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A Future South Africa: Visions, Strategies, and Realities
edited by peter l. berger and bobby godsell
westview press, 344 pages, $32.50 

“My dear friend, clear your mind of cant,” said Dr. Johnson in a celebrated piece of advice to Boswell. “You may talk as other people do; you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant . . . You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.” 

There may be few areas of human activity where that advice is more apt than in international affairs, and few subjects in particular where cant is more common than it is in relation to South Africa.

It is not to excuse the egregious cruelty and foolishness of the South African government’s policies since 1948 to observe that not the least of its sins has been bad timing. Just when Auschwitz had cast a fearful light on the ultimate implications of racism, just as the British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonies were throwing off their colonial bonds, and just as the United States was becoming conscious of its own racial transgressions, a National Party government came to power in South Africa that seemed virtually to embrace racism, that oppressed black people and tried to separate them from whites in every phase of life, and that seemed determined to preserve white rule for all time.

The government managed, with almost unerring precision, to alienate everyone. The new nations of the Third World hated this affront to the dignity of black people, the West hated to be reminded of this exaggerated form of its early racism, and the Communist countries hated the government’s intense anti-Communism. In short, opposition to South Africa’s racial policies became the one issue on which everyone everywhere was in agreement.

One result of this unanimity has been that it has seldom been convenient for anyone to keep the historical and political record accurate or to focus candidly on the full nature of South Africa’s problems.

It is the great virtue of this book that it enables one to understand better a good many of these problems. It does this not so much because of the variety of opinions expressed—its eleven contributors are in fact all staunchly anti-apartheid and they cover a relatively narrow part of the spectrum from liberal to radical—as by the method employed by the editors to approach the South African reality. The technique of the book is to divide up the contending political forces and analyze each within its own terms, allowing its aims and objectives to be fully expressed without their being filtered through intervening and distorting lenses. Separate chapters are devoted to the National Party government; the right wing; the (formerly) exiled forces of the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and the Pan-Africanist Congress; the internal resistance groupings; and the “incrementalists.”

The result is that we have perhaps the fullest discussion to appear anywhere, for example, about the extreme right. One learns from Helen Zille’s analysis to appreciate the paradox that the right may be at once absurd and a serious threat. It could be voted into power if the government moves too fast for the electorate or is unsuccessful in its policies of amelioration; or it could give rise to phenomena like the militias in Lebanon or the death squads in South America if white power were directly threatened. Ms. Zille concludes that “the right is no paper tiger.”

The most fascinating chapters are devoted to the National Party government, the A.N.C. and its fellow exile movements, and the incrementalists, by which is meant those like the Inkatha movement led by Chief Buthelezi, the Coloured Labor Party, the Progressive Federal Party (the precursor of the Democratic Party formed only in the middle of 1989), and the business community, all of which are opposed to apartheid but are less drastic than the radical resisters in their prescriptions for change.

Perhaps the most enlightening to a North-American audience is the chapter on the South African government, because this is the group about which prejudices are most firmly rooted and misconceptions most rife. Lawrence Schlemmer, one of the most respected political scientists in South Africa, and a former president of the impeccably liberal South African Institute of Race Relations, makes the point, obvious in other contexts but necessary to restate here, that moral concern about the subject should not exclude careful analysis. He notes, moreover, that apartheid may owe part of its resilience to faulty analysis which, among other things, has often rendered itself ridiculous by predicting imminent collapse of the government.

Misunderstandings relate not only to the potential areas of strength enjoyed by the government, but to its reaction to the situation in which it finds itself. In dealing with its strengths, Schlemmer goes carefully through a series of changes that have taken place in South Africa over the last ten years which, however inadequate they may be as an answer to the fundamental problem, have undoubtedly done something to moderate the position—and the anger—of blacks. He notes, for example, the considerable areas of the country in which blacks are in control of their own affairs; the new regional service councils that are among the first multi-racial bodies with more than advisory functions; the removal of one major grievance through abolition of influx control and the pass laws; the controversial tricameral parliament that excluded the African majority but did bring both Coloureds and Indians into the parliamentary process; and the recognition and increasing strength of black trade unions and the resulting improvement of the lot of black workers. (Schlemmer wrote, of course, before the further major reforms of recent times.)

It is easy enough to say that these changes do not satisfy black aspirations. It is more significant to note that they may indeed strengthen black grievances in the sense intended by Tocqueville in his history of the French Revolution when he pointed out that the most dangerous moment for an oppressive government occurs precisely when it begins to reform itself.

But the changes also help to explain why it is that so many blacks, seeing a situation that is improving and in which their economic fortunes are in general a great deal better than in most African countries, adopt a relatively gradual and less-than-revolutionary approach. It helps, that is, to account for the phenomenon, so irritating to radical activists and so immensely valuable for the future of the country, that black people continue to be as moderate as they are.

In a series of interviews exploring the attitudes of National Party parliamentarians and members of the Cabinet, Schlemmer discredits a number of stereotypes. Proponents of sanctions might note that not one MP spontaneously mentioned sanctions when asked to indicate the major challenges and issues facing the government. Similarly, the large body of literature which argues that apartheid is simply capitalist exploitation is hardly borne out in these interviews; indeed, those interviewed scarcely mentioned business concerns at all. This is not surprising. As Schlemmer notes, the National Party is increasingly a party of “the center/conservative, urban middle and lower middle classes in both the private and especially the public sectors.”

What Nationalist members of parliament want to protect is not the capitalist economy or ethnic culture; it is, says Schlemmer, “the concept of a European standard and way of life, mythical or otherwise,” which includes the following:

A combination of lifestyle, a sense of origin and identity, the psychological satisfaction of an intergroup community life, standards of public order, behavior, and respectability, and sufficient control over the allocation of resources and the maintenance of security to ensure the continuation of these benefits.

Put differently, “there is a great fear among whites that a third world situation will arise in their own areas.”

Nonetheless, Schlemmer believes that there is a genuine commitment to power sharing, though within a system in which whites will as a group retain at least the right to equal co-determination. The decision by the largest branch of the Dutch Reformed Church that apartheid is “unbiblical” has stripped that system of its last vestige of moral legitimacy. It is further significant that the most progressive members of the National Party are also its ablest leaders. There has been a shift of the electoral-support base of the National Party to the left, and there is a grouping belief within the party in the possibility of achieving a solution acceptable and fair to blacks.

The great problem for the government, in Schlemmer’s view, is the failure of the National Party to date to produce a viable power-sharing model. This leads to his conclusion, perhaps not so justifiable now, that the prospects are for a long constitutional stalemate, with some co-option of blacks, until the mounting costs of repression force the government to back down.

Heribert Adam, in his elegantly written analysis of the exiled resistance forces, including the African National Congress, is also helpful in correcting stereotypes, though here again recent developments have run ahead of his analysis, as in the following:

The reason for the increased presence of the A.N.C. in South Africa lies in its legal absence. The more the Pretoria government criminalizes the Congress movement, the more its symbolic appeal spreads. The meager military impact of the A.N.C.’s “armed propaganda” and fledgling “people’s war” stands in sharp contrast to its political clout.

One wonders how the influence of the A.N.C. will hold up now that it has been legalized.

What exactly is the A.N.C? It tends to be seen by its partisans as a heroic civil-rights movement and by its detractors as a Marxist organization that may well have effectively been taken over by the South African Communist Party. Of the heroic aspects of its struggle there is no doubt; but it is also clear that a significant number of the members of its Central Committee are also members of the South African Communist Party, and the two movements have undoubtedly worked closely together.

Adam does not gloss over these matters. The A.N.C.’s vagueness about the post-apartheid economic order, he says, is very much tied to its strategy of: an all-class alliance and the two-stage revolution envisaged by the South African Communist Party. The A.N.C. has to be ambiguous to reconcile business and working-class interests. Adam indicates that the A.N.C. has itself to blame for any impression of Soviet tutelage that might exist. The A.N.C.’s organ, Sechaba, which has been published in East Germany (one wonders if that will continue) has supported Soviet policy to the hilt, and the organization has not uttered a single public criticism of the USSR. At the same time, Adam points out that the uncritical silence is obviously linked to Soviet financial and logistical support, and he concludes that the A.N.C. is in fact relatively moderate, with a dominant view that privately understands that a military victory is not in the cards. Adam believes that the choice for the South African government is either to negotiate now with a still much-restrained and highly professional A.N.C. leadership or face radical young blacks, the products of Bantu Education, later. Recent actions by the government suggest that they understand that as well.

There is, in fact, a good deal of reason to believe that most of the judgments suggested in A Future South Africa still accurately describe the position in which the main contending parties in that country find themselves. Indeed, in assessing the various future scenarios sketched in this book, the more rosy ones seem, at least for the moment, the more likely. It may well be that, in the light of the dramatic recent initiatives by President F. W. de Klerk, we are on the brink of historic developments. Still, it would be premature to be too sanguine. Suspicion remains deep on both sides. There is no assurance that an agreement is obtainable. This valuable book will enable one to understand just how difficult such an accommodation would be. But it will also enable one to clear one’s mind of a certain amount of cant in the process.

John Chettle was formerly Director for North and South America of the South Africa Foundation, an organization working for a more just society in South Africa. He is now an American citizen and Director for the International Trade Law Practice of the Washington law firm of Freedman, Levy, Kroll & Simonds.

Image by Hilton1949 via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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