travel toil by william brummer
What makes you suddenly so interested in South Africa? Does the stench of our corpses start to bother you?
South Africa is once again on the tube, in the flashbulb afterburn of Nelson Mandela's release from jail after twenty- seven years out of the public eye. He walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison in early February. During his last year of captivity, he was a "faceless man with a fax machine,"(1) negotiating the shots with the lameduck though ironfisted government as they prepared for "talks about talks."
Mandela came to light in the edenic wine country near Paarl. It was a short drive to Cape Town, where in a speech he reaffirmed his dedication to the principles for which he had been sentenced to life imprisonment. A few days later, a quick flight north took him home to Soweto, a couple dozen kilometers from Johannesburg. At one to two million people (precise figures, due to the exigencies of apartheid, are impossible to produce), Soweto is the most populous urban area in Southern Africa, an acronymic concentration city—SOuthWEst TOwnship.
It has been a long haul, but the struggle isn't over yet. In an historic moment, the ANC held its first talks with the government in May. The genie of change, once loosed, is awfully hard to coax back into the bottle.
The African National Congress (ANC), established in 1912, is Africa's oldest liberation movement. With Namibia attaining independence in March, South Africa will be last on the continent to shake off the racist vestiges of colonialism, palefaced minority rule.
The dry white "season of violence" is supposed to be over, according to President F.W. de Klerk's surprisingly conciliatory speech opening Parliament in Cape Town, on February 2nd of this year. Yet "unrest" continues, as the tortured skein of apartheid is riven by its own contradictions. War is being fought in Natal against a riveting green backdrop, in and around the Valley of the Thousand Hills, outside Pietermaritzburg. The United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition aligned with the ANC, is in conflict with Inkatha, a chauvinistic Zulu tribal organization. Thousands have been killed in the crossfire in the last three years.
The bantustans, or so-called independent homelands are convulsed by coups (in Transkei, Ciskei, and now Venda); four of the six main homeland leaders refuse to meet with de Klerk. These homelands were a costly mistake, a segregationist effort to create cheap labor reserves on an unmatched scale. 17 million people, out of the total South African population of 30 million people live in the homelands—3 1/2 million are there as the result of forced relocations.
Nowhere else has a government sought to denationalize its racial majority—stripping them of South African citizenship—then renationalizing them along forced tribal lines. Ultimately, they are going to have to be reincorporated with South Africa, in bizarre contrast to the independence movements of the Baltic states and the myriad popular fronts emerging in the southern Soviet republics, seeking deannexation.
Some are quick to paint de Klerk, the white President (representing South Africa's National Party), a reformist ala Gorbachev. While there may not be much risk of de Klerkomania sweeping the world, it would be well to take "Pretoriastroika" with a word of caution from de Tocqueville: The most dangerous time for a bad government is when it starts to reform itself.
Mandela has journeyed to Lusaka, Zambia, where he was appointed Deputy President of the exiled African National Congress. This is a short-term position, from which he can soon be expected to become President of "the new South Africa."
His release marks a southern symmetry with the freeing of Vaclav Havel, whose accession to President of Czechoslovakia, shows what a short walk it can be from prison to leadership.
And, just as impressive, is the well of human kindness which marks a new, more benign style of leadership. Neither Havel nor Mandela show bitterness towards their erstwhile captors. "An eye for an eye and the nation is blind," says one Civic Forum slogan—a pithy and persuasive argument opposing vengeance against the ousted morally bankrupt Czechoslovak Communist authorities.
Nelson Mandela has shown himself to be a rare and self- effacing man of great subtlety, patience and power. He is very much in contrast with the whites, particularly the ruling tribe. In stereotypical fashion, many of the older Afrikaners rail at length about their many grievances, enmities that can be dated generations, if not centuries:
"Remember that Queen Victoria? A bigger mass murderer than Adolf Hitler!" says Frank de Klerk, an elderly legal clerk living in Pretoria. In many ways, he is a classic example of the verkrampte (hardline) Afrikaner. He speaks with a thick, almost German, Transvaal accent that rolls his rrrs.
"My grandfather fought in 14 kaffir wars," he continued. My aunt and cousin both winced, having heard this spleen ad nauseam. "And I can tell you, before I'm ruled by a black, I'll shoot every bloody black bastard in sight."
In 1900, three of the de Klerk family farms were burned by the British. (deKlerk is a common Boer name; Frank is not directly related to the current President, F.W.) Afrikaner women and children—mostly of the rebel Boer republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free Stateâ€”were put in concentration camps, where 26,000 died. Relatively few—7,000—of the Boer fighters died, while British casualties numbered about 22,000. Through force of Empire, and "a bumper crop of burnt farms,"(2) Britain eventually wore the Boer guerrillas down, and peace was negotiated.
After "a century of wrong" at the hands of the British, many of the Boer bittereinders wanted to fight to the absolute end. As Frank de Klerk made clear to me over dinner—at least for those who could remember oppression when they were on the receiving end—there can be no overestimating the depths of Afrikaner rage. I listened, for that is why I went to South Africa: to hear South Africans talk about what possesses them, as they grope their way to the end of a nationalist nightmare.
And as you see at night, far in the Bay
reflections of the stars and city lamps
so in the dark depths of our people sway
images of the concentration camps.(3)
It was more than just a holiday in Pretoria. Partly I went because of an irresistable need to step beyond the narrow confines of my life as an information worker. From 8 to 5, I work cloistered in the desert groves of academe, a sanctum sanctorum, the very rarefied atmosphere of a special collections library.
Books were part of my displacement, for it was reading that took me beyond the pettiness of narrow nationalism. I plundered the collections for a sense of history, to fill out the outlines of what I knew from the all-pervasive media web. To ease the infernal pain that convulsed those early days of estrangement from the Love of My Life, I turned to the videocool inner climes of TV, with all its basic peripherals—at least that is how I got through the first hellish days and nights alone. The tube punched a hole through distance—an amazing if illusory form of armchair travel.
One can only trek so far in a reading room, or as a couch potato. After a while, even trips to the kitchen get old, to say nothing of Richard Attenborough, or, however well-intentioned, Public Television. After six months of heavy tubal stimulation, it was time to broaden other horizons.
The South African Question had a particularly strong resonance. There were personal motivations that made this an especially important point for departure. When my wife abandoned our marriage with the cliched seven years' itch, there wasn't much left to moor me except dread routine. Our breakup was due I'm sure in part to my native stubbornness, a self-defeating obstinacy that I could easily relate to my paternalistic Afrikaner family background.
My father left South Africa in the early fifties. After working many years in the Copper Belt (Zambia), he emigrated to pursue his education with a doctorate at McGill University in Montreal. His peripatetic career has involved exploration of the largely untapped mineral wealth of Canada.
Without understanding why, I've always felt a strong identification with him, though we have not always been the best of friends. One of my chief parental imperatives was to attain bilingualism in French and English, but Afrikaans remained a secret language my father used in moments of rare mellowness or intimacy. It wasn't till I was nearing teens that I even realized he spoke with an accent. My own feet are itchy to match his. After a decade in the U.S., I still feel far from "home"—wherever that is.
As the "no fault" divorce shunted its way through the legal bureaucracy of the state of California, I was rarin' to go ... somewhere.
Obstacles abound to our understanding of what goes on in the world today, from the realignments of Mittel- and Osteuropa, to the liberation of Southern Africa. As long as South Africa can give good tube, it has the guaranteed G spot in our circuit of consciousness. The sight of Mandela free is certainly one of the great images of our day, although fifteen minutes of fame cannot begin to cover this story.
People power and the Velvet Revolution were more than just flickers on the cave wall, they took us to a new level of broadcast, a tube beyond its traditional role as electronic phenothiazine. It's no longer "news from nowhere" that we see—from the American shores, it appears that history is happening ... elsewhere. Reactions were none too encouraging when I announced to my Berkeley colleagues that I was going to South Africa.
"But you're not supposed to go there."
"Better take a bulletproof vest."
"Are you crazy?!"
Family was no more supportive. My father couldn't understand why I'd bother; he wasn't close to his many relatives there, and was a bit uneasy about my meeting them, or perhaps concerned at what they might think meeting me. My brother viewed this plan as further proof of my death wish: "They'll kill you—" meaning, I suppose, that I could be a tempting target for whatever transgressions I might commit on this existential errand.
I was willing to risk it. What did I have to lose? I'd never been one to toe a party line, and was not noted for political correctness—it would be a pleasure to commit this sin of a mission. Although I believed in divestment and sanctions, I also thought information was essential to a peaceful transition.
It was my first vacation in many years. I looked at it, strangely, as a liberation to get away from my job, even if that meant going to a garrison state to search for myself in a distant fatherland.
Beyond the romance of embarking on this telemachiad, South Africa drew me in a way I associated with the Spanish Civil War of the thirties, or, I suppose, the internationalism of the sandalista brigades of the eighties trooping down to Nicaragua to work in the coffee fields and take flak from the contras. These new crusades are by nature revolutionary, to offset the imperialist adventures Westerners are better known for.
People with antiapartheid inclinations were expected to show their credentials by jumping on the boycott bandwagon. I agree that performers should not play Sun City, but when Paul Simon brought out Graceland, I was delighted by the fruitful and ear-opening collaboration.
It saddened me to see a man like Conor Cruise O'Brien—someone I don't necessarily agree with—shouted down by angry demonstrators when he gave a series of guest lectures at the University of Cape Town in 1986. They protested his breaking the boycott ... yet in the case of an academic and educator, is it right to limit the free flow of ideas? Isn't the banning of people and ideas a sanction employed by the South African government?
The same inflexible dogmatism is evident on the right, as exemplified by the Afrikaner Resistance Movement leader Eugene Terre-Blanche. The AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging) is infamous for the swastika-like emblem on its flag, often seen at rallies, of the three interlocking sevens, reputed to be a millenarian solution to the 666 Beast of the Apocalypse. Terre-Blanche and his boerjes tarred and feathered the historian, Floors van Jaarsveld during a 1979 speech at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. An example was made of this professor because he questioned the Afrikaans version of manifest destiny, the divinity of their Day of the Covenant.
A former policeman and bodyguard to Prime Minister John Vorster, Terre Blanche (the "White Earth") has been charged at various times for having arms caches, illegal possession of weapons and ammunition. To date, he and his followers have never had worse than their wrists slapped. This may soon change, as the AWB and conservative whites are increasing their militance in reaction to the release of Mandela, and the government's meeting with the ANC. The Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht recently called for "a third freedom struggle"—a thinly-veiled call to arms—at a rally of 50,000 right-wing whites in Pretoria.
In the sacred history of the tribe, the Boers made a pact with God—”if He gave the Voortrekkers victory against Dingaan's Zulu impis at Ncome River in 1838, they would forever mark that as the Day of the Covenant. In Afrikaner history, it is referred to as the Battle of Blood River, and it demonstrated God's recognition and support for the justice of their cause.
One essential feature of Afrikaner civil tradition is for men to go on commando. Breyten Breytenbach, the renegade Afrikaner poet and painter, writes of
"this mythical concept in modern-day White South African awareness... Not so modern after all. The history of the Afrikaner has been one of borders, of the enemy lurking just over the horizon, of buffer states used against the world wanting to take over the lands their ancestors conquered. They were proud of their periods on the border, of the hunts they participated in."(4)
In recent years, particularly under de Klerk's pugnacious predecessor, P.W.Botha, these hunts have gone far beyond South Africa's borders, the "rogue elephant of Southern Africa."(5) Yet Botha was regarded as a moderate! The verkrampte (hardliners) were actually concerned that South Africa might be afflicted by a "psychosis of peace"(6) in the early eighties.
Newspeak—the deliberate simplification of vocabulary and linguistic complexity as a means of limiting crimes in thought and speech—is alive and well, both at home and abroad. Words can be made to betray their meanings without having to pass through Room 101 of 1984. "Words tossed around as if/denied location by the wind/...that stalk our lives like policemen" runs a poem by Sipho Sepamla.
The U.S. Pentagon is a prime purveyor of such malignant wordage, with "permanent prehostility" (peace), "lethal aid" for supplying proxie forces with weapons, "violence processing" (combat), and best of all, the "Peacekeeper" (MX) Missile. In Eastern Europe, people did not wait in line, they joined "socialist waiting collectives."(7)
While we may identify the violence of apartheid with forced relocations, peaceful marchers being gassed, or fired upon by soldiers in casspirs (not the friendly ghost, but armored personnel carriers), there are many more subtle and insidious components to that "Frankenstein-Madison Avenue cauldron of wordsmithing."(8)
For a time the government had its Bantu Administration Department, which was responsible for administering townships and the homelands. It was responsible for forced relocations, but underwent a name-change when bureaucrats realized that its acronym was not contributing to its effectiveness. It became the Ministry of Cooperation of Development.
After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, and through the seventies, South Africa became a model police state, with a powerful secret police (BOSS—Bureau of State Security) operating around the world...and at home.
In the late seventies, South Africa underwent a quiet military coup when the Minister of Defense, P.W. Botha, became Prime Minister. He retained the Defense Minister portfolio until he was able to install his handpicked head of the Defense Force, General Magnus Malan, as the new Defense Minister.
Together, these two "securocrats" dominated South African politics for the next decade. They presided over a tremendous build-up of the military—today South Africa is one of the top ten arms exporters in the worldâ€”and adopted the concept of the "total strategy" for a long term counterinsurgency. This "triumvirate of 'totality': total strategy, total onslaught, total involvement" were the keywords of this era.(9) The totalitarian blueprint for the militarization of society was conducted with characteristic, even absurd attention to detail. It included a "Leisure Time Utilization Unit" to promote "spiritual defensibility" in the ranks.(10)
The "total strategy" of P.W. Botha and his protegéGeneral Malan can at last be found on the same ashheap as trickle-down Reaganomics, and lately, Stalinism. As details of their dirty tricks come to light, F.W. de Klerk has, with visible reluctance, been compelled to launch an investigation of the innocuous-sounding "Civil Cooperation Bureau." This unit, operated by the military, was a death squad. In any situation of social or political polarity, debate is all too susceptible to reductio ad absurdum. Ideas become slogans, some inspirational ("An injury to one is an injury to all" or "Strike a woman, you have struck a rock"), some unrealistic and self-defeating ("No education before liberation"), and some virulently racist ("Sit die kaffir op sy plek" = "Put the nigger in his place").
To move freely across the lines, or to more easily slip through the strictures of cant is one of the virtues of being an outsider. Travel is a way to remain outside.
As a writer, another kind of outsider, I went to hear how writers and poets sustained themselves in life under Emergency conditions. The timing of my visit was nestled in the brief period between the '85/'86 Emergency, and the June '86 Emergency (which continues to this day).
Much has happened to the people I spoke with: at least two have gone into exile; some were detained; others have had their organizations banned—the UDF and the End Conscription Campaign are only now able to resurface after Botha and the Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok, clamped down on them earlier in the Emergency.
As censorship has been applied to the arts, black writers have borne the brunt of bannings and persecution. Beginning in the fifties, with Bantu Education, teachers and writers (e.g. Ezekiel Mphahlahle), journalists (Nat Nakasa) and so many others have had to flee "the beloved land." Musicians and singers (Hugh Masakela, Miriam Makeba), poets (Dennis Brutus, Arthur Nortje, Wally Serote) have continued this flight through the sixties after Sharpeville, the seventies with Soweto, and in the eighties' semi-permanent Emergency.
Simply putting distance between themselves and the casspirs, hippos, banning, detention, and Robben Island is not always enough. Exile has its own dangers:
"Life abroad lacks the challenge that faces us in South Africa. After a lifetime of illegal living in the Republic's shebeens, the exiles are suddenly called upon to become respectable, law-abiding citizens. Not a law to break in sight. I have broken too many ... regulations to change so easily. Even if I did change, I would miss the experience of illegal living."
wrote Nat Nakasa. He, Arthur Nortje and Ingrid Jonker are writers who committed suicide in exile. Wally Serote narrowly escaped assassination in the South Africa Defense Force's 1986 raid on Gaborone, Botswana.
Whites, of course, have an entirely different tolerance of conditions in an abnormal society. One of my relatives said, with a certain smugness, "I am as opportunistic as any white person in this country; while it lasts, I enjoy it. "Heart disease, suicide, and alcoholism are three of the greatest dangers facing whites in South Africa.
Mike Kirkwood, an editor at Ravan Press, put it another way:
"... [T]he writer who is living in an insulated white suburb, backed up by very good video resources, television, all the literature he can read, good food, continental cuisine, fresh french bread every morning, doesn't have to see a black person if he doesn't want to. He goes shopping in the most elaborate malls all tucked underground like bunkers—even that writer, who can be totally insulated from the political reality of South Africa, is aware that that very experience is a deeply political one. It's almost impossible for him to keep out of mind the fact that the existence he is leading is dependent on the flames in the township."
At the time—April 1986—Ravan was situated in a dilapidated old house in the Berea district of Johannesburg. Berea and Hillbrow are adjoining residential neighborhoods with valleys of hi-rises running through them. These "grey areas" were often referred to with shudders by my relatives, for they are now home to tens of thousands of blacks illegally living in parts of town reserved for whites. Ravan is one of the more progressive imprints in South Africa; its writers include J.M. Coetzee and Njabulo Ndebele.
The office I visited was firebombed a few years later. Although a considerable amount of stock was lost, Ravan endures as a publishing entity, issuing books and periodicals like Work In Progress and Staffrider.
Mike was one of the chief editors, and had been the firm's director since 1977. Since the State of Emergency was reimposed following my visit, he has left the country, moving to England.
MK: You will find in South Africa numerous pockets of communication, which are very full inside that particular pocket. In other words, lots of dialects—not simply in a language sense, but in terms of idiom, in terms of a way people have of understanding each other. For instance, if you were to go around Berea, and talk to guys who live on the roof tops for a long time, you would find that they have an amazing pattern of communication.
Let me give you an example. I wake up late in the night in my block of flats, which is just over here. I hear a guy whistling—this is two o'clock in the morning. He is whistling in the most incredible way, the way guys whistle cattle, but it clearly has a pattern to it. After a while, you hear a door opening somewhere, a gruff voice calling out in Zulu: "Hi. We're over here. Come this way." What this guy's been doing is a bit like Richard the Lionhearted and his troubadour, singing outside the castle walls. He's identified his own boys, which is the word that people use.
PW: And he doesn't know necessarily which building they'll be on, but if they hear the noise he makes?
MK: Right, somebody's going to come running, and he's going to find his way. He might have come from miles and miles, from a distant part of the country—a rural boy new to the city. He's using his cattle whistle as a way of finding his home-boy connections.
That's one example. Their whole world is very well-knit. It's a sort of support structure, one of the things that turns the whole "blacks are victims in South Africa" cliche upside down, because people are not just victims; they do find ways to support each other in an oppressive situation. There you have quite a tight knit pocket of communication. I'd suggest that South Africa, as a country, is relatively richer in pockets like that, which are not accessible.
If you put a tape recorder in front of those guys, they'd probably beat you up—they'd assume you were from the State, and that you were trying to get them to commit a felony of some kind, they'd wonder what they hell you were doing.
PW: However well ordered a society you have, there are always going to be these cracks, and subcultures. In this case, it is literally the supra culture.
MK: I think that's really an interesting point, because I think that's true. We're talking about a different level now, and for me the thing goes back to the theme of storytelling, really. What you're talking about when you talk about subcultures developing in the cracks of a media-penetrated, media-inundated society is something similar to storytelling, but at a whole new level of development.
In other words, I'm inclined to take a phrase like "the global village" quite seriously, in the sense that one is talking about a new possibility of communication between tightly knit groups of people, but at a whole new level. I don't think one should just skip the levels.
Those guys on the roof tops—it's going to take them quite a lot of time, quite a lot of community organization, political organization, before they can plug into some sort of world network of communication, and talk to Processed World, to you guys in San Francisco, or a group somewhere else in the world. ...
If one is black, however, the possibilities are fewer. Another writer, Sipho Sepamla (author of the novel Ride the Whirlwind, and numerous books of poetry) spoke with me about prospects for change.
SS: I'm the last person to say "Revolution is the answer." Because I'm for life, rather than destroying life. I'm scared of violence, because I think it's anti-human to be violent.
But, you see, I'm fairly all right. I look at the person who's not in a similar position to me, and I wonder what are the chances of that person improving his lot? The answer is that they're very small. Some people—I think this is the majority—are caught up in a situation where some of them wish they were never born. If they'd had a choice, they would have said to God, "Please, I don't want to go and live down there. I'd rather be where I am," in whatever form that is.
When you look at the situation in the country—not at the black man, like me, who is able to sit with you, and talk your language—it is that man who is not able to articulate what's inside him. And you know he lives a pain, which he cannot bring out, and that is killing him. This bottling up—it's a pity, because it's going to kill him in the end. What then was the purpose in bringing him to Earth? To work for mere wages, to live under poor conditions? ...
I visited Sipho in Johannesburg, at Fuba, an art studio/exhibit space where he worked as an educator, and senior administrator.
SS: There are very few people who buy books by black writers; you have to be known to be bought. A new writer will not find it easy to enter the market.
PW: Where would their energies be going if they're creative, but feel too disillusioned to write or publish? Would they write for the desk drawer, do you think; are they self-publishing, samizdat, type work; do they channel the energy into political action, or is it bottled up?
SS: I think most of our feelings are bottled up. There is no way we could do what the Russians are doing with samizdat because the South African security system is very efficient—sooner or later they would catch up with anyone doing that kind of thing.
I don't think many blacks would write stuff that they put away. It may be happening with whites, but I don't think blacks would do that. Our writing is immediate—we address ourselves to immediate issues, and we want to be published immediately.
PW: How would you hope the writer affects the world?
SS: I hope to God that more and more people would read the works I've written, but then there are so many things working against the tradition of writing and reading in this country. As a result, we don't have many people who read our works. Unfortunately, it is true that most of the readers are white, so we're caught up in a very ironic situation because although we claim we are not writing for Whitey, we find that Whitey is the one who reads our works.
The Group Areas Act just consolidated what was there already. I grew up before the time of apartheid, but apartheid was in full swing even then—I grew up in a location that was miles from town. I don't think it is correct to blame apartheid for that kind of thing [divisions between black and white writers]; apartheid merely made it worse. Also, I suppose apartheid exposed the fallacy of a friendship that was in fact one-sided, because whites always expected us to go to them. Very few came to where we lived, even when the law was silent about that.
There's no running away from it. The South Africa situation is like somebody sitting on a powder keg. ...
Apparently contradicting his earlier assertion, Sipho gave a different forecast for change:
SS: I think revolution is our only solution.
You know the whites are so entrenched, man, because ... what are people talking about? They can't be talking of Western values, because there are no Western values in this country. People are merely concerned about their material possessions, and I don't think anyone can expect whites to give up anything, because for us to rise they've got halt the development of the growth of white people.
PW: When majority rule is attained, do you see a rapprochement between the hard lines that are now drawn in the dust?
SS: Unavoidable. I think we live by natural laws, rather than laws made by man. The laws made by man, somewhere along the line, they break down. Apartheid was so rigid many years back, but the natural way of life has broken it down. The realities, economics, whatever, have broken apartheid down.
PW: You think it will break down the Afrikaners' intransigence?
SS: I think so. I've found it very interesting that among the Afrikaners, some of these chaps that I've heard express so- called liberal ideas are people that I know have traveled a great deal. As more and more of them get money, and move around, and find that there are black people outside who are having white women, who are moving in all circles of life, they must come back here and ask themselves, "What's so bad about what I saw out there?" And they will fall in line. I don't think they like being condemned by the world like they are being condemned right now. It takes some time for the majority to reach that point. That is what we are playing for.
I think what is happening in this country is that the black people have now set the pace for how things have to move. Even if the white man is changing, those changes are invisible, because the people who are calling the tune are not the white people any more; they are the black people. To be acceptable, the white people will have to be in line with the pace set by the blacks. But change—unavoidable.
PW: But they will get swept up in that pace?
SS: If they don't, they will get crushed under. ...
Many models are invoked in discussions of South Africa—the violence and unrest suggest the specter of a Lebanon. The real white nightmare is revolution.
The poet James Matthews, who lives in Athlone, outside Cape Town, told me of the hopelessness that was taking hold among the younger generation: "We can accommodate any violence. Now we come back again to the existentialism of the young. That is why our kids don't worry, they say, 'Fuck, I don't care if I don't come home today.'"
Proposed solutions include a federation of cantons, on a Swiss model, as a means of protecting whites from black domination. Even more far-fetched are the secessionary white movements, like the extremist AWB, or the Friends of Oranje, whose ideas of a white homeland (a Boerestaat comprised, naturally, of the best and richest land) are no more tenable than the fragmentary black homelands Bophuthatswana or Ciskei.
While de Klerk and his predecessor P.W. Botha have done much to dismantle "petty apartheid" with repeals of the Separate Amenities Act, Mixed Marriages and Immorality Acts, and the passbook laws, "grand apartheid" remains substantially intact. People continue to be classified by race (Population Registration Act) and in theory have their places of residence, the government services available to them, and their employment opportunities determined by this classification.
Apartheid ("separateness") was given its name by the National Party, elected in 1948. As Sipho mentioned, the "colour bar" was nothing new. By 1936, 87% of the land was reserved for white settlement and development. The rest, largely inhospitable, was set aside for what was then 67% of the populationâ€”now more than 75% of South Africans are black. Under the Group Areas Act, blacks are viewed as "temporary sojourners" in the white areas, tolerated only to the extent they were needed to work in the mines, on the farms, and in the pantries of white society.
One dearly-held belief among the whites is that the blacks can't rule themselves, they are still savages: "You can take 'em out of the bush, but you can't take the jungle out of their hearts." Or, as National Party MP Glenn Babb put it: "There is a survival ethic in South Africa which is important, because we have stood on the Limpopo and looked north and seen that Africa has not worked in the way in which we would like justice to work."
The whites call this bogey the swart gevaar, or black danger. More proof that the "kaffirs" are unable to govern themselves, let alone take the reins of the whites' jealously guarded first world society.
Because of the bold lines drawn reserving property and capital for the "civilized" whites' apartheid is an unusually cruel, if transparent mechanism to assure economic as well as racial hegemony for a privileged few. South Africa lends itself readily to a Marxist analysis, with blacks the working class. While this form of racial capitalism may have been effective up to a point, it cannot be maintained. For the economy to grow, apartheid must go, as it limits the education and placement of a skilled workforce. With the added stress of sanctions, and the drying-up of investment, the economy has slowed while the population and unemployment have soared.
Ampie Coetzee, a professor of Afrikaans at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1986 (now at the University of the Western Cape), commented on this phenomenon: "That's the strangest thing about South Africa: apartheid has actually strengthened capitalism. It has made a definite class distinction between the worker and the bourgeois. The worker is the black man, and we whites are the bourgeois. And the worker is keeping this country going.
"On the one hand, that's the strength of apartheid, but it could also be the weakness. When trade unions become more and more mobilized—”that's where I think eventually we will probably see big changes. COSATU (11) was only formed this year.
"That's very, very powerful. That's where this South African brand of capitalism could actually be broken by the workers. Because the workers are all oppressed, and racially oppressed. They have ample motivation; it's just a case of mobilization."
Schools have long been crucibles of resistance. They have been viewed by the black youth with understandable wariness. Bantu Education, promulgated in the fifties by the future Prime Minister, H.F. Verwoerd, was training for enslavement. It was a policy of deliberately limiting blacks to roles as the wood hewers and mine-fodder for white society. Verwoerd was quite blunt in his views: "... [T]he native child must be taught subjects which will enable him to work with and among his own people; therefore there is no use misleading him by showing him the green pastures of European society, in which he is not allowed to graze. Bantu Education should not be used to create imitation whites."
Through subtle and not-so subtle conditioning, the students were indoctrinated with a view of a world in which they had precisely defined functions, with opportunities circumscribed by "job reservation" of skilled positions for whites, a much-lower pay scale for blacks, commutes which could last 6 hours or more, and other impossible conditions. After the Soweto uprising of 1976, there followed a period of tense calm, but then school strikes flared around the country in 1980, as the crisis in education deepened.
One writer, Jaki Seroke, of Skotaville Press told me about some of the difficulties he had to deal with as a writer and editor.
PW: You are involved in a writers' union? Which one is it?
JS: It's called the African Writers Association. It's not a union in the popular sense. It's an association of people who come together as writers, some as beginner writers.
PW: Do you discuss works in progress?
JS: Yes, we discuss works in progress. It's a loose association. Skotaville Publishing was formed by the association.
We'll be publishing really topical books. Some will be political, and so on, but on the literary side, we don't want to be seen to be pushing writers who have not necessarily grasped the art of writing. The association has consciously been trying to influence Skotaville to exercise literary merit on each case. We don't want to publish a play because it will have a sociological interest.
PW: ... or because it's topical ...
JS: Not that we say art for art's sake, but the craft of writing has to be done properly. There are drawbacks on that level. The influence of Bantu Education in the past thirty years has destroyed a lot of things here. The writers who are established or who could write properly are the writers of the fifties, because they never underwent that educational process. That's why most of our writers are in prison or the ones inside the country are not doing much.
PW: Why would you say the ones in the country are silent, what silences them?
JS: Basically, it was repression. A lot of our people are in prison. ...
One of the greatest weapons against tyranny, apart from sabotage and insurrection, is for people to live and work together as they wish, without regard for insane decrees handed down by the state. It is by this means that grey areas like Hillbrow in Johannesburg wear down the teeth of apartheid. Where law is unenforceable, it falls into disrepute, and is rendered ultimately irrelevant.
The Group Areas Act, the legislation that underpins the bantustans and townships by tribal division, may be the last pillar of apartheid to fall; already it is beginning to totter through resistance in the homelands (coups and armed insurrections) and people, black and white, increasingly ignoring it in the once white cities.
After centuries of wrong, apartheid is withering away. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Reverend Allan Boesak are right to ask to see its corpse. A death blow may still be needed, although the armed struggle waged by the military wing of the ANC—Umkhonto we Sizwe—has never been, and probably never will be capable of engaging the South Africa Defense Force decisively.
The linguistic battlefield is where the future of South Africa may ultimately be decided. The Afrikaners attained power owing in large part to the development of their own language as a separate and distinct voice in Africa. They succeeded in unifying a white tribal power base, and used it to divide the country.
SACHED, the South African Committee on Higher Education, is another organization which has struggled to counter the intellectual depredations of Bantu Education. One of its directors, Neville Alexander, views culture as a process, and language policy as a baseline on which to develop a new national consensus. Encouraging the use of English by the black majority (usually as a second or third language) assumes a critical importance, ironically, in the interests of decolonization. It serves to unify a people split across many language lines, and provides access to the world at large. "[The acquisition of English] represents ... a form of capital accumulation. But this is a very special kind of capital since it is an instrument of communication and not one of production. It is nevertheless this instrument, and generally this instrument alone, which makes possible the organization of the entire modern sector of production and distribution of goods. In other words, the more English you know ... the more likely you are to get a well-paying job, the more likely you are to accumulate capital, to gain economic power and thus political power."(12)
The transition of South Africa from garrison state to majority rule will not be as swift as the opening up of Eastern Europe—to follow it requires more sustained attention than we can hope for from a week on Nightline. The turmoil of apartheid has been clicking the counter towards critical mass, an ever intensifying revolution of rising expectations, with urgency written large on the world stage since Sharpeville, 1960.
The reforms announced at the beginning of 1990 are motivated in large part by the desperate economic situation, due both to internal factors and international pressure. As Sipho Sepamla pointed out, whites are going to have to surrender some of the privileges accorded them by color to arrive at a deeper security. Men like my Uncle Frank de Klerk will have to compete on equal terms with people he might consider his racial inferiors. The Broederbond tradition of baantjies vir boeties (jobs for friends) has led to half of all employable Afrikaners working in some capacity for the State. Job reservation will have to end, followed by an affirmative action to correct labor and property inequities, the "redistribution of wealth" which whites dread, but increasingly accept as inevitable.
After four years of harsh Emergency rule, some press restrictions have been lifted; media workers such as Zwelake Sisulu (editor of the New Nation) has been released from lengthy detentionâ€”in time for the innumerable photo opportunities afforded by the returning exiles, as African National Congress leaders have whisked through Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg en route to the "talks about talks" in Cape Town.
Western media have to a large degree complied with restrictions imposed during the Emergency, which is why little was heard about South Africa in the mainstream press from 1986 through 1989. Even worse, news reports in both the American and British media too often blandly repeat the language of the South African Bureau of Information, apparent in the expression "black on black violence." That stock phrase has shades of the swart gevaar, along with the tribal sleight of hand by which the ruling National Party has used a trick of apartheid to divide and rule on lines of its own devising. "It's just more faction fighting, showing these uncivilized blacks aren't fit to rule" is the message implicit in such terminology.
So we navigate across a slipstream mediascape littered by Knowledge McNuggets, warped by the sudden combustion of televised blipverts, and a media necklaced either by state control, or the self-censorship of monopolistic corporate ownership. It is a strain just to keep track of all the bright and dark threads on this world skein, if we are to tie up some of the loose ends before the millenium.
As 1989 segued into the nineties, it reached the point where there was a Country of the Week, or in the last weeks of the year, several countries had to vie for world attention: Panama under siege by a U.S. surgical sledge hammer, while Romania fought to drive a stake through the heart of its "Vampirescu" leader, Nicolae Ceausescu ("that Genius of the Carpathians"), after decades of hemophiliac Stalinist rule.
Some day I will return to South Africa. For all its strangeness, it had a familiarity which was almost supernatural, and I suppose, highly personal. My hope in writing on this subject has been to show that the issues are not duochromatic, just black and white, and that resolution lies in the struggle to free captive hearts and minds with human decency, and new channels of communication.
As apartheid crumbles, South African society will be remade in the wake of protean change. This story has staying power, with special relevance to Americans. It represents one of the great unanswered questions of this century: how does a rich and powerful elite, with centuries of inbred intolerance, and a defiant isolationism, accept or adapt to parity with its neighbors? Can centuries of bloody-minded determination to call all the shots be reasoned into reality? For South African whites, the answer to these questions will decide their future in Africa.
A new page is turning on South Africa. When Mandela steps through the pearly gates of Pretoria, and takes the nation's capitol with him, the people will finally come together after centuries of struggle.
—by William Brummer
1) Comedian Pieter-Dirk Uys, quoted in The New York Times, 30 Jan. 1990
2) Pakenham, Thomas. The Boer War. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.
3) Opperman, D.J. "Camera."
4) Breytenbach, Breyten. The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983. p.52
5) Crocker, Chester A. South Africa's defense posture: coping with vulnerability. Beverly Hills : Published for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University [by] Sage Publications, c1981. (Washington papers ; 84) (Sage policy paper)
6) Grundy, Kenneth W. The Militarization of South African Politics. Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press, 1986. p.58
7) The New York Times, 12 Sept. 1989
8) The New York Times, 28 Sept. 1985
9) Frankel, Philip. Pretoria's Praetorians: civil-military relations in South Africa. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. p.54
10) Frankel, p. 96
11) Congress of South African Trade Unions
12) Alexander, Neville. "Language Policy and National Unity" in Language Projects' Review, v.4:3 (Nov. 1989).