A Southerner in South Africa

A Southerner in South Africa

By Paul M. Gaston

Vol. 8, No. 6, 1986, pp. 9-15

Few visitors return from South Africa these days with good news or give us much reason to be hopeful. Like those who have visited the country, most Americans fear and expect the worst from it. We are all a little like those northern Southwatchers of the early 1960s who shook their heads in amazement each night, transfixed by the latest visual evidence of some new outrageous violation of human dignity, some new strain on conscience and credulity.

Like them, we have good reason to believe that the worst is happening in South Africa. A few constructive-engagement emissaries indulge Reaganesque fantasies and dress P. W. Botha in imperial reform raiment, but few of us are deceived. Despite government censorship, reporting on south Africa overwhelms us with awareness of police-state brutality, victimization of the nation’s black masses, and the obstinancy of Afrikaner nationalism.

It is easy to submit to a sense of doom. The terrors of the apartheid regime are so pervasive and its powers so vast and impregnable that the Armageddon we see on the horizon seems sure to end in a tragic victory of the forces of evil over the forces of good. Blacks will not accept the fate the ruling whites have decreed for them and their rejection of it, given the present odds, insures the bloodbath against which we are daily warned.

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Many of us also believe that only pressure from the outside–from the world that is South Africa’s “North”–can change the white intransigence and avert the calamitous bloodletting. Southerners in particular ought to understand this kind of thinking. We know that it took northern intervention to break the logjam of our history, once to end slavery and later to dismantle segregation.

Thoughts like these were among those running through my head as I prepared to take my first trip to South Africa. I had wanted to go there for many years, partly because friends there urged me to come to teach my Southern history course. Perhaps, we reasoned, the study of liberation struggles in another racist society might help South African students understand better their own situation.

Eventually I received an invitation to come to the University of Cape Town to teach a course on the history of the Southern civil rights movement. My wife, meanwhile, was invited to participate in the work of a Cape Town group that helped communities in the black and so-called colored townships who wished to set up educational day care centers and helped to train teachers and administrators to staff them.

By the time the formal invitation arrived we had both begun to feel that the idea was one whose time had passed. The country was in turmoil. For months we had been seeing on television the awesome Casspirs (military tanks) roaming the city streets and crushing black protest in the townships.

At the same time, letters from Cape Town friends told us much we didn’t see on television or read in the newspapers, and gave us a vivid sense of the mounting repression and anxiety:

* “The phone rings all the time and it is lawyers, friends with more news. The latest is that the eighty-five who were taken yesterday are to be placed under the emergency laws, which are immensely wide. Cape Town was declared to be in a state of emergency yesterday. Meetings are banned, of course.”

* “I have just returned from the fruit and vegetable market where I have a friend whose husband was arrested at 4 a.m. yesterday. She is a lovely, energetic, sensitive and immensely warm person. Her eyes fill with tears which she quickly brushes away.”

* “Last week-end a friend telephoned us from her home in Guguletu (a black township on the outskirts of Cape Town) to say that the police were lined up outside her house, were taunting the people, who were taunting them back… A tiny incident in a myriad of horror and death.”

* “This has been a heavy week for me. The morning of the emergency meant the arrest of one of our staff members, the Tuesday morning the detention of another plus the husband of another, plus the necessity of another to become unavailable. People have been picked up left, right and centre. One has the sense of ruthless determination.”

* “Our history is poised on the brink; you can almost smell it. And what will it be?”

What might it be, indeed! And who would make it? Those questions, and the chance to be where history was “poised on the brink,” urgently called us to press on with our plans to visit, despite the rising tide of repression and resistance. People whose judgment we trusted reassured us about safety, even after a crushing new state of emergency was declared on June 12.

My wife and I arrived in South Africa in early July, I to stay ten weeks, she seven. Most of our visit was in Cape Town, where we worked, but we had a long weekend in Johannesburg and a week at a mountain retreat in the Eastern Cape.

Those weeks of immersion in South Africa’s “history on the brink” were moving and totally absorbing. Privileged to meet many of what in the civil rights days we would have called “movement people,” we came back enriched by their friendship and their example. And we discovered in them, in their struggle for a new South Africa, comradeship, character, courage, and vision that inspired hope for the future. Far from feeling America should be a good “North” and lead South Africa to freedom, we came back wanting Americans to listen to the voices of the new South Africa, struggling to be born.

To return from South Africa optimistic, let alone with what one of my friends cynically labels my newfound South African utopianism, is to be out of the mainstream of reportage and judgment. But I cannot make this response credible without some report on the

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state’s repressive power and apartheid’s web of cruelties. Evils are there in great abundance. We met them, were personally touched by them, wrestled with them in one way or another every day we were there, even though we were white and privileged.

The newly arrived visitor is first of all struck by the amazing reach of segregation. Even an unreconstructed southerner would blink at the legislation that assigns living and working space exclusively on the basis of racial classification and confines blacks in urban townships, rural reserves, and single-sex workers’ hostels–all hidden away from the white world. The blacks who have built and whose labor runs the modern, urban, industrial state are shuttled away at the end of each day, hidden from the eyes of white people in cement-block ghettos or hovels and shanties huddled on the sandflats.

On the outskirts of Jollannesburg we visited Alexandra, a one-square mile township housing 100,000 people. I wrote in my diary of watching a shanty being built of poles that support corrugated tin sides and roof, about 15′ x 10′, will house 8 to 12 people, perhaps more. One has a sense of huge numbers of people shoe-horned into squalid hovels. Crude outdoor privies. No houses have plumbing, few electricity. And this is said to be “one of the better townships.”

We were told about the political crisis in Alexandra–the struggle of young community people to overthrow the rule of co-opted black officials–and of a “great sense of community solidarity, much support from comrades of clinic and community-service endeavors.” But this was not the community spirit the government approved: “army pitched tents just outside townships,” I wrote in my diary that night. A police car took some notice of us, but drove off in another direction without asking questions.

One must go looking for Alexandra to see it something most whites in Johannesburg have probably never done. It was the same everywhere we went. Outside Cape Town, where a new township had recently been established adjacent to a main highway, the state’s bulldozers had raised high sand dunes to block the view. No motorist need look on those homes. One wouldn’t have known there were black people on the other side of those dunes of it hadn’t been for high light poles which we were told kept the community as bright at night as in the day time–all for good security reasons!

Along with segregated lives comes a peculiar immunity from reality. Most ordinary whites we met, people uninvolved in any sort of dissent or political activity, sooner or later brought up “the troubles,” indicating the crisis and conflict were on their minds. But their daily lives, we felt, insulated them from the harsh world apartheid sustained. One can live in total isolation from all this, as most do, I wrote in my diary. Newspapers say little about the ‘unrest,’ as it is called. In fact, they are muzzled so they can’t. Television news is unbelievably bland uninformative. All ‘unrest’ areas are surrounded by police or cordoned off by road blocks. Few whites see them or have a picture of what is happening there. Life in middle-class neighborhoods like ours goes on cheerfully: folks see only ‘cheerful’ blacks who smile and say ‘yes, master.’

In Parliament one afternoon I watched a fierce debate between Helen Suzman, of the opposition Progressive Federal Party, and the leaders of the ruling Nationalist Party. Here I thought I might learn what the country’s leaders thought about the “unrest,” get some hint of how far the world of apartheid had shielded them from what seemed obvious realities to us. I was lucky to see a debate at all. Parliament has almost become an anachronism, abandoned by many serious antiapartheid leaders. Frederik Van Syl Slabbert, one of the several inspiring Afrikaner foes of apartheid I met, had resigned his position as leader of the opposition party earlier in the year, despairing of parliamentary politics as a means of bringing change

The occasion for the debate I witnessed was the August massacre of blacks in Soweto. There were conflicting reports over what had happened with eyewitness accounts differing sharply from the government version. Mrs. Suzman, a tenacious woman in her fourth decade in Parliament as an eloquent critic of the government, had introduced a resolution calling for the appointment of a judicial inquiry to determine the facts. No one gave the resolution any chance of passage but the debate promised to tell something about the myths and assumptions the Nationalists lived by. Mrs. Suzman seemed tired when I first met her a few days earlier. But there was fire in her this day.

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Armed with published eyewitness accounts and her own inspection-tour findings, she accused the government of covering up its complicity in provoking the violence. It was not the first time, she said, recalling earlier massacres followed by predictable government distortions and denials of the truth. With rising emotion she looked directly across the narrow aisle at Minister of Law and Order Louis le Grange: “There has been a terrible spiral of death, and I lay it at the feet, the very large feet, I must say, of the minister.”

Government replies, and a level of abuse and heckling I found astonishing even in this astonishing country, came from top-level cabinet ministers. Led by the state president, some studiedly insulted her by chatting while she spoke. Others shouted insults. The minister of Constitutional Development said the trouble was caused by communists and comrades, another thought Mrs. Suzman’s remarks were “scandalous,” and the minister of information spoke for the rest when he denounced her “1ack of patriotism.”

Mrs. Suzman’s words were strong ones. “Shooting people in the townships will not bring the new South Africa,” she said, lamenting what seemed to her the obvious truth that “the entire world has become our enemy.”

No decent respect for the opinions of mankind, certainly not for Helen Suzman, was evident in Parliament that afternoon and I returned to the home where I was staying full of an innocent’s outrage. Former opposition party leader Slabbert was there, amused by my innocence. My host marched me into the house, stood me in front of a floor-length mirror and asked me what I saw. At a loss for the right answer, I was given it: “You are looking at a man who has seen the South African Parliament for the first time!”

The segregated lives, the insulation from reality, and the siege mentality of the Afrikaner ruling class were all vital parts of the South African social order we were struggling to understand. So also was detention, the South African term for political arrest. The new state of emergency, declared on June 12, was nationwide and all encompassing. The greenest new police recruit had authority to arrest any person he suspected of being a threat to the state. Once detained, the victim had no recourse to anyone on the outside and might be kept hidden away in prison indefinitely. No one yet knows how many persons have been locked up since June 12, but reliable estimates are in excess of twenty thousand, a very large portion of them children.

Political arrests were nothing new to South Africa in 1986. The state had depended on them, along with the banning of dissident groups and individuals, for its very existence almost since the moment the Nationalists came to power in 1948. Systematically it had been cutting off new opposition leadership at the knees every time it appeared. The new emergency decree, wider than any previous one, was therefore only an extension of the fundamental state policy of maintaining rule by intimidating and terrorizing its opponents.

Our introduction to the world of intimidation and arrest was immediate. On our first day we learned from one woman of a family member’s idealism, brave resistance, imprisonment, and death from cancer in jail. The second day a warm and gentle academic told me of his arrest, of interrogation without being allowed to sleep for twenty-four hours at a stretch, of solitary confinement, and, as I wrote in my diary, “of his struggle to find ways to maintain his dignity, to carve out areas in which he would not cooperate, areas of some privacy, some way of distancing himself from the police.”

By the time we got to Cape Town our best friends had been jailed briefly and arrests were constantly on our minds. We found the woman who directed the program my wife was to work with in distress because her daughter, a university student, was in Pollsmoor prison. She would remain there for two months. Other friends were concerned about a high school classmate of their daughter, also at Pollsmoor.

At the University of Cape Town, where I was to teach my course on the civil rights movement, I began making mental notes about the many similarities between it and my own university. But the differences were more striking. In the familiar looking student lounge a bulletin board carried notices of students in detention and announced meetings to protest the state of emergency. Every Wednesday a vigil for the detained students was held. The student newspaper, vigorously anti-apartheid, carried a communication in one issue from the student-body president under the headline “President speaks out from hiding,” telling us that he had gone underground to avoid arrest.

In the previous year, during the time I was debating whether to come, UCT students had marched against apartheid. Police broke up their demonstrations and came on campus more than once with tear gas. By the time I arrived the new state of emergency was in effect

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and there were no more demonstrations. Chafing perhaps more than before under the police-state rule, the students knew that demonstrations would send them directly to prison. A fresh report from UCT’s Institute of Criminology, which I found in my packet of faculty orientation materials, was headed “83~o Claim Torture in Detention” and went on, with soberingly persuasive statistics and graphic examples, to justify that claim.

There were thirty-three students in my class, twenty white and thirteen black. (The government assigns three classifications to those persons it does not call white: Black (African), Indian (Asian), and Colored (mixed race). Politically sensitive Indians and Coloreds call themselves black in protest against the government’s racially-based classification system and as an expression of their solidarity with the African majority.*) UCT is an “open” university, refusing to accept a quota system mandated by the government. Its student body of 11,845 is fifteen percent black.

The course was not a study in comparative history and social movements, but the students were drawn irresistibly to comparisons. Toward the end of the semester I asked them if they had been more impressed by the similarities or the differences betwen the two liberation struggles. Unanimously they replied the differences, and quickly ticked them off. Their conversation then turned to the similarities, for it was those that engaged them most: the mixture of material and psychological forces undergirding white supremacy; the common experience of suffering and exploitation; the heroic will to overcome oppression; and the search for appropriate liberation strategies, leaders, and ideologies.

Most of all, my students were impressed by the resilience, hope, and vision of the future they saw in the Southern movement.

Echoing them, I said that I would take back with me the same impression of their liberation struggle -a deep respect for the resilience of the people, their hope, and the vision of a new South Africa I had encountered so often.

Explaining this sense of optimism in the face of the despair and human destruction we saw can perhaps best begin with an account of my visit to Crossroads.

I was told it might be impossible to visit Crossroads. Army Casspirs were everywhere and it was sealed off. The huge squatter community had gone up in flames in a violent small war just a few months earlier. That was before the television censorship had become complete, and we had seen the shanties burning and the people fleeing. Thousands of persons had been made homeless and much of the talk when we were there was about how best to provide for the dispossessed.

Crossroads has a special place in the history of the South African liberation struggle. I had first learned about it in 1979 when I saw a film that explained its origins as an act of defiance and resistance against influx control and pass laws–against the state’s grand scheme for what it called separate development. Under this plan black men were allowed to come to the cities to work, but their wives must remain back in the homelands to which the husbands might return for a brief yearly visit. Protesting against this, the founders of Crossroads, with women in the forefront in the early days, built their own shanty town out of materials their ingenuity secured. Crossroads grew and so did the government’s determination to wipe it out. International pressure mounted at one point to prevent it from being bulldozed, the fate the government had in mind for it.

By 1985-86 it still stood–vast and sprawling and now wracked with internal dessension that had been fostered by the government. Playing a crucial role in May of 1986, the government saw part of its aims achieved when many of its worst enemies were burned out. Still, Crossroads stood there and was apparently finding its way back to some form of stability, despite the enormous strains that had been place on it and despite the resident autocrat, well ensconced with government support.

At the end of August word came that the Casspirs previously patrolling the section of the township we wanted to visit had moved elsewhere, at least for the day, and that we might slip in for a brief visit. My guide, a physician associated with a nutrition clinic we were to visit, drove past charred remnants of the May war, including a burnt out small bus, and led me on foot through the maze of shacks down a sandy path that a street sign told me was a recognized thoroughfare, even though it was largely under water left by a recent rain. I had watched the Crossroads documentary, seen the township on television, and read a long research paper on its history, but I was not prepared for the feel of it, the vastness, the closeness of the shanties to each other, the narrow sand roads, the sense that a stranger could get lost here and never find the way out.

The clinic was small and packed with women and children. On a table resting on a scale–the first thing I saw as I entered–was a baby with a distended stomach. I was quickly introduced to a woman, a Crossroads resident, who would take us on a brief tour. We saw the rest of the clinic, then went outside to admire the vegetable garden, a small patch of green that was a powerful statement of faith in the future as were the occasional fruit trees I saw planted in sandy front yards. We sat briefly in one of the homes. The walls, lined with newspaper, made me think, as I had several times since I had arrived, of James Agee and of his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men with its meticulous,

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evocative, and loving description of the homes of three Alabama tenant families of the 1930s. I wished for his ability to see and record.

Outside again I exchanged greetings with small children, smiling, playing games, eyes alert. I thought of Agee again, and almost recited a passage from Famous Men: “In every child, of whatever condition or circumstances, is born again the potentiality of the human race.” Crossroads, far from depressing me, was lifting my spirits. The adults had a vibrancy, an ability to make contact, to put a stranger at ease, that I am not likely to forget. Later the doctor answered my questions about how it felt to work with the women and children in such circumstances. I recorded the answer in my diary that night: “Isn’t discouraged or depressed by working with these people: they give life more meaning because you see they are not beaten down. They look to have a future.”

I also recorded some of my own responses that night drawing political lessons from the day’s visit: Thoughts on Crossroads: Again impression of enormous resilience of SA people and incredible friendliness. Warm welcoming people determined to make a life for themselves in this place, their own turf. Immense blindness of PW Co. to the reality of their own people. How to get them to see it? Probably impossible. Probably too blinded by ideology, privilege circumstances of their lives to be reached. Only way is for power to transfer, circumstances of lives to change, and new views and senses of reality to emerge out of altered circumstances.

Of course I had no idea how power was to be transferred to change the circumstances of their lives. No one seemed to believe that incremental reform would phase out apartheid and introduce power sharing within the existing social framework. Here was a fundamental difference between the South African liberation struggle and the American civil rights movement. As one friend put it to me: “In the U. S. the civil rights movement was fighting for incorporation into the American dream while we are struggling for a new society.”

It was this struggle for a new society that we came back remembering most vividly, impressed by most deeply. We did not see much of the young people in the townships, the controversial comrades who are filling the vacuum created by the state’s systematic elimination of adult leaders. Brave in many ways, they engage in acts of violence that trouble deeply those in the struggle we came to know.

Our closest contacts were with the intelligentsia–writers, academics, filmmakers, clerics, lawyers, and doctors (black and white)–who had linked their professional lives to the struggle. They contrasted sharply with their counterparts in the States, blurring almost completely the distinction Americans make between activist and detached observer. They had all the professional integrity we prize, but they seemed to value it primarily for its power to facilitate social change. Thus, they moved easily into what we would call “activist” organizations without sacrificing their professionalism.

Sharing such company was exhilarating. The intensity caused by the constant threat of the security forces gave life a keen edge and nurtured a sense of sharing and support. It also gave a richness to ordinary social intercourse where we found none of the inanity that poisons the social gatherings of American professionals. Instead, virtually every group we joined turned its moral and intellectual energies to the crisis and to discussion of the social order of the new South Africa.

As a scholar, I was struck by the flood of writings about the country. At a conference on the history and problems of the Western Cape, nearly every monograph had implications for the liberation struggle. I said to one of the participants that South Africa seemed to me the most studied society in process of change of any I knew. He agreed. After this I began to ask authors why they wrote. What did their books mean to them? The answers

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followed a pattern. Like scholars everywhere, they wrote to understand, to explain to themselves. They also wrote to make the truths they saw part of the record, to undermine the myths of the state. But most of all, perhaps, they wrote because they believed their ideas would have consequences and this meant, as one influential political scientist told me, that “we have faith there will be a future.” Like the people of Crossroads who plant their vegetable gardens and fruit trees, these allies in the academy believe their ideas about the new South Africa will take root and flourish.

Shortly before I left I had a long luncheon with a friend whose educational training ranged from eleven years as a political prisoner on Robben Island, where he was a classmate of Nelson Mandela, to graduate seminars in a European university. What, I asked him, should I tell Americans about the South African struggle?

“America,” he began, “needs to be educated about the truly revolutionary changes that are in South Africa’s future.” Describing the tight web of American involvement in South African life–from philanthropy to multinationals–he warned against thinking of a new South Africa in American reformist, liberal-democratic, capitalist terms. The nonracial democracy of the future, he told me, will not be built on an American model. But neither will it follow a Soviet model. Nor would it be a Cuban or Mozambican model. Non-capitalist, because only with some form of socialism could there be any hope for a decent distribution of wealth and opportunity, the model for the new South Africa was constantly emerging from the ferment of specifically South African conditions.

It was this ferment that I found infectious and encouraging. Discussions–in luncheons like this one, at clandestine meetings, in public forums–ranged over every aspect of the ideal society. “All kinds of fundamental rethinking, at odds with traditional society, is going on,” my luncheon companion explained. “It’s not enough to talk of the politics of a nonracial democracy or the economics of a socialist state. We are examining, and planning for, new educational institutions and philosophies appropriate to a free society, rethinking the roles of the sexes, and questioning all forms of elitism.”

It was from conversations like this one as well as the daily encounters with compassionate people joined in a struggle they know will not end soon-and from the resilient people of Crossroads-that I drew the optimism I brought back. Optimism may be the wrong word. I don’t mean by it that I see clearly the best possible outcome. In fact, the opposite may well happen. These gentle revolutionaries I have come to admire may well be crushed by the fanatacism of counterrevolution. It has happened before.

But no one can predict the future, and if by optimism one means that there are hopeful aspects of the situation to stress, then there is abundant basis for optimism in South Africa. From the people who give rise to this optimism one can draw courage. One can also identify with them and look to them for guidance in the long struggles ahead.

Paul M. Gaston, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is president of the Southern Regional Council and a contributing editor of Southern Changes.


*. The 1985 figures, by major group, were: African, 2.9 percent; Colored, 9.7 percent; Indian, 2.4 percent; White, 85.0 percent. Nomenclature is full of political significance. Roger Omond puts it succinctly: “The largest variety of terms has been applied to those of African descent. Someone holding extreme white supremacist views will often refer to Africans as ‘kaffirs.’ Official terminology was originally ‘native,’ then ‘Bantu’ (literally ‘people’), and is now ‘black.’ The word ‘African’ is officially taboo because it translates into Afrikaans as ‘Afrikaner’–just the word used for the white, Afrikaans–speaking South Africans who have been largely responsible for institutionalizing apartheid.” Omond, Apartheid Handbook, p. 23.