Commentary Magazine


Racism in South Africa

To the Editor:

It may seem strange to complain that an article entitled “Racism Comes to Power in South Africa” [by T. C. Robertson, in the November COMMENTARY] is altogether too optimistic in its interpretation of events in that country. Yet this is the case, and the charge extends to the title. For racism has not “come to power” in South Africa; it was firmly seated in power from the first day of the Union’s existence, and has steadily gone on to new triumphs, irrespective of which wing of Afrikaner nationalism has been in power. Nor is it a problem which is moving towards a solution, even to the extent that this may be claimed in our own deep South. In that respect the article is eminently useful, as making clear that an already bad situation has now become worse. The non-white population of South Africa is worse oppressed today than it was in the two provinces which were then a part of the British Empire, the Cape and Natal, a half century ago.

Indeed, Afrikaner nationalism has from the beginning centered on the racial issue, and this was crucial throughout its century of struggle against British rule. Whatever one may say against British imperialism in South Africa, it did recognize that the native was a human being entitled to some rights, and—at least on occasion—it introduced policies which sought to give him some role in the government and administration of his own country. The Great Trek which led to the establishment of the two Boer republics was precipitated by such policies in the Cape Colony; the “freedom from British rule” which the Afrikaners sought was in large part freedom to rob, murder, and enslave the native Africans without interference from Whitehall. Again, one of the main issues which led to the Boer War at the turn of the century was the action of the Boer republics in banning the activities of the London Missionary Society because it encouraged the natives to think that they had rights.

If the Boers lost their war against Britain in a military—and perhaps an economic—sense, they won it politically. For the British, as usual ashamed of a victory gained through an unsportsmanlike advantage of numbers, agreed that they would restore self-government to the conquered Boers without first granting the suffrage to the natives. Subsequently, they permitted the unification of the two previously British colonies with the former Boer Republics, thereby permitting the Boers, through their defeat, to acquire control of all South Africa. The only vestige of the former British liberal principles which was permitted to enter the constitution of the Union was a provision protecting the suffrage of the Colored inhabitants of the Cape, and even this has been whittled away subsequently.

The differences between Smuts and his Nationalist opponents on the racial question have been similar to those between the “respectable” leaders of Mississippi’s Dixiecrats and the late Theodore Bilbo. Indeed, the parallel could be carried further since, like the Dixiecrats, Smuts has been closely tied up with finance capital (largely British—hence his affection for the Commonwealth) while his opponents have represented the same sort of back-country anti-capitalism as did Bilbo. There are, to be sure, liberal elements in the United party, but they form a small minority. That party’s electoral propaganda was, in fact, largely devoted to dissociating itself from even the very moderate concessions to liberalism made by Mr. Hofmeyr.

It is perhaps not generally remembered that many of the restrictions on natives—and most of those on South Africa’s East Indians—were introduced by governments headed by Smuts. This, of course, does not in any sense exonerate the Nationalists, who have always managed to keep their racism at least slightly more blatant. (In passing, it is worth noting that the Nationalist-Labor coalition, whose record Mr. Robertson praises, was responsible for the passage of the Color Bar Bill, which prohibits the entrance of natives into skilled trades.)

I find it somewhat surprising that, in discussing Nazi influences in South Africa, Mr. Robertson fails to mention the role of Oswald Pirow. After all, Mr. Pirow was more openly and blatantly pro-Nazi than any other major political figure in South Africa—and he carried on his activities from the position of Minister of Defense in the Hertzog-Smuts coalition government. And when, on the outbreak of the war, that coalition broke up, Mr. Pirow’s frankly Nazi New Order party secured a number of seats in Parliament.

It may be that anti-Semitism per se was not one of the original elements of Afrikaner nationalism, as Mr. Robertson asserts. But a generalized xenophobia and a strong distaste for traders and financiers certainly were, and both these had a considerable role in preparing the way for a ready acceptance of Nazi doctrines. Whatever the pledges which Dr. Malan has made and may make to South Africa’s Jews, his representative at the United Nations, Eric Louw, has urged that they be deprived of citizenship. (Mr. Louw, incidentally, represented the Union in Washington during the Hertzog-Smuts coalition.) To be sure, it may be possible for those Zionist leaders who have approached Dr. Malan for an alliance on a basis of common hatred against Britain to achieve some sort of temporary accommodation. Since even Hitler’s anti-Semitism admitted of exceptions, they may perhaps be able to persuade the Nationalists to concede them the status of Honorary Whites. But, if the Nationalists continue in power for any prolonged period, the chances for increased anti-Semitic legislation are considerable. The Malan government is already placing obstacles in the way of Jewish immigration. And even if the United party, in which South Africa’s Jews have a role of some importance, should temporarily return to power, the question would still remain of whether Jewish security can be built on participation in the oppression of four-fifths of the country’s population.

There seems to be no hope whatsoever, on a basis of past experience, that the dominant white minority in South Africa will ever surrender its position voluntarily. It is therefore all the more important to take note of the methods through which South Africa’s non-white population can hope to exert pressure on the Herrenvolk. Probably the most important of these is economic organization. Although it has barred them from skilled occupations, South Africa has permitted its non-whites to secure almost a monopoly on the dirty and difficult tasks, and to furnish a large part of the lower clerical and commercial employes. It has, to be sure, refused their unions legal status and subjected them to various forms of persecution, the latest of which is a prohibition against collection of money by native organizations without government approval. But it has not been able to block their organization altogether. (When the Minister of Labor in the Nationalist-Labor coalition cabinet received a delegation from the native Industrial and Commercial Workers Union, the result was his forced resignation and a split in the Labor party to which he belonged.) With the increasing industrialization of South Africa, the possibility of native economic pressure for political ends will increase. Closely related to this is the weapon of passive resistance, so far used mainly by South African Indians. It has from time to time wrung some concessions from the government, and it has recently been resorted to by the Colored inhabitants of the Cape in an effort to resist the present government’s efforts to further curtail their rights.

It is doubtful, however, whether these instruments will by themselves be sufficient to achieve the democratization of South Africa within historical time. Recent experience has shown that a sufficiently ruthless government can drown trade unions and passive resisters in a sea of blood, and there is little doubt that, left to themselves, the Afrikaners would do just that. The one thing restraining them is the existence of a world outside South Africa, which is capable of exerting some pressure. The Dominions of India and Pakistan have already caused the Union serious inconvenience by economic sanctions; it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that when they have settled their differences with each other, they will be in a position to take even stronger measures. Meanwhile, South Africa’s policies have served to produce widespread resistance both in London and in the United Nations to her efforts to extend her sway to other territories within and adjacent to her borders. Whatever promises the government may make in regard to the treatment of the natives in these areas can carry little weight with any African native and should carry no more with the outside world. Yet it is possible that the hope of eventually expanding its borders with British and international consent will serve to moderate the racism of the Union of South Africa, at least to the extent that the need of conciliating foreign opinion modified Hitler’s racism prior to 1938.

Maurice J. Goldbloom
New York City

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