South Africa is possibly the most controversial of countries. Its defenders acclaim its political stability; others ask at what price in civil rights. Its economic boom is the pride of its advocates; its economic inequality is the target of its critics. "Separate Development" of ethnic groups is presented on one hand as an enlightened solution to racial tensions; on the other hand it is condemned as not only racist but unworkable.

South Africa's critics not only condemn the present situation as unjust, they show even greater concern over the dangers of today's policies projected into tomorrow. Lord Caradon, Britain's Ambassador to the United Nations, has long pointed to southern Africa as a time bomb with a shortening fuse. Former U.N. Ambassador Goldberg sees South Africa as a racist cancer which could infect the whole planet and lead to World War III. Such alarming predictions are not the conclusions of this author. The projections in this article, based upon contemporary domestic developments and trends in foreign policy, point to the possibility of a relatively peaceful transition to a more just South Africa.

Essential to our understanding is some acquaintance with Prime Minister John Vorster. When he succeeded Dr. H. F. Verwoerd two years ago, Vorster was considered a man of iron by his party, and with reason. He had been jailed for alleged subversion for two years at the Koffiefontein Camp during World War II; he had broken up the Communist Party, defeated widespread sabotage rings and instituted "preventive detention," "bannings" and "exit permits." No doubt he would continue to defend Dr. Verwoerd's "granite" stand. Vorster's ascension to power dismayed all the varying shades of opposition in South Africa and the world outside, which had observed the procession of Nationalist Prime Ministers, each successively further to the Right-Malan, Strijdom, Verwoerd-since the party came to power in 1948. The logical culmination seemed to be Vorster, who had the toughest image of any cabinet minister. The New York Times dismally concluded that "the South African Nationalists in fear have turned over the reins of government to the most extreme, most ruthless, most totalitarian of their party leaders." The Times of London saw Vorster as having a "hard and intimidating reputation" and as the "head gaoler" who can "simply batten down the hatches and hope to ride out the storm. That would be the purest form of isolationism."

Today, the hard image of Vorster within South Africa has been tempered by the moderation, pragmatism and outward-looking flexibility he has displayed in his two years of office. This "reversal" has rankled the right-wing politicians. In August 1968, the antagonism within the National Party between the verligtes (enlightened) and the verkramptes (cramped or narrow ones) burst into an open struggle in which the Prime Minister resolutely fell in with the "enlightened" and used his power to dismiss verkrampte cabinet minister Dr. Albert Hertzog. Two other ministers were also dismissed on grounds of incompetence. There had been no equivalent action in the history of the National Party. When some young right-wingers circulated a "smear" pamphlet against Vorster's "liberal" moves, they found themselves dropped from party membership. In Pretoria, heartland of the right wing, which had captured the local party machinery, the rightist coup was reversed at an open meeting of the party.

What are the differences between verligtes and verkramptes? In general the verligte elements favor immigration (including Catholics, Greeks, Portuguese), participating in integrated sports abroad, receiving black diplomats in South Africa, programs to encourage the exchange of people with other countries, friendship with English-speaking South Africans, a feeling of comradeship toward "our brown Afrikaners" or Coloured people, the policy of Separate Homelands compared with baasskap (mastership), not barring professors, because of religious beliefs, from teaching in state- supported universities, and more open discussion and debate of issues rather than decisions made by closed groups. The verkramptes fear change, including television and ecumenical movements among churches, and, in a good many instances, are inclined toward a conspiracy theory of history. John Vorster defines being verlig as "using one's common sense in a modern world," and in solving local problems in an international context. What is causing change in South Africa is not, as often believed, the rise of verligtes in opposition to the Government, but the movement of the National Party to a verligte position on key issues, leaving those who have long stood for baasskap outside the party or a minority within it.

After 1948, when the National Party came to power, its opponents and overseas critics kept predicting it would split and possibly the progressive elements would join with the United Party. To view the enlightened versus narrow-minded developments of 1968 as portending a hoped- for split is to misread present political dynamics. The verligtes now control most key party positions and it is they who may be joined by progressive elements in the United Party. Meanwhile the conservative whites of both parties criticize Vorster for being too radical.

That John Vorster has undergone a metamorphosis is doubtful. A sounder speculation is that the image of him in the minds of his supporters and opponents was incomplete, partly as a result of identifying him with the Transvaal rather than the Cape Province. He was born at Jamestown in the Cape, received his education in Cape schools and entered Stellenbosch University near Cape Town, where every previous South African Prime Minister had received his education. He married into an old-time Cape family and began his legal practice in Port Elizabeth in the eastern Cape. An influence on his thinking was Paul Sauer, later to become the senior cabinet minister and wise old man of Cape Nationalist politics. Vorster declined a safe seat in the Cape Province and decided to make his home in the Transvaal, a superior power base for an aspiring Afrikaner politician. However, his roots are in the Cape, and if there be a kernel of truth in the tradition that the Cape generates a milder Afrikaner political climate than the Transvaal, the present John Vorster is a child of his environment.

The most dramatic changes of the last two decades were made within the National Party during the jolting months of last August and September; and the effects are seen in Afrikaans universities, literature and press. Students at Stellenbosch University are actively seeking contacts with English-speaking universities for the first time. Within the "Akademie," fountainhead of Afrikaans cultural efforts, a struggle between its verligte board of distinguished Afrikaner scientists, lawyers and businessmen, and a verkrampte staff has ended with the resignation of the latter. A similar struggle had a similar outcome at the new Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit in Johannesburg. Despite the key role of right-wingers in founding the university, the faculty is 10 to 1 verlig, and its head, Gerrit Viljoen, is a brilliant Latin scholar whose educational innovations can hardly be classed "conservative." The enlightened spirit finds expression in the whole sestiger (men of the sixties) literary movement and the emergence of the Afrikaans novel from rural sentimentality to involvement in the dynamism of urban life at home and abroad.

Changes in news media have both fostered and reflected the strength of the verligtes. The Cape-based Nasionale Pers has been successful with its Transvaal Sunday paper, Die Beeld, whose moderate approach on many issues would have been very unpopular three years ago; it was unsuccessfully attacked at Nationalist congresses in September. The Transvaler has moved from the right to a politically neutral position within the party. Dagbreek now supports Vorster's pragmatism where it once supported Verwoerd's obdurateness. Only Die Vaderland, the Johannesburg afternoon daily, gives much support to the Nationalist right wing, whose major voice is the small Hoofstadnuus in Pretoria. The relatively enlightened and highly literate Die Burger of Cape Town, which was considered pernicious for engaging in intra-party fights against both Verwoerd and Vorster, has now established an amiable rapport with the Prime Minister. Even the English-language press has shifted from steady condemnation to occasional support of the Prime Minister. These developments are conspicuous to South Africans but not to the outside world, which is unaware of any reason to make a reassessment.

II

But however striking have been the recent political changes within the National Party and Afrikanerdom, they have not been transmitted to levels affecting the average African. Political opportunities legally available to the Bantu-speaking peoples of South Africa within the so-called white areas have not increased in the last twenty years, and they have further declined in the last few years. Arrests and convictions of members of the "illegal" African National Congress and the Pan African Congress continue to take place, particularly around Port Elizabeth and the eastern Cape. Robert Sobukwe, the one African political leader who has served his sentence under the law, remains in detention on Robben Island. The Communist Party and nearly all of its front organizations are banned and their underground activities crushed. A new proclamation in the Government Gazette bans meetings of more than ten people in African areas without special permission, excepting sports and religious gatherings. Most members of the Government, including the Prime Minister, resist any relaxation of such draconic control on the grounds that it would invite another "freedom struggle" (as from 1948-1966) in which the Communist Party would again manipulate and agitate black nationalists and labor movements to violent action. Most white Nationalists believe that Africans seeking political rights are "communists." Banning of white activists has been no less severe, as it was predominantly white groups that were responsible for the sabotage of property and killings. Restrictions have even been extended to the legally acceptable Progressive Party, barring it from operating across color lines.

If you ask a cabinet minister bluntly what legislation affecting the Bantu has been passed in recent years which offers them more and not less opportunity, he is hard pressed to give examples. He mentions the new town councils for Soweto and elsewhere, and provisions whereby "white" capital can be invested in the Bantustans, in almost direct reversal of Verwoerdian principle. Finally he resorts to describing a "new spirit of administration." It is true that there are more African police in sole charge of African areas, a new politeness toward Africans by government officials, and the concession allowing Africans to buy liquor. But the hard, legal facts of African life in the urban areas of South Africa and on the white-owned farms do not present either a new or a creditable picture.

The administration is concentrating its efforts on promoting "separate development" of "nations" (as ethnic groups are often referred to in southern Africa). In the Prime Minister's initial speech, he specifically mentioned the Coloured, Indian and Bantu peoples in a way "not to indicate political equality but equality as human beings," to quote an Afrikaner foreign editor. And he is proud to have met with more representatives of the various ethnic groups than any previous Prime Minister in a comparable period of time.

The showcase of "separate development" is the Transkei. Its present autonomy was hastened by two years in advance of the planned date through the influence of the late Dag Hammarskjöld upon Prime Minister Verwoerd. An application for its admission to the United Nations may be made surprisingly soon. The Xhosa are steadily taking over key positions held by whites, so that the African Minister of Agriculture complains privately that Africanization is proceeding too rapidly to maintain efficiency. Meanwhile, the African opposition within the Transkei has tempered its opposition to the Bantustan idea. Transkeian Chief Minister Matanzima who, before he took office, described his people to the author as "the victims of the white man for 300 years," often presses fresh demands on the Government for more territory and autonomy.

The development of other Bantustans has been much slower. There was a revival of effort in the past year to unite "Zulustan," bedeviled by tribal differences stemming from the nineteenth century, and to tackle the thorny problem of the white-owned sugarlands which the Zulus claim. In South West Africa, the Ovamboland Legislative Council has held its first meeting, and one for the Okavangos is also coming into operation. In Vendaland, in the northern Transvaal, the South African army made a strong attempt to mollify local tribal authorities during a recent anti-guerrilla exercise in the area. South African military authorities say openly that the success or failure of guerrilla incursions from the north rests upon the disposition of the local inhabitants. Progress has also been made with the Tswana, on the Botswana border. But overall, the program of "Separate Homelands" has not made much headway and will require massive exertion if it is to provide "separate freedoms" for those Africans-perhaps half of the total population- who might eventually live within enlarged Bantustans.

The South African economy as a whole is in dire need of skilled labor and supervisory talent and cannot grow if it is saddled with an uneducated and untrained black proletariat. Everywhere employers complain about the lack of skilled labor, regardless of pigmentation, and everywhere regulations, including the stiff new Physical Planning Act, are circumvented. But much economic progress can be made legally. An example is the recent gains by Africans through the extension of the principle of "equal pay for equal work." The increase in wages paid by industry and the movement of Africans into skilled jobs-on the Durban docks, in textile factories, in defense plants-are measurable facts. In Soweto, the huge complex of black suburbs southwest of Johannesburg, living standards have improved visibly. The terrible shanties and burlap-sack shelters of the 1940s and 1950s have been replaced with modest but substantial housing. A recent private survey indicates the average number of wage earners per African family in Soweto to be 2.2 persons, and not 1.3, a figure established in 1956 on which many estimates of living standards are based. In the last five years the average length of residence in Soweto has increased from 5.8 to 8.2 years and income from $81 to $100 a month; but the incidence of infant mortality has also climbed. House rent is $10 a month.

The booming economy has produced material and social payoffs, as seen in the larger number of well-dressed Africans and a new economic mobility. The change from white to Coloured postmen is an undeniable fact to housewives in affected white areas. To make up for the growing shortage of white drivers, the Johannesburg bus line may or may not decide to hire "non- whites" but the economic pressure to do so is offsetting the fear of white bus drivers that they will lose social status if "non-whites" perform the same tasks. Barring a general slump or a loss in the value of gold, the Afrikaner may not have to choose between the "volk and the Volkswagen." One can foresee, without being too idealistic, that economic pragmatism and political flexibility will one day allow the Afrikaner businessman to have his Mercedes while the African, who is now paid to drive a truck, will have the Volkswagen.

A crucial question is how the present political structure will adapt itself to these changes. Will it facilitate the liberalizing social trends that are resulting from a booming economy? At first the South African Government may implement only measures to improve facilities in African areas and broaden social privileges, but without showing any inclination to make radical political and social changes. The new town councils, for example, will continue as long as they do not lead to political confrontations. But the prospect for African representation in a central legislature is dim. The United Party proposes eight African representatives, but this would clearly be an inequitable stopgap. The expansion of representation by votes in the "homelands," analogous to Italian workers in Germany sending home their votes, although not a wholly satisfactory solution, relieves some political pressures. Indeed many Basutos who are long-time residents in South African cities do vote in Lesotho with a sense of pride and participation. But what is essential is to find a mechanism whereby decisions affecting a man's home, his child's school and his conditions of work are brought within his political competence. What is most likely under present National Party rule is that the Bantu will participate in decisions affecting all of present-day South Africa through a multinational body in which ethnic groups might participate as separate "nations."

Such a suggestion is not unimaginable to the Afrikaner, whose struggle under British colonialism has left him with a regard for self- determination, which he can violate only with a sense of guilt. There are also more immediate concerns. The separation of African families arising from the myriad of regulations has its accompanying evils: divorce, adultery, illegitimacy, juvenile delinquency and the general breakdown of stable family life. A commission of the main Dutch Reformed Church once again in 1968 criticized these results of controls over the movement of Africans.

The doctrine of apartheid, one should note, has no ideological basis. The race-hate literature found in a few South African bookshops issues mainly from the United States and Great Britain. Indeed, the key expression has evolved from "apartheid" to "separate development" and is now "separate homelands." None of these is a defined principle or historic pronouncement derived from religious contexts. Actually, the more rigid the policy seems on the surface, the more flexible it becomes in practice. But the pragmatism involved is not obvious since all policy changes are justified as somehow representing a continuation, not a break, of existing policy. When Prime Minister Vorster announced that Maoris would be accepted as part of the New Zealand rugby team next year, he referred to a visit of a Maori player in the 1920s and suggested that he was only carrying on a traditional policy, whereas, in fact, his action was a volte-face.

III

In its relations with other African countries South Africa has demonstrated more flexibility than formerly. Most observers predicted that the South African "victory" in the South West Africa case before the World Court would lead to isolationism and an inward-looking "laager" mentality, meaning the way the whites lived behind their circle of covered wagons. Now it is clear that it was the sense of relief from the possibility of concerted world action against South Africa which created the psychological climate for freer discussion and has permitted the National Party's new foreign policy.

The new openness is reflected in the civilities displayed toward African leaders by the administration despite murmurings among the South African electorate. One such incident was the admission of the Botswana President, Sir Seretse Khama, to the Johannesburg General Hospital, normally reserved for white patients, for treatment of a serious liver ailment. The hospital not only extended its medical facilities but its personnel accorded special VIP hospitality to Seretse's English wife. Protests at the National Party Congress in Pretoria were met resolutely by Prime Minister Vorster, who claimed he acted on his own personal responsibility and forbade anyone to make a party issue of it. The action was in marked contrast to Prime Minister Malan's reaction twenty years ago when he took umbrage at the British Government for allowing Sir Seretse's marriage.

Another visit to South Africa which is sure to have a psychological effect on racial attitudes is that to be paid by President Hastings Banda, of Malawi, in return for the visit last August of the South African Foreign Minister to Blantyre. Already the presence of a black Malawi diplomat in Capetown's "white" suburb of Rondebosch has had an impact on public thinking, although similar arrangements in Pretoria have been slow to materialize. Regulations encouraging acceptance of black diplomats are a small but significant step. A future endeavor in the same direction is the construction of a center at the Jan Smuts airport where racially mixed conferences can be held. An incident at the Swaziland Independence celebrations further illustrates the new role South Africa has assumed in Africa. Photographers closed in on the South African Foreign Minister, Hilgard Müller, as he was seated with the Ghanaian Ambassador. Five years ago one would have waited to see if the South African was willing to return the extended hand of the Ghanaian. This time the interest centered on whether the Ghanaian would shake the hand of the South African. He did.

South African diplomacy in dealing with the smaller nations on its boundaries is liberal. Like all strong powers with militarily weak neighbors, South Africa faces the temptation to be demanding, protectionist or exploitative. It has not succumbed to that temptation. While the important mineral developments in Botswana are under the leadership of American, British and South African companies, Botswana is almost completely dependent for its trade routes on South African coöperation, which has been generous. Lesotho, wholly surrounded by South Africa, is making headway with the vital Oxbow scheme, which will dam the headwaters of the Orange River and sell power to South Africa. Recently, a hundred Free State Afrikaner farmers voluntarily took their tractors to Lesotho to provide free deep-plowing for the Leribe part of the Lesotho lowland and, not incidentally, to help the image of Prime Minister Jonathan in a stronghold of his opposition. Malawi is receiving technical aid from South Africa plus a soft loan to help build the new capital at Lilongwe. The newest non-racial country within South Africa's orbit, Swaziland, achieved independence in September 1968, ending almost three centuries of British sovereignty over some part of Africa. At the time of independence, the Swaziland Prime Minister made clear that the kingdom values its economic ties and friendship with South Africa next to its own political freedom and non-racist policy. Malagasy may afford South Africa its first official tie with a French-speaking African state following the visit of an official delegation to Pretoria. Anton Rupert, the outstanding businessman, has sent Stellenbosch medical students to work in Swaziland and a number of South African surgeons to operate in Lesotho and other countries further north. Recently, officials in Pretoria have again met with Robert Gardiner, the distinguished Ghanaian and Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, who has wise advice to offer on how to better relations between private South African groups and black Africa. A particular diplomatic goal is to establish rapport with Zambia. From many points of view the effort would appear to be in vain. President Kaunda's frequent condemnations of South Africa reflect both the sincerity of his feelings and the tense struggle going on within the Zambian Government. Kaunda cannot afford to seem to compromise his attitude toward South Africa. But South Africa is now the chief trading partner of Zambia, replacing Rhodesia and Great Britain. Tons of dynamite are still shipped each month through Botswana and Rhodesia to keep the Zambian mines working. South Africa also has an interest in providing an alternative to the Chinese-supported rail line from Dar es Salaam. The alternate route would extend from Zambia, through Botswana, tapping the new mineral developments there and continue on to a port in South West Africa, where ships could load thousands of miles closer to Europe and the United States. It is significant that considerable dialogue between Zambia and South Africa is occurring.

South Africa's association with Rhodesia continues to be thorny. Observers at a rugby match last July between the British Lions and the Springboks could not help noticing Vorster and Ian Smith engaged in animated conversation. The next morning, Sunday newspapers conjectured that they had exchanged ideas about an Israeli-like retaliation raid against guerrilla bases in Zambia. Vorster personally telephoned leading Afrikaans editors to deny any such plan. The editors are almost unanimous in opposing the right- wing faction of Ian Smith's party. One commented, "We would be better off with a friendly black Rhodesia than with it as a white tinderbox."

Other African states to the north offer possibilities of closer ties. French-speaking African states such as Gabon, Chad and Upper Volta have had amiable contacts regarding possible diplomatic relations with South Africa. Economic links with the Ivory Coast and the Congo continue to grow. The opposition to South Africa is strongest in Tanzania. Kenya also attacks its "white domination" but in practice is less hostile, as is Uganda, which also trades secretly with South Africa. The United Nations does not seem disposed (to understate its attitude) to a modus vivendi with South Africa. The Liberation Committee of the Organization of African Unity aims to overthrow white rule in the "Southern Sixth," despite a desire for accommodation among a minority of its members. But it is clear that South Africa will continue seeking coöperation with black nations.

This analysis of South African policies has concentrated upon the white oligarchy and particularly upon the dominant National Party as a force capable of humanizing present institutions or building new ones. If it pursues that road there are thousands of Africans, Indians and Coloureds eager to reaffirm the belief that men divided by ethnic difference can live in harmony. Such hopes are echoed by Afrikaner Nationalist writers such as Professor Van Wyk Louw who proclaim that "mere survival as a goal is death," but that the Afrikaner's survivial is a moral question based on "the need to live in justice with fellow peoples." The columnist of the Johannesburg Zionist Record, Henry Katzew, expressed the conviction that "the Afrikaner's struggle for survival and the Black man's demand for free opportunity are not irreconcilable." Recently N. J. Olivier, one of the most popular professors at Stellenbosch University, told an audience of all races, "We are not monsters and I believe it will be realized that discrimination based on colour is untenable. It will take time, but we have seen many changes in South Africa, and I believe this one will come."

If this article foresees a community of nations in southern Africa, some amelioration of the political position of the Bantu in "white" cities and peaceful coexistence of the peoples of southern Africa, why is not the South African Government inspired to proclaim these goals? Because the unique historical struggle of the Afrikaner has given him an approach to the future that is dogmatic and simple. His tolerance for ambiguity is exceptionally low. The Afrikaner voter demands that his leader be firm, positive and know the answers both for now and for the distant future. A Nationalist politician who would admit that his country's racial problems are far more complex than those of the United States and Great Britain, and that while believing his party to be on the right road would welcome helpful suggestions, would risk his political survival. It has been the not uncommon experience of this author to hear Afrikaner leaders tell a group of foreigners that policy must be precisely so and so and that foreign doubts as to its success have no basis, and then in a moment turn around and express the selfsame doubts and concerns and begin discussing alternate solutions. It might be added that American policy toward South Africa measures what constitutes "progress" there by an American value system wholly dominated by racial factors.

One would be wrong to conclude on too optimistic a note. No panaceas are in sight. As a long-time student of South Africa, the author simply contends that certain trends now clearly discernible point in a new political direction. But discrimination against the Bantu continues. The position of the Coloured people shows scandalously little improvement; and while many Asians are prospering and their university is a tremendous success, both these minority groups suffer severe legal disabilities with only slight prospect that the Government will find a formula to fit them into the "homelands" concept.

The possibility is ever present that clouds of reaction will block out the new rays. Nevertheless, one can have reasonable hopes that the next decade will see an increase in social and political opportunities for Africans, Coloureds and Asians in South Africa to match their domestic economic advances and the new flexibility shown by the Government in foreign affairs.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now