Joseph Lelyveld had been the New York Times man in South Africa for only eleven months when, in 1966, the South African government served him with notice to leave within a week. For the next decade, that government was to bar entry to New York Times correspondents. When Lelyveld boarded the plane he had “a feeling of lightness, of freedom as a palpable sensation.” This could not have been because he himself had been either one of those straining at the oars in the galley of apartheid, or one giving orders up aloft. If he had borne any weight at all, it was the reputation of a journalist who sought the truth and wrote it, an officially declared enemy of apartheid; on any New York evening he could have been at ease as a self-(critically)-styled “naive democrat” among those who believe in the “Western solutions” to apartheid the South African government dismisses as simplistic.
Yet, fourteen years after, when he learned in a roundabout way that he might be allowed to reenter South Africa, he asked his paper to send him back. China, India—“No place I had ever been had gripped me as wholly and intensely as South Africa…the scale of the land and its antagonisms, and the vividness of personality that came with them.” This book is about what he found when he returned to South Africa in the early 1980s. It is given depth by the previous experience not as a reference point, but in the existential tie between Lelyveld and the country he had thought to shed like any other assignment.
Lelyveld was unfree when he flew away home in 1966. Even if he did not know it, he had lost (overcome?) the Manichaean objectivity that is the journalistic ideal. Even if he does not now know it, it is clear that he came back not only out of professional fascination but also out of a need for what he calls moral clarity. The world is bleared within its moral obfuscation as surely as it is wrapped in its atmosphere. If you are in search of clarity within yourself as well as (professionally) in others, where better to test yourself and them than in the thickest murk? South Africa is the elaborate set of the last colonial extravaganza, and the final reel in the archive of institutionalized racism. It is also the place where even an outsider must proceed with outstretched hands, ready to come up hard against the lumber of his own moral ambiguities. Wholly without vanity or a sense of the power of the “man with the word,” Lelyveld might be embarrassed to hear that his strikingly honest self-confrontation is present in his book like the face, unattributed, caught in the edge of the lens when a historic group photograph was taken. If the unnamed one is neither an accomplice to the group nor exactly his brother’s keeper, he bears at least the name of a measure of human responsibility for what happens in the world. We learned that there were no lookers-on to Nazi Germany.
When Lelyveld was frog-marched out of South Africa in 1966, the millennial concept of Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd (assassinated later that same year by a white madman in what seemed a Dostoevskian enactment of the subconscious will of many sane victims of apartheid) was confidently accepted by his National Party, by Afrikaners in general, and, in my opinion, more English-speaking whites than Lelyveld would credit. There was going to be the triumph of achieving the impossible: white supremacy and justice. The country would be divided into nine (finally ten) ethnic “homelands” eventually to become “national states,” and taking up a little over 13 percent of what had been the black man’s homeland before the whites came. The other 86 percent would be South Africa: an ample, white man’s country.
On the journalist’s return he was at once pitched into the bump and grind of the Grand Apartheid plan as it was being carried out. “It seemed likely that Verwoerd was revolving in his grave…. My time machine seemed to have landed me in Oz.” But it was Bophuthatswana, now alleged to be the only and rightful homeland, the “national state” of two million black people of precolonial Tswana origin, who, “by virtue of its existence, were no longer deemed to be South Africans.” Not only were these “homelanders” born and living and working all over South Africa—their “homeland” was “at least seven places, scattered across three South African provinces, surrounded on nearly every side of each fragment by the huge holdings of white ranchers and farmers.” (The Batswana surely have a claim to my house and garden in white Johannesburg as the eighth, since relics of a vast seventeenth-century Tswana settlement have been discovered to underlie our neighborhood, which is over one hundred miles from the nearest of Bophuthatswana’s numerous borders.) So Lelyveld found himself not in South Africa but in Sun City, the prototype “glossy casino resort” which, in humbler if no less bizarre versions, in “homelands” even poorer than Bophuthatswana, I have seen rise on the veld in the neon guise of development. Freedom—to watch pornographic movies and gamble, activities outlawed in “South Africa”—is available in these places to South Africans of all colors. Bophuthatswana at least has a platinum mine as well; the single share of the black majority in the country’s copious and strategic wealth.
During Lelyveld’s absence from South Africa there had been other changes unforeseen by the visionary Verwoerd. The black population, which had risen by 90 percent while the white had managed to breed only a 30 percent increase, was not, as was promised for the 1970s, entirely kraaled1 in the “homelands.” The prosperity of whites on the one hand—industrial development with its constantly expanding need for labor—and blacks’ desperate economic need on the other—no jobs, and overcrowding on the little spits of agricultural land where the flags of the new “national states” were staked—brought 800,000 black laborers to white South Africa as “migrants.” On its borders, the buffer colonial states between it and black Africa—Rhodesia, Angola, and Mozambique—had collapsed and become black-ruled, bringing closer refuge and bases for black South African political exiles. Apartheid itself, Lelyveld found, was now dismissed by government spokesmen as “the propaganda concept of the last decades”; by the time he left once again in 1983, a referendum (for whites only) had been held in which a new constitution providing for the enfranchisement of Indians and people of mixed blood, but not of the black majority, had been given an enthusiastic mandate by English-speaking as well as Afrikaans-speaking whites even while it caused a definitive right-wing chip to fly off the granite of Verwoerd’s 1960s support.
So now there were white Afrikaner opponents of the government (on the charge that it was surrendering to almost-blacks the little finger of power that would lose the whole hand to blacks), as well as a black majority towering with final, terrifying frustration. But what created apartheid originally as a means—the determination to keep ultimate power in white hands for ever—was unchanged. And by then Lelyveld had used his time, his intellectual energy, and sixth-sense sensibility to seek out and make explicitly intelligible in this book all the new-fangled means by which, under whatever schemes, terminology, or justifications, that end is still being pursued. His summation of the evasions of this fact has never been bettered: apartheid is not an abandoned propaganda concept but “a statement about reality amounting to a denial of that reality.” He is quoting not a black nationalist or Marxist but a nineteenth-century English novelist (Trollope!) when he writes, “South Africa is a country of black men—and not of white men. It has been so; it is so; it will be so.”
In twenty years, one in ten blacks has been forcibly removed to make way for whites. In Durban Lelyveld saw the site of a black man’s home now become a shopping-center parking lot in a neighborhood gone white, with a white gospel church and Afrikaner high school. A commonplace. He “took that same tour in many South African towns and cities, visiting neighborhoods from which blacks and browns had been hounded on no basis other than skin color.” I once remarked to a young woman, watering her garden, that it used to be part of the church ground in the black township of Sophiatown; she had never heard of Sophiatown, which had been incredibly renamed “Triomf” in the triumph of the first removal of urban blacks from their homes in the early 1950s.
This year there has been a government moratorium on further forced removals, in response as much to the “bad press” they give rise to abroad as to protest at home. Now a government-appointed commission has recommended, under the name of “Co-operation and Development,” the “consolidation” of the forty bits and pieces that make up the “homeland” kwaZulu by the forced removal and relocation of 200,000 people, only a handful of whom are not black. But Mangosuthu “Gatsha” Buthelezi, Chief Minister of kwaZulu, knows he dare not accept this particular reward for being the single black leader of any consequence the government is prepared to talk to, and to promote for the improvement of their own image in the outside world. He has said that he will have nothing to do with the recommendations.
The official opposition in the white chamber of Parliament, the Progressive Federal Party, the spokesmen of the important, white-owned sugar cane industry in the kwaZulu area, even leaders of the conservative white political parties in the region, have rejected with fear and horror the lifting of the moratorium. All agree that such removals will fire the crucible in which an alloy of black misery and frustration is being smelted into revolution. Yet in many other areas the threat of removals has long hung, and continues to hang, over smaller communities trying with the help of a few concerned whites, principally the women’s organization, the Black Sash, and the Legal Resources Centre, to defend in the courts their communal rights to land and property. The majority of whites, having felt in these instances nothing to fear for themselves, have shown no concern.
For me, the banality of apartheid merits a paraphrase of Hannah Arendt’s famous dictum. Lelyveld dredges a deeper perception. Apartheid has become
the screen that hides the vast reality of black South Africa from the vision of most whites. (By “reality” I mean simply human experience….) Hardly anywhere do whites now have to live near blacks—excepting those blacks, 120,000 in Johannesburg alone, whom they keep in their backyards to tend them as servants—and hardly anywhere is it ever necessary for them to see where blacks live, except occasionally at a distance from a passing car…. The ripples from these dislocations quickly vanish from the memories of whites the way a pond recovers its glassy surface after a stone has been thrown, so the resentment in the depths, among blacks and browns, is beyond their [the whites’] comprehension.
In his chapter “Forced Busing,” Lelyveld, with a consciously ironic side-glance to what it once meant in the American context of desegregation, follows the consequences of black population removals through a purgatory few Americans could imagine, let alone know about. Photographs, TV footage, newspaper reports have made familiarly appalling the rows of tin toilet houses in the veld that define a “new settlement” made ready for blacks, and the “GG” (Government Garage) trucks that, piled with blacks’ meager belongings and themselves, cart them away from their bulldozed homes. But what happens after? When they have somehow reconstructed the physical shell of their being, how do they earn a living? As Lelyveld shows, this was a problem for the government, too, from another point of view: how to move blacks away from whites as far as possible, yet have them come to work in white areas every day. A solution has been found that exceeds even the callous indifference customarily shown by whites to blacks’ human feelings and capacity for physical endurance and that, if the screw-tightening theory is valid, might make a Battleship Potemkin out of a bus.
Boarding at 2 AM, Lelyveld took a ride to and from work in Pretoria with men and women “resettled” in the “homeland” of kwaNdebele. On the 190-mile round trip, most of these “commuters” in a bus “designed with hard seats for short hauls on city streets” got back home at night in time to eat, and sleep for about four hours, before rising to catch the bus again. They spend up to eight hours a day on buses. The distance they travel annually, he calculated, comes to more than a circumnavigation of the globe. The annual subvention paid by the government to the bus company—one thousand dollars a head—would contribute substantially to the provision of housing for blacks close to their work.
Yet, in the poverty of the homelands, they must consider themselves lucky to have work. By another irony—and this must be iron in the soul of blacks—these “migrant workers” from what government sociospeak terms “closer settlements” are bused by a monopolistic company owned by a man whose father was once himself a poor migrant: but he came from Italy, was white, and could become a South African with a vote and the advantages of a free enterprise system. With an eye for the expanding detail that reminds one of the quiet sureness of a Satyajit Ray film, Lelyveld presents through this man the collusion between private enterprise and apartheid that is obvious enough at the level of high finance, but without which at all levels the wheels of apartheid (here literally) could not keep blacks running its route.
Ironies bud in malignancy: “A people who are as widely credited with having fought Africa’s first anti-colonial struggle (the Boer War), who are native to the land and not colonists in any normal sense have come to establish one of the world’s most retrogressive colonial systems.” Yet another irony: I remember that Kafka, who knew all the twentieth-century features of totalitarian repression before historical personages and policies came to fill out what he initialed, was a supporter of the Boers in that war. Now their descendants are the single people professing to belong to the Western world who employ methods of physical and mental torture anticipated by the Leonardo of such inventions.
But irony is a distancing mode. Although allowing a quick look through its lens now and then, this book succeeds as no other in putting a fist through any glass that might come between the reader and the daily reality of South Africa, the monotony of fatuous, meticulously planned cruelty that goes on between headline crises like the present one. The chapter “Forced Busing”—with all credit to the writer’s unfailing accuracy in forging the link between causal chain and practice—is central to the book. Forced busing is not only an aspect of apartheid. It is the knot of suffering, Lelyveld reveals, tangled together by all the other nonoptions of black living: the lifetimes spent in all-male hostels, the sheets of dry-cleaners’ plastic that in city squatter camps must serve as shelter for the wives of such workers when they follow them, illegally, to patch together a family life; the laws that, whether or not rescheduled, amended, “improved” in the government’s hope of quieting rebellion at home and censure abroad, restrict blacks wherever they turn to work or live.
How do South African whites manage, as Lelyveld shows they do, to project “on the screen of apartheid…any version of reality they please, including their own fantasies of life in a society where apartheid does not exist”? He does not rely on the poolside explanation that is offered, barbecued sausage in hand, by many writers on the subject. For him, what makes South Africa “different from other gripping lands and absorbing conflicts was its ways of looking at itself: of explaining, rationalizing and forgetting.” The process passes, in forms appropriate to the desired self-image of each milieu, from government policy makers, planners, and spokesmen, to the industrial and business community and thence to social life. It is very much a matter of semantics, of “sanitizing names.” The prefix “con” (which would stand alone most appropriately) is a prefix in government vogue at present to describe reforms which reformulate policies and practices South Africa wants the world to believe it has thus abandoned. Consociation, confederation, paradigm switch, segmental autonomy—this is the nomenclature used to euphemize the fact that the government will do everything but admit in plain language that it will not relinquish white power, and white power cannot survive without repression of blacks. Lelyveld points out that this jargon is not merely adapted, mainly from the American managerial tongue, but is indeed a “paradigm switch” to suggest that apartheid is not really a political problem but a matter to be solved by managerial methodology.
That, in turn, allows everyone—from Foreign Minister Pik Botha talking abroad, to the Van der Merwes and Smiths at home—to decide that while the majority of the South African black population has been forced by the whites into third world poverty, the degrading consequences are simply part of the general problem of third world underdevelopment without specific political, let alone moral, significance in South Africa. Where apartheid has been discreetly adapted—in my bank, for example, blacks are now trained and trusted to be tellers—blacks are acceptable to whites because they are presumed to have been able to graduate in normal Western social mobility up from the third world. And that leads in turn to the fantasy Lelyveld came across in a fashion magazine: a black South African model posing to display South African clothes in Spanish resorts. The picture convincingly comforts the readership of white women who never know blacks in any but the madam/maid situation: here is evidence that, these days of reform, blacks may even join the jet set. Therefore it can be only communist agitators who are rioting in the black townships.
This kind of projection on the screen of apartheid has served President Reagan too. On one of the days of high death toll in the black townships in August, he was reported citing, as evidence of real reform in South Africa under the influence of America’s policy of constructive engagement, the fact that city hotels are now open to all races. (This boon for the masses was granted before Chester Crocker thought up his con-prefixed policy toward South Africa, by the way.)
The scrapping of the “immorality” act this year allows white couples no longer to feel guilty over being allowed to do what was a crime for a mixed couple (although God knows where such mates are going to find a home in the still-segregated suburbs). In the new apartheid-that-is-not-apartheid, “a little promiscuity,” as Lelyveld puts it, not only in the sexual realm but “in the realm of opinion is not a dangerous thing after all. It’s good for the image, good for self-esteem.” I cannot resist adding my own example of this. A publication as beautifully produced as any French art magazine and intended for leaders in the white financial community has printed, alongside profiles of white mining magnates and bankers, not only the views of Bishop Desmond Tutu but even an article by the white poet Breyten Breytenbach, formerly a convicted political prisoner charged with an attempt to overthrow the state in South Africa, and now, in exile, an anti-apartheid activist who probably influenced French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius to impose (postdated) sanctions against South Africa. But all this is only flirting with black nationalism. The real copulation took place not with blacks, but between white and white at the ballot box in 1983, when English-speaking and Afrikaans-speaking whites said “yes” together to the new constitution, uniting against blacks. And as afterplay the English-speaking financial leaders turned a blind eye and closed their checkbooks to the financial plight that killed off the Rand Daily Mail, the only mass-circulation daily paper opposing apartheid with anything like vigor.
So long as President Botha can go on declaiming eagerness to talk to black leaders while locking up the real ones, so long as commissions of inquiry are appointed to investigate in proper, Western legalistic form each “irregularity” of police brutality while the brutality continues, the various white elites, as Lelyveld notes, can go on
talking, talking, talking about their future and the country’s through a network of incestuous discussion groups that pride themselves on their openness and regularly now solicit opinions from browns and blacks. These are drawn from a roster of 15 or 20 names among the 27 or 28 million, those mainly who can be counted on to be “responsible,” plus a few [Buthelezi of kwaZulu, for example, I would add] who carry verbal whips and chains to satisfy an occasional white urge for flagellation.
In another category, morally speaking, at least in intention, is the newly formed National Convention Alliance, created in September. Among its members, in addition to the Progressive Federal Party and some church, business, sports, women’s, and small political groups, are distinguished people such as Senior Counsel Sidney Kentridge, the defense lawyer who exposed the death of the black leader, Steve Biko, at the hands of the South African police.
Such people are true and proven opponents of apartheid in works as well as words; but it seems that the Alliance is likely to spend whatever potential it might have in internal debate over whether it is possible to ally for a national convention without ensuring the presence of imprisoned political leaders, which would mean making to the government what one of the Alliance’s members called “unreasonable although laudable demands” to release them. Chief Buthelezi is inevitably part of the Alliance; and probably its albatross. Once again, those who have been proved, by government bans and imprisonment, to be the national leaders of the black people—the United Democratic Front, Azapo, and the black trade unionists, as well as their spokesman Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the white liberationist most trusted by blacks, Dr. Beyers Naudé—are not represented.
They are conspicuously absent. There can be no question, for them, whether or not the release of all political prisoners is an “unreasonable” demand. Neither would they make common cause with a “homeland” leader such as Buthelezi while Mandela is in prison.
The chairman of South Africa’s most powerful mining group put it this way to Lelyveld: “One can go on in a state of permanent transition.” With a few exceptions, that is the gamble South African white power is taking; and it is the South African government gambit in the form of the famous new initiative about which the West keeps hearing.
Joseph Lelyveld’s factual analysis provides Americans with the opportunity, in this book as in no other, to study America’s long-term record in South Africa. He gives a fascinating account of American involvement in the missionary period.
The American subtheme in South Africa’s turbulent history doesn’t really become apparent…until the United States was a nuclear superpower capable of seeing its interests at risk in any drastic political change anywhere. But it is worth teasing out, for it points to the proclivity for earnest but inconsistent dabbling that now gets dignified every four to eight years under the rubric “policy.” In recent years we have seen the United States groping under Gerald Ford toward a policy of joint covert operations with the white regime in Pretoria; then, within twenty-four months, blithely, even offhandedly, proclaiming under Jimmy Carter its wish to see the speedy termination of that regime; then, when that brief impulse vanishes without a trace, promising Ronald Reagan’s “constructive engagement.” It is thesis and antithesis, never synthesis.
Apart from policy statements (“It is not our task to choose between black and white,” said the present assistant secretary of state for Africa, Chester Crocker, thereby weighing oppressor and victim in perfect balance on the American scale of justice), there is America to thank for that overhaul of apartheid by social engineering terminology which South African reformniks use so skillfully. The method’s respectable validity is recognized by the greatest power in the Western world when Crocker describes the leaders of the South African armed forces as a “lobby of modernizing patriots.” These are the up-to-date men who in 1985 sent a force over a sovereign country’s border—not for the first time—and machine-gunned, in their beds, African National Congress exiles and whoever else was in the houses, including children. These are the men on whose behalf the South African government has consistently lied—on its own admission, this September—when it denied that the South African army has long been providing arms and military training for UNITA rebel forces fighting the MPLA government of Angola. In addition to making public their alliance with the rebels, these men have once again sent in troops to invade Angolan territory, ostensibly against South-West African People’s Organization guerrillas based there to fight for the independence of neighboring Namibia from South Africa’s illegal occupation of that country. Senior South African foreign affairs officials have just been to Washington to lobby for American support for their military intervention in the Angolan civil war: this was an astonishingly crass mission when we consider that the intervention has yet again gunned down United States hopes of getting going the stalled negotiations for Namibian independence.
Chester Crocker’s definition of this “lobby of modernizing patriots” would, of course, provide a reasonable basis on which to engage with them if, as some of us living in South Africa think, there may be a military takeover under Minister of Defense Magnus Malan, if Botha cannot regain control of ungovernable areas of the country.
Always measured while unsparing in his assessments, Lelyveld says “it would be excessive to speak of the Americanization of apartheid, but a little imitation makes it possible for the envoys of American venture capital and enterprise to feel increasingly comfortable and optimistic in the environment apartheid shapes.” By the time his book has appeared, the envoys of capital and enterprise no longer feel either comfortable or optimistic. The banks are scared: uprisings—at last, isolatedly but ominously—have begun to spill over the breakwater of a State of Emergency into white areas. American banks have withdrawn credit from South Africa. As of August, South Africa’s foreign debts have been frozen until 1986. The governor of the South African Reserve Bank. Gerhard de Kock, has raced around the capitals of Western countries which, his government keeps threatening, are dependent on South Africa for vital mineral supplies.
But his attempts to raise support there for the fall of the rand have failed. He is now in the process of turning out South Africa’s pockets: exchanging its bullion reserves for that support. For the first time in history, rich South Africa is a debtor country. Third world status is no longer confined to the “homelands.” Until early September (by which time more than six hundred people, fewer than half a dozen of them white, had died in riots since October 1984), President Reagan, with Chester Crocker standing behind him—and notwithstanding all Crocker’s failed initiatives in South Africa, the Nkomati Accord, the “linked” solution to South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia—showed no sign of abandoning the constructive engagement policy. On the exhaustive evidence in this chapter of Lelyveld’s book, one cannot refute his accusation that, up to the present, all the American government’s talk about seeking an end to white domination is really a search “for ways to make it more tolerable so it can endure.”
The state of permanent transition has been one on which, whatever hard words have been exchanged, South African white power and American power have long agreed. As Lelyveld sees the middle-term future,
Apartheid would survive, but it would be apartheid with a human face that might now, on occasion, show itself to be brown or even black, enabling those who wanted to engage constructively with South Africa to do so with diminished embarrassment. Repression would still be necessary, but it would try to be discreet. The West would have to accept at face value and even magnify the good intentions of whites, ignoring insofar as possible the central issue of power, in order to prevent a strategic vacuum and keep its supplies of gold and platinum, manganese, vanadium and chromium, according to what was merely the latest stance in Washington. It would do so until the next swing of the political pendulum, when once again it would sound righteous to no avail. Constructive engagement might then be said to have set the stage for constructive disengagement.
At the end of August, Reagan called upon both the African National Congress and the South African government to stop violence; as if there were no difference whatever in their reasons for resorting to violence. (“It is not our task to choose between white and black.”) Then his government edged away from this position to call upon South Africa to include the banned and outlawed African National Congress definitively in any promised talks with blacks, and to release the country’s most important black leader, Nelson Mandela, from life imprisonment. It is well known that Mandela will not accept any kind of finagling conditional release. He already has refused several offers of that kind. He will leave his cell after twenty-three years only if other political prisoners can leave with him, and if the African National Congress is declared a legal organization. Did President Reagan mean what his call for Mandela’s release implies, if it is to mean anything at all?
On September 9 Reagan preempted Congress rather than face defeat there over sanctions against South Africa, and instead of vetoing them came up with a milder version of those demanded by Congress. A ban on computer exports to agencies involved in the enforcement of apartheid and to the security forces (that “lobby of modernizing patriots”); a ban on exports of nuclear goods or technology, except that necessary for international nonproliferation safeguards or for humanitarian needs and protection of health and safety; a ban on loans to the South African government, except those that improve economic opportunities, or for educational, health, or housing facilities that are open to all races; a ban on US export assistance for any American firm in South Africa employing more than twenty-five people that does not adhere to nondiscrimination provisions of Reagan’s order by the end of 1985; and a ban on the US importation of Krugerrands. These measures were announced as “active engagement.”
One thing is clear—sanctions, against all historical evidence, do seem to work in the case of South Africa. The withdrawal of bankers’ confidence was a kind of sanction: Botha reacted by “giving” citizenship to some of the millions of blacks from whom he had taken it away, those living outside the “homelands.” When Reagan announced his sanctions, Botha promptly responded by announcing that the pass laws will be rescinded.
Have blacks, and white liberationists, something unequivocal to hope for from America, now? Or is “active engagement” only part of the name game? Are Botha and Reagan tacitly still at one in the state of permanent transition? The South African citizenship of the blacks in the already “independent homelands” is still to be “negotiated” with government-appointed “homeland” leaders. In possession of citizenship or without it, no black has a vote for the central government. The lifting of the pass laws is, at this stage, a “recommendation” by one of those parliamentary commissions. There are many waiting in the background to the big news, ready with concoctions of delaying tactics, limiting clauses, amendments, to water down the strongest purge white supremacy has ever had to stomach.
Ten of the biggest United States companies operating in South Africa, including IBM, General Motors, Johnson and Johnson, Colgate Palmolive, Mobil, Citicorp, Fluor, Caltex, and Deere, have gone beyond signing the voluntary code of the Sullivan principles and formed a group with South African companies, to be called the “US Corporate Council on South Africa.”2 Their founding statement said that “Council members share the viewpoint of a growing number of senior South African business leaders who see an urgent need for changes and reform of the apartheid system, which will lead to its ultimate elimination.” This merger, in unstated if open alliance of enlightened self-interest with South African capitalists—does it mean that American corporations are taking over from the star who bungled his lines, Chester Crocker, the role of “honest broker” between black and white in South Africa? Are they really making a choice where he wouldn’t? Their move arises, of course, out of the September meeting in Zambia of a group of senior South African business leaders with the president of the banned South African Congress in exile, Oliver Tambo. President Botha loudly condemned that meeting. Did the business leaders really defy him, or was this a bold attempt, secretly approved by Botha and Reagan, to recruit the freedom fighters themselves into the state of permanent transition?
Even if it was, there is some promise that President Oliver Tambo may transform it, get South Africa and the US to come down from the suspension of permanent transition and engage with bedrock change, if at the risk of his appearing to compromise the African National Congress with white capitalism and racism. (This accusation can be expected from the rival Black Consciousness movement, Azapo—Azanian People’s Organization—which condemns cooperation with whites.) Tambo’s comment on the meeting firmly placed it in a context of victory over whites at the highest level of politics rather than that of any business deal; he said the meeting was recognition that there could be no negotiations on the future of South Africa without the African National Congress.
It must be admitted against this promise that Botha’s recent series of major speeches has shown no open acceptance of this recognition. Even those reformists who yearn to take a lead from him find, as the English-language daily, the Star, did after his September 30 speech, that his “concepts are still woolly.” He gives me no reason to think that they are not intentionally so. The recent statement of Azapo pulls the wool away: when Mr. Botha speaks of granting
universal franchise, he is speaking of the vote in one’s “own homeland,” or “ethnic chamber.” When he speaks of “common citizenship” he is speaking of citizenship in the “homelands.”
These facts are not refuted by the government. The one unambiguous statement Botha did make was that the Group Areas Act, fundamental to the entire policy of racial discrimination, would not be scrapped. As for America, if George Shultz has sharpened his rebuke against apartheid, the basic policy of the United States government on South Africa remains as stated in his October 2 response to Botha’s speech, the policy of thesis, antithesis, and no synthesis: “History teaches that the black majority might wind up exchanging one set of oppressive laws for another and could be worse off.”
Lelyveld’s credo as a journalist is the best possible one: that people know most about themselves. Therefore he goes directly to ordinary blacks, learning about them while among them; from their silences as well as their words, from the daily ingenuity of their courage as well as from their anger. In this sense his wonderful, all-encompassing work is a book of the people—the African people. Most other works by outsiders (and many insiders) rely heavily on what public figures explain about blacks, whether in partisanship with or in horror of black liberation. He is not afflicted, either, by the obsession American journalists seem to have with Afrikaners as the shamans of apartheid, the obsession that somehow enables the English-speaking whites to appear unwilling acolytes of apartheid, if not entirely untainted by its disgusting rites.
This placing of the book squarely in the middle of those who live apartheid leads one to remark a strange omission. There seem to be missing pages: those that would deal with the liberation movements and leaders who have been born of the black mass. I am not suggesting that Lelyveld need have retold the entire history of the liberation movements in detail—he touches on this where the context would not be intelligible to most foreign readers without it. But the policy and tactics of the African National Congress, for instance, do not get any worthwhile attention until page 321. He pays tribute to Mandela, but sees the ANC, after 1960, as a “weak organization…compromised by its attitude to Soviet repression” in other parts of the world. Surely the ANC’s uncompromising, nonracial African nationalist opposition to repression at home is more important than its lip service to the repressive Eastern power that gives it the support the West has for more than twenty-five years denied it. He keeps the tragic icon of Biko’s naked corpse in the place it holds among all blacks, along with the photograph of the living but absent Mandela. He salutes Dr. Allan Boesak but, present at its launch and following its campaign against the exclusion of blacks from the new constitution, he does not think much of the United Democratic Front of which Boesak was one of the founders. Yet the United Democratic Front has quickly become such an important force of opposition that virtually its entire leadership, including Dr. Boesak, is now in detention, on trial, or, in the case of Boesak, under house arrest while awaiting trial on charges of subversion.
Nor is much attention given to black trade unionists, the new echelon of black leadership—many of them proving their credentials by their incarceration, too. The only black political meeting described was no more than a shebeen crawl with some political waffle. Finally, Lelyveld took the trouble to go to Sri Lanka to talk to Philip Kgosana, the 1960s boy leader of the Pan Africanist Congress (parent of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa). Like most South Africans, black and white, I didn’t even know Kgosana was in Sri Lanka—he disappeared twenty-five years ago after leading a march on Cape Town which appeared, at the time, to be the beginning of the end of apartheid. The result of Lelyveld’s quirky trek is a remarkable and original study of the psychology and fate of vanishing messiahs. But he seems to have accepted, too easily for a man of such determination, that he could not get an interview with Oliver Tambo when in Zambia.
One must not ask of a writer the book he did not write. Particularly when he has written such a superb one. And I cannot, with a writer of incontestable integrity, impute the missing pages to opinions and assessments he did not want to make explicit. Joseph Lelyveld knows I do not pretend to comment, in this context, disinterestedly, because he also knows that I am a partisan of the black liberation struggle. What one can say is that we need a second book from him, this time about the organizations and leaders that have come from, and continue to emerge every embattled year from, the people whose testimony to an overwhelmingly just cause he has given such eloquent permanence in this book.
November 7, 1985
Kraal: Afrikaans term for cattle enclosure adopted by Afrikaners to describe the home, village, or chief’s headquarters of black rural people. Nowadays blacks condemn this insulting usage. ↩
A statement released by the ILO on September 5 on employment conditions in foreign companies covered by the Sullivan and EEC codes says: ↩