How the United States Protects South Africa

A New York TIMES correspondent in South Africa in 1965 and 1966, Mr. Lelyveld now reports from India, Pakistan, and Ceylon.

“A diplomatic statement,” muses the hero of Conrad’s Victory, “is a statement of which everything is true but the sentiment which seems to prompt it.” There is never any lack of examples to fit that definition. In the case of southern Africa, when the diplomat happens to be American or British, it is especially striking, for the issue of racialism and white minority rule has come to be debated in an almost exclusively diplomatic context. The American, British, and even the black African peoples are really not watching closely. Only the paranoid whites of South Africa and Rhodesia, the motley exile groups, and interested businessmen in a few commercial centers care intensely.

Yet the stakes continue to grow and the commitments to multiply, primarily because the United States and Britain find it impossible to articulate the aim of their policies, which is, quite simply, not to get caught in a racial crisis in southern Africa. The fact is that in stumbling retreat from the imagined crisis, the two powers seem to be moving inexorably toward all that they ardently want to avoid.

The false sentiment behind American and British diplomatic statements is not in the homiletics about race rule, which is genuinely and bitterly deplored (though some of our diplomats do have a way of saying “We shall never compromise on apartheid” that seems to carry the silent proviso “no matter how sorely we’re tempted”). What is false, and possibly dangerous, is their coy insinuation that this abhorrence may soon be translated into policy, and policy into action.

Thus Arthur Goldberg leads the United Nations General Assembly to believe that the United States favors active steps to pry loose South Africa’s iron rule from the vast, rich territory of South-West Africa. The League of Nations mandate under which the territory is held, he says, is already legally dead. Thus Britain’s George Brown asks the Security Council for the first set of mandatory sanctions it ever endorsed in order to bring down Ian Smith’s durable regime in Rhodesia.

But what happens when the committee charged with a re-examination of the South-West Africa question makes its recommendations? What happens the next time Britain is forced to acknowledge Mr. Smith’s strange failure to collapse? Theoretically, you might say, British planes could bomb the supply routes on which oil travels to Rhodesia from Portuguese Mozambique and South Africa. The United States could go further and drop a paratroop division on Windhoek or land some Marines at Walvis Bay. But that is very theoretical.

The hard fact — harder than any of the commitments made so far — was neatly put to me once by an astute American ambassador in Africa. “ The time has not yet come,”he said, “when white men will fight white men in Africa for the sake of black men.” It is not even clear that white men will help fight black men for the sake of black men anymore, unless the whites happen to be mercenaries. All that prevents a second secession of Katanga today is the fact that Moise Tshombe has become a Congolese nationalist. If he were to reverse himself suddenly, who would intervene to stop him?

That is what the black Africans suspect, which is why they are so frustrated and angry. That is also a belief the white Africans have long struggled to maintain, which is why they don’t cave in before Harold Wilson’s direst warnings or the steady flow of moral strictures from London, Washington, and New York. (And why they are reassured but not surprised to read that Mr. Wilson feared an R.A.F. mutiny if an attempt was made to intervene militarily in Rhodesia against the regime of former R.A.F. pilot Ian Smith.) That is the last thing our diplomats can say in the hallowed halls of a world organization.

Crisis postponed?

There are good reasons why critics of the southern African regimes are susceptible to our diplomats’ halfhearted hints that we and the British may soon run out of patience with Africa’s whites, perhaps after Britain’s fifth final offer is rejected by the Rhodesians for the fifth time. The critics know that so long as the threat of Western military involvement in southern Africa is withheld, Pretoria and Salisbury can be sure that they will be able to hold out indefinitely in defiance of what is called world opinion and the silent resentment of the black majorities that feel the weight of their rule.

Just a few years ago these critics of the Rhodesian and South African regimes looked ahead to a very different kind of prospect, described by Colin Legum, an expatriate South African, in a book he wrote in 1963 called South Africa—Crisis for the West. Legum foresaw, with at least a tinge of eagerness, the day when the military force of black Africa would press down on the outmanned white bastion in the south, with independent black states next door to it allowing themselves to be used as staging areas for guerrilla warfare. As for when that would happen, he ventured: “Perhaps two or three years before the collapse of Angola; another year for Mozambique and Southern Rhodesia — if they have survived that long. Thus one would fix the crisis point at between 1966-68. ” In other words, now.

That may have seemed barely plausible in 1963. But since then there has been the spectacle of Colonel Mike Hoarc’s 200 ill-trained South African mercenaries breaking a rebellion in the Congo that had the support of the so-called “militant” African states, and of the runaway rot in the Organization of African Unity, the fall of Ben Bella and of Nkrumah, and the tribal massacres of the Nigerian Army by the Nigerian Army. The result is that the crisis point now can probably be more accurately fixed a generation away, at least. Washington and London, therefore, become last hopes for a swift denouement.

The weight of the pound

Forlorn is certainly the word for such hopes. True, Harold Wilson denounced Dr. Verwoerd from AntiApartheid Movement platforms in his days as opposition leader. But the week of Dr. Verwoerd’s assassination the British Prime Minister, in a television interview, sounded almost eulogistic as he described the slain man’s efforts to bring reason and moderation to bear on Ian Smith, a retrospectively wishful and dubious interpretation of relations between Pretoria and Salisbury.

A cynical remark about that kind of performance provoked a protest from a Foreign Office man. “Don’t be misled,” he said. “Our chaps would really love a fight with South Africa. We have to keep telling them they can’t afford it. They find that very disappointing.”

Mr. Wilson has other problems, of course. First among these is the pound — of which there are more than one billion tied up in South Africa. It is not improbable that sterling would be an early casualty of any conflict between London and Pretoria. Hence Britain’s insistence that the Rhodesian crisis must not be allowed to widen into a South African crisis. But is Britain really obliged to suffer a pound-rattling economic crisis to shake free from the botched colonial heritage of southern Africa? Mr. Wilson doesn’t think so any more than do his voters. He won’t say so — it is just not his style to be candid about the basic calculation on which his policy rests.

The pound not only defines Britain’s policy on southern Africa; it also circumscribes the policy of the United States. Think of what devaluation would mean to a British presence east of Suez, NATO, the state of international liquidity — not least of all, the dollar. Then think of racial injustice 10,000 miles away; the injustice is certainly cruel, but it is very distant.

It follows that the compelling interest of the United States in southern Africa is to stay out of trouble and not make a bad situation worse, since it has no serious intention or method of making it better. Before wading into that quagmire we might do well, as white South Africans so often taunt, to make more honest headway on our own racial problems, and to wind up our affair in Vietnam as well. It may even make sense to suggest that the problem of southern Africa should be solved by southern Africans; that it is fitting that the oppressed majorities should have to win their own struggle in their own time. It is not the fault of Harold Wilson or Lyndon Johnson that Salisbury’s black majority did not riot on November 11, 1965, when Ian Smith declared his independent Rhodesia.

The difficulty is that we are in no position to say these things. The retorts would be too obvious, for we are part of the balance of power in South Africa, and our power is often on the wrong side. From the point of view of the global interests of the United States, our interests in South Africa arc small; the total capital investment of $650 million there represents about one percent of all American foreign investment.

American investments

But they matter in South Africa. Dr. Verwoerd used to like to tell political rallies that the great Western powers differed with his government “only on the racial issue,” as if there were some other issues in South Africa. It was an astute appeal. If the rally was in Pretoria, the audience had only to think of the new $35 million Chrysler assembly plant being built near there.

If it was in Port Elizabeth, they would think of Ford and General Motors, which have long dominated the city’s economic life, never showing any distress over the low wages that are fixed by law for the “job classifications” in which they employ nonwhites. South Africans could also think of the three American satellite-tracking stations in their country or of the American assistance that helped them build their first nuclear reactor. Students of economics would know that the United States enjoys a favorable balance of trade with South Africa that was worth $213 million in 1965. When you sat in South Africa and listened to Dr. Verwoerd, these things could sound more substantial than what Mr. Goldberg was saying in New York.

In New York, they may not be more important, except to some bankers and investors. But in South Africa, they are an essential part of the underpinning of that obdurate confidence in the safety of white rule that seems so dangerously misplaced, if not neurotic, to most outside observers. They may not be tokens of our real intentions — do we, in fact, have any? — but that is how they are taken.

The euphoric mood in which no hard questions are asked of the status quo is not as unshakable as it looks. Only seven years ago, after the Sharpcville shootings and the first attempt on Dr. Verwoerd’s life, the euphoria nearly collapsed. The cutoff of foreign capital made all the white certainties look very flimsy. Confidence rebounded only when the capital started to flow back. It was not that the economy needed the investment, but that jittery white South Africans desperately needed the assurance that smart money was being placed on their future. On Hollar d Street in Johannesburg’s financial district, one turning point is usually cited. That was the organization by Dillon. Read & Company and Charles Engelhard of the American South African Investment Company, which puts money into South African securities, especially goldmining shares, and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

A plausible case can be made for a move now to discourage further investment by Americans in South Africa, even to withdraw the investment already there. Withdrawal would not be grossly unfair to American corporations; with few exceptions, they have been living high off their profits for a long time in a country where the average American profit margin has been calculated at 26 percent. It would not be presented as a matter of business conscience — which hardly seems real or relevant — but of national policy, the government could say the United States does not like to see its businessmen forced to apply discriminatory standards, as in their operations in southern Africa.

The myth of ‟influence”

American retrenchment would not end white rule in southern Africa, obviously; it would just remove the American props. By reducing our interests we would gain the detachment that we now would like to claim but can’t. Our diplomats, for instance, stall and express misgivings when the possibility of an oil embargo on South Africa is raised. They argue that it would probably fail. Their argument would be less sound but somewhat easier to make if Mobil. Caltcx, Shell, and British Petroleum (in which the British government has a 56 percent controlling interest) had not been expanding South Africa’s storage capacity at the government’s behest in an urgent effort to withstand a possible embargo, or if American oil prospectors did not seem to be on the verge of a major strike there. Of course, there is no conspiracy among the white South Africans, the oil companies, and the diplomats, as the frustrated Africans like to believe. But there might as well be.

Putting the State Department’s case against scaling down American interests in South Africa. Dean Rusk said. “I am not myself persuaded that breaking ties is the way to exercise influence.” He could not have meant that American influence was promoting anything resembling social justice in South Africa. After all, that influence was there all through the period when the apartheid restrictions were being multiplied and tightened. There is little evidence that we actively tried to decelerate the process; and no evidence that we ever succeeded.

Then what is our influence, and what is its use? Only that we can still go to South Africa and ask it not to make it more difficult for us to withstand the pressures to intervene against it. I n other words, we can say, “You don’t want trouble, and neither do we.” That is a real common interest. But it puts us in the position of being South Africa’s protector.

Hendrik Verwoerd had a keen appreciation of the difference between the use of power and of words, and that was how he saw it. He said in a speech after bis election victory last April that he was counting on “the common sense and sane judgment” of the United States and Britain to “guarantee the safety of the whites in this country.” The two nations, he said, were “the only countries whose attitudes or actions can be of importance to South Africa.” Diplomats learned to appreciate the way Dr. Verwocrd played the game, and some actually came to view him as “a moderate.” No doubt they will soon be saying the same thing of his adamantine successor, Balthazar Vorstcr.

Another argument against any idea of a reduction of American interests in South Africa takes the shape of a crude economic determinism. The thesis is that foreign investment carries a revolutionary potential for change, undermining apartheid by raising the black man’s standard of living. If that were true — and the history of the past eighteen years is squarely against it — then, obviously, all we would need to do is increase our investment as rapidly as possible. Somehow I doubt that the South African regime would take that as a setback. Whatever marginal gains the black majority may make, they do not keep pace with those of the white minority, nor are they reflected in political or social status; on the contrary, the blacks have to pay for their gains with their rights. Ford and General Motors discuss the working conditions of their nonwhite employees with white officials, not black trade unionists. It is an absurd rationalization to argue that the auto companies and the First National City Bank and Charles Engelhard presage a revolution. In the long run the whites may be doomed by the steady urbanization of the nonwhites. But so far, white power and black urbanization have grown together; the long run will be very tong. To think otherwise is to underestimate naively the resources of a modern police state.

Who’s on whose side?

Finally and inevitably, you come up against the argument that, whatever else they are, the whites of southern Africa are certainly antiCommunist. They are on ‟ our side.” Who knows, after all they suffered, what side the blacks would take? The conclusion of this argument is ” Play it safe,” for there is a real danger that we would regret any change that we encouraged.

The white southern Africans eagerly carry the argument a step further. ‘’Western civilization” and “white civilization,” they say, are synonymous, and they are upholding it. The West may be slow in perceiving the trend (goes the argument), but the world is moving toward Armageddon, a global confrontation between whites and nonwhites. When that day comes, the Americans and the English — and the Russians (they’re white, aren’t they?) — will be glad to find they have steadfast white friends in southern Africa.

The argument for retrenchment is that the greatest contribution we can make now to southern Africa is to relieve the whites of these delusions. Or are they delusions?