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.

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