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A magnificent lion turns to look at our car about 30 yards away. Uninterested , he yawns hugely. Around the next bend, three lionesses lope away, just feet from us, and seeming much bigger than they do in zoos.

Moving like a formation of tanks, four double-horned rhinos graze in their own barricaded field. A family of giraffes, stepping toward a clump of trees on a hillside, is silhouetted against the sky. Dainty sprinboks, immaculate in white and brown, wander close to herds of vivid zebra, dark sables, immense horned wildebeests. . .

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To stand on the hillside of a game reserve outside Johannesburg, to contemplate the land rolling away to a horizon of purple hills, to drive back to town beside towering jacaranda trees ablaze with purple-lavender-mauve foliage, to count the factories and plants and skyscrapers and homes with swimming pools, is to sense the South Africa of tourist posters and promise, legend and potential.

This is a powerful country. A strategically located one, athwart key oil lanes from the Middle East to Europe.

But it is a disturbing country as well.

The minority of whites in the affluent suburbs of the big cities employ live-in black domestics. You can see them gather on the streets outside at dusk, laughing with black men who cannot live in white areas but who must return to black townships outside the city -- by law.

An American resident describes how she buys "pet mince" (hamburger) for her dogs at a local supermarket; you can also buy "staff meat," she says -- cuts for black domestics, lower in grade than meat for whites.

"Good morning," you say to the African filling your car at a gas station. "Mornin' baas," comes the reply. "Baas" for boss, or sir. The man cannot vote, cannot live in a white area. He is candidate for removal to a black "homeland" where the Afrikaner government says it plans to take away his South African citizenship and substitute a "homeland" passport unrecognized by any other country in the world.

If you walk west on Johannesburg's Bree street, you come to a narrow street close to a bus terminal. On any weekday during the late afternoon, long lines of dark-skinned people crowd onto two cream-and-red Nissan diesel buses here -- not because they want to, but because the law says they must.

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The distination signs say "Lenasia," where Indians live, and "Diepkloof Zone 5" -- a black area adjoining Sowero (Southwest Township). Unless a black has a special pass (and many do) he can be arrested for staying in white downtown Johannesburg at night. He might not be -- but the law says he could be.

"Whites only" signs on buses are only now being removed in Johannesburg. They are already a thing of the past in more liberal Cape Town, center of British influence and big business interests. Look in Johannesburg yellow-pages telephone directories for a taxi company and you'll see a listing for "whites only" cabs.

An acquaintance drives us through Soweto. There are 1.2 million blacks here, the largest African settlement in South Africa, the home of well-off blacks as well as dirt-poor ones. You note the number of unpaved roads, the tiny four-room houses. Red dust mingles with countless cooking fires to form a dense smog over the Orlando Power Station on the edge of Soweto, over the Orlando football stadium where, amid scenes of enormous jubilation, the Soweto Pirates have just defeated the Amazulu soccer team 1-nil. The smog rolls over the valley across which Soweto spreads, over the hordes of children and the patient lines for buses. Blacks still do 82 percent of their shopping half an hour away in Johannesburg.

Of course, there have been improvements. One rejoices to see them, to hear of them. The government of Prime Minister P.W. Botha talks constantly of the need for political change, even though the right wing of his party is now nipping at his heels and causing the pace of change to slow and the rhetoric to turn vaguer.

Sit around a lunch table in a wealthy white suburb of Johannesburg and talk to liberal whites and you see a more complex picture than often appears abroad.

Three factors, it's agreed, are bringing change -- slow, small, but inevitable:

New black labor unions. The entire country runs on black labor -- as it must when 4.5 million whites (in 1980) are out-numbered almost 5 to 1 by 19.8 million blacks. (Indians total 800,000 and mostly live in Durban on the east coast, where they make up almost 40 percent of the city. The Colored category is 2.6 million, mostly in the Cape Province. They are of mixed origin, descended from, among others, Madagascan, Indian, and Indonesian slaves originally brought in by the Dutch East India Company.)

Black labor unions have meant black strikes -- a new phenomenon here. Visitors returning after 20 years see this as a major change. Local residents agree the unions could be the cutting edge for blacks. Until now, Afrikaners have been able to divide and rule.

A booming economy. The country is riding high on the gold prices of recent years and investment from abroad. Although world recession means slower growth ahead, officials still say the economy could grow 5.1 percent a year between 1981-87 (if gold is $1,000 an ounce by 1987). Inflation should average 11.8 percent a year.

"If people abroad withhold money from South Africa, they don't help fight apartheid [the strict separation of blacks and whites]," says one liberal resident, whose South African ancestors go back 10 generations. "It's economic pressure that forces government to ease restrictions, to desegregate buses, and allow more blacks to possess more freedoms. Business needs labor. Labor means blacks."

Education. Labor requires it. The Soweto riots of 1976 were largely about black determination to have schooling equal to whites'. Black teachers in Johannesburg are being given booster courses to raise the standard of black teaching. But Soweto is luxuious compared with regions outside the big cities. In the interior, in the outback, problems are immense.

"You know," observed another luncheon guest, "the black today is in the same position the Afrikaner was in 60 years ago. The Afrikaner was discriminated against by the British, and he vowed to end his subordination. Between the wars, he stressed education above all. In 1948 his government took over and apartheid began.

"Blacks today are oppressed by the Afrikaner, who is afraid of losing his identity. The Afrikaner won't hear of one-man, one-vote: That would swamp him in a black majority.

"So the Afrikaner temporizes and comes up with the homeland scheme. It may not work, but the point is that even the Afrikaner recognizes that change must come -- not might come, but must come. The questions are: how, in what form, and how soon?

"Yes, there's change," says a white woman. "Blacks use the seats at bus stops , while whites often stand. Blacks drive buses in white areas. Blacks are now tellers in banks -- a really big change, only two or three years old. I even saw a black teller instructing a white one the other day -- can you imagine that. . .?"

Said her husband, "Yes, and blacks can now buy attractive homes in one area of Soweto, leasehold. That's new."

But when I asked the lunch table how further, deeper, change might come, there was silence. Everyone saw that change had to come. A few could see some of the way forward. None could see all the way -- or how the right wing of the Nationalist Afrikaans Party would or could agree to compromise.

The enormous potential of this rich, strategic land is obvious -- if it can solve its racial question, the issue that has made it, as one local writer has put it, "the polecat of the world."

"You have to remember, commented another liberal white, "that to the Afrikaner, separation of the races is justified by the Old Testament."

Afrikaners belong to the local Dutch Reformed Church. They take literally references to "after his own kind." They assume that those who hew wood and draw water are inferior to whites who don't. One friend likened Afrikaners to a certain kind of American Midwesterner: farming stock, devoutly religious, quiet, conservative, narrowly focused on their own lives and concerns, suspicious of outsiders.

They have built up a life style richer than this visitor had imagined -- private swimming pools and tennis courts, servants, Mercedes and BMW limousines, restaurants stocked with gourmet dishes, and salads that must take the blacks in the kitchen hours to prepare.

Black wages are low.

Expenditure on black education is low: The 1981 Rockefeller Foundation report on South Africa said that in 1978-79, the Afrikaner government spent about $940 on each white pupil, $290 on each Colored pupil -- and $90 on each black pupil.

Only 15 percent of primary school blacks reached the final year of high school in 1967 (the figure is said to be higher now). By 1970 the white population had 104,500 university graduates. The nearly 20 million blacks had just 1,400.

Pretoria is typical Afrikaans town, orderly and quiet, wealthy and conservative -- "the last bastion to fall," as one local man put it. How strong is outside pressure to change here?

"Well," said a liberal white, "no one likes being a polecat. But worldwide condemnation also stiffens the Afrikaner's back and makes him more stubborn."

Talk to an Afrikaner "insider" like Dr. J.W.L. de Villiers, president of the Atomic Energy Board, and this defiant sense comes across. During a long talk about other matters, he referred several times to the way the United Nations blames South Africa "for everything."

Tall, dark, well-built, cautious, Dr. de Villiers said at one point, "The next time there's a half moon, the UN General Assembly will claim South Africa stole the other half."THe is a key figure here; the man responsible for developing South Africa's controversial nuclear program. He radiated determination to withstand overseas criticism, to refuse to yield, to build up South Africa's independent strength as far as possible. He hears the drumbeat of criticism abroad; he dislikes it. He professes to scoff at it. He wants it to end. But he is a proud man, of a proud people, and he is not the yielding type.

Afrikaners who defend their system emphasize the poor state of black education ("these blacks are primitive people, you know") and the 19 different tribes into which the blacks are divided, each with its own language and culture. Zulus are natural leaders among the blacks, but so far tribes have not been able to get together and forge common policies.

"There's another point," says a South African friend in London. "You keep talking as though we were Europeans. We are not. We [whites] are Africans. What is our future? Where do you want us to go? Where can we go? South Africa is our land. We worked hard there. We've built it up. . ."

He went on to praise the homelands system whereby blacks will be grouped into 10 homeland areas, almost all made up of small, unconnected parcels of land. Bophuthatswana, one of the three already declared independent by Pretoria (the other are Transkei and Venda), is made up of six main land areas. Ultimately, if the plan is completed, all blacks would be citizens of a homeland. Pretoria could argue that legally, no blacks resided in "South Africa." The millions who would still live near and work in big cities would be there on sufferance. They could be sent "home" at any time.

The black homeland experiment seems likely to cause only trouble in the long run and to provoke more and more black anger as it does so. Blacks fear they are losing South African citizenship in exchange for a nebulous passport and "country" that is really subservient to Pretoria, which pays the bills.

Prime Minister Botha has just urged businessmen in Cape Town to move out of the big cities into a long list of outlying areas, but businessmen seem to be reluctant.

They will move for economic reasons -- if there's money to be made. But to put up a factory miles from anywhere just because the government wants to provide jobs for blacks in their new homelands -- that seems far less attractive.

For all the progress one can see, the country remains filled with laws that ban blacks in many areas. True, many exceptions are made -- in restaurants, for example. Pass laws can be observed in the breach.

Yet the government retains the right to crack down at any time -- if its right wing complains, for instance, or if a white tells a policeman blacks are using a "whites only" beach. If there are no complaints, government officials can turn a blind eye.

But blacks don't make this sort of progress by law, only by a dispensation that can be withdrawn at any time.

The press is censored in subtle ways: no quotatons from jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, for instance; no details of terrorist attacks. Certain books are banned. Anyone, black or white, can be arrested and held for months on end without any reason being given.

If the father of a detained boy wants to demonstrate, he can -- provided he does so alone, and stands up to a battery of security police cameras aimed at him.

South African intelligence forces are powerful and active.

"There are elements of a police state here," says one resident from abroad.

The Afrikaner protects his own privileges; 13 percent of the land is reserved for the 20 million blacks, 87 percent for the 5 million whites. It must change and it will change, but slowly, gradually, with difficulty.

It is easy to criticize. Critics are morally indignant.

The challenge is also to be constructive, compassionate. The Afrikaner is afraid of the future. How can he be led to see the need to compromise and conciliate, before black violence threatens both him and blacks and the country as a whole -- a country rich and blessed in so many other ways?

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