and replied to each of their arguments in mitigation as expounded by their own leaders, must end with a call to all who accept its conclusions for purposes of effective prosecution.
Help to finish the work of Steve Biko. Help to smash the remaining links of the chains he broke, and let the sound of this work echo around the world so that chains may be broken wherever they hold in bondage the bodies and minds of men.
May 4, 1978
Editors’ Note: For Mr. Woods, being “banned” meant that plainclothes policemen kept him under constant surveillance; he was not allowed to meet with more than one person at a time; his phone conversations and mail were subject to interception. He was barred from journalism, forbidden to write anything—not even in a private diary. ↩