More than any other nation today, South Africa's foreign relations are linked indissolubly with the internal workings of its society. Maintaining the country's present degree of interdependence with European and American private enterprise depends on the preservation of an image of internal "stability." In addition, deflecting further international sanctions requires the muffling of Western anxieties about racial injustice and potential racial conflict. Thus the most important aspect of South Africa's foreign policy must be a public relations campaign directed toward the governments and citizens of the industrial democracies. The chief underlying theme of this propaganda campaign is the implicit alliance between white, Christian, democratic and anti-communist South Africa and the "free world."

For example, the South African government often appeals to Britons and Americans for support by arguing that: "We fought on the same side in World War II." In fact, the country's ruling National Party supported Nazi Germany in World War II. At that time the National Party was in opposition to the governing party of General Jan Smuts, and bitterly opposed South Africa's alignment with the Allies. The result was that Smuts was never able to commit all his forces to the war against Hitler, having to keep some of them at home to deal with the Nationalists and their fringe organizations.

Such effrontery is no surprise to those of us in South Africa who oppose apartheid, because we know that South Africa's external policy is based on tactics to ensure that the Western world will not probe its facade too deeply. Pretoria's campaign has two basic aims: (a) to obscure as far as possible the true nature of the apartheid regime, and (b) to present an external image of moderation and pragmatism.

A main theme on which Nationalist propaganda is based is that the 25 million people of South Africa do not constitute one nation but a number of "national units" each with its own language, culture and territory. The full absurdity of this is only apparent to those who know South Africa well. The so-called cultural differences between the black ethnic groups are not only minimal but are rejected by most of the blacks themselves as a political factor.

The five million Zulus and five million Xhosas, for example, have a common culture, and the Xhosa and Zulu languages are strongly similar. It would be more accurate to say that there are cultural differences between an Alabaman and a Nebraskan than it would be to talk of cultural differences between a Zulu and a Xhosa. As an English linguist, I can differentiate between the Alabama accent and the northern accent within a few words. As a Xhosa linguist, I sometimes cannot tell for several sentences whether a person is speaking Xhosa or Zulu.

The truth is that the South African government is less concerned with "cultural differences" than with the age-old political device of divide and rule. Being a white minority of five million in a country of 25 million, they simply wish to divide the black majority into smaller units comprising Zulus, Xhosas, Swazis, Tswanas, Vendas, Sothos, Coloureds (mulattoes) and Indians. To avoid according them basic civil rights, they are giving to each of these alleged "separate ethnic units" absurdly small territories along the fringes of the country within which to exercise such rights. These Bantustans or "homelands" total 13 percent of the country's territory, whereas the whites, who comprise less than 20 percent of the population, claim 87 percent of the territory - and that 87 percent happens to include the gold and diamond mines and all the developed industrial and metropolitan areas and harbors.

But that is not all. The rationale for this policy is based on two further myths. One is that the "homelands" are the "traditional territories" of each "national unit." The theory is that the white settlers arrived in South Africa at about the same time as the blacks, and settled the white 87 percent at the same time as blacks were settling "their" 13 percent. This allegation, however, has been disproved by radiocarbon dating tests showing that there were negroid communities in South Africa as far back as the fifth century, long before the first white settlers arrived in 1652. The Xhosas, for example, were well established as far south as the Gamtoos River area by the fifteenth century (considerably beyond what is now the Xhosa homeland, the Transkei). And the blacks did not live in static "areas" but were nomadic peoples, cattle-herders, moving throughout South Africa in search of ever more grazing land.

Another notion upon which Nationalist propaganda is based is that the blacks "want" territorial separation.

The truth is that they have never been allowed any choice in the matter. There has never been a nationwide poll of blacks by way of referendum on the issue and all the evidence suggests that the entire concept of "homelands" would be overwhelmingly rejected in such a referendum. For evidence of this, we must, as Governor Al Smith used to say, "Take a look at the record."

All the nationalist leaders of black South Africa, the leaders of the banned African National Congress, Pan Africanist Congress and Black Peoples Convention (Chief Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and the late Steve Biko) have consistently rejected the "homelands" policy. Not only that, even the "homelands" leaders themselves, such as Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, Chief Kaiser Matanzima and others, have also made it plain that they would reject it if given an alternative. Like all the apartheid laws, territorial apartheid is a white creation for the political convenience of whites. Abraham Lincoln spoke of "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Apartheid is government of the blacks, by the whites, for the whites.


Another frail plank of the Nationalist propaganda platform is the claim that the Nationalist regime is a bastion of Western values against communism.

On the contrary, the Vorster regime is communism's greatest recruiting ally in southern Africa. Many young blacks of South Africa, increasingly embittered by the West's refusal to sever links with the Vorster regime, are turning to the East for aid. They point out that Russia has no investments or trade and no diplomatic links with South Africa - and that only the Western states veto strong steps against apartheid in the U.N. Security Council.

South African pleas for Western solidarity are particularly ironic because government spokesmen have several different lines on this issue, turning one face to the West and another to their internal constituencies. In the recent all-white elections in South Africa, the Nationalists launched the most vicious attacks against the Western states, and in particular America. America, a government minister proclaimed in one speech, was more of a threat to South Africa than was the Soviet Union.

Another commonly heard South African argument is that South Africa is freer than most African countries and that South Africa has a free press.

Neither of these claims has validity. Apart from a small handful of African countries, including Amin's Uganda and Bokassa's Central African "Empire," Pretoria has the most repressive regime on the continent of Africa. The South African government: imprisons people without trial; restricts political dissidents to specific areas of the country; ordains where people may live and work, and what categories of work they may do, according to skin color; forbids marriage between persons of different race groups; reserves the vote to the ruling white minority.

In spite of all the rhetoric, the basic fact that neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Minister can refute is that in South Africa not one of the more than 20 million blacks can vote for the central government of the country. Finally, the mainstay of the South African economy, the system of migrant labor, breaks up family life for millions of blacks. Under this system blacks are only tolerated in the so-called white areas for their labor, and for many of them this involves acceptance of contracts that keep them effectively separated from their families for 11 months out of every 12. As Minister of Information C. P. Mulder revealed in a speech in February 1978, the ultimate aim is that every single black man and woman in South Africa be regarded as a citizen of one of the "homelands" and therefore a "foreigner" in the "white" area. In a country with more than 20 million blacks, there is not to be a single black citizen. The question of freedom becomes moot where citizenship is denied.

How many other African states proclaim residential areas according to skin pigmentation? How many African states forbid people of one color to marry or to live with or to play sports with people of another color? How many African states have job reservation based on race?

As to freedom of the press, can the government explain how, if the press is free in South Africa, I came to be banned without trial, accusation or explanation, or how Percy Qoboza came to be detained and how his newspaper, The World, came to be closed down overnight without any reasons being given? The truth is that press criticism of the government in South Africa is only allowed if it is ineffective - and the same goes for political opposition.

The parliamentary opposition is only tolerated because it has so few supporters. This is so because in South Africa only whites may belong to the token parliamentary opposition; it is forbidden by law to form multiracial political parties. There is no doubt in my mind that if by some electoral miracle the parliamentary opposition in South Africa gained enough support among whites to threaten the regime with defeat at the polls, it would be outlawed by a stroke of the pen - as so many critics of the government have been.


I wish I had the opportunity to challenge Pretoria with the facts of my own banning. Foreign Minister Roloef Botha is reported to have said that I was banned for "reasons other than journalistic reasons." There were no specifics. Now there are many hundreds of laws in South Africa prescribing severe penalties for any activity connected with opposition to apartheid. Surely if I had done anything to contravene any of these many complex and wide-ranging laws (several of which place the onus on an accused to prove his innocence instead of on the state to prove guilt) the obvious course of action would have been to prosecute me. With all these statutory aids behind them, could not the government representatives accuse me in open court? Did they feel I might prevail against a state prosecutor and a state-appointed judge? Or are they once again relying on secret recommendations by secret police?

Punishment without trial in South Africa has reached massive proportions, and the list of people acted against after no other process than secret police recommendation now numbers in the thousands. These include hundreds of detainees, of whom at least 45 are known to have died in the hands of security police - most notoriously, of course, Steve Biko, whose savage treatment has now been revealed to the whole world. Of these 45 deaths in arbitrary detention, no less than 27 have occurred since the Foreign Minister stated in 1974 that the regime would "move away from racial discrimination."

The most important purpose of the South African propaganda is to preserve the economic links with the West that prop up the apartheid regime. Only by preserving these economic links with the West can the whites of South Africa keep suppressing the black majority. Their central argument here is based on one main proposition - that severance of such economic links would harm blacks in South Africa more than whites.

As usual, this claim is based more on white preference than on evidence of what South Africa's blacks themselves feel. Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko - all have been unequivocal on this point. They have consistently maintained that black South Africans are no strangers to worse sufferings than fringe unemployment, and would prefer this to a continuation of the economic links that help to maintain the system that oppresses them. Those advocating preservation of those links are either Nationalist ministers, white industrialists or Bantustan leaders.

Ideally, the best way to prove what most of the blacks of South Africa really want in this regard would be to let them vote on the issue after a campaign in which all spokesmen could participate - but unfortunately Luthuli and Biko are dead, Mandela is imprisoned, and Sobukwe and hundreds of other black leaders are banned or detained. It is important to remember, in view of statements to the contrary by Pretoria spokesmen, that no Nationalist claim as to authentic black majority opinion has ever been tested by vote among blacks in South Africa - not in more than 300 years of recorded history.


Let us strip away all the obfuscations and rhetoric and look at the basic reality the Nationalists refuse to confront. It is that five million whites have to come to a realistic accommodation with the legitimate civil rights demands of more than 20 million blacks - in short, that the white minority has to accept that it is a white minority. Government ministers appear to refuse all realistic acceptance of this fact because they see it as amounting to "losing their white identity." Accordingly, they act as if their identity were the main consideration in the whole equation. Clearly, this cannot be justified. If it were, then the Welsh would have the moral right to enslave all Britons for fear of losing their Welsh identity as a numerical minority.

But it can be argued that perhaps even the Welsh, after all, have a territory within which to "preserve their identity." More to the point, then, why don't the Afrikaner Nationalists initiate negotiations with the black majority with a view to gaining their own "homeland"? Provided their territorial ambitions are less greedy, in fact considerably less greedy than the scale of 87 percent, as at present, they might find the blacks disposed to be generous in this regard. Arguably, South Africa's centrally located Orange Free State or a comparable extent of territory would be as appropriate a "homeland" for Afrikaner Nationalists as the Transkei would be for Xhosas. But that is not the present argument of exponents of apartheid. The Nationalists' position in effect decrees that they can have their territorial cake and eat it too, while monopolizing all the decisions related to the having and eating thereof.

And if they claim they have to do all these things to stay where they are because they "have nowhere else to go," this is also untrue. They have no more claim to permanence in their areas of South Africa, or for that matter anywhere in South Africa, than any other community there. I would say that if the whites can only preserve their identity by opposing and killing others, it is their duty to emigrate from South Africa. If they are unwilling to accept the realities of life on the African continent (most Africans being black) they should go and live where people are predominantly white - as in northern Europe. If they should reply that their people cannot afford to emigrate, my reply is that they therefore cannot afford apartheid. If they belong in Africa, as they claim, then they must accept their fellow Africans who are blacks as fellow citizens in every sense of the word.

And if they point to "what has happened to whites in the rest of Africa," my reply is: "What indeed has happened to whites?" The Mau Mau killed fewer whites in Kenya (36) than the Nationalists have killed blacks in detention in South Africa. More whites have died in the civil war caused by the policies of Ian Smith's government in Rhodesia than have died under black governments in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Angola, and even Uganda, together. I exclude only the former Belgian Congo from this claim, and even in that case it is surely accepted by now that the Congo erupted into anti-white violence precisely because the Belgians had for decades done what South Africa's whites are now doing - withholding from blacks all meaningful political rights.

But the final indictment of the apartheid regime is this: just as the Nationalists refuse to confront reality in their own country, so they pose and reply externally to issues that are spurious and irrelevant. No one in the West has demanded of the Afrikaner Nationalists what South Africa claims is demanded - the "suicide" of their people. Thus, when they say the West should "get off their backs" on this score, they are setting up for themselves a paper tiger that can be heroically defied.

What the West is really saying to Pretoria, what Africa is saying to Pretoria, and what most South Africans are saying to Pretoria is: "Talk to your own people. Negotiate with the real leaders chosen by your country's blacks. Determine your own future by peaceful negotiation with your own black majority. If you begin to do this, and stop imprisoning them, banning them, detaining them and killing them, there will be no more talk of sanctions, ostracism and pressure."

That is the challenge Pretoria should answer - not the ones the Nationalists themselves have devised for propaganda purposes. But if the South African government continues to evade their real challenges, if they continue to oppress the blacks of South Africa while continuing to present to the world an artificial facade of pragmatism that obscures such oppression, they will ultimately be responsible for the world's worst racial civil war, the effects of which will poison communities far removed geographically from South Africa. Such a racial conflagration will involve, to some extent, every country in the world where men of differing color live - not least of all the United States. It is therefore no longer invalid to describe apartheid as a threat to world peace.

Meanwhile, it is the moral duty of every person to whom the South African campaign is addressed to pull the entire debate over apartheid back from the vaguely theoretical to the directly practical and personal issues proceeding from it. During the time it took to read this article, five black babies in South Africa died of malnutrition in one of the richest countries in the world, with two-thirds of the world's gold, more than half the world's diamonds, more than three-quarters of the world's uranium, and the best agricultural land in all Africa. It is not only in detention that the victims of apartheid die.

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  • Donald Woods is the former Editor-in-Chief of the South African newspaper, the East London Daily Dispatch. Detained in October 1977, he fled the country in December 1977, and is now residing in Great Britain. His forthcoming book, Biko, will be published by Paddington Press in May. (c) Donald Woods, 1978.
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