The Anatomy of White Power

The newspaper headlines tell the story: New unrest in Soweto. Violence flares in Soweto, police shoot. Shotguns speak - many wounded, one dead. 183 pupils held as police swoop. Schools boycott spreads. Government threat to close schools.

Since June 16, 1976. when widespread black unrest erupted in South Africa, such headlines have become part of existence. A few weeks or months of quiet go by; then there is the sudden threat of some new disturbance; and then it happens, rippling and spreading like a grass fire until doused by heavy police action, leaving perhaps a few more dead.

To many blacks the turmoil, however great its tragedy and burden, is evidence that their freedom from white rule is at long last on the way. To most whites, it is a cause for alarm and anxiety.

And to an outsider the most striking thing about South African society would be not its recent violence, but the still awesome, nearly monolithic power of apartheid. The country is controlled by the Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch pioneers who came to Cape Town more than 300 years ago. They now rule a South Africa stretching some 1200 miles to the north and 1000 miles from east to west, a country one eighth the size of the United States. They totally control the lives of 20 million nonwhites nearly 17 million black Africans, 2.5 million mixed-race coloreds (who can best be compared with blacks in America), and 750,000 Asians. They share the spoils of power with the other whitesthe total white population is only 4.5 million—who came later from Europe and who still arrive by the thousands each year. As twentiethcentury man struggles to rid himself of the burden of centuries of discrimination against people of color, South Africa stands out as the embodiment of the past.

Fundamental to carrying out apartheid is the Population Registration Act, strikingly reminiscent of the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws, which requires every person to have an identity card specifying whether he or she is white, Asian, “Bantu” (the government word for black Africans), or colored. The coloreds are further divided into subgroups, with the final one simply reading “Other.” Black Africans are in their turn divided into tribal groupings, whether Xhosa or Zulu or Tswana or whatever. It does not matter whether a person has retained a tribal affiliation; he is given one.

Race Classification Boards have officiated on borderline cases where families are sometimes split, with some lighter-skinned sons or daughters of coloreds trying to reach white status. Tests applied by government officials, apart from the interrogation of family and neighbors, have even included pushing a pencil through a person’s hair to check the degree of kinkiness.

Complicated and tragic cases of mixed background occur. Last December the case of little Johnny Nicholson was reported. Both his parents had white identity cards and were accepted as whites. Then Johnny was born. He was a “throwback” and looked colored. The effect Johnny had on the family was shattering, said the report. “First the neighbours gossiped, then the whole town took up the story, and finally— when the pressure became unbearable—Mr. Nicholson cracked. He calmly picked up a gun, shot his wife dead and then committed suicide himself.” Johnny went into an orphanage for Coloreds.

Interracial marriage is forbidden and any minister of religion who tries to perform such a wedding ceremony faces criminal prosecution. Sexual intercourse across color lines is a crime—and there have been hundreds of prosecutions and jailings to enforce the law. Despite the criminal sanctions, and the heavy social penalty which white society exacts on its transgressors, it is no secret that the law is widely flouted. Black prostitutes abound in city streets and a high number of Afrikaners are regularly prosecuted. Policemen give court evidence of peering through windows at sexual coupling and of feeling the sheets of beds for the warmth of recent usage.

To insure the division of the entire country into areas of separate racial residence and business, the Group Areas Act was introduced in 1950. Since that time hundreds of thousands of blacks have been ordered out of their homes and businesses and required to go elsewhere, invariably miles beyond city limits, and with little compensation for their expropriation. Where blacks have been thrown out of suburbs close to city centers, eager whites have cashed in on the bargains and have transformed the homely or broken-down cottages into chic town houses for themselves.

Whenever black communities resist moving from houses they have occupied for seventy or ninety years, armed policemen are brought in; any further resistance is ended by arrest and jailing. Even the seashore has been zoned for separate racial usage with the finest beaches invariably reserved for whites. Black nursemaids are, however, usually allowed on white beaches to care for white children.

In accordance with the theory of group areas, black Africans have been stripped of the few freehold rights they once enjoyed in some cities. Instead, they have been herded into giant townships miles away. Soweto, where the June 1976 racial disturbances first erupted, is such a township, the biggest of them all. Though Soweto sounds African, it is in fact merely an acronym for South West Townships. The official population is given as under 700,000. But it is acknowledged that the true population is at least one million and probably more.

It is the “pass” which accounts for the haziness about the exact population in Soweto. Every African man or woman over the age of sixteen must carry a pass, officially called a reference book. It resembles a passport and it contains such details as the individual’s name, tribal origin, where he is allowed to live, and what sort of work he or she is allowed to do. This totally controls life for a black African. He cannot move without the pass. He cannot be in a city area for more than seventy-two hours at a time without permission. Failure to produce the pass when demanded by a policeman or lack of an official stamp on the pass entitling the person to be where he is can lead to immediate arrest and prosecution. There are more than 500,000 prosecutions a year under the pass laws, and these account for a high proportion of the prison population.

The fact is that unknown numbers of people live in Soweto without permission and run the risk of arrest each time they step onto a street. They get accommodations where they can, cramming into tiny, already overcrowded houses that are cheaply built and with poor facilities. Most houses arc no larger than a goodsized American living room, but will accommodate fourteen or more adults and children. Electricity exists but in only a small proportion of dwellings; hot water and inside toilets are rare. The crime rate—as black gangsters, who are known as “tsotsis,” prey on fellow blacksis staggering, and Soweto probably has the world’s highest murder rate, with ten to thirty deaths each weekend.

In sharp contrast, living arrangements in the white suburbs of cities range from acceptable to pleasant to luxurious. Modern facilities are a matter of course; not to have them would be unthinkable. And while blacks are not allowed to own or rent houses and apartments in these suburbs, tens of thousands of them live there as domestic servants, occupying backyard rooms or rooms on the roofs of apartment buildings. Paradoxically, white employers usually insist on black servants having their separate cups and plates and their own toilets, yet at the same time require the servants to prepare food for them, make their beds, do their laundry, and bring up their children. The poorest white family—and there are some poor—wi11 have a black servant; the pay and food given will simply be made minimal. (Even the richest of whites, to be sure, often pay very small wages.)

Black Africans are allowed to come to the cities to work in the white-owned factories, shops, offices, and homes, but only as migrant workers. This means that they must leave their families behind in their rural homes and live in giant concrete “hostels” where a host of social ills flourish, from prostitution and homosexuality and venereal disease to alcoholism and malnutrition. The migrant workers are confined to unskilled jobs and hence have no hope of better pay. Pay gaps between white skilled workers and black unskilled workers range from 4 to 1 at best to 14 to 1 at the worst.

A basic barrier to advancement is the wretched slate of schooling for blacks. There are entirely different school systems for each racial group. Schools for white children are free and compulsory and invariably have first-class facilities. Not so for black Africans. A combination of economic pressures and school overcrowding ensures that more than 60 percent of African children drop out of school by the end of grade 4, leaving them effectively illiterate. A handful struggle through to the end of their school careers and then go to segregated universities, which are additionally divided on tribal lines, unless they can obtain a government permit to enable them to lake special courses at the leading white universities.

The present-day process of political control affects dissident whites as well as blacks. The Suppression of Communism Act (1950), originally aimed at proscribing the small but active Communist party of South Africa and at muzzling communists in trade unions, has provided the government with extensive powers, chief among them “banning,” which has been developed into a sophisticated method of political emasculation. Acting on the secret advice of the security police, the minister of justice has a typewritten order served on a person telling him that he is under restriction for the next live years. This means that the individual cannot be with more than one other person at a time; that he must not enter any university, school, factory, or trade union offices; that he must remain within a designated area, whether a city or suburb or township; that nothing he says or writes can be published. Variations can include “house arrest”—a do-it-yourself imprisonment—on a total basis or, more usually, from sunset to sunrise and over weekends; or for black Africans there can be banishment to a remote and lonely area.

The government has also taken powers under the Sabotage Act, the Terrorism Act, and the Internal Security Act, not to mention the Riotous Assemblies Act, the Public Safety Act, the Unlawful Organizations Act, and various criminal law amendment acts. It can now arrest whom it wishes and keep them in prison incommunicado, denying all access by lawyers, family, and friends, for as long as it deems necessary. The courts are specifically excluded from issuing writs of habeas corpus. The detainee is therefore totally at the mercy of his captors. Several dozen people have died in detention and there are repeated allegations of torture.

The host of laws permits a range of criminal charges to be brought and several hundred blacks and whites are indeed in jail, serving up to life imprisonment, for seeking in one way or another to overthrow the government. “Normal” criminals such as murderers and robbers are entitled to one-third remission of their sentences, but political prisoners are denied this privilege. And when an opponent is especially feared, parliament can always enact special legislation to deal with him—as it did from 1963 to 1969 to keep a black African leader, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, in Robben Island Prison without trial. He was finally released in 1969—and promptly placed under banning, house arrest, and restriction orders.

To Afrikaner Nationalists all this is perfectly acceptable. They do not sec themselves as oppressors. Rather, they see themselves as fighting a continuous undeclared war against the forces of evil, whether communism, liberalism, “sickly humanism,” or black power.

Basic to their position is that they are not settlers as were whites in colonial Africa, living there but with emotional roots in their home countries. Afrikaners, together with South Africa’s other whites, are of Africa. And in Afrikaner history lies the reason for their outlook and behavior.

It goes back to 1652 when, with the Netherlands at the peak of its maritime power, the Dutch East India Company decided that its ships and its sailors needed a halfway station on their seven-month journey from Europe to the East. The company, a chartered private organization, ran an empire within an empire, immensely powerful and profitable. It sent a surgeon, Jan van Riebeeck, to lead a party to build a mud fort and to lay out a vegetable garden. From that inconsequential beginning grew the city of Cape Town and the Republic of South Africa.

In 1657 the company allowed a few sailors and soldiers to leave its service and become “free burghers” (citizens) farming their own land. Gradually the number of Europeans increased, as the Dutch and the French Huguenots lied religious persecution in their homelands. The company kept a tight rein on development, allowing only what suited its own narrow interests. Labor was needed, so the company imported slaves, from East and West Africa and the East Indies. But its rule continued to be monopolistic and tyrannical and was deeply resented by the settlers who constantly strove to get beyond the company’s clutches. Gradually they moved eastward, opening up new lands for cattle ranching. Their lives were lonely, lacking even the small degree of contact with Europe that those who lived in Cape Town enjoyed. They turned in upon themselves, looking to their own resources and to the Old Testament for their reading and guidance. In language, in religion, and in outlook they became a people frozen in the mold of the Netherlands of the seventeenth century.

The first of the indigenous peoples encountered by the settlers were the Hottentots small, yellow-skinned survivors of the Stone Age who called themselves Khoikhoi, “men of men.”Initially , the contacts were friendly ones; European beads and copper were exchanged for cattle and sheep. But as the newcomers wanted more and more land, the local people were dispossessed of the land they were using for their herding. As they were being displaced, white accusations of cattle theft provided reason for punitive measures and still greater dispossession. The Khoikhoi easily succumbed and became servile laborers in homes and fields.

Also encountered were the Bushmen—the San— another Stone Age people. They were hunters, and with their bows and poison-tipped arrows they offered more resistance to the white advance. But they were mercilessly hunted down and killed, their children taken into servitude.

During the nineteenth century the Netherlands gradually ceded its place to England as the world’s greatest sea and commercial power. The value of the Cape as a base was recognized by the British, who in 1806 had taken possession of it. The Dutch settlers were not happy with the new rulers and regarded them with a jaundiced eye particularly since English was made the sole official language, a policy altered thirty years later. In 1836, when England abolished slavery and provided poor compensation for owners, the Dutch Boers-farmers—quit the colony en masse, fully one quarter of them taking part in the Great Trek into the interior, an epic crossing of mountains and waterless plains in ox-drawn wagons. They went to Natal, in the northeast, where they were pursued by British rule, so they ventured inland to set up their own republics in what are now the Transvaal and Orange Free State provinces.

In the east the Boers, and the British as well, encountered other indigenous blacks—the darkskinned Ngoni peoples, principally the Xhosa, who tilled the soil and owned cattle. In Natal, they found the Zulu warrior people. Further inland were scattered groups of other black African tribes. Again settlement by the newcomers brought about displacement, conflict, and conquest. The frontier wars raged well into the second half of the century, with British soldiers inflicting final defeat on the Zulus in 1879. Black Africans were slowly pushed into restricted areas of land and the blacks took to working for the whites.

Two other color groups also came into being: first, out of relationships between the early settlers, visiting sailors, the slaves, and indigenous blacks came the coloreds. And then, late in the nineteenth century, Asians were imported from imperial India to work in Natal’s sugarcane fields.

While the area of land under white control became extensive and productive, the subcontinent remained essentially impoverished. In the interior a regular and adequate water supply was a perennial problem; irrigation was begun late in the century. But in 1870. with the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley, South Africa was dramatically transformed into an area of exciting potential. Sixteen years later there was an even greater bonanza of gold on the Witwatersrand—Afrikaans for “ridge of white waters.” In bringing wealth the new mines also served as a major determinant of future labor and color patterns. The skills were in the hands of white immigrants while black Africans were a ready source of cheap, unskilled labor. They did the pick and shovel work which, even now, is a characteristic of South African mining. Skills and high pay rapidly became associated with whites; hard labor and poor pay with black Africans. The gold mining industry became the dominant factor in South Africa’s economy and has remained so ever since.

The gold find also transformed the Transvaal Republic, as the Boers suddenly had to contend with foreigners—Uitlanders, literally “outlanders”— who soon outnumbered them. The Boers wanted the tax money of the outlanders but they refused to give them power. The conflict resulted finally in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902, and Boer surrender. In 1909 four South African entities then under the British flag— the Cape, Natal, the Transvaal, and the Free Statewere merged into the Union of South Africa.

The first three prime ministers were former generals who had led the Boers in battle against British troops. They now believed that peace had to be achieved between Afrikaners and English South Africans.

But there were other advocates of the new Afrikaner nationalism who rejected any thought of reconciliation. It was not enough for them that the union brought about with Britain’s connivance was founded on white interest. Nor that the new parliament had only white members, with only some blacks in the Cape being allowed to vote. Nor was it enough that parliament immediately began to extend and entrench racial laws: in 1911, giving the government power to decide who could do skilled work in mining and engineering, legislation which became known as the Colour Bar Act; in 1913, the Land Act prohibiting black Africans from acquiring any land outside the “reserves,” forming 13 percent of South Africa, to which conquest had confined them. Nor was it enough that master and servant legislation prohibiting black workers, under pain of prosecution, from leaving their jobs without permission was taken over from the former colonies, and that the pass laws, first introduced by Britain early in the previous century and later used by the Boer republics, also became Union law.

Instead, the aggressive Afrikaner Nationalists loathed anything associated with or derived from Britain. They opposed South Africa’s siding with Britain during World War I and some went so far as to rebel violently. It was that war, in which South Africa attacked German military forces in German South West Africa, which led the League of Nations to give South Africa a mandate over the territory. From that has grown the continuing international dispute over South African control of South West Africa, nowknown as Namibia.

The die-hard Afrikaner Nationalists also opposed South Africa’s entry into World War II. again on the Allied side. Many of them were interned because of their anti-British, pro-Nazi views and activities; among them was the present prime minister, John Vorster.

And then, in 1948, against all expectations, the Afrikaner Nationalists won the first postwar election. They had triumphed. After forty-six years of wandering in the desert, at last the humiliation of the Anglo-Boer War defeat could be wiped out. Slowly, deliberately, they consolidated their hold on power through electoral devices and gerrymandering. And as they began to apply their apartheid policy, increasing numbers of whites, especially other Afrikaners, gave them support.

The policy on which the Nationalists came to office was one of naked white supremacy: “wit baasskap” (white boss-ship) was the cry. The flow of legislation spread from the Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act to others, reaching into every nook and cranny of the country, and amply fulfilled the policy. It also set off a great new wave of black opposition, more determined than anything previously seen.

The earliest black organization had come about late in the nineteenth century, launched largely by the few members of the middle class who existed then. In the run-up to union, black feelings were strong but their protests counted for naught. But in response to union, in 1912 the first countrywide movement was set up—the Native National Congress, later renamed the African National Congress. For more than thirty years it devoted itself to begging and pleading with whites to spare a thought for black disabilities and aspirations; it was spurned by whites and turned away when it sought help from the British government.

Now, however, as the Nationalists enacted both racial and politically suppressive legislation, black opposition grew fierce. What has been described as a process of action, reaction, and counteraction characterized the 1950s. It climaxed at Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, on March 21, 1960, when police opened fire on a crowd of black Africans gathered to demonstrate against the pass laws. Sixty-nine people were killed. Sharpeville reverberated around the world. The protest had been called by a new organization, the Pan Africanist Congress, but the mass deaths brought in the African National Congress to share in the protest. Within weeks, both movements were proscribed by the government and remain so to this day, operating underground to some extent in South Africa and in exile abroad, enjoying status at the United Nations. Political movements of the coloreds and Asians, which cooperated closely with the African National Congress, were driven into nonexistence through bannings and harassment. It was the end of an era, for blacks now for the first time turned to organized violence to gain their emancipation, leading to greater repressive measures by the government.

It must be acknowledged that even while apartheid was being rigorously applied, there were Afrikaner Nationalists who worried about its morality. As world criticism of South Africa was beginning to mount, apartheid became refined into the policy of separate development. By 1958 it was given a legislative form through the Promotion of Self-Government Act. But it took another eighteen years before the first practical fruits could be harvested in Transkei, the first of nine black African mini-states to be separated from South Africa. Transkei became independent last October; Bophutatswana becomes so late this year. The intention behind the scheme is to ensure that whites will be left in control of 86 percent of South Africa, with “separate freedoms” given to black African tribal groups in the remaining 14 percent.

Black opposition to the partition is widespread and intense; there is strong belief that they are being robbed of their birthright to share in the country’s wealth. World opinion, too, is solidly opposed, viewing it all as merely old-style apartheid in disguise.

The separate development policy, while offering some kind of an answer for black Africans, has not yet been able to do the same for the coloreds and Asians, though the government’s proposed constitutional reorganization would provide some representation to these groups. The coloreds in particular present Afrikaners wnth a dilemma because the home language of many coloreds is Afrikaans, much of their culture is Afrikaans-derived, and they are often called “brown Afrikaners.”They are also called “God’s stepchildren” because they sit in the middle, wanting acceptance by the whites and not getting it, and often fearful of the numerically greater black Africans. They do not have any “homeland” of their own, but are made to live in their separate group areas, subject to color discrimination. The bitterness and frustration among coloreds erupted in Cape Town during last year’s unrest. The sight of angry colored youths demonstrating in the city center was a cause of profound shock to whites who still have a sentimental view of the coloreds as being part of them.

Until three years ago, South Africa’s whites could afford to ignore the opposition to their policies both within and without the country. But the sudden collapse of Portugal’s 500-year-old colonial rule in Africa changed the entire southern African scene. South Africa lost its protective states to the east and the northwest, and the stability of its northern bulwark against black Africa -white-controlled Rhodesia— was undermined. With a disastrous South African military involvement in Angola, the entry of Sovietbacked Cuban troops, and the threat of concerted guerrilla attacks across the border into Namibia, international pressure on South Africa reached a fresh peak.

President Jimmy Carter’s dedication to human rights, allied with the developing concern about American and Western strategic and economic interests, has made South Africa an area of top priority.

South Africans react with mixed feelings to the pressures on them to change. Among blacks, more pressures are a source of comfort. Among whites, America’s new interest is viewed with frank alarm. There is often a reaction of outright hostility and a retreat behind the argument that the South African government is a bastion against communism and is therefore deserving of total American and Western support against the communist-backed liberation movements. And, in any event, say whites, how dare President Carter tell them how to behave toward blacks when America itself is so riddled with racism?

With all this, however, whites cannot fail to be worried: American power is overwhelming and, if used to pressure South Africa through economic means, it could have far-reaching effects. So what change do you want from us? say white South Africans. And when Vice President Walter Mondale, at his April meeting with Prime Minister Vorster, blurted out “one man, one vote,”it was exactly what white South Africa needed to justify adopting an uncompromising stand. To whites, “one man, one vote” means their destruction, and thus their total intransigence.