South Africa’s transition

Robert Miller November 26 1984

South Africa’s transition

Robert Miller November 26 1984

South Africa’s transition


Robert Miller

Naturally wealthy, strategically located and achingly beautiful, sun-splashed South Africa might have been the envy of the world. It is not. Its brutal, self-deluding and, inevitably, self-defeating racial policies have made it instead one of the leastloved of nations, a powder keg at the foot of a teeming and troubled continent. South Africa’s repressive sociopolitical system of apartheid, under which 4.6 million whites control the lives of 18 million blacks plus 3.7 million Asians and persons of mixed blood, is almost universally despised. Its critics, both within and without the country,, have long predicted that the oppressed majority would ultimately prevail — perhaps after a bloody revolution, perhaps after a change of attitude on the part of the oppressors. But the day of deliverance for South Africa’s blacks seems as distant now as it has at any time since apartheid was introduced in 1948, despite the stirrings of reform by the financially pressed National government of President Pieter W. Botha, 68, and despite escalating violent protest this fall among members

of the black population.

Last week the regime’s well-equipped and ruthlessly efficient security forces continued an autumn-long crackdown on dissenters within such wretched and smouldering black townships as Sebokeng, 100 km south of Johannesburg, where police arrested no fewer than 2,300 people in a single raid on Friday. Since February more than 160 peopleall but one of them black—have died violently in intermittent rioting across the country. During the past three months, in the worst violence since the 1976 uprising in Soweto township, during which an estimated 400 died, uncounted shanties and modest black businesses have been put to the torch— most frequently by blacks themselves. And two weeks ago an estimated halfmillion black trade union members stayed off work for a day in an illegal protest against the policies of the Botha government.

Upheaval: Still, the security forces remained in full control, and the country’s prosperous white population seemed almost oblivious to the upheaval in the segregated black townships, in part because the South African news media provided only limited coverage of the rioting and the crackdown.

A widely rumored plot by black revolutionaries to make last Thursday “kill-awhite day” sent tremors through affluent sections of Johannesburg, the country’s industrial centre (population 2.8 million) but the day passed without serious incident. Also last week, police began rounding up white critics of the regime for the first time since the most recent crisis erupted in September— when a new constitution giving limited political rights to the so-called “colored” (mixed) and Asian population came into effect. Among the 10 who were detained: 23-year-old Kate Philip, president of the National Union of South African Students, along with several members of the still-legal United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of anti-apartheid groups.

The government crackdown was denounced by the influential South African Council of Churches, headed by 1984 Nobel Peace Price laureate Desmond Tutu, who was elected last week as Anglican bishop of Johannesburg. Said the council: “Apartheid is morally evil. Dismantle apartheid and the awful social evil that we are experiencing now will become part of our history that we will be glad to forget.”

For their part, Botha and his Afri-

kaner-dominated National Party have been struggling to maintain white supremacy while giving the appearance of softening its rigidity. Having declared in 1979 that South Africa “must adjust, otherwise we will die,” Botha has lifted restrictions that prevented blacks from doing skilled jobs and joining labor unions. He has modified laws barring blacks from achieving a degree of permanency in the country’s white-dominated urban areas, where they may now hold 99-year leases on their homes. He has allowed the toppling of once-impenetrable racial barriers in hotels, restaurants and other public places designated as “international”—a concession that flowed from South Africa’s urgent need to avoid offending visiting nonwhite businessmen, most _

notably those from Japan. But Botha’s reforms have stopped well short of lifting one of the most galling forms of repression: the nation’s notorious pass laws, which rigidly control the movements of nonwhites who were born and raised in South Africa.

Defiance: Under

Botha, the authorities are increasingly turning a blind eye toward racially mixed couples who live together in edgy defiance of the laws prohibiting miscegenation.

And in promulgating the

country’s new constitution on Sept. 14, the government has breached the oncesacrosanct political color bar by giving Asian and mixed-race South Africans the vote for the first time since 1956. The constitutional change triggered outrage among some hard-line Afrikaners, who saw it as the beginning of the end of more than 300 years of white domination. It generated massive indifference among the newly enfranchised Asian and colored people, 87 per cent of whom did not bother to vote for their candidates who sought seats in the national parliament. And it sparked rioting by the blacks, who insist that anything less than universal suffrage— “one man, one vote”—is unacceptable. Said Tutu of the Botha reforms: “We

have the appearance of

change, while everything remains the same.”

At the same time, the Botha government has continued to pursue its long-established foreign policy of keeping South Africa’s black-ruled neighbors—including Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland—either weak or subservient. Pretoria has also kept up intensive military pressure against Angola-based guerrillas—mostly supporters of the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912 and

banned in 1960 after the Sharpeville massacre, in which panicky police opened fire and killed 67 blacks who were protesting the country’s pass laws. And it stubbornly refuses to permit the rise of an independent Namibia, formerly the protectorate of South West Africa (page 37).

Harsh: Within southern Africa the government’s tough “machtpolitik” has proved effective. After a series of harsh military raids against ANC guerrillas operating out of Mozambique, South African Foreign Minister Roelof “Pik” Botha forced President Samora Machel to sign a “good neighborliness” and mutual nonaggression treaty last March 16. Under its terms, Machel agreed to expel 800 ANC members. Shortly afterward, Pretoria announced that a similar agreement with Swaziland had been secretly in effect for two years. Opponents of apartheid were acutely distressed. Said Allan Boesak, a colored church leader who is a senior member of the United Democratic Front in South Africa: “It means the struggle of their frontline states will not be as strong as it was. The first thing [black] South Africans will have to do is forget that others will liberate them.”

Traditionally, South African foreign policy has been isolationist and defensive, an extension of the so-called “laager mentality” of the Afrikaner Voortrekkers (pioneers) who opened up the interior in the mid-19th century. When threatened with attack, the Voortrekkers would circle their wagons around their families and livestock and

grimly fight off Zulu warriors from inside their “laager.” But with the rise of black nationalism in southern Africa, the collapse of the Portuguese empire in Mozambique (1974) and Angola (1975), as well as the fall of Ian Smith’s whitesupremacist Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1980, Pretoria gradually revised its thinking and began intervening in its neighbors’ affairs.

Because of its location, bordered by the Indian and Atlantic oceans and overlooking the busy trade route around the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa has long been strategically important.

The British built the huge Simonstown Naval Base near Cape Town early this century to command the southern oceans, and with the recent growth of Soviet naval power Pretoria continually stresses that a friendly South Africa is crucial to Western interests. Botha maintains a staunch anticommunist line, frequently attributing domestic dissent among blacks to the activities of provocateurs working for the interests of the Soviet Union. And the United States, alarmed by the presence of roughly 26,000 Cuban troops in Communistcontrolled Angola, has found itself supporting Pretoria’s policy on Namibia by demanding that the Cubans withdraw.

Struggling: But the

Pretoria government remains largely without friends, isolated from the world community. In 1961 it was forced out of the Commonwealth. Still, many non-African nations, including Canada, maintain diplomatic relations with South Africa and, under President Ronald Reagan, the U.S. government has toned down its once-vociferous complaints about the iniquities of apartheid. Instead, Washington has committed itself to what it calls “constructive engagement” with the Botha regime. Within the rest of Africa, where 500 million people, many of them undernourished and undereducated, are divided into 51 nation states, South Africa is a superpower, seemingly invincible. But because of apartheid, it is also anathema to recently independent and still struggling nations.

Botha’s domestic reforms—modest as they are—represent the second modifi-

cation of the apartheid system since it was imposed by former prime minister Daniel Malan, who led the National Party to power for the first time in 1948, ousting Gen. Jan Christiaan Smuts of the South Africa Party. In the 1950s another National Party leader, former prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, who was eventually assassinated in the Cape Town House of Assembly in 1966, conceived the continuing and controversial policy of creating so-called “homelands” for the various tribes of South African blacks. The plan was to allow “separate development” for blacks, whose homelands ultimately would be

given political independence. So far, four of the 10 tribal areas—Ciskei, Transkei, Bophut Hatswana and Venda—have agreed to accept Pretoria’s offer of sovereignty. It is an ambiguous status given South Africa’s overall dominance and financial backing, and aside from Pretoria no other government has recognized them.

Verwoerd’s plan had two glaring flaws. First, only 13 per cent of the country was set aside for the blacks, who constituted 80 per cent of the population. And 87 per cent of the land that the whites controlled contained all the industrial areas, which grew increasingly dependent on black labor. Verwoerd assumed, mistakenly, that the crowded and currently explosive black townships, such as Soweto and Sebokeng, would wither as blacks trekked back to their tribal homelands. But the

tribal lands are poor, already overcrowded and desperately short of jobs. As a result, the townships have continued to expand, if not prosper, as blacks stream in from the South African countryside, as well as neighboring states, in search of jobs and a paycheque.

Stunting: Even though the homelands concept was presented as a modification of apartheid, the objective of guaranteeing white supremacy throughout most of the country was all too clear. Indeed, when leading South African businessmen contended that Verwoerd’s original plan was stunting

the country’s economic development by disallowing the emergence of a skilled black labor pool, Verwoerd replied, “If South Africa must choose between being poor and white or rich and multiracial, then it will choose to be white.” South Africa is far from poor. It has vast gold deposits, storied diamond mines and rich agricultural land, particularly in Cape Province. Spurred by trading boycotts, which have had only limited success, its businessmen—including mining tycoon Harry F. Oppenheimer, one of the world’s richest men—have developed a sophisticated industrial infrastructure. South Africa now manufactures most of its internal requirements. It has developed an expensive but secure source of petroleum, which it lacks, by converting it from coal, which it has in abundance. And it has built a world-class arms industry,

primarily to equip its own troops.

Most of its white population—2.8 million speak Afrikaans; 1.8 million use English as a first language—live a comfortable and prosperous life in such modern urban centres as Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. But apartheid is expensive and the government is beginning to feel acute economic pressure as a consequence of deepening recession, a crippling drought and stagnating gold prices. Last August the government, faced with an unprecedented $3-billion deficit, was forced to introduce what it called short-term austerity measures, including an increase of

three per cent in most interest rates.

Adding to the government’s financial burden is the $2-billion-a-year cost of running the country’s 86,000-strong defence force and of maintaining the elaborate police and security establishment required to enforce the laws, many of which are draconian. Under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act, anyone may be arrested and held indefinitely in solitary confinement without trial or access to family or lawyers. This year, roughly 1,000 South Africans have been detained under the act.

Grim: The maximum-security institution on Robben Island, an Alcatraz-like prison off Cape Town, where ANC leader and black hero Nelson Mandela has been held for 20 years, is only one of many grim buildings where the security forces are in total and unsupervised control. Allegations of police brutality are commonplace, and often wellfounded. The popular black nationalist

Steve Biko, 31, died—chained and naked—in police custody in 1977. In the past 22 years a total of 54 people have died in similar circumstances.

The security network monitors a vast range of opposition voices—and they are numerous. Among them are such visible, voluble and internationally known critics as Bishop Tutu, the UDF’s Boesak, novelist Nadine Gordimer and playwright Athol Fugard. In addition, the Botha government is opposed by the Conservative Party, a new right-wing offshoot of the ruling National Party, which believes the regime is not firm enough in safeguarding white su-

premacy. The Conservatives, led by Andries Treurnicht of Transvaal Province, split from Botha in 1982 after he introduced his first, mild reforms. Even though the white population voted in favor of the new constitution in a November, 1983, referendum Treurnicht and his followers forecast disaster. Like many Afrikaners, who fear that their wealth and traditions will be destroyed under black rule, and who cite the Bible as justification for their white-supremacist views, the Conservatives viewed the recent outbreak of violence in the black townships as the inevitable consequence of making concessions. Said prominent Conservative Party member Ferdie Hartzenberg: “We predicted that the new constitution would cause trouble, and now look what’s happening.”

Botha’s approach has sharply divided Afrikaners, including the secret Broderbund (Brotherhood) society, many of

whose members were surprised when he embarked on it. A career politician who has worked for or represented the National Party since his youth, Botha had long been regarded as a hard-liner. A tough defence minister under Vorster, Botha’s style is that of a determined bulldozer. He is intolerant of opponents and is not noted for his tact. His policies may have won him grudging admiration from some liberal politicians, but his personality has not. Said Helen Suzman, the veteran liberal who has sat opposite Botha in parliament for 31 years: “He may love children and little dogs for all I know, but I have only

encountered him as an aggressive, hostile politician.”

Aggression and hostility seem to be permanent features of life under apartheid—which may explain why many South Africans emigrate and many others hold British, as well as South African, passports. Because of the vast racial imbalance in the population, it is at least arguable that apartheid cannot endure. Less certain, as novelist Alan Paton wrote in his classic Cry the Beloved Country, is whether total reconciliation between black and white will ever be possible. Still, many South Africans contend that change will eventually occur. And whether it comes through reform or revolution will determine whether novelist Paton’s “beloved country” will cry streams of tears—or shed rivers of blood.

With William Lowther in Washington, Deborah McGregor and Ann Walmsley in Toronto.

William Lowther

Deborah McGregor

Ann Walmsley