Tuesday, January 12, 2010

'South Africa: Revolution or Reconciliation?'

This book review first appeared in the New York City Tribune on August 10, 1988.  Historical note:  Walter Kansteiner later became Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the administration of George W. Bush (2001-05).

Reconciliation the Key Word In Hopeful Book On Troubled South Africa

South Africa: Revolution or Reconciliation?, by Walter H. Kansteiner, Washington: Institute on Religion and Democracy, 1988, 175 pp., $8 paperback (foreword by Richard John Neuhaus).

Contrary to popular perceptions, the troubles in South Africa will continue to haunt us beyond the turn of the century. This is despite the dire warnings (or hopeful announcements) that “revolution is just around the corner.” There is little possibility that satisfaction for all will come to South Africa within this generation.

Leon Louw, a South African lawyer and advocate for a free market economy, told me recently that when he was a boy, he persistently heard the news that “the revolution is less than five years away.” That was more than 30 years ago, and the revolution has not yet come. Yet each succeeding political generation — both here and in South Africa — has viewed revolution there as both inevitable and imminent. On both counts, the would-be prophets and seers are wrong.

Walter Kansteiner, trained in economics and theology, has written a useful overview of the “revolutionary” situation in South Africa. Beginning with a thorough review of the traditional just war/just revolution doctrine that was formulated through the ages by such thinkers as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin, he continues with a particular examination of current conditions in South Africa and asks whether the criteria for just revolution are met there.

The answer is no, primarily for two reasons. One of the major just revolution standards is that violent revolution must be initiated as a last resort. In the South African case, where the ferment of reform and nonviolent political change characterizes the present moment, violent revolution is clearly not the last resort. Advocates of change can still participate in party politics. The press, though circumscribed by emergency regulations, can freely criticize apartheid policies and call for reform. Even the most strident opponents of the government, such as Desmond Tutu, are free to leave South Africa and return without fear of arrest.

Let me give an example of this ferment, if a minor one. During a visit to Johannesburg in July, I observed the debate in the newspapers about the recent desegregation of railroad cars. Conservative Party members decried the reform as a further step away from rigid apartheid, liberals praised it as a step forward, and pragmatic black leaders complained that most of their constituents still cannot afford the price of anything better than a third- class ticket. Political cartoonists portrayed opponents of the reform as buffoons; the government’s response to white complaints was, basically, “either accept the change or stop riding the trains.”

A second reason Kansteiner says no to just revolution is that, according to just war doctrine, those who initiate revolution must have a reasonable chance of success. Given the size and degree of training of the South African Defense Forces, no revolutionary movement can hope to meet that criterion. Since the state of emergency was first declared by the South African government in 1985, the level of violence in the townships violence that was primarily black-on-black and not directed at either the white-controlled government or white citizens — has been reduced to near nothing. The South African police and military have a firm grip that will be nearly impossible to dislodge. Combined with an extensive, regionwide intelligence operation that allows them to stop terrorist incidents before they can occur and with the perception that the South African military possesses “last resort” nuclear weapons, there is little possibility that revolutionaries can succeed in the near term or ultimately.

In South Africa: Revolution or Reconciliation?, Kansteiner concludes that just revolution is not currently an option in South Africa; that peaceful progress toward the end of apartheid is both necessary and possible. He thus focuses on the last word in his title — reconciliation — and urges Americans to aid South Africans in their process of reconciliation and nation-building.

As part of this process, release of this book by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) coincided with the initiation of a new IRD program called BANSA — Building a New South Africa. The program enables Americans to support financially South African organizations helping to strengthen economic opportunities for blacks, improving education and health care, and building democratic institutions. (For more information on this innovative program, readers of the New York City Tribune may write to IRD (BANSA), 725 Fifteenth Street, N.W. Suite 900, Washington, D.C. 20005, or telephone 202-393-3200.)

South Africa’s problems are often too complex for Americans to grasp. Our American culture believes that problems always have solutions. This is not the case elsewhere in the world, where “quick fixes” are disdained. To those who hope for revolution, and to those who encourage it through economic sanctions, Kansteiner warns:

“Disaster for South Africa is the easy way out. Joining or encouraging an armed revolution is deceptively simple. So too is acquiescing in apartheid. The hard challenges, the tough tasks, are for those who have enough faith and hope and patience and optimism that South Africa’s future is not the future of a tragedy, but rather the future of a bright, prosperous, and free nation.”

These are not the words of an unguarded optimist, but the judgments of one who has studied the South African situation in detail. Kansteiner mixes his hard-headed reflections on South Africa with compassion. The prescriptions in his book deserve further examination by policymakers in Washington and the constituents they serve throughout the United States.

Richard Sincere is a research associate at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a frequent commentator on African affairs.

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