Friday, January 15, 2010

'Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story'

This book review was originally published in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, August 2, 1989.

An Outstanding Work Condemned to Obsolescence by Pace of Events

Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, The Reader’s Digest Association, $26.95, 512 pp.

The recent tea-time meetings of South African [President] P.W. Botha and imprisoned black activist Nelson Mandela has been called ‘historic” by those who were pleased by news of the meeting and “unimportant” by those who were disturbed by it. The true assessment lies somewhere in the middle. In the wide sweep of South African history, this meeting of two political leaders is neither earth-shattering nor ignorable. It is, however, notable when one considers what came before and what will come after.

Written South African history really begins in 1652, when the Dutch East India Co. established a supply station at the Cape of Good Hope, along the sea route to what is now Indonesia and Malaysia. That supply station became the first permanent European settlement in Southern Africa, and resulted in the only society of white people that consider themselves Africans: today’s Afrikaners.

Elsewhere in Africa, white settlers always felt alien and considered the metropole (England, France, Portugal) to be their true home. For the Afrikaners, there is no other home, only South Africa.

From the beginning, this was a recipe for conflict. The Dutch sailors and tradesmen who made their homes in the cape were met by indigenous people, herdsmen called the San and Khoikhoi. To the east, black tribes of Itantu origin (from central and east Africa), had already begun to displace the natives. The Dutch brought with them Malaysian slaves, as the Dutch East India Co. prohibited the enslavement of local populations.

Under some circumstances, for example in Brazil, such a mix of races and ethnic groups need not develop conflict. However the Europeans asserted their superiority and established republican governments excluding all others.

It has now been nearly 340 years since Jan van Riebeeck first settled South Africa. In that time the country as a colony was passed from Dutch to British hands, back to Dutch and back to the British; two independent republics were established by descendants the Dutch (the Boers) only to be conquered by the British again in the Second Anglo.Boer War (1899-1903). In 1910, autonomy was granted to the four colonies that now make up South Africa: the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State. In a remarkable bit of diplomacy, the Boers, who lost the war, won the peace. Under the leadership of people like Jan Smuts, the then Union of South Africa took its place among the family of democratic nations, fighting with the Allies in both World War I and World War II, and becoming a charter member of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

That worldwide fraternal acceptance had a break put on it in 1948, when the National Party of Daniel Malan won a narrow victory in parliamentary elections on a platform of apartheid, or separate development. Although under British rule racial restrictions had their place in the law, there had been no systematic effort to exclude black people from society. Under certain conditions, in fact, blacks had the right to vote in the Cape Province and were allowed with limitations to own property. In this, British rule was much like French rule in West Africa and was far more enlightened than Portuguese rule in Angola and Mozambique.

Apartheid, however, was of a different breed. It was a logical, systematized program of racial discrimination designed by Afrikaner intellectuals, philosophers and sociologists, who believed that mixing of the races was wrong. In the grand scheme of apartheid, each ethnic group would have its own land, government and economy and relations between the races would be treated as international relations through diplomacy. What this meant, in theory, was “separate but equal.” In practice, it engendered inequality and poverty.

Under the dynamic leadership of Hendrik Verwoerd, a Dutch-born sociologist who was minister of Bantu (black) affairs under Malan and later prime minister, blacks were relegated to second- and third-class citizenship. Verwoerd decided that for blacks, basic reading and writing would be sufficient and they would perform only menial tasks and manual labor.

As a result, government-run schools for blacks were routinely denied the funding necessary to produce literate and numerate graduates. Later, private and church-run schools were forbidden to teach blacks and whites together in integrated classrooms.

Verwoerd also designed grand apartheid, which established 10 Bantustans (now called “homelands”) for each of 10 ethnic groups. The land in these Bantustans amounted to about 13 percent of South Africa. Most of that land is quite barren, although the Transkei and the Ciskei (“homelands” for the Xhosa people) contain some of the richest and most fertile farmand in the country. It mattered little, though, because South Africa was urbanizing rapidly. Blacks, like rural people everywhere during a time of economic development, migrated to the cities.

Around Johannesburg vast black townships grew up: Soweto, Alexandra, Sophiatown. The mines of South Africa needed workers, an there were not enough whites to do the job. So did the industries.

Black people over the age of 16 were required to carry a passbook that indicated their legal residence and job status. Demeaning as it was, that practice continued until 1986, when the pass laws were repealed.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, economic growth in South Africa provided jobs for many. The whites were comfortable, the blacks were unorganized politically. (Black labor unions were illegal until 1979.) By the end of the 1970s, however, the inequitites of the system began bursting above the surface. Student demonstrations in Soweto in June 1976 led to nationwide unrest. Efforts to combat unrest through propaganda led to the fall of the government of Prime Minister John Vorster in 1978 (the so-called “Muldergate” scandal); Defense Minister P.W. Botha took his place.

[In the 11 years since then, far-reaching] changes have been wrought. A new constitution in 1984 allows non-white people (people of mixed racial heritage, called “coloureds,” and people of Asian background) to vote for parliamentary representatives. Laws forbidding mixed marriages were repealed. The pass laws were ended. Blacks were allowed to collectively bargain with their employers. Black townships were provided with electricity and running water. Blacks were allowed to own land again, and their homes in the townships.

At the same time, since l985, a state of emergency has been in effect. Severe restrictions on the press, on public gatherings, and on speech have curtailed public debate. A war fought by South Africa in Angola and Namibia has wound to a close with great human and material costs. As political ferment has increased, so too has worldwide ostracism of South Africa. The United States imposed major economic sanctions in 1986.

South Africa is changing rapidly. It is enough to make the Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa obsolete even as it is published. What a pity, too, because this lavishly illustrated book has much to teach. Despite its subtitle (“The Real Story”), which makes it sound like cheap propaganda, this volume from the Reader’s Digest makes worthwhile reading. It is balanced, fair, and debunks much mythology used by the Afrikaners to justify their exclusive rule.

Although written for South Africans, it is clear that South African and U.S. histories have many parallels: a shared history of a frontier, settlement and hardship, a fight for independence from the British and racial strife. We have much to learn from their experience; South Africans can learn much from us. Now is not the time to turn our backs on them, when exchange of cultural and political ideas can help set South Africa on a course toward true democracy and peaceful progress.

When P.W. Botha and Nelson Mandela next take tea together, it may indeed be an historic occasion. The meeting might be the beginning of negotiations for an end to apartheid, for power-sharing without domination, and for the extension of democracy. To Mandela’s friends in the South African Communist Party, that may be a frightening possibility, but to us in the free world, it is the only possibility worth hoping for.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based policy analyst who writes frequently on African affairs.

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