Pretoria gets ready

Heribert Adam

  • Black and Gold: Tycoons, Revolutionaries and Apartheid by Anthony Sampson
    Hodder, 280 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 340 39524 9
  • The Crisis in South Africa by John Saul and Stephen Gelb
    Zed, 245 pp, £6.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 86232 692 3

It is a depressing fact that minority rule in a modern developed economy can last a long time provided it is sufficiently ruthless. An unjust regime is not necessarily a faltering one. Lacking legitimacy merely increases costs. Contrary to conventional social science wisdom, even such closed states as Syria, Burundi or Poland demonstrate how hated cliques can cling to power despite the manifest disaffection of the majority. How much more does this apply to South Africa, where the loyalty both of the military and of an ethnic bureaucracy remains unquestioned. Pretoria cannot therefore be equated with Teheran or Manila. As a legally sovereign state, South Africa is neither subject to foreign administrative control nor crucially dependent on outside support. Israel, for example, despite her greater legitimacy, is far more vulnerable to external pressure than the Apartheid order. In the present violent stalemate, the South African state can be undermined – but not overthrown.

There are, however, definite limits to Pretoria’s ruthlessness, and in this lies South Africa’s prime vulnerability. First, Apartheid minority rule cannot apply terror indiscriminately against all members of out-groups. If the regime were to live up fully to its fascist label, it would have to jettison its vital distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ blacks, so-called manipulated revolutionaries and decent moderates on whom the economy depends. Afrikaner nationalist domination cannot muster the manpower to run a developed urban sector without at the very least the tacit compliance of the victims.

Secondly, any stepping-up of the terror would increase the ideological cleavages within the ruling group. English liberalism has always been more of a silent beneficiary than a ready ally of racial capitalism. Within Afrikanerdom itself, the moral legacy of Calvinism constrains technocratic ruthlessness. The holders of power also want to feel good about their rule. Their ideology serves as much to provide the jailers with a credible rationale as it does to encourage the jailed to blame themselves. The former cohesion of Afrikaner nationalism is already breaking apart. Where previously there was ideological solidarity and ethnic mobilisation there is now sectarian patronage, causing envy and dissent within the ranks. Morally bankrupt and ideologically exhausted, the Nationalist Party practises ad hoc crisis management without an eschatology. Complaints about ‘lack of vision’ abound. Any further mistakes will lead to further defections and feed the legitimacy crisis among the Party’s intellectuals.

Paradoxically, this ideological vacuum has allowed the scope of permissible discourse to expand at the same time as tighter emergency rules were introduced. The University of the Western Cape, for example, has been quietly transformed from a racial bush college to a widely recognised ‘intellectual home of the Left’, in the words of its rector – which shows how unpredictable the consequences of Apartheid can be. In the absence of ideological certainty, the censorship bodies, courts and security officials are themselves confused about which strategies are appropriate and which rules are binding. The wider the discretion, the more its handlers are liable to criticism for abusing it. Therefore, despite its military might, a relatively open South Africa cannot emulate a closed Syria, where in 1982 the minority Alawite regime literally obliterated with bombs and napalm the rebellious city of Hama, killing an estimated thirty to forty thousand people.

These two books, published among dozens of similar studies, illustrate the third reason why Pretoria can only hypothetically bomb Soweto into the ground. As an English-speaking police state, South Africa remains in the spotlight of world public opinion. Despite censorship, South Africa is still one of the most accessible and over-researched societies. The detention, torture and shooting of protesters in the remotest areas would eventually become public knowledge, while the Hama destruction went almost unnoticed. It is the cord that attaches the country to its Western heritage which incenses the South African technocrats. The reason they cannot easily snap it is best illustrated by Anthony Sampson’s story of capitalist wheeling and dealing with the Apartheid regime.

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[*] Crisis in South Africa includes an expanded version of a 1981 issue of Monthly Review. The new introduction and conclusion are written by Saul alone; as is ‘South Africa: The Question of Strategy’ (New Left Review, November/December 1986), which in turn expands material contained in the book. I deal here only with the new parts and the NLR article.