THREE times since 1948 the National Party has won the parliamentary elections in South Africa, and each time by an increased margin. These successive victories reflect the dominant place which Afrikaners have secured within the White oligarchy. The elections of last April gave the Nationalists 103 seats in the new parliament, compared to 53 for the predominantly English-speaking United Party. A wave of satisfaction and self-confidence is sweeping through the Afrikaner community as a result. Yet now that their political opponents have been crushed, a new spirit of constructive criticism is emerging within Afrikanerdom.

The Nationalist victory was not primarily a triumph for White racism, which was not at issue; apartheid of some kind has the support of more than 90 percent of the voters. Race relations figured prominently in the campaign only in the final two weeks, when an unsuccessful strike against the pass laws and for higher wages became a political football for the major parties. Yet clearly the African National Congress, which called the strike, is becoming a significant factor on the White political scene. It appears that both Afrikaners and Africans will continue to strengthen their dominant positions in South African society, leading to further polarization of political thought.

The balloting on April 16 took place in a much calmer atmosphere than prevailed in the three previous parliamentary elections. The last campaign had been filled with hate and flailing bicycle chains, as the Nationalist Jeugbond and the Torch Commando broke up political meetings. The United Party attempted to make the issue Nazism versus democracy, castigating the anti-British sentiments of many Afrikaners during World War II, and their semi-military organizations. The United Party slogan, "Vote for the right to vote again," sincerely expressed the convictions of many English-speaking South Africans. But the National Party's loss of a good part of the English-speaking vote was more than compensated for by a new sense of Afrikaner unity which enabled it to maximize its support from the 60 percent Afrikaans-speaking majority in the voting population.

In 1958, the calmer atmosphere was reflected in fewer speeches and fewer meetings broken up; it was typified by the replacement of the militant Torch Commando by the passive Black Sash women, who suspended activities during the election campaign. Votes were cast more firmly along linguistic lines than in any previous South African election. As still more Afrikaners returned to the Nationalist fold, Nationalist majorities increased in 66 constituencies and declined in only four. And although the National Party claims to have obtained English support, it is difficult to see where this occurred, unless possibly in Natal. The trek of Afrikaners to the cities, which underlay the Nationalist rise to power in 1948, continued.

The National Party is greatly aided by a South African law allowing the number of voters in a constituency to vary plus or minus 15 percent without redrawing districts. This has traditionally favored the rural areas, or platteland, but even General Smuts defended the principle when his primarily urban supporters wished to change it. The number of under-populated constituencies has increased in the last four delimitations, and all of these seats are held by the National Party. Conversely, the number of districts with an electorate considerably in excess of the national average has also increased, and most of these seats are held by the United Party.

Delimitation is determined every five years by a commission of judges appointed by the Government. Both parties make proposals on how population shifts should be taken into account. In a large majority of cases preceding the 1958 elections, the recommendations of the National Party were accepted. The United Party press cried--after the election--that their party was gerrymandered to death. But this game does have rules--and limits. The Nationalist proposals for Pretoria's Sunnyside seat were rejected, and the United Party won by 600 votes, compared with Nationalist majorities of 2,000 in nearby seats. In Durban no stretch of delimitation could group enough of the 25,000 Nationalist voters to form one winning constituency.

The twin factors of loading and delimitation help to explain why the National Party won almost twice as many seats as the United Party, although the two parties polled approximately the same number of votes. It is not possible to estimate the totals exactly because the National Party did not contest 31 seats and in 24 of these constituencies there was no opposition whatsoever to the United Party, which entered candidates in all 156 contests. The vote total would be purely academic if it were not generally accepted in South Africa as an indication of possible support for or against a republic. Although this issue was not pushed in the recent campaign, it is a major plank of the National Party platform. Since the election, South African newspapers have played an elaborate game of dividing the vote that would have been cast in the uncontested seats. The pro-United Party press "proves" a substantial majority for the U.P., and the Nationalist press, not surprisingly, comes out with a majority for their party. The most that can be said is that the total opposition vote against the Government (some of it also in opposition to the United Party) was greater than the vote for the Nationalists.

It is reasonably clear that, even without the help of the 1958 delimitation, the National Party would have retained all its seats and added at least three (it actually added six). The swing towards the National Party amounted to almost 1,000 votes per constituency or a total swing of about 8 percent. In 1948 and 1953, the Nationalists won many close contests which were considered marginal in this election. In 1958, the United Party scraped through more often than the National Party, and now holds more vulnerable seats. In general, the total number of seats within easy reach of either party is much reduced. There is a solid quality about most of the United Party and National Party majorities in individual constituencies.

The traditional argument that the English-speaking South African is not interested in politics and refuses to vote was belied by the extraordinarily high percentage of votes cast, running over 90 percent in a large number of seats, and reaching a phenomenal 96.2 percent in Queenstown, which the United Party retained by 13 votes. The removal of 48,000 Colored voters from the common roll certainly made a dent in the total vote of the United Party, but judging from the distribution of Colored votes in 1953, it did not in fact affect the number of seats obtained.

"Your key to prosperity" was the official United Party slogan. Emphasis was placed on the cost of living, and pots of South African gold were promised near and far, especially to schoolteachers and railway workers. United Party liberals were ingenious, if not ingenuous, in not letting their liberal slips show through their conservative party dress. In the urban areas the U.P. ideal was presented as "discrimination with justice."

The strongest United Party argument outside the liberal urban constituencies was to accuse the Government of being kaffirboeties--African-lovers. The lack of discussion of apartheid by National Party candidates, except for boasting of some past legislation, meant that the United Party candidates spoke perhaps as much in favor of baasskap or White supremacy as did the Nationalists. A prominent U.P. member of Parliament, P. A. Moore, boasted, "Give us a chance and we will show the country that we can deal as firmly with the Kaffirs as the Nationalists." The Government was attacked for spending too much money on African housing, pensions and education. In desperation, the National Party produced an Afrikaans pamphlet purporting to show that more money had been spent on White housing than on African housing, but it was an unconvincing case.

The National Party hammered hard and successfully on its theme, "There is no place for the Afrikaner in the United Party." The U.P. retorted that two-thirds of its candidates were Afrikaners, whereupon the Nationalist press demonstrated that half of the "renegade" Afrikaners spoke English at home and that most of them sent their children to English schools. The somewhat stilted Afrikaans accent of United Party leader Sir de Villiers Graaff was ridiculed. The National Party had its strident tones. Senator de Klerk, Minister of Labor, said it was "high treason" to vote for the United Party, and the election-day banner in a party paper presented voters with the choice--vote Nationalist or die.

There is no doubt that the bloedsappe (blood supporters) of the old South African Party of Generals Smuts and Botha (which evolved into the United Party) are dying off in the rural areas, and that the young people are voting Nationalist. Moreover, the higher Afrikaner birth rate, despite being slowed down by the trek to the cities, suggests greater and greater Nationalist voting strength. Prime Minister Strijdom has said that the vote for 18-year-olds is coming shortly. It will be needed by the Nationalists if a referendum is held on the republican issue. The plan to conduct the referendum by constituencies would also help enormously to achieve the two-thirds majority which the Nationalists seek.

The United Party is now reduced geographically to loyalist Natal and adjacent areas of the Cape Province, plus English-speaking urban pockets in Cape Town and Johannesburg. No political party has ever come back to power in South Africa without combining or fusing with some other group. The United Party does not know with whom to unite, and is gravely disunited within itself; either its liberal or conservative wing might fly off before the next election. In South Africa, as in baseball, three strikes is out, even though the batter protested a foul tip on his last swing.

This is the first South African parliament in which the White electorate returned only two parties. The Labor Party was completely crushed. Its parliamentary leader, Alex Hepple, had the most favorable press build-up of any South African politician in parliament, yet his showing was so poor that he lost his electoral deposit. His supporters actually hauled more voters to the polls than their candidate received! In Benoni, which had never returned other than a Labor candidate in the 43 years it has been a seat, the United Party won easily, with the National Party as runner-up.

Opinion is mixed on the results of the Liberal Party's showing in the three constituencies which it contested. The Liberals avoided triangular fights with the major parties and concentrated on safe United Party seats. These were not the Liberals' most favorable constituencies. In Natal and Johannesburg, the candidates lost their deposits. In Orange Grove, Johannesburg, they had their best organization and were opposing a right-wing United Party candidate; but their meager support dwindled when an African member of the Liberal Party appeared on the platform at a rally.

In the predominantly Jewish constituency of Sea Point, an upper-middle-class suburb of Cape Town, a personally popular, local Jewish lawyer stood against an Afrikaner imported from the hinterland over the objections of the local United Party committee. The Liberals polled 1,642 votes, their best showing, but were overwhelmed by 7,267 U.P. votes. The argument in favor of one strong opposition against the Nationalists cut into widespread Liberal sentiment.

The Liberals, recognizing the difficulty of being an inter-racial party in a racial society, were disappointed with the results, but consoled themselves with the educational value of the campaign. Labor is probably dead, but the Liberals are confidently alive.


Africans have been extremely successful in the past with economically-based political protests. They succeeded in Johannesburg with a bus boycott in 1944 and won their demands with another boycott last year that caught the European community by surprise. A one-day strike last June was moderately successful. Ex-Chief Luthuli, President of the African National Congress, and other African leaders planned months ago to hold a protest at election time which would demonstrate to South Africa and the world their lack of voice in choosing their government. Some Africans naively believed that a successful protest would prove that the Government had failed in its race relations and that a strike would therefore redound to the benefit of the United Party.

The African National Congress chose to conduct a strike for a minimum wage of £ 1 a day. It was to have started on Monday morning and run through the Wednesday election, but was officially called off by Tuesday. The Pound-a-Day Strike failed abysmally in the African National Congress strongholds of Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg, and was scarcely attempted elsewhere in the Union. Attendance in many Johannesburg factories and offices was 10 percent above normal for a Monday.

The strike failed for a variety of reasons. In the first place, it was wrongly conceived. Africans were and are prepared to strike over a penny increase in bus fares, but the large sum (by present standards) of £ 1 a day was beyond the imagination of many. Further, in the bus boycott Africans were contributing their time and their strength to trudge the weary 10 or 15 miles a day to and from work. In the election strike they were asked to stay at home and lose their meager wages on which the whole family depended. Moreover, African leadership was divided on the advisability of the strike. The White Congress of Democrats, far left of the political center, helped promote the strike and apparently hoped it would lead to serious trouble, ensuring a Nationalist victory. Some Africans resent any White interference; others are democratically inclined and resent anything which appears tinged with Communistic influence. Both these groups were ambivalent in their support of the boycott. Even President Luthuli played a vacillating rôle.

Leaders of the White business community in Johannesburg worked hard for better wages in the months following the last successful strike in June 1956. As a result, wages for Africans are up, yet the president of the Chamber of Commerce said publicly in March that African wages are still too low and that too many Africans live below the subsistence level. Also, despite the marked reduction in inter-racial contact in recent years, the Chambers of Industry and Commerce made strenuous efforts to have all employers talk with their African workers. Some employers listened to grievances for the first time.

Finally, although there were isolated incidents in Sophiatown, the South African police were less aggressive than they had been in previous strikes. There were more police but a noticeable absence of threats, which had conspicuously failed to break the bus boycott. Most employers did not threaten workers with loss of their jobs.

Civil disturbances, including strikes, are often helped along by organized criminal activities, and intimidation by African tsotsis, or gangsters, contributed to the success of earlier strikes. Johannesburg, the main strike center, has seen a substantial improvement in African housing in the last few years. The few areas where the strike met with success were in such slums as the undemolished parts of Sophiatown. The crime rate generally is much lower than at the time of the last successful strike, and in Alexandra Native Township, for example, personal assaults have dropped more than 60 percent.

Neither police officials nor business leaders are under any illusion that future strikes will be equally unsuccessful. The special circumstances, already described, made for a special result. In fact, the President of the Johannesburg Chamber of Commerce said privately that if a year from now African wages were not substantially bettered, and if the political restraints on the leadership were removed, he expected a strike would be 90 percent successful.

The African National Congress succeeded in its objective to the extent that the European population in the largest cities had their attention diverted from their internal political divisions to the broader racial divisions of South Africa.


To the winners have gone the problems of unity within their swollen ranks. The National Party has now won the battle of Afrikanerdom. A republic--almost certainly within the Commonwealth--is promised by Prime Minister Strijdom, "sooner than the United Party expects." It will probably mark the emotional end of the Anglo-Boer War. It will also unloose some of the bonds that have bound the Boers nasie together. With a republic achieved, what will symbolize the common goal of Afrikanerdom?

Afrikaners did vote for the volk more than they reacted to the swart gevaar (black danger), but the Government was elected as a White Government with the understanding that it will take whatever steps are necessary to keep power in White hands. This mandate is, however, extraordinarily general and unspecific. The Nationalist voting public is not aroused on any issue of apartheid it is anxious to see implemented. The most recent legislation on African church attendance and the proposals for apartheid in the universities were not discussed by either party during the campaign, and they are not popular issues.

Effective legislative opposition now rests inside the National Party caucus. The influence of parliamentary debate on legislation has dwindled over the past decade to its lowest ebb in South African history. Occasionally, a bill will be modified or changed if some technical flaw is pointed out by the opposition, but the practical debate will now, more than ever, lie within the governing party.

The Afrikaans-speaking people have matured and found themselves in the past decade, casting off their long-standing bitterness and sense of inferiority. The traditional and usually justified complaints against language discrimination have been mostly resolved in favor of Afrikaans. Bars against Afrikaners in the civil service and business have been eliminated or lowered. The political landslide at the polls solidly confirms the new position of the Afrikaner.

In the course of any long and hard struggle, dissident voices within a group tend to be silenced voluntarily or with the crude slap of the hand. Afrikaners are a devout people who cherish their individual liberty and have a greater respect for law and order than, say, Americans. This picture is not consistent with most images of Afrikanerdom presented outside South Africa in recent years. The test of which evaluation is accurate may come during the life of the present parliament.

Some indication of what may lie ahead, however, is afforded by the meeting of the South African Bureau of Racial Affairs (SABRA), which held its Ninth Annual Congress within the first fortnight following the 1958 election. Important Afrikaner Nationalist intellectuals created a national sensation by speaking forcibly and freely on racial affairs.[i] An education professor attacked "the traditional color prejudice which identified a dark skin with a lack of civilization" and the idea that "a white skin was necessarily superior to the man with a dark skin." An anthropologist said that Afrikaner racial thinking must be predicated on the acceptance of "equal potentialities for all men." A theologian denied any Biblical basis for apartheid. These and other comments were widely disseminated in reports and editorials in the Afrikaans and English papers throughout South Africa.

J. du P. Basson, a Nationalist M.P., sharply criticized the doctrine of White supremacy and blamed worsening race relations on the White politicians. He added, "No racial policy can succeed in the long run in a country like South Africa unless it is made acceptable also to the non-Whites." He praised the efforts of the Minister of External Affairs, Eric Louw, toward developing better relations with the rest of Africa, but pointed out the difficult task for South Africa of gaining coöperation from emerging African states while preaching White supremacy at home.

The National Vice-Chairman of SABRA, Professor N. J. J. Olivier of Stellenbosch University, demanded a rapid increase in the tempo of development of the African territories inside South Africa and insisted, "the Bantu must be given an opportunity of testing us and our sincerity." Behind such statements --and others equally strong--was clearly implied criticism of present Government policies. But the criticism lay within the framework of Afrikanerdom and the National Party. The leaders of SABRA do not seek to split Afrikanerdom; rather, they want to save it from the disastrous results of a policy of White supremacy.

The Congress called for better personal relations between White and non-White and decided to hold a multi-racial conference later in 1958. SABRA certainly does not represent more than a fraction of Nationalist-voting Afrikaners. But it does have strong backing from the church--over 10 percent of the Congress delegates and observers were ministers--and Afrikaner social scientists. Its significance cannot be measured by its size.

The division on racial attitudes between the traditionally tolerant south, where all shades of color are found, and the harsh north, where stark white and black relationships exist, is deepened by the SABRA stand. The organization has many individual members in the Transvaal, which dominates the National Party, but its main strength is in the Cape. The long-standing north-south dichotomy could make headlines when the time comes for the Nationalist caucus to elect a new Prime Minister.

But SABRA is not alone in its independent attitude. Afrikaans editors spoke out strongly in support of press freedom before the Government's Press Commission. Professor and poet N. P. Van Wyk Louw condemned the proposed internal censorship in these terms: "If the enemies of Afrikaans in South Africa had to think out a plan to enervate the language, to take away all attractiveness from it, they could scarcely have thought of a more suitable means than the principles for which our advocates of censorship and our purifiers of foreign taints are striving . . . ."

Opposition to the proposed standards and methods of control of African universities has not come alone from Afrikaans and English-speaking professors in the "mixed universities." Strenuous protests have been made by such staunch Nationalists as the heads of Pretoria University and devoutly Calvinistic Potchefstroom University. Finally, the Christian conscience of the Afrikaans people is troubled by the legal gymnastics of the Senate Act, by which a simple majority legislated itself into a required two-thirds majority in order to pass contentious legislation. Many Nationalists feel the Senate Act is a blot upon Afrikaner integrity.

Afrikaners won the 1958 election. Africans will have a voice in future elections. They will vote, if only with their feet, as they did in the bus strike. "Those who think we can wait 50 or 100 years for a solution are living in a dream world," Professor Olivier told the SABRA delegates. "When politicians say we have 100 years ahead of us in which to find an answer, it fills me with the utmost frustration that sincere people can continue to believe this."

[i] The intellectual yeast is also at work in the arts. Although Afrikaans prose has long been shackled by restrictions against discussing religion, sex, color and politics, in recent years it has begun to emerge from the cocoon of community censorship. Afrikaans poetry, on the other hand, has consistently been of a high order because it is free; it is free because it has not been widely read and not subject to pressure by society. One example of the freedom of poetic expression is Dirk Opperman's "The Christmas Story," in which Hottentot wise men bring gifts of eggs, sheepfat and dried beef to a Colored Christ Child born amidst "die sink en die sak van distrik ses"--the corrugated iron roof and burlap sacking of the District Six slum of Cape Town. The poem poses a deep challenge to White Christians in South Africa.

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  • EDWIN S. MUNGER, since 1945 a student of African affairs; member of the American Universities Field Staff; Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, most recently in South Africa; Visiting Professor, University of Chicago, 1957
  • More By Edwin S. Munger