P. W.Botha
P. W.Botha; drawing by David Levine

It is extremely difficult to comprehend the reality of apartheid. Despite the South African government’s efforts to shield us from its cruelties, we see evidence of them on television, we hear about them on the radio, we read about them in the daily press. But the realities are so weird, the nuances so complex, that they are utterly remote from American experience, even for those with memories of legally enforced segregation.

Crossing the Line gives a knowledgeable picture of those realities. William Finnegan, a young white American who in his student days had been peripherally involved in the civil rights movement, describes his experiences in 1980 and 1981, when he was employed as a teacher in a high school for Coloured (mixedrace) children in the Cape Peninsula. Here are the perceptions of an outsider temporarily inside a community of victims of apartheid—people whom the government had recently uprooted from their homes in Cape Town’s District Six and relocated on the arid Cape Flats. He becomes close to his colleagues on the school staff, to his pupils, and to some of their families. Because he is an American, he is able to interpret this segment of South Africa and make it intelligible for American readers.

An articulate and sensitive writer, Finnegan conveys the texture of life under apartheid more effectively than even the ablest newspaper reporters, who are obliged to move from incident to incident, theme to theme. He gives a scathing description of the educational system. The racial—as well as sexual—differences were pervasive. As a white male, he earned “nearly 40 percent more than a ‘Coloured’ female colleague, and 30 percent more than a ‘Coloured’ male colleague, with the same qualifications.” The textbooks are full of racist stereotypes and other forms of “racial mischief.” The geography books describe the Group Areas Act (which divides the land into residential and business zones for the separate races) as if it was “as common as industrialization or glacial scraping.” An English grammar had a sentence that read: “All Bantu who had been drinking beer began to fight one another.” Finnegan also deplores the insistence on rote learning; the lack of class discussions; the obsession with examinations; and the frequent resort to corporal punishment. Citing the views of Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the principal architect of the black educational system, he concludes, “We teachers were hired to prepare these children for lives of subservience, pure and simple.”

Initially, Finnegan was impressed by the extent to which the burden of apart-heid institutions and practices seemed to create a sense of normalcy among its victims. There seemed no choice except to acquiesce. Life was a struggle for survival on terms set by the regime. Suddenly, all that changed.

One cool sunny morning in the middle of April everything at Grassy Park Senior Secondary School was summarily turned upside down. The spectators became the actors, the authorities stepped aside. In Paulo Freire’s famous formulation, the objects became subjects. When I arrived at school that morning, I felt like I’d passed through the looking glass. Homemade banners and painted slogans festooned the walls and fences: WE WANT OUT DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS; DOWN WITH GUTTER EDUCATION; RELEASE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS. The entire student body was marching in a great solid phalanx around the campus, chanting, carrying placards, singing freedom songs. “A PEOPLE…UNITED…will never be DEFEATED,” they roared, over and over, as they paraded. They gave clenched-fist Black Power salutes, and thundered out this Zulu call-and-response: “Amandla!” (Power!)…

NGAWETHU!” (To the people!).

The boycott was concerted and complete in the Cape Peninsula. At Grassy Park, instead of attending normal classes, the students organized their own teaching sessions, where “a whole new version of South African history” was presented. Each class elected a member to a Students’ Representative Council, which in turn sent a delegate to a committee composed of representatives from eighty-one black schools and teacher-training colleges and the Coloured University of the Western Cape. The committee laid down strategy and produced pamphlets. Drawing on a long radical tradition among Coloured intellectuals, they concentrated on an economic and class analysis of South African society.

Finnegan himself, responding to a request for a lecture comparing the American civil rights movement with South African resistance, decided that black American experience had very little relevance for South Africans. Their situations differed fundamentally. In South Africa, unlike America, blacks were a majority of the population; they were deprived of rights far more systematically and remorselessly; the courts did not have the power to review legislation; and an American-style strategy of passive resistance was not possible in South Africa, because security legislation “had removed the basic freedoms necessary to organize effective nonviolent resistance.”

As the initial exhilaration of the boycott began to peter out, divisions emerged among the protesters, which the government exploited. Prime Minister (now President) P.W. Botha summoned the leaders of the established Coloured Teachers’ Association and made vague promises of reforms, whereupon the staff at Grassy Park split into two camps. Similar divisions occurred throughout South Africa. The “holdouts” comprised most of the children and younger teachers, and they were supported by many unemployed blacks; those who wanted the schools kept open included most parents, black policemen, homeland leaders (notably, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, prime minister of KwaZulu), and property owners. Eventually, the government struck hard, arresting and detaining nearly four hundred people and sending the police with armored cars called Hippos to crush resistance in black areas. By mid-1981, on the Cape Flats, “dozens of Blacks were dead, hundreds had been shot, while not a single policeman had been injured.”


When the dust settled, Finnegan witnessed passionate debates among the opponents of apartheid that illuminate the predicament of black people in South Africa. Should teachers encourage the schoolchildren to try to get admitted to a university, to acquire skills that might enable them to run things in a future liberated South Africa? Or would that merely contribute to the government’s plan to create a black middle class as a buffer between the whites and the black masses?

Finnegan has no answer to this question. Eventually he was overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness.

South Africa was driving me crazy. What bugged me the most…what really disoriented me, was simply the government’s lack of accountability. The millions of people being brutalized daily by apartheid had absolutely no legal, peaceful recourse. This self-evident fact ate its way into one’s soul in South Africa.

He resigned his job and returned to the United States.

Nevertheless, as Finnegan says, “Despite all the restrictions on public discourse in South Africa, a nonstop debate raged here that was as serious, as profound, as they come. The question was: how to create a political framework that would be regarded as legitimate by a majority of South Africans. It was argued constantly, in every corner of the country…. It made history and ideas important in a way that they never could be in a more settled country.”

Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley contribute to the debate in South Africa Without Apartheid. Adam, who was born and raised in Germany, is a distinguished analyst of South Africa, best known for his path-breaking study, Modernizing Racial Domination, which was published in 1971. Kogila Moodley, a sociologist, was brought up in Durban, South Africa. Husband and wife, they have lived in Vancouver for the last twenty years, where Adam is a professor at Simon Fraser University and Moodley at the University of British Columbia.

They explain their theoretical position in the introduction to their book. They are both indebted to the Frankfurt School, where Adam was trained, but they have now moved beyond its neo-Marxist approach. Contemporary problems, they say, cannot be understood apart from their historical setting; and “individuals are not mere carriers of attitudes, qualifications, or institutional interests; they experience the world, interpret and mediate social reality, and act on their perceptions.” The authors also “unashamedly confess a reformist bias.”

To postpone small-scale reform in the hope that present misery will accelerate a more fundamental transformation to us smacks not only of cynicism but of immorality. Indeed, it is true that apartheid cannot be reformed but must be eradicated. Yet this dismantling of a political system does not necessarily require the destruction of a society.

Much of their book consists of a close analysis of the changes that have been taking place since 1981. While the government has been mobilizing enough force to contain the resistance, it has modified its rhetoric, stressing reform and common interests. It has granted concessions—removing prohibitions on interracial sex and interracial political organization, recognizing black trade unions, and undertaking to relax the controls on black mobility. It has also stepped up its efforts to get the cooperation of the Asian and Coloured communities and to support African collaborators in the homelands and the municipalities. Indeed, the government has succeeded in driving numerous wedges among the black population, making it almost impossible for a single force to organize, control, and sustain a concerted revolutionary movement.

Nevertheless, domestic resistance to apartheid has been increasing, external criticism has begun to move beyond words to deeds, and the South African economy has plunged into a deep recession. These problems have opened up wide fissures among whites. Business leaders, including Harry Oppenheimer and Gavin Relly of the vast Anglo-American conglomerate which controls nearly half of the shares on the Johannesburg stock exchange, have openly disagreed with the government and some have advocated talks with leaders of the African National Congress. Even the politically dominant Afrikaner people, so solidly united in the 1960s and 1970s, have split into rival camps, ranging from a bizarre lunatic fringe, which flaunts a swastika-like emblem, to committed opponents such as the Reverend Beyers Naudé.


The author’s assessment of these forces is complex and their views on policy are sometimes confusing, particularly in the way the discussion shifts from the past to the present and future, but the core of their argument can be summarized in a number of propositions. A revolution, they contend, is not likely to take place in South Africa in the foreseeable future. The present revolt is far more serious than its predecessors, but there are nevertheless grounds for hoping for a relatively peaceful transition to a stabler and more egalitarian society. For this to happen, the government should accord legitimacy to the African National Congress and convene a constituent assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution. This assembly should be elected “on a one-person-one-vote basis and a common voters’ roll in a free political contest,” and the new constitution should include common citizenship with universal franchise, an electoral system of proportional representation, and an undivided but federal state.

The authors regard the present situation as a destructive stalemate, with neither side capable of overwhelming the other. The government is managing to ward off a revolution by keeping the blacks divided into separate communities and classes, with distinct and conflicting interests. But black revolutionary fervor is too advanced, participation too widespread, to be nullified. Therefore, Adam and Moodley argue, both sides would gain by negotiating a peaceful deracialization of South African society.

They also have interesting things to say about several subjects related to their basic argument. They show that the great weakness in some of the pluralist schemes that are being favored by white liberals is that they would maintain the government’s four racial categories as distinct groups for political purposes, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating the racial divisions in society. They believe that the African National Congress is first and foremost a nationalist organization. Although communists have long been associated with it, they argue, its program, contrary to assertions that have come from the White House and 10 Downing Street, is not communist, and it is not dominated by its communist members; nor does Moscow pull its strings. They also suggest that the black masses in South Africa have acquired such a taste for consumer goods that they would prefer to live in a nonracial, social democracy than in an authoritarian, communist state. They regard the black trade unions and white-controlled big businesses as capable of coming to an agreement, since both have an interest in the survival of the industrial and capitalist system. In one passage the authors, in effect, address the big business interests and advise them to support the unions as their best way of preserving capitalism in postapartheid South Africa.

However, in their conclusion the authors place the responsibility for initiating fundamental change on the government; so that one’s reaction to their basic argument hinges largely on one’s view of the ruling National party. The authors regard its leaders as pragmatic technocrats. They grant that the changes it has made so far are no more than pseudoreforms, but they consider that “the option of stalling reform…no longer exists,” because South Africa is bound to “come to grips with its economic advancement and political lag.” Moreover, “the reform process, once started, may develop its own dynamic” and “unintended consequences always arise.”

Adam and Moodley also write that “if White rule were to degenerate into an unlegitimated police state, ideological cleavages would open up within the White camp that would weaken its fragile racial cohesion. White morale would be further undermined and the crucial self-perception of fighting for a just cause would be lost.”

If that were so, however, would it cause the government to reverse its policy? Throughout their book, Adam and Moodley present much evidence against the capacity of the government—embedded as it is in the Afrikaner ethnic community and responsible as it is to an ethnic electorate—to embark on a process of genuine reform, aimed at admitting Africans as well as Asians and Coloured people to full participation in the political system. Moreover, since South Africa Without Apartheid went to press at the beginning of 1986, South Africa certainly seems to have been degenerating into an “unlegitimated police state.” Emergency regulations have been reimposed. The police and the army have been given license to occupy the black townships, to make mass arrests, and to torture their victims. Pretoria’s attempts to muzzle the press and television, and its contemptuous flouting of international opinion, suggest that the government has decided to emphasize coercive control, regardless of the cost in human lives and social disintegration. One cannot realistically expect that it is capable of summoning a constituent assembly on the terms suggested by Adam and Moodley, except as a result of severe pressure, foreign as well as domestic, economic as well as political.

South Africa Without Apartheid is curiously silent about the regional aspect of the Southern African conflict. That is the subject of Joseph Hanlon’s Beggar Your Neighbours. With contributions by four associates, Hanlon, who was the Guardian correspondent in Mozambique from 1979 to 1984, presents much evidence to show how ruthlessly and effectively the South African government has been deploying its military and economic superiority to neutralize the capacity of the neighboring states to combat apartheid.

Since Mozambique and Angola became independent from Portugal in 1974 and 1975, and Zimbabwe passed under African rule in 1980—all three new states professing Marxist ideologies—the South African government has been wreaking havoc among its neighbors. It wants to prevent them from breaking away from South Africa’s economic domination and, above all, from providing bases for the African National Congress to use for launching attacks against South Africa. South African forces have continued to occupy Namibia (South West Africa) in defiance of international law; they have mounted invasions deep into Angola, and carried out hit-and-run raids on the capitals of Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. In addition, South Africa has backed rebel groups in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, and, through those surrogates, disrupted the transportation networks of all three countries.

South Africa has also exploited its economic power. International corporations based in South Africa, including the giant Anglo-american conglomerate, have interests throughout the region. South Africa’s transport services have a stranglehold over regional transport; its industry is far the most powerful in the region; it controls the supply of oil and electricity to its neighbors; and it employs 280,000 foreign migrant workers, whose earnings are vital to the economies, especially, of Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique. Beggar Your Neighbors concludes that.

what South Africa would really like is sympathetic, non-socialist neighbours who would accept apartheid, support South Africa in world forums, and remain economically dependent on it. Since this is impossible, the main goal of the South African government is to have regional economic, military, and political hegemony. If it cannot gain its dominance by any other means, South Africa adopts the alternative objective of causing instability and chaos in unsympathetic, Marxist states.

During 1984, it seemed as though South Africa was bringing its neighbors to heel and establishing a durable hegemony throughout the region. Mozambique signed an agreement undertaking to expel members of the African National Congress, in return for which South Africa would cease supporting the rebel Mozambique National Resistance. But the truce quickly collapsed. Since mid-1985, in reaction to widespread black unrest and economic recession, Pretoria has resumed its militant policy. It has been violating its agreement with Mozambique, applying economic pressures on Zimbabwe and other neighbors, and conducting raids on their capital cities.

Now, however, with pressures against apartheid rising in the United States, the American administration has been obliged to impose some restrictions on trade with South Africa; universities, church groups, cities, and states have embarked on programs of divestment from companies that do business there; and Congress seems likely to enact far stiffer sanctions than those that have been applied by the administration. The drive for effective action against apartheid has developed international momentum that is being restrained only by the major industrial powers, notably the United States and Great Britain, but also Japan and West Germany—the states with the heaviest investment and trade links with South Africa.

In describing these developments, Beggar Your Neighbours emphasizes the links between the Reagan administration and the South African government. They report that when South African commandos raided Maputo on January 30, 1981, the new American administration raised no objections. In March of that year a South Africa intelligence delegation arrived in Washington for talks with the Pentagon; Pretoria has subsequently regarded the Reagan policy of “constructive engagement” as a license to subdue its neighbors in the supposed interests of anticommunism.

Hanlon’s book is repetitious, with chapters on each of South Africa’s neighbors as well as on South Africa’s regional policy. It is also tendentious, saying scarcely anything about the repressive records of Angola and Mozambique or the reports of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In his conclusion Hanlon asks the question “What Can Be Done?” His reply is that the main trading partners of South Africa should themselves organize and apply stringent economic sanctions against South Africa and also provide considerable economic aid to its neighbors to enable them to resist its pressures.

If Western action was comprehensive and effective, the process of political change in South Africa could be quick…. Military and economic help is essential for the region. Those who help must recognise that there is a war going on, and side with the people of southern Africa.

That advice seems to be based on moral repugnance alone, not on any close analysis of internal political conditions in the United States and the United Kingdom as well as in South Africa. It would be more persuasive if it were accompanied with a discussion of the practical advantages that the United States and its allies might expect to derive from taking a lead in contributing to the elimination of apartheid:

Such a discussion could run as follows. The United States and its allies now have a predominant interest in coming out unequivocally on the side of the black people of South Africa. Ever since 1981, the Reagan administration policy of “constructive engagement” has given the South African government the opportunity to retain American support, provided that it initiated a process of genuine reform; time after time, however, Pretoria’s response has consisted of reformist rhetoric and increased repression.

Second, the government is barely managing to impose its system of law and its order on the black population, but millions of black people are now thoroughly politicized and have developed too much muscle for the regime to establish stability. Moreover, demography is on their side. Whites made up 21 percent of the population of South Africa in 1911; today they are fewer than 15 percent; all estimates project fewer than 10 percent early in the next century.

Third, most of the present leaders of the African National Congress and its domestic allies and sympathizers are disposed to favor Western, Christian, and social democratic norms and institutions. However, these leaders are now losing ground to young people who have been brutalized by apartheid and whose actions may well become increasingly violent; nothing seems likely to stop this process so long as the present regime endures. Consequently the sooner fundamental changes occur, the better the prospects seem for all South Africans, white as well as black.

Fourth, the cost of constructive engagement to the United States and its allies in diplomatic leverage in the third world has been enormous. The outburst against America on July 4 in Harare was foolish, strident, and ill-timed, but it expressed the pent-up reaction against Western policies that now pervades the third world.

Constructive engagement having failed to nudge Pretoria toward genuine reform, it is now in the best interest of the United States and its allies to stop providing diplomatic cover for the South African regime. They should get to know the leaders of the African National Congress and its domestic allies and treat them on an equal footing with the South African government. They should cease giving support to Savimbi’s rebellious movement in Angola. They should also apply economic pressures to South Africa of the sort adopted by the House of Representatives.

Sanctions alone will not bring down the South African regime; but they will give an immense psychological boost to the black people of South Africa, they will improve the disastrous image of the United States in the greater part of the world, and they will, too, strike a serious blow at the already embattled South African government. No doubt Pretoria will try to divert the effects to its black population and to neighboring states, but there are also constraints on the regime that will limit that process. In this tragic situation, we may accept the verdict of South Africans as responsible as Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu—who for years refused to endorse sanctions—that additional material burdens would now be acceptable to most South Africans if they contribute to the elimination of the last and most oppressive racist regime in the world.

This Issue

October 23, 1986