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.