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Last chance for South Africa?

AGAIN this weekend, chances are that the television film from South Africa will show more funeral processions as blacks bury their dead killed in clashes with the police and military. The funeral processions are part of a deadly cycle. They have become the vehicle for antigovernment demonstrations. They spark violence which leads to more killings and in turn to more funerals.

Some of the violence is directed by blacks against other blacks thought to be government stooges. It is violence of a most barbaric kind, and the black Nobel Prize winner, Bishop Desmond Tutu, was right to speak out against it so strongly.

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Some of the violence stems from the miserable economic conditions in which many blacks in South Africa exist, particularly in a time of recession.

But there can be no doubt that the underlying cause of violence is the frustration of blacks with an apartheid policy that consigns them to servitude and officially decreed inferiority.

Can South Africa's security forces, which have become ruthlessly efficient at repression, screw down once again the bubbling pressure cooker that is South Africa? Or is this the showdown, when black anger explodes, engulfing South Africa not in a Vietnam-type insurgency, as some suggest, but more likely in a Northern Ireland type of urban terrorism as blacks seek vengeance in the white man's streets?

It is too early to be able to answer that question, but what does seem clear is that precious little time is left for a solution to South Africa's problems by peaceful means.

In Washington, the tattered remnants of its ``constructive engagement'' policy flap around the Reagan administration. The aim of the policy was to keep talking to the white regime in South Africa in a bid to moderate and reform an apartheid policy that the Reagan administration had branded as abhorrent.

Ironically, President P. W. Botha introduced some reforms. But parallel to the reforms ran renewed outbursts of police brutality and a string of suspicious killings of black leaders.

The reforms were dismissed by many blacks as too little, too late. Passions erupted in widespread violence. Now large sections of South Africa are under emergency rule as the authorities try to regain control. And the White House has sharply rebuked the Botha government, charging that it bears ``considerable responsibility'' for the violence.

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Meanwhile, congressmen, their tempers high, seem intent on legislating some kind of boycott against South Africa. But it is unlikely to be effective and may end up adding further economic burdens to the blacks they are trying to help. One of the most significant voices raised against a boycott is that of Alan Paton, the white South African liberal leader, whose credentials as a champion of blacks are impeccable.

Whatever influence the United States has left with the South African government should be spent convincing it of the obvious: that the choice for South Africa is civil war along racial lines, or, even at this late stage, interracial dialogue designed to produce justice and security for both blacks and whites.

Is South Africa so far down the road to racial hatred that the first is inevitable, the second unachievable? Surely a racial bloodbath would be so cruel that dialogue is worth trying.

Today South Africa is a land of fear, the country of the midnight knock, the crackle of riot guns, the thwack of the sjambok, the long, curling rawhide whip that the police delight in using in the black townships.

Is it too much to hope that the people of this land, which is so physically beautiful and so rich in natural resources, could yet turn back from an apparently suicidal course? Unless all the lessons of history are wrong, blacks in South Africa will one day wield power. The unknown questions are how they will achieve it, how they will use it, and what will be the role of South Africa's white minority.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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