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Robert Rotberg weighs the chances of an imminent black revolution in South AfricaRobert Rotberg

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Vol. 7 No. 17 · 3 October 1985

Robert Rotberg weighs the chances of an imminent black revolution in South Africa

‘Our objective,’ said President Botha of South Africa on 9 September of the aims of his National Party-dominated government, ‘is peaceful reform. Reform can only be retarded by outside attempts to interfere.’ Both statements are false, and calculated to mislead. But they may well flow from a genuine failure on the part of South Africa’s ruling oligarchy to understand the depth and breadth of that country’s continuing crisis.

The Government has for several years believed that it could alter South Africa from above, moderating the impact of apartheid gradually, and thus forestalling black protest and Western worry. Among its aims has been to co-opt a black middle class through expanding economic opportunity and the gradual relaxation of petty apartheid: predominantly, it is bourgeois blacks who would be able to take advantage of such changes – significant from the white point of view – in the fabric of South Africa’s segregated society. Given its preponderant military strength and the comparative weakness of the blacks, Pretoria believed (and may still believe) that it could orchestrate a pace of reform that would not disrupt the tenor of a white-dominated economy and society. President Botha’s government sought and still seeks to succeed through tactical rearrangements. He and his colleagues do not contemplate any strategic revamping of South Africa.

The difference between tactical manoeuvring and strategic re-positioning is critical. As yet, there is no thought of diluting the white, indeed Afrikaner, monopoly of real power. Businessmen may consider sharing or dividing power, and the talk of cocktail parties and harried lunches may be of partition and other at present unrealistic solutions, but the Government itself intends to cling to hegemony, fearing that almost any significant sharing of power with blacks would be a step down the slippery slope leading to a loss of the untrammelled authority which Afrikaners fought so hard to attain from 1910 to 1948, and to keep ever since.

In 1984 President Botha and the National Party thought that they could satisfy the West, particularly the United States, by inaugurating a tricameral parliament for whites, Coloureds and Asians, and slowly improving the social and economic circumstances of blacks. Abolishing prohibitions against mixed marriages and cross-colour sex, tinkering with economic restrictions, and providing more funds for African education, seemed helpful initiatives. Next, the Government hoped to consult with hand-picked African leaders, and devolve upon them some limited political prerogatives. The overall plan, probably never fully thought out or blueprinted, comprised what President Botha genuinely thought of as a package of reform. But his reforms, and the reform notions of whites, carry less and less meaning for Africans.

It was not the slow speed of reform, nor solely the lack of a parliamentary chamber for Africans, which, together with rent rises in the black townships and a worsening economic climate, set off the riots of the past year. Instead, it was the fact that, from an African point of view, there were no significant initiatives, no indications that the Botha government was committed to the kind of programme which could and would transform South Africa. Blacks had grown impatient with tactical shifts, symbolic acts and rhetorical flutters. They wanted concrete proposals of strategic value. But these are far from being the preferred thoughts of their white rulers.

Africans, particularly those who are young and underemployed or unemployed, are alienated from the state, from their more moderate leaders, and from any institutional constraints on the immediate attaining of freedom. Although they may now only be climbing the Potemkin steps, after a year of confrontation they consider themselves the true vanguard of a people’s war. That they have no more than sticks and stones and occasional petrol bombs, and face machine-guns, tanks and the strongest repressive assemblage in Africa – this only serves to quicken their pulse and to embolden their new, shadowy, mostly local leadership.

The armed might under white control is formidable, well-trained, and prepared to act ruthlessly. Once suppression is accomplished, Botha’s government will make concessions of a kind which could impress Western critics and alarm local whites, but the Government wishes to make concessions only from a position of strength. To do so under duress might lead to the strategic rather than tactical shifts which whites abhor. Those were among the strong messages of President Botha’s hapless, mistimed ‘Rubicon’ speech in August. Yet the days when social and economic concessions would be enough to bring about a reconciliation between black and white are past. Even an acknowledgement, otherwise welcome, that blacks are full citizens of the land of their birth now has only a limited impact on the aims of African protestors.

The differences between white and black aspirations are stark. Africans in 1985 are focusing on the old adage that was popularised in the late 1940s by President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana: ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall follow!’ Political participation is now the Africans’ key demand, even if a simple ‘One man, one vote’ (the goal whites naturally fear most) is not the only rallying cry. There is still room to manuoevre, but only within the arena of political power. Africans demand the franchise. They seek representation at municipal, regional and national levels of authority, and they will no longer be satisfied or put off by less. It follows that the era of reform from the top has ended. If there is to be evolutionary progression it will have to result from a partnership of black and white. Thus government attempts to consult with hand-picked ‘representatives’ of the majority are outmoded. Even consultation is out as a vehicle of change. Africans intend to negotiate their own fate, their model remaining a national convention or some other large forum where the future of South Africa can be bargained out across a metaphorical large table.

Although Africans are more thoroughly alienated than ever before, and harbour more comprehensive and more robust demands than their predecessors in the riots of 1976 or the 1960 march on Cape Town, a resolution of colour conflict in South Africa isn’t necessarily near at hand. Some English-speaking white businessmen are prepared to contemplate major alterations of the framework of South Africa, a sizable proportion of the white electorate is sufficiently insecure to listen intensely to any new proposals, but their government, and its leaders, remain largely unmoved. They fear the negotiations that Africans request, and are unready to discuss, much less consider, the transfer to Africans of meaningful power at regional and local levels. African enfranchisement would signal the collapse of apartheid, the end of Afrikaner domination, and the demise of a South Africa based on minority pre-eminence. Clearly the extent to which the regime will be able to curb militant black protest must remain problematic. Despite African anger, the odds are favourable, for South Africa’s Army and Police are strong and not yet strained. But it is far less likely that the townships will prove stable until Africans control them through at least a local franchise and some degree of fiscal autonomy.

Less probable still is the restoration of comparative tranquillity. Even if suppression succeeds in quenching the overt fires of protest, they will smoulder and soon burst into flame again. Episodes of violence will follow episodes of violence, and though their duration and amplitude may vary, the rioting of 1984-85 presages much more of at least the same intensity for months, possibly for years, even decades. But although it is easy to predict more and more violence, to do so is not to predict a linear acceleration leading inevitably to some apocalyptic end. Historical determinism could hardly have foreseen when and how the tsars or the shahs would have been overthrown. Nor, despite the vast demographic disparities in South Africa, and the untold frustration of South Africa’s majority, can analysts confidently assume that black will triumph over white, and soon. Few would assert the certain victory in modern times of reason over error or good over evil. Likewise, democratic values need not prevail over determined opposition, in this case over a ruling cadre of millions fearful of being subjected to a fate similar to much (but not all) of a black Africa which has been poorly managed and shown little respect for individual or communal rights.

To say this is not to say that the events of 1985 may not foreshadow a revolution, or at least an explosion sufficient to compel whites to share power with blacks: but merely that they need not, for South Africa, unlike Iran or earlier examples, fits no classic pre-revolutionary profile. The major missing ingredient is the existence of military other ranks drawn from a stratum or a class substantially more deprived than that of their rulers. The South African military machine is more than 90 per cent white, and will probably remain so. In every other revolution the army’s lower orders refused at some decisive point to continue to coerce the people, with whom they had come to identify. In South Africa, the lines of conflict follow colour, not class or ethnic lines. It is inconceivable that the sanctions of the South African state will wither as they did in Iran. True, the police are 50 per cent black, but they are a largely decentralised force incapable of resisting the Army, Air Force and Navy, and their black officers and men would probably find it difficult to act in concert.

Those who would revolt lack access to arms, to funds, to sanctuaries, and – for reasons which reflect some of the bitter consequences of separate development as well as a widespread black poverty – lack a broadly acknowledged leadership. Nelson Mandela could prove an exception, but he still remains incarcerated in conditions which elevate his national credibility. Some outsiders assert that the African National Congress, because it is avowedly popular among Africans in South Africa, and is the only generally recognised black political entity, could provide that missing leadership from a distance, or even direct the struggle, until triumph comes.

Certainly ANC guerrillas worry white South Africa much more than they did in the 1970s. Their actions are more and more welcomed by all manner of Africans within the country. But, having lost easy access to South Africa in the wake of the Nkomati accord and South Africa’s destabilising strikes against Lesotho, Botswana and Angola, and their threat of more of the same elsewhere in southern Africa, the ANC in 1985 is less rather than more of a threat to white South Africa. Their guerrillas have found it harder to strike at industrial and personal targets – not that this means that such attacks will end. Moreover, the Army and Police have shown an ability to deflect guerrilla incursions more easily in recent months, despite the violence in the townships.

The battleground of the 1980s is urban South Africa. By the end of the century at least 75 per cent of all Africans – between 28 and 32 million – will live in what whites call their heartland. If a classical revolution is unlikely, and a voluntary white sharing or transfer of power not to be expected, one must assume that violence punctuated by concessions will be the likely short-term fate of a troubled and bitterly divided South Africa.

In the past whenever a spate of internal violence has been combined with Western impatience and pressure, white South Africa has modified its stance of unwavering intransigence with bouts of subtle, reluctant but nevertheless helpful compromise. In recent months, as the black cities continued to burn, outside concern reached new heights. Political considerations more than narrowly economic or fiscal anxieties turned the bankers of the West against South Africa and the country was compelled to announce a debt moratorium despite its economy’s residual strength. It is the almost unanimous anxiety of the financiers of the West (and that of white South African businessmen) which will compel South Africa’s rulers to concentrate their minds on new attempts at reform – and, conceivably, if they read the message of the riots correctly (and more intelligently than this essay suggests that they will), propel them in adventurous and positive directions.

The watered-down sanctions announced this month by President Reagan and the still more pallid measures enunciated by the European Economic Community (bar Britain) will matter little economically, for in effect they ratify decisions already taken by the private sector, and long ago envisaged by all South Africans. Thus it matters less that Britain follows its European and American allies (Canada months ago signalled its displeasure) in approving specific sanctions than it does that Britain adds diplomatically and rhetorically to the impact of Western disapproval upon the hearts and minds of white South Africans.

In the short term, the direct influence of narrow economic measures on the policies of Botha’s government is bound to be limited. The psychological atmosphere counts for a great deal more. The laager is a hoary myth. In the past, when whites have felt themselves to be beleaguered and isolated, there was some tendency to respond – even in the dark days of Hendrik Verwoerd – with alterations in their posture of defiance. This is why the US policy of constructive engagement was misguided from the start, and is a palpable failure today. Indeed, one of the positive by-products of the failure of Botha’s reform schemes is the demise of constructive engagement. When the President of the United States proclaims sanctions against South Africa, a country he usually refers to as an ally, it is clear in Washington that constructive engagement has failed. The President succumbed to domestic political pressures, but their strength showed how far was the US executive branch out of phase with the elected representatives of the people in their legislature.

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