Apartheid gains a constitution

Keith Kyle

  • Ethnic Power Mobilised: Can South Africa change? by Heribert Adam
    Yale, 308 pp, £14.20, October 1979, ISBN 0 300 02377 4
  • Transkei’s Half Loaf: Race Separatism in South Africa by Newell Stultz
    Yale, 183 pp, £10.10, October 1979, ISBN 0 300 02333 2
  • Year of Fire, Year of Ash The Soweto Revolt: Roots of a Revolution? by Baruch Hirson
    Zed, 348 pp, £12.95, June 1979, ISBN 0 905762 28 2
  • The past is another country: Rhodesia 1890-1979 by Martin Meredith
    Deutsch, 383 pp, £9.95, October 1979, ISBN 0 233 97121 1

The Habsburg monarchy two decades before its total collapse might seem an odd source to go to for contemporary political solutions. But it is to that period, and above all to the writings of the Social Democratic leader (and later Austrian President) Karl Renner, that Afrikaner intellectuals are turning in their desperate search for a constitutional way out in South Africa. The ideas which are traced back to Renner and recommended as an intellectual basis for the replacement, or, alternatively, the gentrification, of apartheid derive from the principles of consociationalism: that is, a high degree of devolution down to the lowest possible unit of government organised either on a personal or on a territorial basis; proportionality between ethnic groups in the distribution of public positions; acompulsory coalition at the top between the leaders of the groups and a mutual group veto on matters to be decided in common. These ideas are discussed in the first two of the books under review; they were the main theme of a conference staged in New York in October 1978 by Dr NicRhoodie’s Institute for Plural Societies at the University of Pretoria, with a view to spreading the idea that South Africa was to be thought of as just one of several states confronted with the intellectually challenging problems of plural societies; and they partially inspired the influential Theron Commission report on the condition of the Coloureds in South Africa.

The Theron Commission’s conclusion, that‘the existing Westminster system of government will have to be changed to adapt it to the requirements peculiar to the South African plural population structure,’ wasfollowed in 1977 by a Cabinet committee presided over by P.W. Botha, who has since become prime minister of South Africa.Botha’s committee drew up major proposals for constitutional reform which have been endorsed both by the Cabinet and by the four provincial congresses of the National Party, whose structure and importance are discussed in a fascinating chapter on Afrikanerpolitics, ‘How the system works’, by Hermann Giliomee. Since Botha reached the top, however, this initial enthusiasm has been followed by something of a pause, and the Prime Minister recently announced that a conference would be held of all the races,including – which the proposal does not – the blacks.

The scheme provides for three of everything –prime ministers, cabinets, parliaments, regional administrators, mayors, town councils – for the white, Coloured and Indian communities. Each parliament, whose respective membership, mainly elected but partly nominated, is determined by the magic formula 4-2-1 which corresponds roughly to the relative sizes of the three populations, is to be entrusted with exclusive legislative powers over those matters which can be settled inside each group. For matters of mutual or common concern they would apparently not meet jointly but function as a tricameral system. An electoral college would be chosen by the parliaments on a 4-2-1 basis and would elect the state president. He in turn would preside over a Council of Cabinets including the three prime ministers and other representatives of the cabinets, again chosen proportionately. There would also be a presidential advisory council (4-2-1, of course, plus 20 appointed experts). Though the Council of Cabinets is supposed to exercise collective responsibility, the president has the power to break deadlocks in the last resort. Further, it is provided that if the parliaments should be unable to agree, the matter would be referred to the Council and ultimately decided by the president.

Some of the difficulties which this system suggests apply to the notion of consociationalism itself; others to these particular proposals – and the suspect political motives of their authors. Both Heribert Adam and Newell Stultz include able enough summaries of the snags. Indeed, one might dismiss the scheme as preposterous were it not for the extraordinary difficulties inherent the problem itself. At least, as the Afrikaner intellectuals pointed out at the conference in the New York Hilton, these proposals represent something new and the Bothacommittee did listen to university people in the course of drawing them up. Once a breach with the old order is made, there is no knowing where one might be led.

The most obvious drawback of the plan, which rather damns it from the consociational (or power-sharing) point of view, as well as many others, is that it leaves out 70 per cent of the people. This is, of course, essential if one wishes to arrive at a population ratio in which the whites are the largest group. It involves a continuation of the politics of illusion, according to which some fifteen million black Africans are ‘justvisiting’ from Homelands that most of them have never seen, even though most whites realise that a large black urban proletariat is there to stay: after the revolt of 1976 they are not likely to overlook the existence of the 1.3 million residents of Soweto.

There is nothing in the constitutional proposals to contradict a ministerial statement made in 1978 by Connie Mulder (although that former minister has since gone into spectacular political eclipse). He said that ‘when the National Party policy is taken to its logical conclusion, there will no longer be a black man in South Africa who has South African citizenship.’ Theconjuring trick is achieved by bringing about the independence of the Homelands, so that, for all the frantic and disregarded objections of the Transkei Government described by Stultz, the one-third of the Xhosa-speaking people who are living permanently outside the Transkei state can be treated, when the South African Government feels like it, as what used to be called ‘alien natives’. As W. Ben Vosloo, of the University of Stellenbosch, conceded at the New York conference: ‘The inclusion of Blacks in the constitutional plan would have required an entirely different constitutional paradigm.’

Quite apart from this one staggering omission, other drawbacks suggest themselves. Examples are produced of other applications of the consociational principle around the world: but they are all examples of failure (or of very limited success) – Cyprus, Lebanon, Belgium, Northern Ireland. It is not a very encouraging list. Even Austria-Hungary only got two systems going – inMoravia and Bukovina – and were still talking about starting on a similar plan for Bohemia when the First World War started. As Heribert Adam says, the success of apower-sharing system of this sort depends on the members of each ethnic group wanting to identify themselves through a group consensus. That is true, more or less, of the Afrikaners.

The first part of Ethnic Power Mobilised contends that Afrikaner political history can best be understood if one sees the Afrikaners as deliberately using the political instruments as a means of pulling themselves up from the socially and economically-handicapped status of a proletarian nation. Until 1948, the average income of urbanEnglish-speaking whites was well over twice that of Afrikaners. Before the Second World War Afrikaners supplied 20 per cent of the managerial and professional class and 86 per cent of the white unskilled labour force in the towns. Among private entrepreneurs they were only 5 per cent. A special organisation, the Blankewerkerbestergingsbond (White Workers Protection League), existed to rescue the large numbers of poor whites, of whom 298,000were said to live in ‘terrible poverty’. Culturally, Afrikaans-speakers were made to feel inferior.

From 1948, when the National Party first achieved power, the advancement of the Afrikaner people was accomplished by rapid expansion of the state sector. Public or semi-state corporations were used by the Government to counter the hold of English-speaking capitalism. The Civil Service was greatly expanded and its ethnic character radically altered. In a sense, the 1948 election was the workers’ revolution in South Africa.

Yet because there was a common danger from the black proletariat and growing international pressure against the privileged position of whites as a whole, an increasing proportion of the English-shaking vote went to the National Party. Although a large section of the white population is excluded from the consensus-building structure because they are not Afrikaners, there has been no suggestion that South Africa should be reorganised on a basis of two white groups instead of one. Under the new constitutional proposals it is simply assumed that the interests of white society as a whole will be represented by the majority party in the white parliament, which will almost inevitably be the National Party, with a few statutory politicians of English descent.

There is, in consequence, a search for a new ideology to replace the overt policy of pushing Afrikanerdom. Heribert Adams identifies the ‘idea ofsurvival’ as the essential content of official propaganda. ‘Survivalpolitics,’ he says, ‘allows the leadership to determine internal changes without laying itself open to charges of betrayal ofdoctrine ... Survival is sufficiently serious to permit office-holders to manipulate domestic priorities on the basis of alleged superior information.’ Rotund and meaningless phrases like ‘total strategy’ are much in vogue.

But if there is still reason for confidence that the English-speaking whites will fall in behind a tripartite system resting on consensus, there is no reason at all to expect the same from the other putative partners. The mixed-blood Coloured community does not in any way wish to be so identified and its main political organisation, the Labour Party, has it anything become more hostile since the new ideas began to be discussed. In the past, white Afrikanerdom has wilfully excluded Coloureds from the white community with which they might have identified: now they increasingly claim to see themselves as black. Moreover, the system tends heavily to deadlock and paralysis, and a ‘partnership’ based on strikingly unequal shares and incompatible objectives is not likely to command the informal good will that would be necessary to make it work. One has only to look at Belgium’s attempts over the past 20 years to agree on a consociational type of constitution, to see the scale of the problem – and in Belgium there are almost none of the special difficulties that exist in South Africa. To allow such a system to work, individuals must wish to identify with their groups while being prepared for their leaders to make deals at the centre with other groups. But, to quote Adam, ‘the blueprint [in South Africa] makes the Coloureds and Indians accomplices in depriving Africans of their citizenship rights.’ These are not hopeful auspices.

On the assumption that somehow enough carrots and sticks are found to get the other two partners to agree to the proposals, the new system would be likely to proceed by a series of deadlocks, which would either favour the status quo or be resolved by the residual powers of the state president. Among the white opposition parties, both to the left and to the right of the National Party, the scheme got a poor reception. The Progressive Federal Party on the left expressed the view that the ‘reforms were both dangerous and futile. By entrenching racial divisions ... and by excluding blacks ... they will increase the conflict situation in South Africa. They takeus further along the road to authoritarianism.’The right-wing Herstigte National Party arrived at a similar opinion by a different route:

Race federation has a limited tolerance for dissent. It cannot stand the strain of religious and race differences and either blows up, leading to violence, or makes dictatorship inevitable. The proposed State President will be a virtual dictator ... Noconstitution taking different race groups into a single government has ever been acceptable to all race groups and has everworked.[*]

Of the two authors of Ethnic PowerMobilised – a study of the identity of Afrikaners,their economic advance, their political structures and their contemporary ideas – one, Heribert Adam, is of German origin and is now teaching sociology at a Canadian university; the other, Hermann Giliomee, is a South African historian at Stellenbosch. Both write with admirable conciseness and for the most part equally commendable clarity (the jargon only occasionally obtruding, once or twice at a cost to the syntax). Their answer to the question posed in the subtitle would appear to be‘no’, until the discussion in the last two pages, which raises so many fresh questions about, for example, the possible impact of sanctions and boycotts on Afrikaner morale and unity as to suggest that conciseness can be overdone.

While the whites are trying to settle their own difficulties, the majority population of South Africa is left with Homelands like Transkei and urban jungles like Soweto. Soweto is not a name but an acronym for South West Townships – an unplace for unpersons. In June 1976, a revolt against the Bantu education system was begun by secondary-school students; the light had been set to the flame of discontent in Soweto by an order that henceforth one-half of all subjects, including mathematics, history and geography, should be taught not in English but in Afrikaans. This happened at a moment when the schools had become immensely overcrowded because of a decision by the authorities to lower the entrance standards in order to enable more skilled blacks to fill the gaps in the economic system.

There were mass demonstrations, clashes with the police, several short sympathy strikes by adults at the request of the children, and disturbances that continued for over a year and in certain respects for longer. The blackstudents, as in the black sections of American cities, began smashing up their own city, going particularly for bottle-stalls and beer-halls, school buildings and equipment, cars, major administrative buildings and shops. The Government’s response seemed for some time curiously uncertain, alternating between major and brutal police action and mere containment. The self-constituted body of community leaders called the Committee of Ten, which eventually emerged to conduct negotiations, was arrested, then released and allowed to function. The action in Soweto spread to townships in other parts of the country, particularly in the Cape, where Coloured students joined in, identifying with the blacks. But attempts to carry the demonstrations into the centres of Johannesburg and Capetown were rapidly suppressed.

Baruch Hirson is a ‘lifelong Marxist and committed revolutionary’ who, after spending ten years in South African prisons for plotting revolution, now works in the School of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. In his book he has put to extensive use the archives of documents, manifestos, leaflets and underground newsletters relating to the period of the revolt that have been got out of South Africa, and he has tried to make sense of what he has found in them. The account suffers from the limitations of the material and from the fact that the author cannot revisit the scene. Still, he has much of interest to say, both about the revolt as a demonstration of the fragility of South African society and about its limitations as a form of protest. As a committed revolutionary, he concludes: ‘The situation in South Africa was not revolutionary and there was never any possibility of overthrowing the regime.’

Hirson’s problem as an analyst is that while he recognises that Soweto was easily the most effective gesture of revolt since Sharpeville, he is basically out of sympathy with the Black Consciousness movement that inspired it. On the evidence at present available, he appears to be quite justified in saying that there is no sign that any of the known Black Consciousness leaders organised the outbreak. It seems to have been generated among the students, and after it had started some members of the South African Students Movement, which had Black Consciousness connections, assumed the leadership as the Soweto Students Representative Council.

They were much harried by the authorities, and because of this frequently were forced to replace their membership, and were only intermittently effective in giving tactical instructions. Nevertheless, given the conditions and their own unavoidable inexperience, they seem to have imparted an impressive amount of direction to the protest. The self-confidence the students derived from the diffusion of Black Consciousness ideas undoubtedly contributed to their ability to function as effectively as they did. They only got limited help from their elders, because workers were not prepared for, and could not afford, continuous or too often repeated stay-at-home demonstrations. But theyweren’t hindered by the hostels of migrantworkers to the extent that the authorities had expected.

The trouble for Hirson is that none of the spokesmen for the revolt showed a proper concern for class politics, or, for that matter, for armed struggle. He is, moreover, indignant that the black community leaders who emerged from the disorder around the Committee of Ten were prepared to work with the Inkatha movement, led by the KwaZulu Chief Minister, Gatsha Buthelezi, and to sponsor proposals for spending money on the regeneration of Soweto as a proper city. This was a challenge to which the white government failed to rise, very fortunately in the author’s opinion, because the result of carrying out the plan would have been the creation of ‘an urban Bantustan’. Hirson seems to be saying that that is what comes of responding to an imprecise ideology such as Black Consciousness, which excludes good whites (like Marxists) and includes black class enemies (like Chief Buthelezi).

Buthelezi is felt by some to have committed an unforgivable sin by accepting the key appointment for blacks in the apartheid system: that of Chief Minister of the KwaZulu Homeland, a ludicrous construct of ten non-contiguous portions. But he contends robustly, and with no little success, that he knows what he is doing, that he is enabled to use his legal political base to play jujitsu on the system. He has made it absolutely plain that he has no intention whatsoever of claiming the ‘sovereignindependence’ to which all ten of the tribal Homelands which make up 13 per cent of the land area, and are supposed to be ‘home’ for 70 per cent of the people of South Africa, are entitled. At one time, he thought all his fellow chief ministers agreed with him on this point of staying in South Africa. Chief Kaiser Matanzima of Transkei was the first to break ranks, and has been followed by Bophuthatswana and Venda into an ‘independence’unrecognised by any state other than South Africa.

Transkei’s dramatic breaking-off of diplomatic relations with South Africa on 10 April 1978, accompanied by claims from Matanzima that Transkei would now ‘join the liberation movement and claim the whole of South Africa’ for the black majority, has not altered the world’s opinion. As a Transkeian official, quoted by Newell Stultz inhis Transkei’sHalf Loaf, remarked on Independence Day: ‘South Africa hasbeen charged by the world with race discrimination, judged and found guilty; but Transkei has been sent to serve the sentence.’

Stultz’s book has a peculiar sandwich-like structure, beginning with a review of the radical proposals for the partition or the federation of South Africa made by such authors as Edward Tiryakian, Jan Graaff and Leo Marquand, which would represent a marked departure from the status quo, and winding up with an analysis of present-day power-sharing ideas. The reasons for this are rather touchingly explained by the author. On 25 October 1979, Transkei’s Independence Day, Stultz was sitting among the crowd at Independence Stadium, wrestling with the shock of discoveringthat a Rand Daily Mail reporter, Patrick Laurence, had just shot his bird by publishing an excellent political history of Transkeiup to the eve of Independence, and wondering how he could rescue his own academic enterprise. He decided that, rather than wait a few years to write a political history of Transkei after Independence, he would pull rank as a ‘philosopher’ and say something about Transkeiindependence ‘in the larger context of race relations in Southern Africa’. He would contribute to the study of multiethnic societies and add something at the end that would fit in with his Rockefeller fellowship in conflict resolution.

Stultz’s conclusions are not very helpful to his larger academic ambitions. ‘Transkei independence,’ hefinds, ‘has fostered political stability where it was not really lacking.’ The legal position of the urban Xhosa has been prejudiced by South Africa’s use of the occasion of independence to strip 1,155,000 of them of citizenship in their area of permanent residence. Meanwhile Transkei remains desperately poor: ‘Africa’s richest country has virtually disinherited two million of its poorest members.’

Only 3 per cent of its population is urbanised, 56 per cent have received no schooling at all (although the money spent on education is increasing); more than three-quarters of new job-seekers have either to leave the country or remain unemployed, and at any one time half of its males of working age are away. Before Independence domestic sources accounted for about a quarter of its revenue; following the increased expenditure that came with its new status, this went down to 15.9 per cent.

Stultz describes the main advantage of independence as being that within its own borders Transkei has escaped from the embrace of the apartheid system. Independence has also involved South African whites in a more mature relationship with individual blacks than they have experienced elsewhere. But he emerges from his review of the prospects for the new constitutional plans for South Africa with the gloomy conclusion that the conflict ‘may beexpected to tend gradually towards anarchy, in which the quality of life for everyone, black and white, wouldbe destroyed’. In such an event, he asks himself, would there be any relevance in the fact that Transkei was independent? Answer: scarcely any. The people of Transkei ‘might be only spectators at such a procession of grim events’.

One thing is certain. The 17 per cent of the South African population who are white have not considered themselves, and have not been considered by others, as being in the same situation as the 3 per cent white population of Rhodesia. The Afrikaners, President Nyerere has said, are an African tribe. The political history of Rhodesia, from the launching of the African National Congress under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo to the assumption of the premiership by the first black African occupant, is told by Martin Meredith, a British journalistwho worked in Southern Africa for the Observer and afterwards forthe Sunday Times, in a book with the curious title The past is another country. The misleading subtitle Rhodesia 1890-1979 suggests that the past is another book. The first 67 of these 89 years are covered in exactly six pages and the following 12 years are disposed of quite sketchily. What is in fact being offered is a well-written description of the nine years from 1970 onwards, together with a short introduction. It is the story of the decline and fall of Ian Smith and, although one might have wished that Meredith had stayed the course until the 1980 election and its aftermath, there is no doubt that what he has provided is most welcome as a background to present events.

The way the persistent rivalries between the Zimbabwean parties impeded their attempts to pursue their aims either by politics or by war and the efforts of other states to help them is described in detail. Whatever view is taken of the present rivals for power, one cannot help remarking on the extraordinary staying-power and resilience of Joshua Nkomo, who has been in the leadership since 1957, was the prime cause of the original party split in 1963, but has still, two decades after his well-known merits and limits became the subject of agonising controversy, emerged as a strong Minister of Home Affairs in the new Mugabe Government. Meredith has uncovered many of the details of the relationship between the various brawling factions in exile, and chronicles the emergence of the increasingly dominant figure of Robert Mugabe.

Meredith’s long account of the Kissinger deal, as the result of which Ian Smith became for the first time committed to black majority rule, must be compared carefully with Kissinger’sown forthcoming narrative in the second volume of his memoirs. But one is bound to say that Meredith’s rather unflatteringpicture of Kissinger’s deviousness towards both Smith and the Front Line Presidents corresponds with the impression one received at the time. The essential importanceof Kissinger’s mission should not, however, be lost sight of in a discussion of details. Smith and with him the white Rhodesian population had been force-marched across a major psychological barrier because Kissinger had effectively brought the opinions of the South African Prime Minister, John Vorster, to bear on the issue (Meredith is particularly good at describing this), and because of sanctions.

Economic sanctions against Rhodesia were in the end, and in their way, a success. They did not achieve what had been initially hoped for them, because South Africa and Portugal were not prepared to co-operate, and because the multinational oil companies based in Britain were prepared, evidently with the ultimate connivance of the Labour Government, to evade them in the way described in the Bingham report. They behaved in the way left-wing critics of multinationals would wish them to do – by showing greater readiness to respond to the wishes of the host government (in this case, South Africa) than to those of the country of their company headquarters.

The effect of this behaviour was to help prevent sanctions operating as a substitute for war. If ever a war of liberation was morally justified by the sequence of events, it was the war in Zimbabwe. Rhodesia had rebelled against the Crown and any black guerrillas would therefore be fighting on ‘ourside’. But since the guerrillas were presumed (quite correctly) not to be very efficient from a military point of view, it could be seen that their only way to inflict losses on the whites was to attack ‘softtargets’: they would not, therefore, make very reputable allies. Since that did not alter the legitimacy of their case, sanctions were put on as a way of achieving the result without the pain. Because sanctions operated so slowly, it was necessary to endure the guerrilla war, but once Portugal disappeared as a factor, white Rhodesia became wholly dependent on South Africa.

Meredith makes it plain that by 1976 not only were sanctions having a serious effect, but South Africa was also prepared to use them against Rhodesia, though to a limited extent and for limited purposes. Following the closure of the Mozambique border to the Rhodesians, rail traffic had to be rerouted through South Africa. Meredith says that ‘Vorster ensuredthat South African railways added further delay. By the end of August [1976] the backlog of exports had reached crisis proportions... The [Rhodesian] Government also found later that oil shipments from South Africa were cut back and even more serious that supplies of arms and ammunition ... were interrupted.’ David Smith, the Rhodesian Finance Minister, advised his leader that Rhodesia was virtually broke: ‘There wert almost noforeign exchange reserves. Without an infusion of soft loans, Rhodesiacould neither pay for the war, nor keep industry supplied ... nor cope withinflation.’ That, essentially, was the reason Ian Smith gave in: but another three and a half years were to elapse before the conference at Lancaster House.

[*] I owe these quotations and some other factual material in the article toThe Western Crisis over Southern Africa by Colin Legum (Africana Publishing Company, 272 pp.,£9.25 and £4.85, 0 8419 0492 8, Autumn 1979).