South Africa: The Siege Mentality

Small, poignant achievements in relations between the races cannot alleviate the nation’s despair about its future; meanwhile, its ruling white minority steels itself against criticism from abroad.

JOHANNESBURG—Walking into the lobby of the Carlton Hotel at midnight, one could think oneself in Vienna during the 1930s. Soft music wafts through the air, while gracious white gentlemen and their handsome ladies chatter over drinks. They move about smoothly and smilingly, they laugh heartily over small amusements, they appear to be utterly unaware that they are living on top of a volcano, and that there are severe rumblings down below.

Returning to South Africa for the first time in eleven years, one finds changes both good and bad, superficial and profound. Now blacks and whites occasionally walk on the street together, chatting casually, and in the parks on Sunday afternoon mixed groups of teenagers play soccer and look as if they have been friends for years. But

the level of tension and anxiety just beneath the surface is extraordinary, almost unbearable. Whereas it used to take at least half an hour before the subject of race and politics crept into a conversation between a South African and a foreign visitor, it now takes perhaps half a minute. Cut off from any genuine knowledge of what the blacks in their own country are thinking and feeling, whites immediately press a newcomer to share his impressions: How bad do things look? Are the blacks becoming Marxists? Does the revolution seem imminent?

One South African friend confides that she has made a major change in her vast and beautiful garden: she no longer plants anything that will take more than a year to mature. Another, an older woman deeply involved in politics, gazes wistfully into her drink one evening; she mourns South Africa’s loss of almost an entire English-speaking generation—young, well-educated white professionals who despair of change in their own country and take a chance on a better life as exiles. Their parents stay behind with the Afrikaners (descendants of the original Dutch and other early European settlers) and the “nonwhites”; few of them have anyplace else to go.

It is not easy to visit South Africa as an American these days. Public enemies number one and two are Jimmy Carter and Andrew Young, and every American is expected to bear a share of the collective guilt for their sin of interference with South Africa’s internal affairs. It is widely accepted that Vice President Walter Mondale—by declaring last year, after a meeting in Austria with Prime Minister John Vorster, that the United States favors a system of one man, one vote for South Africa—is probably responsible for at least half of the fourteen new seats won by the National party in last November’s parliamentary election (putting it in its strongest position since it attained power in 1948). In the campaign, Vorster successfully exploited Mondale’s slip of the tongue, insisting that South Africans must reject all outside efforts to advise them, including those of would-be friends. Even white liberals, who long regarded Americans as their natural allies, have now picked up the theme; they argue that the United States has lost much of its leverage in South Africa because of Carter’s policy of applying pressure for liberalization of the South African political system. Right-wing Afrikaners go further; for all their fierce anticommunism, they say they would just as soon deal with the Soviet Union, because it makes no pretense of being a friend of South Africa.

Still, many South African whites, egged on by American businessmen working in their country, fundamentally believe that the Carter Administration is out of step with American public opinion, that the South African government can appeal, over the heads of the unrepresentative and naive politicians now in power in Washington, to its true allies among the American citizens. To reinforce this point of view, their civic and political organizations invite kindred American spirits, including Senator Barry Goldwater (Republican of Arizona), conservative Michigan newspaper publisher John P. McGoff, Republican Governor Meldrim Thomson of New Hampshire, and various representatives of right-wing organizations, to lecture in South Africa. (Thomson, a staunch friend of apartheid, is sometimes portrayed as speaking for a vast number of Americans; after all, it is reasoned, if an obscure governor of the small state of Georgia became President, should not an obscure governor of the small state of New Hampshire be taken seriously?)

Above all, South Africa’s ruling whites seem to cling stubbornly to the belief that, if and when their crunch finally comes, the United States will step in and rescue them from disaster. To tell them otherwise—that in the post-Vietnam era, nothing of the kind is likely to happen—is considered at best an insult and at worst a sign of ignorance. That most Americans do not think about southern Africa at all is inconceivable.

There are ways in which South Africa also seems like a nostalgia trip into the 1950s. The clothing is out-of-date by comparison to American or European styles; the music is behind the times; even the prices of most things, including food and clothing, seem charmingly old-fashioned. Perhaps it is simply a result of the intense cultural, social, and political isolation the country has suffered, but outsiders and visitors are treated in South Africa’s major cities with the same curiosity they would be in tiny American towns. And the world outside South Africa is viewed by the ruling whites with painfully naive simplicity: it is made up of good guys who are on their side and bad guys who are not; as the siege mentality evolves, there seem to be fewer of the former and many more of the latter.

And yet, outside influences have burst through the barriers here and there to disturb the isolation. Suddenly one sees men with beards, and even some with earrings. There is a major drug problem. Interracial clubs have opened up, operating on the fringes of the law. South Africa doesn’t seem as straight as it once did. This may be partially the fault of television, which was forbidden by government policy until only two years ago. Occasionally the state-run network is used skillfully by the government for propaganda purposes, but mostly it offers old American serials. Kojak dubbed in Afrikaans can wind up as a subversive influence.

Dinner at the home of a Western diplomat is even today one of the few occasions when blacks and whites can gather to discuss politics frankly; to do so publicly would make them the objects of suspicion and investigation. Tonight the group includes a professor from Potchefstroom University, the intellectual center of pure Calvinist Afrikanerdom, and his wife; a black woman activist from Soweto whose movements have been restricted by the government several times; and male and female journalists for an English-language newspaper.

Most of the stories told would stand alone as sad vignettes: the efforts of a parochial school (with the connivance of the press) to hide from the government the fact that it is admitting children of all races; the inquiries into ideological reliability at Potchefstroom, resulting in ostracism, or even dismissal, of those faculty members whose ideas are thought to have strayed too far from the orthodoxy of the Dutch Reform Church; the need to smuggle letters out of the country to children studying abroad.

As the evening wears on, two realizations emerge: Whatever peaceful solutions to South Africa’s problems may eventually be found, the English-speaking whites will surely play little part in them; it is really up to the Afrikaners and the blacks, both of whom have far more of a claim to the land and the resources of the country than do the English-speaking whites, to work things through. But it may be too late for Afrikaner men and black men to deal constructively with each other; they are too embittered and too tense about what is at stake. Perhaps it is only the women—unliberated and behind-the-times though they may be— who can now communicate across the color line and understand each other’s anxieties. On this occasion, only the professor’s wife seems to react empathically when the black woman wonders aloud and with anguish about the fate of “our beautiful South Africa.”

When the emotional evening is over, everyone leaves to return to his or her own authorized quarters.

Some things haunt one in South Africa. Among them is the sight of a police car arriving at a street corner and disgorging four club-swinging white officers, who pounce on a black man who seems to be doing nothing in particular and take him away. Another is the “nonwhite entrance” to a bank, a post office, or a liquor store—or the Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria, the imposing but ugly tribute to the Afrikaners’ great trek and their defeat of the black tribes in the nineteenth century: it is open for visits by the country’s 4.5 million whites six days a week and by the other 18.5 million people one day a week.

Then there are the telephone bells. Almost all of them have been converted from an ordinary Western-style ring to a sound that bears a striking resemblance to a police whistle. The first half-dozen times or so, it brings one to attention. It is a terrifying noise to wake up to.

SOWETO—The student riots of 1976 are a matter of history, and even though thousands of children are still boycotting the government schools, the appearance of calm has returned to this township of more than half a million black people. But those in the know argue that Soweto will never be the same again, that new flare-ups could occur at any time and last longer. If so, the white rulers will be ready. They point out proudly that the major disturbances of 1976 were handled by the police without resort to the military troops and equipment stationed just outside the DMZ that surrounds Soweto (although recently, without great public notice, the army participated in a small-scale operation in Soweto for the first time).

Any attempt to detect a consensus of the political opinions of South African blacks, or even of those living in Soweto, is doomed to failure. Ask one prominent man who leads a double life—as an advertising consultant in Johannesburg for white companies who want to make their products appeal to blacks, and as an opposition leader in the legislature of the distant tribal “homeland” to which he has been assigned by the authorities—and he will tell you that the vast majority of South African blacks oppose the withdrawal of American investments because blacks will be hurt first and far more than anyone else. Ask another community leader, and he will tell you exactly the opposite, that blacks have “suffered so much already, we will hardly be able to tell the difference” under new economic conditions. Ask a young high school graduate in a chance encounter, and he will mock the sincerity of your question and whisper furtively, “The Americans should be sending guns to the boys in the bush. That is the only thing left to do.”

Those differences, and the hundreds of shades of unorganized opinion in between, constitute a “we told you so” for the South African white elite, which harps constantly on the theme that the country’s blacks are not one people but many different groups who can agree on very little. Given that perspective and that philosophy, events such as the riot last March at the rural funeral of Robert Sobukwe, leader of the banned Pan African Congress—pitting urban youths against traditional tribal leaders such as Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi—are convenient developments. Convenient enough to have been fomented or aggravated by provocateurs sent in by the government? Some think so.

Baragwanath Hospital, which serves the people of Soweto, is said to be the largest medical facility in the Southern Hemisphere. It is an impressive and well-equipped institution, and although policemen are stationed at some bedsides, a visitor is favorably impressed; clearly, the medical care for blacks is better here than anywhere else on the continent (although less good than for whites in the same country).

The young black physician who conducts the tour is proud of the hospital where he works, but a bit ashamed to admit that he is still paid significantly less than whites on the staff who have the same training. After spending several hours together, it would be convenient and natural for us to sit down for a cup of tea; but that is impossible, because the tearooms in the hospital are still segregated. Under newly announced regulations, however, we would be able to go to the theater together in Johannesburg—so long as the one we selected had separate lavatories for blacks and whites.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine how they have done it, but many South Africans have maintained a sense of humor about some of the more absurd things their system provides, such as racial classification, the requirement that everyone be appropriately and officially categorized. One reason for classification is to assure that, eventually everyone can be assigned to the proper “homeland.”

Recently an enterprising businessman introduced in the South African market robots that can supposedly do housework. “Ach, yes, but how will they be classified?” asked one Afrikaner. “It depends upon the color,” replied his friend.

“And what will be their homeland?”

“How about Robotswana?”

PRETORIA—At a training session for South African diplomats in the inner sanctum of the magnificent Union Buildings, a symbol of the country’s strength and independence, tempers are high. The South Africans, no doubt sharpening their debating skills for overseas encounters, demand that a visiting American justify the “selective application” of Carter’s human rights policy to South Africa and a few other vulnerable states. What about violations of civil liberties elsewhere on the African continent? (“Have you heard the name Idi Amin?” is the frequent sarcastic question.) And why don’t American officials, and the American press, say more about the slaughter going on in communist-ruled Cambodia? Why pick on poor besieged South Africa?

Then comes the knockout punch: “Brrrrrrowning, Montana.” It is the American Desk officer speaking up. “What about Browning, Montana? How do you explain that?”

South African diplomats have made themselves experts on the mistreatment of American Indians, a subject they feel provides effective ammunition for returning the fire of Americans who are critical of the South African political system. It gives them an opportunity to say, in effect, “Clean up your own back yard first, before you complain about us.” Last year, a white South African on a lecture tour to defend apartheid happened through Browning, a small town in western Montana. There he heard about the case of Clayton Hirst, a Blackfoot Indian who had died in a nearby jail in 1975, under mysterious circumstances, just two days after being arrested on charges of malicious mischief and booked on suspicion of burglary. Hirst’s family claims that he was murdered by his jailers, and they have sued the local officials in federal court for a breach of civil liberties.

This local cause célèbre was dutifully and amusedly reported by the lecturer to his government. Tired of hearing from others about Steve Biko—the leader of the South African “black consciousness” movement who died of brain damage in detention last year, after being beaten and denied medical treatment—the South Africans would now like to do with Clayton Hirst and anyone else they can find what the Soviet Union once did with Angela Davis: create an international embarrassment for the United States. The people in the Union Buildings apparently believe that will help their own case in the forum of world opinion.

DURBAN—There is a joke told in this Indian Ocean coastal city, the commercial hub of the old English province of Natal, that the dominant Afrikaners will take their final revenge on the English-speaking South Africans who once ruled them by simply turning Durban over to the blacks as part of an eventual property settlement.

One man who regards that not as a joke but as a symptom of the government’s successful divide-and-rule strategy toward the blacks is Gatsha Buthelezi, who is both a traditional and an elected leader of the Zulus, the country’s largest black group.

Buthelezi is a big, imposing man, but until he is provoked or insulted (as he often is these days), he is also a surprisingly soft one. He speaks with studied reasonableness, in a tone that carries a trace of his royal bearing. He is courtly, yet intense. There are two schools of conventional wisdom about Buthelezi which vie for acceptance in South Africa today: one, that he is the only wellknown black leader moderate enough and wise enough to attract a substantial multitribal following and still have some credibility with the white government; two, that he is too moderate and too acceptable to both the white government and the West to have any credibility left among the increasingly militant majority of South African blacks. A third view is also possible: that Buthelezi has been the victim of some rather careful and clever government efforts to discredit him; that by subtly helping to promote his image as the government’s man, the government has gone a long way toward putting him out of business altogether.

The moderation is certainly there. Buthelezi opposes the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa, because they would hurt blacks first and more permanently and, in the long run, would probably not work at all. (“It is easier for our black brothers elsewhere in Africa to recommend sanctions,” he says, “when they won’t have to live with them.”) He is also against the withdrawal of American business and investment in South Africa, because “nothing will come of it”; other Western businesses and banks will gladly and readily replace their U.S. counterparts. But it has been difficult for Buthelezi to convince people that he arrived at that position independently since the South African government began to disseminate his views—complete with his photograph — in advertisements in British and American newspapers.

Because of the way blacks are systematically excluded from national political life, there is no real way of testing Buthelezi’s popularity or acceptance outside the territory that has been designated the homeland of KwaZulu. There, by campaigning against the “independence” that Pretoria wants to give, Buthelezi has been a great electoral success. But he has also stretched and tested the system by forming the Inkatha Alliance, in which Zulus and other black groups, as well as Coloureds (mulatto descendants of the original European settlers) and Indians, consider future means of organizing and governing the country. By paying attention to structure and semantics— the groups did not actually “merge”— the alliance avoided being immediately banned; but during one early meeting, at the surprising insistence of the Coloureds in its midst, it renamed itself the South African Black Alliance. Will it run the ultimate risk by inviting or accepting whites? “For now,” says Buthelezi, “we are seeking liberation, and the whites are not, really”; so they will not be welcomed to the fold just yet.

Despite the alliance’s efforts, it may be too late to head off the government’s division of South African blacks into permanent rival camps. By any measure, the assignment of only 13 percent of South Africa’s land as “homelands” for 71 percent of its people is unjust and ultimately unworkable. But even if Transkei, one of those homelands, continues its feud with Pretoria, and even if KwaZulu and a few others refuse to accept independent status, the whites may nonetheless have succeeded in creating important differences among black areas and intensifying tribal jealousies. If Bophuthatswana—the unconvincing little “country” that has been created out of noncontiguous bits of scrubland near the Botswana border as a homeland for the Tswanas—has legalized gambling and a television network, for example, will its people not be tempted to hold on to the proceeds rather than have them swallowed up by a larger black entity? Then again, is it already too late for either the homelands policy or Buthelezi’s democratic coalition to have a lasting effect? Now and then the newspapers report a bomb explosion in Port Elizabeth or some other small city. Sometimes the bombs even get carried all the way to Johannesburg, where they explode and kill a few people.

One day in Durban, the lead story in the morning paper tells of two teenage girls who, when they discovered a black man stealing their mother’s handbag, chased him from their house with a revolver. The story is accompanied by a photograph of the girls, one of them proudly displaying the gun.

The arming of the various sides for a showdown seems well under way.

Stellenbosch—This is an idyllic little town nestled between the mountains of the Cape. Here South Africa’s fine wines are made, and here sits the university that is the bastion of “liberal” Afrikanerdom—the people who, for the most part, believe that the South African system must be made more humane and internationally acceptable, but who are still reluctant to share power with the blacks. The last six prime ministers of South Africa have been Stellenbosch alumni. (The reason the university has begun admitting a small, select number of blacks in the last couple of years, goes the story, is that it wants to hedge its bets and be sure it produces a seventh consecutive prime minister.)

The student union building is an open, free-flowing place resplendent with rock ‘n’ roll, cheeseburgers, and Coca-Cola. Were it not for the fact that nearly everything is written and spoken in Afrikaans, it could be in southern California. In fact, most of today’s students at Stellenbosch, by all accounts and appearances, are more interested in sports than in politics; their world seems to be an optimistic one, undisturbed by any outward sign that South Africa might be in genuine trouble.

One sure symbol of optimism is that the university has only recently established a faculty of Afrikaans journalism. In the old Cape Dutch house where it is based, a group of Stellenbosch professors—self-proclaimed “court intellectuals”—gathered one morning with a visitor to discuss their vision of South Africa’s future. They told of healthy, vibrant debate in National party circles, the only circles, they said, within which the country’s policies could be constructively developed. In fact, said one professor, as the others nodded their concurrence, the time may soon come when South Africa—after decades of portraying itself as the last bastion of Western democratic principles in Africa—must become a oneparty state, rather like many of the black-ruled neighbors to the north whom it has mocked.

But most of all, the Stellenbosch intellectuals welcome the opportunity to tell an American how little they think of his country’s policies in southern Africa. In their view, the Carter Administration has obviously been captured by “vocal radical groups.” And Washington has not explained what the “reward” would be if the South Africans made “drastic changes.” For Piet Cillié, the former editor of the influential Afrikaans newspaper Die Burger, and now the dean of the Stellenbosch journalism school, it is all quite simple: “America is not capable of following a consistent, well-thought-out policy except when it is directly threatened.”

Sometimes white South Africans, even members of the ruling elite, are so reasonable and kind, not to mention hospitable, that a visitor stumbles over his own naiveté in dealing with them.

That is just what happened when, at a luncheon reception, I succumbed to the temptation to ask a distinguished, elderly Afrikaner woman journalist, “Why can’t the most realistic white people just sit down with some widely supported black leaders and agree on an agenda of twelve major problems that the country needs to solve?”

“I’ll tell you why,” she said wearily. “Because even if they solved those twelve, then number thirteen would be the sharing of power. And that is what we cannot do, because that would be like signing our own death warrant.”

CAPETOWN—This is the city, and the setting, that used to be a physical embodiment of whatever optimistic hopes remained for South Africa. It is incomparably beautiful, mountains rising in its midst and the finest Cape Dutch architecture providing a proud link to the past.

Capetown was long the place where people mingled more successfully despite the harsh rules and laws—where they sat together on buses notwithstanding differences of color; where the railroad station was integrated one day when some blacks and Coloureds simply decided to walk through the white lobby; and where the artistic abilities of Malays and other nonwhites were appreciated and exalted.

Even while parliament was in session there, making repressive laws, Capetowners were able to observe and to mock those laws at the same time. Perhaps the best contemporary example is the little café at the top of Table Mountain, at the end of the cable car run, where, lo and behold, people of all races are actually able to eat in the same room and look out over one of the most breathtaking views in the world— together. Why? Because a tiny message on white paper is posted on the door to the café: “This is an international restaurant.” (International restaurant is a category recently created to save the South Africans difficulties with foreign diplomats and businessmen.)

One reason that Capetown always seemed a hopeful place was the presence of a large concentration of the country’s Coloureds, who appeared uniquely qualified to help bridge the many South African gaps. Indeed, the Afrikaners have long counted on ties of blood and language to bind the Coloureds to them in the event of a crisis or of even a moderate solution. But the 2.4 million Coloureds have increasingly moved away from the structures set up for them by the white rulers of the country and have identified instead with the black majority. At the University of the Western Cape, a showpiece of what the government was willing to do in the field of nonwhite education, the all-Coloured student body seethes with anger over second-rate facilities and opportunities.

In other ways, too, the Capetown example has faded. The squatter camps on its outskirts, where thousands of black people have been crowded under filthy and disease-ridden conditions while they wait for places in the officially allocated “townships,” are almost as bad as any in the poorest parts of less wealthy, black-ruled Africa; they are an eloquent embarrassment for the South African system.

In Capetown, as in other parts of the country, fear of the future and the resentment of isolation have helped exaggerate political extremism. Some of the newer National party members of parliament appear in public drunk and heckle speakers they do not like; it is only a short step along the political spectrum to the South Africa First Committee, whose members shout public speakers down and demand that they leave the country. (Some of their polemics are said to be inspired by members of the John Birch Society.)

But here, too, those white liberals who are not making quiet arrangements to leave cling to the slender hope that a moderate, peaceful way out can be found. As one man, whose family has lived in the Cape for over three hundred years, put it, “The alternatives are simply too horrible to contemplate.”

—SANFORD J. UNGAR