Apartheid’s Apocalypse

R.W. Johnson

  • South Africa without Apartheid by Heribert Adam and Kogila Moodley
    California, 315 pp, £15.25, July 1986, ISBN 0 520 05769 4
  • Move your shadow: South Africa Black and White by Joseph Lelyveld
    Joseph, 390 pp, £14.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 7181 2661 0
  • Capitalism and Apartheid: South Africa 1910-1984 by Merle Lipton
    Gower/Temple Smith, 448 pp, £18.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 85117 248 2
  • The Militarisation of South African Politics by Kenneth Grundy
    Tauris, 133 pp, £14.95, May 1986, ISBN 1 85043 019 5

‘South Africa,’ write Adam and Moodley,

evokes a morbid fascination. A vast literature of condemnation wallows in moral predicaments. Ambivalent friends of Pretoria respond with ever more sophisticated justifications of the unjustifiable. Foreigners cherish the easy accessibility to an English-speaking police state, where the press is critical, intellectuals are tolerated, and the repression occurs out of sight. The apartheid issue allows even diehard conservatives to look radical in a unique laboratory for social engineers. A worthy cause attracts causeless entrepreneurs. Instant experts pontificate about ready options for a creeping revolution. Some claim to seek ‘moral clarity’ that derives from the ‘scale of the land and its antagonisms’. Many more, one suspects, secretly enjoy what Gordimer calls ‘the last colonial extravaganza’.

It is difficult for anyone who knows South Africa not to feel a twinge of this revulsion as the books on this unhappy country continue to pour from the press – the quotation about ‘moral clarity’ somehow deriving from the land’s scale comes, incidentally, from Joseph Lelyveld’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Move your shadow. Similarly, within South Africa itself one keeps stumbling across the half-cold trails of any number of Congressmen and re-tooled Vietnam experts who are confidently attempting to apply the lessons of the US civil rights struggle to a country where the black-white ratio is quite the reverse of what it is in the US. (When Henry Ford, on last visiting his investments in South Africa, was questioned about his company’s policy on black employment, he actually boasted of Ford’s ‘proud record towards minorities’.)

Despite Adam and Moodley’s quotation, such strictures do not apply to Lelyveld’s work, which deserves at least most of the extravagant praise already heaped upon it. This montage of interviews, reflections and rapportage conveys the texture of South African life at every level with a sensitivity and honesty not often found. And although many of the encounters with the politically prominent have a journalistic importance in their own right, it is often in passages dealing with the lives of the obscure that Lelyveld’s virtues shine through most effectively. Moreover, he really does know what he is talking about: unlike all too many foreign observers, he has gained a deep acquaintance with South African history and with the vast country which exists outside the four great cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban – all that most visitors ever see.

This is not a Studs Terkel study of South Africa: the characters do not quite talk for themselves. They are the people Lelyveld has chosen to interview and we always get his sensitive, wry, humane asides about them. Since it is these which thread the book together, it is difficult in the end not to feel that Lelyveld, for all his self-effacement, emerges as the hero of his own book. Inevitably, his own liberal prejudices shine through, so that, for all his gentle humanity, most of the whites interviewed come across as bigots, fools or monsters. And indeed many of them are just that. But if one’s going in for this sort of participant-observer montage, it is better to get right inside the mind of, say, a white policeman – or just let him speak for himself without the asides. The trouble is that if you do this, then everyone comes out as, in their own way, sympathetic – oppressors as well as oppressed.

Lelyveld’s stylistic approach has, in fact, some important political implications. He is so righteously revolted by the South African realities he meets that he seriously underplays the significance of white-imposed reform, treating it mainly as a sort of sham covering a still triumphant apartheid system. The fact is that every single other white regime in Africa has become more reactionary and intransigent as the pressure on it from below has grown, while in South Africa the general drift, however slow and inadequate, has been in the opposite direction. The Botha Government, of course, wants credit for this. It is a matter of political choice whether one accords it or not. Really to understand what is going on means giving ‘reform’ its proper weight too, not just liberally inveighing against its insufficiencies. The boy I sat next to in class in Durban, a racist and white supremacist to the marrow, now sits in integrated cinemas, theatres, restaurants and on integrated beaches. He wonders whether perhaps he can live with majority rule after all and tells me that he doesn’t like being searched at the entrance before going into a shopping centre, that he’s happy that his daughter sits next to an Indian in class. This is not as impressive as all that, but it’s not meaningless either. I have a feeling that my old school friend would come out very badly in any interview with Lelyveld. Maybe he would deserve to. But he has changed and things have changed.

If one wants to understand what is really going on in South Africa and the likely direction that events may take, there is no doubt that the Adam and Moodley book is far superior to Lelyveld’s. It is, indeed, the best book on South Africa that I have read for a very long time. As they point out, belief in reform, however slow, however defective, has already become ‘an essential part of the psychological glue that holds this deeply divided society together’. To see how true this is one merely has to imagine what would happen if Pretoria announced that reform would now stop. There would be an explosion of black rage, a multiplication of foreign pressures, accelerating disinvestment, a white scramble to emigrate and an ever-deepening economic and financial crisis: that is, all the things which are happening despite reform would double and redouble if it stopped. Pretoria may posture, talk defiantly, or warn, but the truth is that the Government has already virtually lost control over the direction in which it is travelling.

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Other books on this subject, published over the last few months, are as follows: W.A. Hachten and C.A. Giffard’s The Press and Apartheid: Repression and Propaganda in South Africa (Macmillan, 336pp., £29.50, April 1985, 0 333 384350) provides the most comprehensive, reliable and scholarly history yet available of the constraints on the South African press. Theirs is a difficult subject well done, for the press has hovered in a peculiar nether world between freedom and censorship. Graham Leach, formerly the BBC Southern Africa correspondent, offers, in South Africa: No Easy Path to Peace (Routledge, 266 pp., £14.95, 10 April, 0 7102 0848 0) some of the reports with which he has covered the country since 1983. Joseph Hanlon’s Apartheid’s Second Front: South Africa’s War against its Neighbours (Penguin, 130 pp., £2.95, 29 May, 0 14 052370 7) is a useful if occasionally rather wishful account of South Africa’s relationship, military and otherwise, with its neighbours. A much larger and more thorough study could well be done of this complex situation. Julie Frederikse’s South Africa: A Different Kind of War (James Currey, 192 pp., £6.95, 12 June, 0 14 052370 7) is a montage of newspaper extracts, with the accent on black resistance.