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.

Blacks know this, which is why such terrifying fissures have begun to show within their ranks: the race for power is on, and is being conducted under a peculiar set of rules and handicaps, for Pretoria has historically tolerated only very limited avenues for black political organisation and has amputated successive generations of black political leadership. Pretoria’s tactic has been to create the black leadership it wanted and then to declare a broad-minded willingness to negotiate with its puppets. The result has been farcical: a series of pocket Trujillos, Duvaliers and Somozas in the Bantustans, and urban ‘leaders’ like the now-ousted mayor of Soweto, Ephraim Tshabalala, who demanded a ban on celebrations of the 1976 unrest, together with denial of Christian burial to victims of unrest, and declared that apartheid had been created by God. Even now, Pretoria still clings to the notion that it can somehow ‘negotiate’ with men whose natural constituents are anxious only to place burning tyres around their necks.

Under these circumstances the only way for even a half-authentic black leadership to emerge was to play as hard as possible to the gallery of an overseas Western liberal opinion anxious to discover a potential black leadership likely to guarantee long-term Western economic and strategic interests in South Africa. Buttressed by the support of these powerful and respectable overseas patrons, such leaders could then develop room for manoeuvre at home, using their relative immunity from the cruder forms of suppression to make gestures of liberal defiance against Pretoria. Since their externally guaranteed immunity made them the only blacks able to make such gestures on a continuing and highly visible basis, such figures could then, without serious competition, conjure up a black following at home – the ensuing crowd scenes being proudly exhibited to the overseas patrons as further evidence of how deserving they were of further support. The ideal forum was the Church: even Pretoria found the idea of imprisoning prominent Christians embarrassing, and a strong profession of Christian faith was the best guarantee of anti-Communism that the overseas patrons could wish for. Hence the careers of Desmond Tutu and Alan Boesak, the latest and best exponents of this crab-like upward leverage into power-broker status. The Western liberal dream was that black South Africans could somehow be gently led to liberation by living saints – Christian Gandhis – who would blessedly leave Western investments and strategic interests undamaged in the process.

The era of this type of black leadership is now drawing to a close. Perhaps the symbolic moment came with the visit to South Africa of Senator Edward Kennedy at the invitation of Tutu and Boesak. Had things gone as in the old days, the latter would have been able to enhance their local position by basking in the charismatic shadow of such a glamorous symbol of Western liberal opinion. But at this point local black militants parted company with Tutu and Boesak and the Kennedy visit ended in acrimonious disaster. In their survey of the black leadership groups that will contest the future, Adam and Moodley pointedly make no mention of either Tutu or Boesak.

Discerning the likely contours of intra-black political competition is still not easy, particularly since several of the major contenders deliberately avoid any sort of programmatic commitment: the ambition is to gain power by becoming a single great catchall nationalist rally. The time for making one’s policy clear will be after one has won power. Thus Inkatha, Chief Buthelezi’s powerful Zulu-based mass movement – whose strength is probably sufficient to ensure Buthelezi at least a blocking role in any future dispensation – proudly declares that ‘Inkatha has never adopted a view about the nature of the South African state in the medium or long term.’ Similarly, the ANC exile leadership, despite the presence of a strong Communist element within its ranks, energetically denies that it is a socialist party at all. The UDF, which functions as a quasi-internal wing of the ANC but which contains many whose commitment to the ANC is dubious or conditional, achieves, if that is possible, an even greater programmatic vacuity. The larger part of the powerful black trade union movement, while subscribing generally to the aims of ‘the liberation movement’, eschews any sort of political or economic credo and is distinctly hostile to its manipulation by political parties or groups. All of which leaves the field clear for the one group not afraid of policy commitment: the Black Consciousness/AZAPO militants who criticise all the others from the radical left. But BC/AZAPO has a minuscule mass following and is playing a different game: its aim is to gain influence among the small but potentially pivotal black intelligentsia, and it has had considerable success.

This hardly exhausts the list of groups which may have to be counted in any final power equation. The young township militants are unlikely to constitute a political grouping in their own right, but the potentially volatile way in which they may force issues could well have a major impact on the serious contenders. None of the other ‘homelands leaders’ has a body of support which remotely resembles Buthelezi’s but some of them may still have useful pockets of traditionalist clients to throw into the balance. And what to make of a man like Bishop Lekganyane whose Zionist Christian Church regularly assembles crowds of one and a half million blacks at its Easter rallies? President Botha was canny enough to attend the 1985 Easter Zionist rally and, in addressing the crowd, to defer respectfully to Lekganyane as ‘Your Grace’. Lekganyane returned the compliment in his address to the enormous crowd: ‘Lord, we pray that you keep our State President, Mrs Botha and us all, safe from harm.’ He has shown no sign to date of developing Tutu-like political ambitions – and the quietist creed of the Zionists would appear to preclude such a notion. But well over a third of all blacks now belong to the independent African churches, and the number is still rapidly increasing. Compare this with the mere 4.7 per cent of blacks who belong to Tutu’s Anglican flock: one is looking at a leviathan which, if it ever did decide to act politically, could well have decisive weight.

Most of these groups represent sections of the growing black middle class. In Buthelezi’s case, the full pomp and ceremony of traditional chieftainship is added to the giant white Mercedes, the espousal of private enterprise, and a rejection of economic sanctions against South Africa. With the UDF leadership a more straightforwardly middle-class set of assumptions is almost naively made. When, in August 1985, the UDF decided to send a message to Mandela on behalf of ‘the people of South Africa’, it gave a quite unconscious self-definition: ‘We, the people of South Africa represented by the UDF, university students, school pupils, academics, teachers, lawyers, doctors, clerics and other concerned citizens ...’ No nonsense here about a worker-peasant alliance, toiling masses, sons of the soil. Even the position of the allegedly radical socialists of the BC/AZAPO is ambivalent. Most of their constituency is undeniably middle-class and will be among the chief gainers from continued ‘reform’, let alone the wholesale displacement of white power. And while their anti-white rhetoric is principally targeted against the white Communists within the ANC, the fact is that it is also highly usable in campaigns for job Africanisation from which Black Consciousness militants will be among the main beneficiaries: a pattern we have seen in too many African states to be surprised by.

The real conundrum is the ANC. There is no doubt that Communists such as Joe Slovo do play a powerful role within the exile leadership. Nor is there any doubt that men like Slovo are old-style Leninist-Stalinists: Slovo, for example, has no time for trade-union autonomy. ‘It depends on us,’ he says, meaning the CP faction of the ANC, ‘having the capacity of injecting the right kind of politics and thinking into the working class.’ No Eurocommunist nonsense here. Understandably, many trade-union leaders feel considerable revulsion at the notion of being thus ‘injected’, having had their fill of similarly paternalist attitudes from Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha and white employers. But the exile leadership also includes many quite old-style African nationalists: both Tambo and Mandela himself are somewhere on the centre-right of the movement and both come from the topmost layer of the black middle-class élite. There is also the fact that many of the top exiles have now been abroad for a quarter of a century or more and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been living quite high on the hog. This is not just a partisan point, as in Buthelezi’s retort that he ‘will not be dictated to by South African exiles who sit drinking whisky in safe places’, or the frequent criticism of Tambo for having had his son educated at an English private school. It is simply a sociological fact that the exile leadership, Communists as much as nationalists, have been through a lengthy acculturation to metropolitan comforts which they do not seem very keen to give up.

The result is that to the geographical distance which separates the exiles from their militants on the ground there must be added a growing social and political distance. This distance is variously expressed – by the open contempt of some young township militants for ‘Uncle Tom’ Tambo, and by the continuous history of trouble in the ANC guerrilla camps. As one report on the decisions of the 1985 ANC conference at Kabwe in Zambia put it, ‘ANC “draft-dodgers” will not be allowed to opt for Moscow as an alternative to the more austere Angolan camps, where the ANC leadership has been increasingly concerned with a breakdown in discipline. A rebellion there was ruthlessly put down last year. Among ANC militants who have become accustomed to the comforts of Western life-in-exile, mention of Angola is comparable to the connotations Siberia has to the Soviets.’

All of which may sound close to saying that whichever black party comes to power it will be middle-class and that the future of South African capitalism is thus ensured. There is, indeed, a good chance that this may be true. If so, it would be deeply ironic, for few more bitter intellectual battles have been fought over the last fifteen years than the liberal-Marxist debate as to whether apartheid was intrinsic to South African capitalism or a hindrance to it which would be destroyed by the onward march of the market. Merle Lipton, long one of the doughtiest proponents of the liberal thesis, has summed up her work in Capitalism and Apartheid – a valuable and succinct historical account, packed with useful data. But the fact is that the whole debate has begun to look somewhat passé. Those who backed themselves into a corner by arguing that apartheid was essential to capitalism have cause for some embarrassment as the apartheid system is steadily dismantled with capitalism still firmly entrenched – though this would be as nothing to their embarrassment if capitalism were to prosper under black majority rule. However, apartheid is being dismantled not because it has been eroded by the market but because, on the one hand, the need for cheap labour is now less as South African industry becomes more capital-intensive and as farming becomes more mechanised, and, on the other hand, because growing black pressure threatens the stability of the system as a whole unless sweeping concessions are made. At a certain point the argument about what economic conditions are most satisfactory to industrial, mining or agricultural capital becomes otiose, for the white capitalist is now more concerned about the larger question as to whether he and his family can continue to live safely in the country at all. In a country where every white is liable to military conscription up to the age of 60, such thoughts are never far away.

There are, however, powerful reasons to believe that South African capitalism is unlikely to survive black majority rule unscathed, In part, this is simply because the present economic system is so identified with white supremacy that white industrialists are likely, in the wake of such a change, to find themselves in the same unenviable pariah position as did, come the Liberation, those French industrialists who had collaborated with the Nazis. But more significantly, whichever black party comes to power it will face the same pressure from below to use that power to achieve a sweeping redistribution of social and economic resources. Adam and Moodley argue persuasively that this means that the only type of regime which can guarantee long-term democratic stability is probably a fairly strong form of democratic socialism, and that such a regime, assuming it would still leave a considerable space to free enterprise, may already represent the best hope for enlightened white capitalists. Adam and Moodley speculate interestingly on what the contours of such a regime might be, but on at least one crucial point they fail to carry conviction. It is imaginable that black nationalists, like their Afrikaner nationalist predecessors, may be willing to tolerate for years to come the fact that another ethnic group remains far wealthier than they are, but is is hard to imagine that they, any more than the Afrikaner nationalists did before them, will long tolerate a situation in which their children receive such a grossly inferior education that this economic status quo ante can be perpetuated for ever. At present, per capita expenditure on black education is only 10 per cent of the figure for whites. Any progress towards equality in this field can only mean a dramatic levelling down in white educational standards sufficient to ensure that young whites can no longer compete in an international First World labour market, only in a Third World one. Such a prospect would produce large-scale white emigration and a growing, consequential economic destabilisation. This simply is a gut issue – as even Oliver Tambo’s own behaviour suggests.

All of this is to leap over the question of how a transition to majority rule can be made in the first place. At present – partly because it makes for such dramatic TV – a great deal of attention has been focused on the emergence of an Afrikaner Far Right, determined to prevent further reform, let alone majority rule. But it is doubtful if the Far Right deserves so much attention. It is, in fact, quite weak. Its main strength lies in its ability to slow reform, not to stop it. In any case, a situation in which the Far Right seemed likely to snatch actual power from the present (or any similar) government is the one scenario in which a military coup d’état would be truly thinkable. To be sure, as Kenneth Grundy shows in his brief but admirable study, the power of the military has increased hugely in every sphere of South African life over the past fifteen years – and the military has shown a growing propensity for independent action, even where this meant undermining or disobeying the diktat of civilian ministries. But at the end of the day the important thing to remember is that the SADF is essentially a citizen army. There are only ten thousand professional soldiers in South Africa. It is highly unlikely that the mass of young conscripts would be willing to support their officers in a high-risk political adventure unless nothing less than the physical safety of their families at home was at stake. The social and economic explosion which would be triggered by the emergence of a Far Right regime might, however, provide just such a scenario.

As Adam and Moodley rightly warn, the greatest danger in the present situation is that both the two main protagonists – the Botha Government and the ANC – appear gravely to underestimate the other’s strength. The Government appears to believe its own propaganda to the effect that the ANC represents a small group of exiled Communist terrorists, while Tambo professes to be ‘not bothered by the strength of South Africa. We don’t think they are strong at home. We will prove that on the ground.’ All of which is alarming in the highest degree. It is all very well for a political ingénue like Winnie Mandela to make stupid and deplorable speeches about ‘give us the matches, give us the necklace,’ but Botha and Tambo are both professional politicians. Tambo has to recognise that if he puts AK-47s into the hands of the township militants he could end up by watching helicopter gunships and Mirages in operation over the townships. All that Botha has to remember is that while there are 21 million blacks today, there will, on present trends, be 47 million by the year 2000, 79 million in 2020 and 138 million in 2040. Such figures imply majority rule quite conclusively in each and every imaginable scenario. They also imply something else: South Africa only has sufficient water resources to support a maximum population of 80 million – black, white and brown. If both sides continue to underestimate the other, the prospect is that of a growing ‘Lebanonisation’ ending in apocalypse. No one can want that.

The problem is that the Botha Government is in search of further instalments of ‘reform’ which somehow always stop short of facing up to the real issue of future majority rule. At the very least, this represents a criminal waste of time. Indeed, reform which is offered as a palliative or intended substitute for facing up to that question loses, ipso facto, all credibility in the eyes even of its intended beneficiaries. More and more, all such initiatives are still-born by the refusal to release Mandela. The problem is that releasing Mandela as a free South African citizen implies that he then has to be allowed to move around the country speaking freely to his followers. Within months – such is the man’s symbolic power – he would probably rally an enormous wave of black opinion behind him. Politically, that would make him the master of the game in black politics – the ANC-in-exile would instantly count for only as much as he decided it should. If he then decided to ditch his old Communist allies – their darkest fear – there would be little they could do about it. But what could the Botha Government do, faced with that united tidal wave behind the one great leader with historic legitimacy? Either they could negotiate with him on the single-question agenda of majority rule; or they could throw him back in jail and crush his movement, thus losing all international credibility and hugely strengthening the position of the Communist faction within the ANC. So there is no point in releasing Mandela unless the Government is also prepared to sit down with him a few months later and bargain about the terms on which it surrenders power. This is not a decision which would come easily to a politician in any country.

As Adam and Moodley point out, all the available evidence from any number of polls and surveys suggests that free elections in South Africa would produce one of the continent’s more conservative governments, with radical minorities to right and left and power held by a broad centre of shifting coalitions of liberals and social democrats. But there is no way of reaching such a dispensation without (probably) a more radical phase in between and (certainly) a similar act of hari-kiri by the present white government.

No part of what I’ve been saying is outdated, or disproved, I think, by the state of emergency which has just been imposed. When and if that crisis is got over, another will come with Botha’s retirement: younger National Party MPs might then bolt the party towards the left rather than face a further prolongation of the present crisis under the sort of orthodox conservative (F.W. De Klerk?) likely to be chosen. Meanwhile more blacks will get killed every week, foreign pressure will grow, and the economy will stagger on downwards. Extraordinary though it may seem, the moment South Africa is waiting for is when considerations such as these at last outweigh calculations about the internal dynamics of the National Party caucus. The clock ticks on.

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.