In the spring of 1989 I visited South Africa for the first time in fifteen years. When I had been there in 1974, apartheid was flourishing. Signs designating facilities for “whites only” or “non-whites only” were omnipresent, and I had the unforgettable experience of riding in unproud isolation on the lower deck of a double-decker bus in Cape Town, the top of which was filled to capacity with the black people who had been fortunate enough to get aboard at all. The sight of blacks left on the curb rather than taking seats in the virtually empty “white” part of the bus brought home the meaning of segregation as social humiliation and personal hardship.
The university where I was doing research had a handful of black students admitted under some loopholes in the educational apartheid laws (usually because they were studying, or supposedly studying, subjects not offered at all at the segregated black institutions popularly known as “bush colleges”), but they kept to themselves. The black protest of that period was in itself segregated, as militant young blacks, influenced to some extent by black power rhetoric imported from the United States, refused to make alliances with liberal whites, and rallied around the separatist “black consciousness” movement. The African National Congress, which had been banned in 1960, seemed to be no more than a memory within South Africa, and its longstanding goal of “nonracial” or “multiracial” democracy was likely to strike a dispassionate observer as utterly unrealistic.
When I came back this year for a month of historical research, I was impressed by the changes that had taken place. I had kept up to some extent with developments in South Africa and was of course aware that some aspects of apartheid had been relaxed or even abolished. But I was not quite prepared for the degree to which some of the most conspicuous trappings of segregation had disappeared. In the large cities that I visited—Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, and Cape Town—I found no signs of racially restricted facilities. As far as I could see, hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, buses, and trains were open equally to all races. If Johannesburg of the 1970s was like Birmingham in the 1950s, then Johannesburg of the late 1980s was, on the surface at least, strikingly like the Birmingham of the early 1970s.
In some respects, Johannesburg seems more integrated than many large American cities. The lower-middle-class neighborhood of Hillbrow, which was all white when I was there in 1974, is now racially mixed to a degree that would be hard to duplicate in a similar neighborhood in the United States. The notorious Group Areas Act, which restricts residence in designated urban areas to members of a single racial group, is still on the books, but it is not consistently enforced, and the government has recently proposed to modify it by formally assigning “mixed” status to some neighborhoods. Public swimming pools are still segregated in Johannesburg, but pressure is building to remove this vestige of purely social apartheid. Desegregation of beaches has begun in many coastal cities. (Some beaches previously reserved for whites have been opened to all races, and the last two “whites-only” beaches in Cape Town have been the target of recent black protests.)
It would appear that the kind of everyday segregation that went under the name of Jim Crow in the United States is becoming a thing of the past in the major cities. (Since my visit, “white” hospitals, under pressure from nonviolent protesters, have begun to admit blacks.) Small towns undoubtedly lag behind, and municipalities under the control of the far right Conservative party have attempted to reintroduce mandatory segregation of public facilities. But successful black boycotts of white merchants are putting heavy pressure on Conservative local authorities to rescind these actions.
At the “English-speaking” “white” universities, the situation is again reminiscent of post-Jim Crow America. On their own initiative, these universities have recently carried out something very like the vigorous affirmative action programs of the late Sixties and early Seventies in the United States. There have been dramatic increases in the numbers of black students, who now make up close to one quarter of the total enrollment at the universities of the Witwatersrand (in Johannesburg) and Cape Town.
As in most American universities, black and white students have little to do with one another socially; indeed voluntary segregation in South Africa’s “integrated” universities also includes a black boycott of extracurricular activities, including sports. But black and white students come together to protest against the regime. While at the University of the Witwatersrand, I observed a demonstration of roughly a hundred students, about a quarter of whom were white, to commemorate the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. When all the participants raised their fists in the ANC salute and sang the ANC anthem, I sensed the immediate and practical meaning of the ANC’s nonracial nationalism.
The ANC position is that members of the white minority are not to be allowed to determine the content of South African nationality; but if they are willing to accept the ideas and symbols associated with a nation under black majority rule, most African resisters seem willing to regard them as compatriots despite the color of their skin and their European ancestry. Most black activists now reject the position of the black consciousness movement that whites should be excluded from the struggle against apartheid. I saw another example of racial inclusiveness when the leader of a black jazz band in Cape Town said he would lead a predominantly white audience in “the national anthem” at the end of a concert in a public auditorium. Clasping one another’s raised hands and swaying to the music, whites joined with the small number of blacks in the audience singing the ANC hymn. Many blacks and at least some whites are openly behaving as if a transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority has already taken place. Such scenes would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago.
But of course power has not really been transferred or even “shared.” “Petty apartheid” may be on the way out, but “grand apartheid”—the denial to Africans of the right to own land outside the 13 percent of the country “reserved” for them and the restriction of African political rights to the election of local authorities in “homelands” and segregated townships—remains in force. Furthermore, under the state of emergency first declared in 1985, and redeclared for a third time in 1988, all black protest activities and organizations are illegal. The difference one senses from the early 1970s is a new self-confidence and assertiveness among blacks that cannot be repressed by the kind of martial-law measures currently in effect. Blacks may not be on the verge of seizing power, but one gets the impression that they will never again be reduced to a state of acquiescence to white rule. On my earlier visit, I was often addressed as baas (master), but on this occasion even blacks with service jobs scrupulously avoided such terms and looked me straight in the eye in a way that would once have been regarded as “cheeky.”
Such impressions of a visitor raise more questions than they answer. To explain and assess the significance of the kinds of changes that I observed during my month in South Africa requires some immersion in the enormous literature on the recent history and current state of the South African republic. A good place to begin for anyone not already familiar with the history is Martin Meredith’s In the Name of Apartheid, a perceptive and readable popular history of South Africa since 1948. Although clearly opposed to apartheid and sympathetic to the blacks’ struggle for liberation, Meredith has no special ax to grind or panacea to propose. A journalist who also did historical research at Oxford, he is content to call our attention to the major elements in an unfolding story that has not yet reached its climax.
Meredith recalls the coming to power in 1948 of the Afrikaner Nationalist party, with its plan for total racial segregation, or apartheid, and he describes how the party imposed on South Africa an elaborate body of legislation designed to entrench white power and privilege for all time. He also describes the black political reaction to this systematic assault on such limited rights as blacks had managed to salvage from previous white supremacist governments. After a passive resistance campaign in the early 1950s had failed to stop the flood of apartheid legislation, African nationalist leaders, Nelson Mandela among them, tried to organize more militant protests, including mass demonstrations and civil disobedience. This led to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when dozens of blacks engaged in a peaceful march were killed, and the banning of the principal black protest movements. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the Nationalist government increased its hold over the white electorate and maintained repressive policies that drove internal opposition to the regime far underground.
During this period the Bantustan, or homeland, policy was in its heyday; hundreds of thousands of blacks who were living in largely white districts were forced to move to already overcrowded black enclaves that supposedly would become “independent homelands.” A nightmarish form of racist central planning and social engineering resulted in blacks being shunted back and forth from the “white” urban and industrial regions to the homelands; the aim of the planners was to exploit black labor power while denying them any basis for political participation and democratic rights. Fullblown apartheid was very expensive, but, fortunately for the regime, South Africa was in a boom period and was receiving heavy foreign investment. Its growth rate was among the highest in the world.
By the early 1970s, however, the white leaders began to run into problems. As manufacturing expanded, a serious shortage of skilled labor developed that could not be met by the white population. In 1973, Prime Minister John Vorster began in a small and inadequate way to soften the policy of “job reservation” that had officially given white workers a monopoly of skilled occupations. (When I visited South Africa in 1974, I frequently saw blacks doing skilled construction work, although always under the close supervision of white foremen.) According to Meredith, relaxing the job reservation system was “the first significant retreat in the apartheid system since 1948.”
A wave of strikes by black workers in search of higher wages also began in 1973, and the government began to recognize that some of the fruits of prosperity would have to be allowed to trickle down to black labor if industrial peace were to be maintained. During the 1970s, black wages increased dramatically, and the black share of personal income in South Africa increased from 19 percent of the total to 29 percent. The Nationalist politicians saw that black labor had to be accommodated within an industrializing South Africa that lacked enough whites to man the factories. In 1980 they recognized and allowed negotiations with black trade unions, in an effort to bring them under control through the pressures of the industrial bargaining process.
Meredith also provides a useful summary of events since the mid-1970s—the Soweto uprising of 1976, the growth of an enormous state security apparatus, Botha’s political reforms, the arrests in townships between 1983 and 1986, and the crackdown on black political groups and the press in 1985 and 1986, when martial law was imposed. But the reader seeking a concise historical introduction to South Africa since 1976 might be better served by the first chapter of South Africa: No Turning Back, edited by Shaun Johnson. The work of a British study group assembled in 1987, this book is among the best I know of recent collections on South Africa.
The opening historical essay on the period from the Soweto uprising to the end of the township revolts of the 1980s, written by the two most prominent British historians of South Africa, Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido, takes note of the economic gains made by blacks in the 1970s but argues that “these increases should be set against rapidly increasing unemployment and the further deterioration of rural resources.” In other words, the blacks lucky enough to have jobs were better off than employed blacks in the past, but the proportion of blacks who had no jobs at all and were living wretchedly in shantytowns outside the cities or within the “homelands” was growing. The economic situation of the “superfluous” or “redundant” blacks became even more desperate when recession hit the South African economy in the early Eighties. During my own recent visit to Soweto, I was struck by the contrast between the improved housing available to employed Africans and the squalid shantytowns with long lines outside their few latrines that are increasingly the refuge of the unemployed.
The Soweto uprising of 1976 was in large part the result of government efforts to expand secondary education for blacks in order to provide a more skilled work force for South African industry but without providing money for enough teachers or adequate classroom facilities. The efforts to enforce laws making Afrikaans obligatory in half of the courses taught in African schools set off the student rebellion in the townships near Johannesburg. Black high school students, conscious of the inferiority of their education, unsure of their job prospects, but convinced that English was the language of economic advancement, began a protest that became more and more vehement as young students threw stones at the police, provoking a bloody response when trigger-happy officers fired on the students, killing some 575 people. The black consciousness movement, with its emphasis on black pride and assertiveness, acted as a catalyst for this children’s revolt.
Although the wave of disorders that spread outward from Soweto lasted only a few months, and the heavy hand of government repression fell on the black consciousness organizations, a new spirit of resistance to apartheid was born in 1976 and 1977; it was to reemerge in the broader based and longer lasting revolts in the townships during the 1980s. The government’s response to Soweto was not simply to ban the militants but also to undertake reforms designed to defuse black discontent. “As it became apparent that the existing system was producing instability incompatible with the needs of industry,” Marks and Trapido write, “there was an intensified demand for reform from both local and foreign capital.”
Between 1978 and 1981, the government pursued economic measures, including subsidies for black education and urban housing, that it hoped would bring the business community, which favored such reforms, into more effective cooperation with the state. It was during this period that black unions were recognized and began to grow rapidly. In retrospect, Marks and Trapido point out, it is clear that the government’s willingness to spend larger and larger sums of public money to improve black economic conditions depended on the temporary revival of prosperity at the end of the Seventies and the beginning of the Eighties and that it could not survive the deep recession that began in 1982. Botha then introduced his proposal for a new constitution providing for a separate parliament representing “coloureds” (people of mixed racial origin) and Indians but conspicuously excluding Africans.
The response of black leaders was to organize the United Democratic Front, a broadly based federation of black community organizations and a few white liberal groups, which took the ANC’s Freedom Charter as its manifesto and won the endorsement of the ANC leaders in Zambia. The revival of the nonracial philosophy of the ANC and the eclipse of the black consciousness doctrine that blacks could go it alone were the most important changes in black political thinking during the 1980s. As blacks who were drawn to the ANC and the UDF demonstrated in the townships, and sought, sometimes violently, to purge their ranks of informers and collaborators with apartheid institutions, troops moved in; the violence that we saw on television in 1983 and 1984 threatened to plunge South Africa into civil war. Less widely observed than Botha’s feeble and self-defeating efforts at “power sharing” was his simultaneous remodeling of the constitution in order to create an all-powerful office of the president, who could act independently of parliament through the elaborate state security system.
In summing up the changes between 1976 and 1986, Marks and Trapido stress the transformation of black consciousness, the rise of a skilled and unionized black industrial working class, the challenge to the established order posed by the “combination of worker and community organization” in the UDF, and the control that a transformed Afrikaner Nationalist party has nevertheless continued to maintain over South African society, even though its limited and narrowly self-interested reformism provoked several hundred thousand right-wing Afrikaner voters to secede from the party and join the intransigently racist Conservative party. The result, they conclude, is “an oppressive stalemate.”
This pessimistic perspective is evidently influenced by the Marxist view that apartheid and capitalism are so closely bound together that it would take a social revolution to bring equality to blacks. According to the interpretation of Marks and Trapido, the relaxation of apartheid that I observed this spring might be seen as the residue of a program that failed to achieve its objective of defusing black protest and creating a climate of opinion conducive to capitalist development. In 1987, when Marks and Trapido wrote their essay, the Nationalist government remained strongly opposed to negotiations that would give blacks any form of political power; but it was unable to resume its policy of the mid-1970s of trying to take the edge off African discontent by providing better living conditions and opening purely economic opportunities for blacks in the cities. In the recent depressed state of the South African economy, according to Marks and Trapido, the material circumstances of blacks would seriously improve only if the whites were willing to reduce their own standard of living, something no white electorate is likely to support.
The remaining essays in No Turning Back provide further insights into the current situation in South Africa. Howard Barrell, a longstanding observer of the ANC, reports on the outlawed black resistance movements and describes, although he does not fully explain, the congress’s remarkable revival in the 1980s at the expense of orthodox African nationalism or separatist black consciousness. The ANC recognized that the South African situation was unique. In contrast to other African countries where white Europeans held control, the powerful white minority in South Africa is determined to stay, and there is no colonial power to preside over negotiations leading to African independence. The ANC’s policy of organizing a multiracial popular front is therefore more effective than any effort to imitate the liberation movements that succeeded in throwing off European rule in the rest of Africa. Yet, for all its strength and flexibility, as Barrell argues, the ANC still lacks the capacity to mount a successful revolution.
Shaun Johnson’s essay is an incisive analysis of how young people brought up on the black consciousness rhetoric of the Seventies rediscovered their past—the record of black resistance in South Africa on “nonracial” principles during the 1950s and 1960s. The conversion of youth politics from orthodox black consciousness to “charterism”—adherence to the ANC’s broadly inclusive Freedom Charter of 1955—was partly the result, according to Johnson, of the government’s decision to send the young activists of the late 1970s to Robben Island prison, where they learned of the ANC and its traditions directly from Nelson Mandela and the other ANC leaders who had been held there since the early 1960s. In his discussion of the new youth revolt or “children’s crusade” of the 1980s, Johnson shows how a tendency toward violence and anarchy on the part of young people became a matter of concern to older members of the UDF, who have tried to curb it, with some success. He concludes that young people who refuse to accept the apartheid system and are relatively fearless in their opposition to it remain a central force in the South African struggle.
Other essays in No Turning Back provide detailed accounts of the black trade union movement, the United Democratic Front, and other internal resistance movements, the Afrikaner establishment, the military and police forces, the impact of the divestment movement, and Inkatha—the Zulu ethnic movement led by Chief Gatsha Buthelezi that seems destined to be the wild card in any efforts to reach a political settlement. The general impression that these essays convey is that no single ethnic group or political strategy can control what happens in South Africa. So many different forces are now taking part in the contest to shape the destiny of South Africa that confident prediction is impossible and neat solutions are unrealistic.
It is noticeable, however, that no political force readily identifiable as liberalism or a liberal establishment has had any large part in the contest for power described by the contributors to No Turning Back. Some might argue that the ANC and the UDF have liberal programs or connections, despite the alliance of the ANC with the South African Communist party. But it makes more sense to describe the members of the popular opposition in South Africa as “radical democratic” rather than liberal; they put emphasis not on individual or minority rights or on preserving a capitalist or mixed economy but rather on turning over power to an underprivileged and dispossessed majority that will likely prefer socialism and the redistribution of wealth. (The ANC has agreed in principle to a bill of rights protecting personal liberties but not, as yet, to an independent judiciary.) The clear implication of No Turning Back is that democratic capitalism along British or American lines is an unlikely prospect for South Africa. If the implication is valid, then many of the current opponents of apartheid in the United States are bound to be disappointed.
Three recent books deal directly with the possibilities of democratic liberalism in South Africa. Janet Levine’s autobiography Inside Apartheid is the memoir of the agony of conscience of a white liberal. A longtime supporter and associate of the Progressive Federal party leader Helen Suzman, Levine tells how, as a young woman from a well-to-do Jewish family, she early became aware of the injustices of apartheid. She not only joined with other white liberals to protest against the regime, but also, as a member of the Johannesburg city council, tried to act as the spokeswoman for black municipal workers in their struggle to get decent treatment from the city authorities. She was deeply involved in efforts to establish a black taxi cooperative in Soweto.
By the early 1980s, however, she became convinced that her kind of liberalism no longer had a part to play in the anti-apartheid movement. She saw herself and other white liberals as
caught in the Kerensky trap, wedged tightly between the conflicting forces of reactionary white desperation and militant waves of black nationalism surging toward political domination.
When other white liberals found it possible to back the United Democratic Front—which invited white support but not white leadership—she decided she could not do more “because what you believed in was of little value to those around you—black and white—whose narrow nationalism superseded your liberal value system.”
After emigrating to the United States in 1984, she gave talks to American liberal audiences which shocked them by expressing her fear that a “militaristic black oligarchy” would replace a white one; she also threw cold water on their favorite anti-apartheid initiative by arguing that campaigns for disinvestment and sanctions are the very opposite of what is needed in South Africa. In favoring increased foreign investment and contacts with Western businessmen as liberalizing influences, she is, of course, echoing the longstanding views of Helen Suzman; but it is also worth noting that in May a Gallup poll in South Africa found that approximately six out of ten blacks would oppose sanctions, even if sanctions would cause the government to resign in five years. This survey, sponsored by the South African Chamber of Mines, contradicts earlier polls, and one has to wonder whether blacks would be trustful enough to respond honestly. But it does raise some difficult questions for proponents of sanctions.
Levine is an intelligent, experienced, and sensitive observer, and her views deserve to be taken seriously. Still, her opinions are somewhat at odds with those of the other white liberals with whom I spoke on my recent trip. Despite all that has happened recently in South Africa, they had not given up hope or concluded that the black opposition had embraced a “narrow nationalism” no better than that of the Afrikaners. Like Levine, they understand that whites cannot expect to lead a black liberation struggle or control its ideologies and programs, but many of them have nevertheless found good reasons to choose one side over the other. In his contribution to a recent symposium, Democratic Liberalism in South Africa, F. Van Zyl Slabbert, an Afrikaner who was formerly a member of parliament and leader of the Progressive Federal party, argues that “in a broad sense there is a choice between the ‘struggle for freedom’ and opposition to the struggle, between ‘liberation’ and ‘oppression,’ or between ‘stability’ and ‘freedom.’ ” He defined that choice as follows:
The government has appropriated “stability,” together with its own interpretations of concepts such as “negotiation,” “reform,” “constitutional change,” and “consensus,” and has effectively debased them as instruments of incremental change by linking them to repression. The “struggle” has appropriated “freedom,” together with “people’s power,” “liberation,” “justice,” “equality,” “boycotts,” and “sanctions,” and has very effectively inflated them as instruments of revolutionary change.
The traditional liberal political response would be to say: “I like this on that side and this on the other and dislike the following in both” and then proceed to present a coherent and rational alternative position to a potential constituency. Unfortunately, there is no such coherent and rational constituency of any significance available in our present polarized situation. The primary question now that liberals are forced to face is: “Where do you stand in the struggle? For freedom or stability?” They may refuse to choose by calling a plague on the irrationality of both houses and hover around in a fit of sullen irrelevancy. If they do, the struggle for freedom will become the exclusive preserve of the revolutionary, and the maintenance of stability the preserve of increasing repression.
Some of the contributors of Democratic Liberalism in South Africa seem to believe that they can avoid making this kind of choice. The result of a 1985 symposium underwritten by the Chairman’s Fund of the Anglo-American Corporation, the volume attempts to show that liberalism is still a strong force in South Africa and offers a workable middle ground between African and Afrikaner nationalism. But the absence of black contributors to this collection of papers by white, mostly South African, academics may be a clue to the weakness of this proposition. The essays are of high quality and provide some of the most perceptive analyses of South African history, politics, and economics to be found anywhere. Such articles as David Welsh’s commentary on the theoretical arguments about what determines inequality in South Africa and David Yudelman’s analysis of the relation between the state and capitalist development in South Africa are examples of liberal social science at its best.
One can agree with much in this book, as I do, and one can respect its view of the superiority of liberal conceptions of individual and minority rights over a neo-Marxian or black populist tendency to remove, in the name of democracy, all restraints on the actions of a proletarian African majority. At the same time one must ask just how this kind of liberalism can be applied in contemporary South Africa.
First of all, the contributors suggest no plausible way to give democratic liberals the power to take a decisive or even a very influential part in South Africa’s future. At the moment they are a tiny, mostly white, minority with little power outside the English-speaking universities (even there they seem to be in retreat before exponents of more radical viewpoints influenced by Marxist ideology). Second, there is no single liberal point of view, and South African liberals have no single position on what kind of economic system would be right for a postapartheid South Africa. The money to support such liberal initiatives as the symposium comes from the business community, whose members are ideologically committed to free-market capitalism and are anxious about the effects of majoritarian democracy on their lives and businesses. Some of the academic liberals, however, believe that the values of a political democracy are more important than laissez-faire capitalism and seem willing to accept some form of democratic socialism, or egalitarian social democracy, as the inevitable and justifiable outcome of reforms that would extend political power to a black majority.
Whatever one may think about capitalism and socialism in the abstract, it seems clear that the vast inequities resulting from South Africa’s long history of racial privilege and discrimination require action by the state to redistribute wealth and resources. Liberalism cannot make common cause with the black liberation struggle unless it puts itself at some distance from orthodox free-market formulas that in the US would be considered “conservative” rather than liberal.
A contrary point of view is advanced in Francis Kendall and Leon Louw’s After Apartheid. Here we find free-market “liberalism” carried to its libertarian extreme and offered as “the solution for South Africa.” Louw is a South African émigré who is executive director of the American Free Market Foundation, and Kendall is editor of an American Libertarian paper, The Individualist. The book was published with much fanfare in the United States after being a best seller in South Africa, and carries the endorsements of Winnie Mandela, Bayard Rustin, and Alan Paton.
In view of their prestige and the seemingly impeccable anti-apartheid credentials of its sponsors, I was led to expect a convincing contribution to the debate on South Africa. I was disappointed. The main proposal is that South Africa be reorganized politically on the Swiss canton model, turning the existing 305 magistrate districts into essentially self-governing units. As a result of such radical decentralization, the central South African government would have severely limited powers. It would be elected by black majority vote, but this would not mean that other racial groups “would be ruled by blacks, because the central government would not have the power to impose its policies or values on anyone.”
Essentially this is a strategy for preventing Africans from controlling South Africa by making it impossible for anyone to control it. Economic, welfare, and educational matters would be under the exclusive control of the cantons, which would choose capitalism, socialism, or some kind of mixed economy, as local voters determined. A bill of rights would protect individuals and minorities from government repression or discrimination.
Kendall and Louw make it clear, however, that they would prefer not to protect individuals or groups against private discrimination or segregation by voluntary associations. Anything resembling affirmative action would be beyond the pale in the “colorblind…entirely non-racial” society that they favor. Mixed in with their constitutional proposals are a number of the familiar, and still largely untried, economic proposals of the libertarian right, such as replacing public schools by a voucher system, and abolishing most health and safety regulations for industry, or at least reducing them to something Kendall and Louw call “third-world” standards. In short, privatize everything in sight and get the government off the backs of both white and black South Africans, who will then proceed to build a prosperous and happy society.
The first problem with the proposal for constitutional decentralization is that there is not a chance in the world that the black majority will accept anything of the sort. The African National Congress and the United Democratic Front have often made it clear that they will settle for nothing less than majority rule in the South African state as it is now defined, a position that is based on the fateful white decision to create a centralized state in South Africa in 1910 and on the precedent of every successful nationalist or independence movement in the third world. If a white-dominated government were to attempt to impose decentralization of the kind Kendall and Louw are recommending, Africans would likely regard it as merely the latest ruse of the whites in their desperate struggle to keep power. And I am not sure that they would be wrong. If no effective central political authority existed in South Africa, who then would have de facto power over the whole? Presumably those who possess economic power through the ownership of productive resources, primarily white-owned corporations and large white land-owners. Afrikaner nationalist domination would not survive the reforms of Kendall and Louw, but de facto white supremacy would remain intact and would in fact become virtually unchallengeable under the constitutional structure they propose.
Kendall and Louw show they are to a degree aware of how the long history of racial oppression has stacked the deck against blacks in a free-market economy. They propose that blacks be paid compensation for past discrimination by distributing to them the proceeds of government assets sold to private interests. Beyond that, however, they would rely on the entrepreneurial efforts of Africans in a competitive, laissez-faire economy to bring about the redistribution of wealth.
Doctrinaire free-market ideology of the kind advanced by Kendall and Louw is deeply ahistorical. The notion that every country, whatever its history and circumstances, should have the same extremely limited government and the same kind of freedom of enterprise is every bit as unrealistic, and potentially as disastrous, as the contrary notion that centralized state socialism is the only path to prosperity. At a time when the failures of state socialism have become apparent in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China, and the virtues of pluralism and market activity are being recognized in much of the Communist world, it is easy to forget that capitalism was unable to cope with the Great Depression of the 1930s and had to be modified in significant respects. In such different capitalist economies as those of West Germany and Sweden, government intervention, directly or indirectly, redistributes income, maintains elaborate welfare and education systems, and attempts to protect the safety of workers in factories and the health of the population generally—all functions that are suspect to Kendall and Louw.
Moreover, even the most doctrinaire free-enterprisers would agree that government has to take a hand in times of great natural disasters, such as famines and earthquakes. The current economic plight of South African blacks, as presented with great force and authority in the Carnegie Corporation study Uprooting Poverty, by Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele, in fact borders on a disaster, and it is hard to imagine any solution that would not involve the use of substantial power by a central government. The misery, desperation, and death discussed in Uprooting Poverty may make the reader impatient with utopian fantasies of pure market theory and uncertain whether the sources of power and wealth that already exist can be mobilized to avert a human catastrope.
Uprooting Poverty is the report of the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in Southern Africa. The first inquiry, which resulted in a five volume report published in 1932, concentrated on “poor whites,” implicitly assuming white poverty in a multiracial society was unnatural, whereas black poverty was the inevitable consequence of a lack of “civilized” development. The report helped to rationalize government efforts to improve the conditions of the white population at the expense of the blacks and thus contributed to the growth of racial discrimination and segregation. It is a measure of the shift of international opinion away from a white supremacist bias that the Carnegie Corporation should now sponsor a study of black poverty based on the assumption that white rule in South Africa has been unjust and exploitative. One of the authors, Francis Wilson, is a white South African economist known for his studies of the migratory labor system that has made South African industrial capitalism unique in the world; the other, Mamphela Ramphele, is a black physician and founder of community health centers who was a close associate of Steve Biko in the black consciousness movement of the 1970s.
Their study does not offer political solutions or endorse in so many words any of the competing ideologies of reform or revolution in South Africa. It mainly describes the acute economic needs and social degradation that any new system would have to confront. It nevertheless argues explicitly that the current policies of the Nationalist government have contributed to impoverishing the black population, and that radical changes in the power relations between the privileged white minority and the deprived black majority are preconditions for a successful campaign against poverty.
Most reports of this sort are full of statistics, and this one is no exception. The figures are truly alarming. According to the best available information, 50 percent of the total South African population and almost two thirds of the African population earn less than is required for subsistence. One third of all black children (this figure includes “coloureds” and Indians as well as Africans) are victims of malnutrition. The infant mortality rate, estimated at between 94 and 124 per thousand births during the early 1980s, is considerably higher than that of the more prosperous African countries (such as Kenya and Zimbabwe) and roughly equal to some of the poorest. Although reliable unemployment statistics are hard to come by, the best available estimates put the jobless rate at around 20 percent for the labor force as a whole, and up to 50 percent or even higher in districts where blacks are concentrated.
Shocking as such statistics are, they fail to convey the full human meaning of these conditions. Aware of this, the authors depart from the normal pattern of social-scientific surveys by providing case studies of poor families and interviews with them. They also give accounts of a farming community where the soil is nearly all gone and only bedrock remains; of a child who subsists almost entirely on coffee, sugar, and Cremora; and of a woman who set herself on fire with paraffin because she could not feed her children. In describing the fear and insecurity of the poor, the authors quote a “coloured” woman in Cape Town:
You suffer—you are not certain of your life or anything else. I lost my job because of my nerves. Because there is no crèche to look after my children while I am working, I used to fear for their safety.
They add that she was shortly evicted for not paying her rent and had a premature baby as a result.
To some extent, poverty in southern Africa is caused by geography: the region is naturally arid, drought is frequent, and a rapidly growing population puts pressure on available land and resources. Yet South Africa is able both to export food and to support a very high standard of living for the white minority. It has in fact the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any country in the world. Wilson and Ramphele make it clear that much of the misery of South African blacks is not only man-made but the result of deliberate government policies. The destitution of women and children is closely related to the migratory labor system, which takes men away from home for extended periods and fails to pay them enough to sustain both themselves and their families or even to insure that they contribute something to their kin left behind in “homelands.” (Recent reforms abolishing the pass laws have not eliminated this problem, because those reforms do not apply to most of the roughly nine million Africans who are citizens of the “independent” homelands; furthermore, the government can still limit the urban migration of families by failing to provide housing for new arrivals.)
The government has also impoverished blacks through its “removals” policy. Between 1960 and 1983, nearly 3.5 million blacks were forced to move from one place to another against their will in order to bring about the territorial separation required by apartheid laws. People were often transferred to regions where chances of employment or agricultural subsistence were fewer than in the places they had left. In some cases, they were dumped in villages where the only possible way to survive was through migratory labor or by commuting enormous distances each day. (Some African workers spend up to six hours a day on buses getting to and from their jobs.) As South African agriculture has been mechanized since World War II, the proportion of the African work force employed on white farms has dropped from one third to one fifth; but displaced agricultural workers have not, for the most part, been permitted to move to the cities—the usual pattern of “modernization” in other countries. They have instead been forced into already overcrowded “homelands” where they have little chance of earning a living.
In short, the South African government has deliberately created conditions that are conducive to extreme poverty and everything that goes with it—demoralization, crime, disease, high mortality rates. The black population clearly exceeds the numbers that can be employed in the current white-dominated economy, and policies that send the people to “surplus” remote areas under life-threatening circumstances have a certain brutal logic to them.
Unless major changes come quickly, the conditions that Wilson and Ramphele describe are likely to get worse. While standards of living improve for blacks fortunate enough to live in cities and have steady jobs, they are deteriorating for those lacking regular work. Average wages for black workers are going up but so is the rate of unemployment. The stagnation of the South African economy and the growth of mechanization in agriculture and automation in manufacturing make it more difficult than ever to create enough jobs for a rapidly growing black population. It is hard to see how establishing a free market and turning all government functions over to private hands—the solution of Kendall and Louw—can deal with these deep-rooted conditions. Wilson and Ramphele acknowledge that private economic initiatives and voluntary action are important to the struggle against poverty but they insist that state action to relieve misery and redistribute wealth is also clearly required. Kendall and Louw are noticeably silent about the crisis in African health and how it would be dealt with under their decentralized laissez-faire regime. Presumably they favor a private health care system. Wilson and Ramphele, on the other hand, have no doubt that South Africa urgently needs a national health service. One does not have to be a socialist, only a practical humanitarian, to recognize that a public health disaster requires state action.
Uprooting Poverty is not simply another plea for helping the poor through public programs conducted by a state more benevolent than the current one. The authors also recognize that there are some things the poor themselves can do in the meantime to improve their immediate circumstances—form cooperatives and community organizations, for example. But there can be no decisive, long-term improvement in the condition of South Africa’s poor until political democracy is introduced. In the authors’ words, “an essential prerequisite for uprooting poverty in South Africa is a redistribution of political power,” but even a representative government will face enormous difficulties in undoing the legacy of more than three centuries of white domination.
How close is South Africa to political changes that affirm basic human rights and begin to address the huge economic and social problems left by apartheid? Wilson and Ramphele are not very optimistic, writing in their introduction that
there is virtually no likelihood of the present government (or some revised version of it) either voluntarily handing over power to democratic rulers or finding itself coerced by guerrilla activity, economic sanctions and other pressures into negotiating away its entrenched position, in the immediate future.
The liberation struggle, they conclude, has “long years to run.”
A recent symposium addressed precisely the question of how long the white minority can retain power and thwart democratic aspirations and makes a similar assessment. Can South Africa Survive?, edited by John Brewer, brings together an international panel of experts to consider the immediate and long-range prospects for South Africa. The book is more unified and coherent than most symposiums because the contributors all take as their point of departure R.W. Johnson’s influential book of 1977, How Long Will South Africa Survive?1 Countering the expectation, common in writings about South Africa in the 1960s and the early 1970s, that the apartheid regime would soon be overthrown, Johnson argued that white domination was likely to survive for a considerable period. Although many of the preconditions for a black revolution existed, he argued that they were not sufficient to threaten the regime in the short-to-medium run. The clock, Johnson said, is stuck at five minutes to midnight.
The contributors to Can South Africa Survive? review the events that have taken place since Johnson wrote his book, and try to decide what difference they have made. They generally find that pressure on the regime has increased but not to the point where radical change is likely to occur. As John Brewer sums up the consensus, using Johnson’s metaphor,
The balance of forces in South Africa still excludes a revolutionary overthrow of the government, but the government’s capacity to maintain the present pattern of political power has weakened. If the militarised and centralised state is as yet unassailable, the system is becoming more ungovernable. So while the clock is still at five minutes to midnight, it is no longer riveted in this position.
In coming to such conclusions, the authors give Johnson credit for anticipating the regime’s overall capacity to adjust to new challenges and endure. What he did not expect, as the essays by Brewer and Tom Lodge show, was that internal black resistance would become as intense and irrepressible as it did in the past decade. He also overestimated the solidarity of the white minority, and failed to foresee how Afrikanerdom would fracture along class lines between middle-class pragmatists, who also are at last willing to talk of changing the system, and members of the white working class, such as miners or factory workers, who fear that liberated blacks would take over their jobs and incomes, and who have become members of the intransigent Conservative party. (Herman Giliomee describes this schism in his fine essay on Afrikaner politics.)
Johnson’s skepticism toward Western economic sanctions was borne out by the failure of the measures taken by the US and European community to have dramatic effects; but he may have underestimated the cumulative impact on an already weak South African economy of the limited international actions against apartheid, which, at the very least, have raised the cost of doing business. Nevertheless, if we are to believe the economist T.C. Moll, the survival of white South Africa in the short run is quite possible, even in a siege economy that has been cut off from virtually all Western trade. Furthermore, he warns that if blacks come to power only after a long period of economic decline, they may find the country so deeply impoverished that it would be very difficult to revive it economically. “In short,” he concludes,
precisely because of its current resilience, policies to undermine the South African economy could have multiplied negative effects on the political system that replaces apartheid, which poses a difficult tactical dilemma for those who seek an end to white political supremacy.
In other words, sanctions should only be used with careful calculation of their practical effects, not simply as a way of pacifying the consciences of some people in Western countries.
The authors of the essays in Can South Africa Survive?, like those in South Africa: No Turning Back and Uprooting Poverty, give little or no support to those who believe that a negotiated settlement of the South African conflict is possible in the near future.2 But all these assessments were written before the Namibian agreement, the replacement this year of P.W. Botha by F.W. de Klerk as president and as head of the ruling Nationalist party, the emergence of an impressive new campaign of non-violent mass protest by blacks, and, most recently, the Nationalists’ loss of a substantial number of seats to both the Conservative party and the liberal Democratic party in the elections of September 6, 1989. Do these developments provide grounds for new hope that an end to apartheid can be achieved with the long-lasting, intermittently bloody, and economically devastating struggle that practically all the writers under review seem to regard as the most likely prospect for South Africa?
Perhaps they do, although predicting the immediate future remains treacherous. De Klerk is committed to a change in the constitutional system and to some form of negotiations leading to the extension of limited political rights to Africans, but he has yet to agree to talk with the genuine leaders of the black resistance in the ANC and the UDF; and he remains adamantly opposed to the kind of constitutional change that would meet the demands of these leaders for a majoritarian democracy. Despite the proclamation of the unusually repressive state of emergency in February 1988, nonviolent black protest, under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Reverend Allan Boesak, reemerged in the summer of 1989. The protest movement now has more popular support than ever before and appears to be both more disciplined and more effective.
The Nationalists emerged from the election on September 6 with a greatly reduced majority, losing seats in approximately equal numbers to the staunchly pro-apartheid right and the moderately liberal left. Having come dangerously close to losing its overall parliamentary majority for the first time since 1948, the Nationalists will have to bend one way or the other to halt the erosion of their strength. With the Afrikaner white working class turning to the Conservative party, the Nationalists are no longer supported by a majority of the Afrikaners, and are now dependent on English-speaking voters, some of whom defected to the Democrats in the election.
The central question now is whether the ruling party will seek the support of white liberal opinion at the expense of the conservative Afrikaner hard core and even seek to reach an accommodation with the Democrats, whose leaders include recent defectors from the Nationalists. Referring to the points of agreement between the Nationalists and the Democrats, de Klerk said on the day after the election that nearly three quarters of the nation’s voters had now endorsed a change of direction in South African politics; but building a white majority consensus behind pragmatic reform and limited concessions to black protesters will not be easy. If it is to be convincing it would require further steps by de Klerk and his allies to eliminate formal apartheid and to lift the provisions of the state of emergency. It would also probably require a willingness on de Klerk’s part to consider constitutional changes providing for the inclusion of Africans in the political system, and to undertake negotiations with black leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu on the extent and character of African enfranchisement. So far, it must be said, de Klerk has taken none of these steps.
Still, it seems to me somewhat more likely that the de Klerk government would move in this direction than that it would try to protect its right flank by stealing the thunder of the Conservative party. More perhaps than Botha, de Klerk is responsive to the parts of the business community and a white middle class (including many Afrikaners) that are currently more concerned with saving the South African economy than with guaranteeing white supremacy in every aspect of South African life. His government may be disposed to see if a deal can be cut with the African resistance movement, including the African National Congress. If that is so, then the big question is whether or not the spokesmen of the black majority are likely to have a similar disposition to compromise and conciliation.
If we take literally the rhetoric and official positions of the ANC, the UDF, and the new Mass Democratic Movement (essentially the UDF under another name), it would seem unlikely that anything even a relatively more liberal and accommodating white government would propose as a basis for negotiations would be acceptable. The formal aim of the resistance is immediate black majority rule under a one-person-one-vote electoral system, something no white government could agree to without committing suicide.
But it is not inconceivable that black leaders would settle for something like the proposal made by a Soviet expert on South Africa in an essay written in 1986—a two-house assembly, with each chamber elected by universal suffrage but with one chamber based strictly on population—one man, one vote—and the other on the equal representation of the four racial groups. Giving the second chamber a veto on legislation would mean that no single ethnic community could impose its will on the rest.3
It is still not clear whether this is indeed the Soviet Union’s official position or that the USSR would be ready to use its considerable leverage as the main arms supplier to the ANC to induce the ANC leaders to consider some such form of minority veto under a cloak of universal suffrage. If Gorbachev is moving in this direction then there could well be something to talk about with a white government, especially if it were under pressure from Britain and the United States to agree to such a scheme. A shared desire by the superpowers to bring peace and stability to southern Africa under an arrangement for power sharing that the international community would find tolerable could bring results within the next few years.
In any case, things are changing rapidly in South Africa. The black opposition is gaining strength and unity; the whites are more divided than they have ever been on how to respond to the black liberation movement, although for the first time there seems a white majority in favor of some kind of African enfranchisement, and the government is apparently edging toward negotiations with Nelson Mandela and the ANC. In mid-September, confronted by marches in several cities of thousands of blacks and whites protesting the killing of twenty-nine people on election day, the de Klerk government took no repressive action despite the illegality of such demonstrations and ordered the police to accept the marchers’ petitions to end police brutality. But the banning of a women’s march on September 23, and the beating of those who attempted to march despite the ban, show that the government still has a long way to go before it allows full rights to peaceful protest. Those who hope for a relatively peaceful transition from a minority racial tyranny to an arguably democratic multiracial polity may still be looking at the world naively, but, unless the repression in Pretoria indicates a reversal of de Klerk’s proclaimed new openness to dialogue with anti-apartheid forces, they have more good reasons for cautious optimism now than at any other time since 1948.
—September 28, 1989
October 26, 1989