Shortly after the violent race riots in South Africa, the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced at a press conference: “South Africa is rapidly returning to normal.” This was a surprising statement to read, considering that most areas of the country were still being governed under a state of emergency, that some hundreds of political prisoners of all races were being held incommunicado in jail, that the entire police force and half of the territorial army units of the country were still under arms, that the Security Council of the United Nations had formally condemned South Africa’s racial policies, and that the Prime Minister of the country was seriously ill in the hospital with two bullet wounds in his head.
It is difficult to say what the motives of the Prime Minister’s assailant were and what the consequences of his deed will ultimately be. When Dr. Verwoerd resumes his duties, it will be over a country that will never again be what it was before the paroxysms of March and April.
After the weeks of confusion, the government reasserted its authority in a most unmistakable manner, and with the powers given to it under the state of emergency, was able to check the violence for the immediate present. The South African government has ardent supporters who can be numbered in the millions, and its opponents are largely innocent of the methods of effective political organization, let alone political subversion.
But even so, it is altogether impossible to believe in the permanence of the peace which the government managed to impose by force on that part of the population which remains as hostile to the authorities as ever. What has happened in South Africa is not an end but a beginning, and it is difficult to tell now where the solution will lie.
The essential facts of the situation in South Africa are not easy to recapitulate, but any attempt at recapitulation must commence with the statement of some bald figures. There are in South Africa today about three million whites, about twelve million blacks, and more than a million people of mixed descent, called Cape coloreds. There are in addition about half a million Indians.
The white population is divided into two groups: the English speaking group, which comprises about 40 per cent of the whites; and the Afrikaners, or Boers, who are the descendants of the original Dutch settlers of the Cape. The Afrikaans language can be described most simply as a dialect of Dutch; and the Afrikaners first came prominently into world history when their two republics, in the Transvaal and Orange Free State, were defeated by the British in the Anglo-Boer War at the beginning of this century. In spite of that defeat, it is the Afrikaners who now wield total political power in South Africa, though the power of mining, industry, and finance is still largely in the hands of the English speaking group.
The division between these two communities of whites is intense and bitter, but it is overshadowed by the far deeper and more tragic division between black and white. It must be emphasized, incidentally, that neither the English nor the Afrikaners are new arrivals: they are overwhelmingly South African by birth and descent. The history of white settlement in South Africa dates back almost as far as the settlement by Europeans of the Eastern seaboard of North America.
The blacks are a people whose condition ranges from primitively tribal to urbanized professional. In general, it is still true that most Africans in the Union of South Africa are illiterate, divided among themselves, and deeply confused by their own sudden emergence into a highly industrialized and competitive society. It was only some seventy or eighty years ago that the gold and diamond mines first began to call upon the labor of large numbers of Africans, and it was barely twenty years ago that it was realized how rich a manufacturing country South Africa could become.
But it is also true that the Africans are, with astonishing speed, becoming better educated, less confused, and more aware of their own powers and possibilities. And they are doing this despite the fact that their absorption in an industrial society has been managed under the worst social conditions imaginable, as the hideous slum locations around every South African city testify. To be fair, it must be added that the per capita income of the Africans in South Africa is the highest in the entire continent; but it is precisely because the Africans in South Africa have the little they have that they are so bitterly aware of all they do not have, politically and materially.
Regarding the shooting down by the South African police of the crowds who gathered in front of the police station at Sharpeville—and it was this event, above all others, which plunged the country into its crisis—there are two things which must be said. The first is that what happened at Sharpeville was not by any, means an unprecedented occurrence in South Africa; the second is that, on this occasion, the uprising had an unprecedented and desirable consequence for Africans all over the country.
Hitherto, the only results produced by campaigns of civil disobedience on the part of the Africans have been the application of yet harsher measures by the government. Such measures have been introduced this time too, more far reaching than any previous ones. But it must not be forgotten that the present troubles arose directly from an anti-pass campaign launched by the Pan-Africanist Congress, and at the height of the campaign the commissioner of police announced that “until further notice” Africans would not have to carry with them their reference books or passes.
This suspension of the pass laws was merely temporary, and they have been reimposed; yet even that temporary suspension was seen by the Africans as an acknowledgment of their own power. And it should be noted that in the future the laws are to be applied with greater administrative leniency than ever before.
Why, it may be asked, should the pass laws have aroused the Africans to so high a pitch of bitterness and excitement? To answer that question is to plunge into the very center of the government’s policies of racial separation, or apartheid. Apartheid has, with good reason, become a word of vilification and abuse in every country of the world outside South Africa; but what people outside do not realize is that, however offensive it may be to liberal sentiment to have people of different racial groups who live in the same country forcibly separated from one another, apartheid never can really take place in South Africa.
South Africa is the most modern, most highly industrialized, and wealthiest country in Africa, and its modernity, its industry, and its wealth all depend upon the labor of the blacks in the cities and towns and farms of South Africa. The government of South Africa is as anxious as any government anywhere else in the world to have its country increase in wealth, productivity, and power, and for this reason it never has had and never will have the intention of separating from white South Africa the black workers, out of whose toil the wealth of the country comes.
The members of the government talk of separate but equal development in South Africa, of establishing national homes for the Africans, but this is nothing but the most nonsensical double talk. In its complete divorce from any observable or possible facts, the talk of total separation reveals a dreary imperviousness to reality.
Here is a recent example of the way in which the South African government goes about its supposed policy of separation. In the last budget, the total sum voted for the development of the African national homes of the future was halt a million pounds. At the same time, the sum of three million pounds was voted for one small aspect of the absorption of the Africans into the white owned industries of the Union—the building of railways between each of the industrial centers and their neighboring African locations. So the talk goes one way and the deeds go another, and, in the meantime the Africans stream into the towns and cities in search of better pay and the excitements of city life.
In practice, apartheid has meant to the Africans nothing but repression and servitude, because the government separates only in an area where it can separate without affecting in any way the wealth and comfort of the white inhabitants of the country. African rights in South Africa have always been pitifully few, but even those few rights of self-expression and consultation which the Africans did have have been taken away from them.
Out of a legislature consisting of about 160 white members, the Africans were entitled to elect three white representatives to plead their case; this right has been abolished. Two universities n the country used to admit black and white students on terms of equality; they are no longer permitted to do so. And at the primary and high school levels, all government supported schools for Africans have been forced to follow a syllabus which has the explicit intention of teaching the Africans only what the government thinks will be useful to them in the place the government has put them.
Africans could hold property in freehold in certain areas; they can no longer do so. A whole series of acts with such resounding titles as the Suppression of Communism Act, the Public Safety Act, the Industrial Conciliation Act, and others have given the government the power to deport African political leaders to remote areas of the country, to smash African trade unions, and to break up African political movements; and these powers have been used copiously. What is true of the Africans is true also of the colored and Indian communities, who had until now occupied an intermediate position between white and black.
In addition to these new deprivations and penalties, the disabilities which the Africans had previously suffered from have been given a finer definition, a harsher edge, by the government. Social segregation has always been taken for granted in South Africa by all but a minority of self-conscious liberals among the whites and articulate professional and political leaders among the blacks. But now, under the terms of such acts as the Immorality Act and the Provision of Separate Facilities Act, this social segregation has become official policy, zealously pursued, enforced with incredible punitiveness.
Above all, in discussing this type of long-standing grievance, a place of importance must be given to the recent developments of the systems of influx control and registration, which seek to control the movements of Africans from one part of the country to another, or even from one part of a single magisterial district to another part of that same district.
The pass laws are of a complexity which would require a lawyer to unravel: but any policeman knew that unless an African could produce his reference book, containing, in addition to his tax receipts, a whole series of official entries giving him permission to live where he happens to live and to work where he happens to work, he could be arrested on the spot. In any year, hundreds of thousands of Africans are arrested for pass offenses alone.
The complexity and severity of the laws have not only produced general confusion and suffering, but they have also become symbolical to the Africans of their helot status. To the Africans, the intention of the pass laws is to make it forever plain to each of them that his place on earth is not his by right but by permission. And “forever” here is not a rhetorical flourish; Dr. Verwoerd, the Prime Minister, has continually and grandiosely talked in terms of centuries.
The outlook for South Africa is an extremely grim one. If there is any hope at all, it lies in the fact that the government has applied its apartheid measures only in ways which have not affected the wealth and comfort of the white inhabitants of the country. But the wealth and comfort of the whites are now being affected, very deeply, by the ruinous policies which the government is pursuing.
The towns around Sharpeville, where the most severe rioting took place, were like ghost towns for days because so few Africans turned up for work. Ships stood idle outside Cape Town harbor, unable to unload because the dockworkers from Cape Town’s locations were on strike. A day of mourning for the dead of Sharpeville took the form of a call for a country-wide stay-at-home strike. The response to the call was vigorous, in spite of the hastiness with which it was called and the difficulties which faced any African leader who tried to move among his people. The Africans are back at work now, driven back by their own poverty, lack of organization, and the punitive measures of the government. But they will stay away again later, they will riot again later, unless the government is able to move and change swiftly and still maintain its supporters.
Do the white people of South Africa value sufficiently their own lives and livelihoods to make this change? It is difficult to say. There does seem to be a fluidity about white attitudes which has never before been manifest, but little can be expected from those who are at present in power. They are people who dreamed of domination and authority, and though the dream has turned into a nightmare, and though they are now aware that it is a nightmare, they cling to it, more frightened of the common daylight than they are of the horrors they have themselves evoked.
If these leaders waken at all, it will be suddenly; but it may well be that nothing, not even the voice of their own simplest material ambitions, will ever rouse them from their tormented sleep. It is not only the blacks in South Africa whom the world should pity.