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Rethinking South Africa. Reforms over the past decade have moved toward genuine power sharing

AMERICANS have been quick to discount recent reforms in South Africa. We call the removal of petty apartheid cosmetic. We see extensive changes in the workplace as capitalist manipulation and constitutional change as a sop to foreign pressure. We would label a decade of progress as inconsequential, decisions taken by ruling whites for self-serving reasons or to quiet foreign critics. Are we not missing something significant? These decisions, and there have been many, have not been taken lightly. Considerable thought and political cost were involved. Why, then, did the Botha government persist?

Pause for a moment and ask: What would you have done if you had suddenly become prime minister of South Africa in 1978? The country was deeply cloven along racial lines in every aspect of life. Over 300 years of de facto black suppression, entrenched in law since the late British era, left whites with the view that society ought to be segregated. More than this, segregation was seen as biblically justified, a moral mandate to discriminate. Dialogue between the races was almost nonexistent.

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Taking office in 1978, the first raw fact on the horizon would have been the restiveness of the black population. One would ``discover'' that, at a ratio of 5 blacks to 1 white, apartheid's blatant segregation was simply not viable in the long term. Furthermore, whites would soon be a real minority, not only numerically but politically. White emigration was unacceptable. Afrikaners consider themselves African. If they can remain with dignity, they will. If neither segregation nor emigration is acceptable, what then? Integration? Maybe. Faced with this dilemma, minority rights suddenly take on a new definition.

Yet the government faced a constituency for which racial equality was unthinkable. Solving this impasse required a massive change in white attitudes. Legislating equality was not feasible. It would have cost its advocate his job, and his chance to guide the country's future toward nonviolence.

But how to bring whites to accept blacks as partners in society? Experimentally, gradually, relax the rules. Let the races interact in a wider range of settings. Let them come to know each other as human beings, not just as employees and employers, or as police and prisoners. Close the income gaps so that all races could enjoy similar opportunities. Build the long-run basis of stability and equality with universal high-quality education. Experiment with a constitution that ensures minority rights, yet gives everyone a voice.

Now, take a dispassionate look at what has happened since 1978. The first rules to go were those segregating eating places, then theaters, then public parks. ``International'' (multiracial) hotels became a growing trend, with racial barriers legally removed in 1986. Sports and universities were integrated. The Mixed Marriages Act and the Immorality Act were scrapped in 1985.

Job reservations for whites were largely gone by 1985, and were legally abolished in 1987, giving blacks upward mobility in employment. The private sector, led in many cases by American companies, pushed for equality on the job by implementing the Sullivan Principles.

In a bold move, Pretoria authorized black and mixed-race unions (1981). Government knew what would happen, and it was right. Some 2 million black union members now bargain with new muscle for higher wages, better working conditions, and more skills.

Educational parity has topped the agenda since the mid-1980s. Government's policy is fully equal education for all population groups. It is backing this up with massive investment, aimed at black schooling. Fifteen classrooms are built per working day. Twenty-two thousand teachers are enrolled in teacher training or refresher courses. Expenditure on black schooling has grown at 30 percent per year during the 1980s and is now the largest item in the national budget.

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Among the most hated of apartheid's laws were the pass laws and a process called ``influx control.'' These were abolished in 1986. South African citizenship, removed from many under the homelands policy, was restored in 1986. With these decisions, government gave up its main tools for preventing blacks from moving to urban areas.

One must assume that Afrikaner leaders knew the likely results in this case as well. Within months, government announced that it would no longer enforce the Group Areas Act. After all, mixed race, or ``gray,'' areas had appeared in Johannesburg and other major cities without problems. In March, the Free Settlement Areas Act took effect, providing for legally desegregated residential areas.

Pretoria's economists were stating, as early as 1979, that whites would have to tighten their belts while the most severe economic disparities were closed. Government then invested millions into job training to raise black productivity and incomes. An economic decentralization policy was aimed at reducing black unemployment and rural poverty. As a result, in a recent 12-year period, real black incomes rose 65 percent, while white incomes declined 5 percent.

Results have been remarkable. Throughout South Africa, blacks and whites are rethinking the future. Complacency is no longer possible. True, some conservatives have retrenched to near-Nazi attitudes. Yet, after much soul-searching, most whites have found it within themselves to accept wider, more egalitarian roles for blacks. Even the Dutch Reformed Church has stated that segregation is a sin, thus removing apartheid's ethical foundation.

A watershed has been passed. Discussions in Pretoria no longer revolve around clinging to monopoly control. Instead, one hears of power sharing and ensuring minority rights.

Has all this been a conscious, long-term strategy? Probably not, although most of the needed elements fell into place in about the right sequence. There has been no public statement of such a plan, but then to admit it would be to negate it.

Americans decry the slow pace of change. Yet a gradualist approach is necessary, in part because these are uncharted waters. The answers are not on the shelf. Models from other countries do not fit South Africa well.

P.W. Botha has walked a tightrope of timing. He could proceed no faster than evolving white public opinion would allow. Yet, reasonably rapid progress was needed to avoid full-scale civil strife.

Despite foreign criticism of the reform program, impressive progress has been made. Racial attitudes, institutional procedures, and the legal framework have moved further toward equality in a decade than anyone could have imagined in 1978. One has to ask if, just maybe, the changes to date are exactly what needed to happen first.

South Africa has committed to power sharing with blacks and to an egalitarian economic system. Given where they started from, the pace of change could not have been much faster. The challenge ahead is to maintain the momentum and realize the promise of nonviolent change.

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