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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] 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).