Commentary Magazine


The South African Way of Life, ed. by G. H. Calpin; The People of South Africa, by Sarah Gertrude Millin

Unhappy South Africa

The South African Way of Life.
by G. H. Calpin.
Columbia University Press. 200 pp. $3.50.

The People of South Africa.
by Sarah Gertrude Millin.
Knopf. 337 pp. $4.50.

 

At first sight the editor of The South African Way of Life would seem to have taken on a self-defeating task. The book is a companion volume to a series of similar volumes on the French, British, and Australian ways of life, with others, presumably, to follow. But South Africa being what it is, the editor had no choice but to ask an English-speaking South African to write on the English-speaking South Africans, an Afrikaans South African to write on the Afrikaans South Africans, an African to write on the Africans, and so on, through the six racial groupings which the book surveys.

The first six chapters are devoted to the articles thus produced. They differ considerably in tone and style, which was inevitable; and they differ too in the audiences at which they seem to have been aimed. For instance, Mr. Ronald Currey, writing on the English-speaking South Africans, calls upon these people to show, among other qualities, patience and courage and self-discipline and “a single-hearted devotion to all that is universal in the tradition they have inherited,” in face of the fact that they have recently found themselves to be a minority rapidly declining in power before an unfriendly Afrikaner nationalism. One cannot help feeling that this is asking a great deal from any people—let alone from English-speaking South Africans who have never particularly distinguished themselves by either virtue or viciousness. But the other contributors seem to have assumed that the book was primarily intended for distribution outside South Africa, and so have written explaining, as it were, themselves to the outside world. By indulging in unnecessarily exalted verbiage, Dr. S. J. du Toit badly muffs a chance to explain to this world how it happened that a few Dutch settlers who had grown to meager nationhood at the time of the two Boer republics, and were then smashed by the British in the Boer War, yet managed, fifty years later, to become the divided country’s dominant political group.

An unfriendly comment would be that it is precisely Dr. du Toit’s exaltation of language which provides the explanation, and the fervid utterances of many Afrikaner nationalists lend support to such a comment; but there is more to Afrikanerdom than grandiose utterances gaining credence in the minds of the people who utter them. The existence of the Afrikaner nation is a historical curiosity: they are, as Mr. David Marquard points out later in this book, one of the very few “colonial” communities where a small European settlement has faced a large aboriginal population, and has retained its identity without destroying its hosts or driving them beyond the borders of the country; they are also a people among whom a dialect of Dutch has become a separate language, and a language with a considerable and in some cases most admirable literature to its credit. These facts are there in Dr. du Toit’s article: one can only wish that he had been a little more collected in tone.

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The articles on the other groups are, with the exception of Mrs. Phyllis Lewsen’s modest and perceptive article on the Jewish community, rather disappointing. Mrs. Lewsen makes the point that “Jewish responses to the Native problem are characteristically South African. That is to say the great majority believe in segregation and have strong social prejudices against non-Europeans.” I think it is fair to say that the fact that the Nationalist party’s repeated efforts to win over Jewish voters seem to have met with limited success is due more to the extremely anti-Semitic records of many of that party’s leaders than to any particular detestation by Jews of the government’s policy towards the non-whites. Since coming into power Dr. Malan has, as Mrs. Lewsen mentions, disclaimed anti-Semitism as a policy, his government has mooted no anti-Semitic legislation, and has expressed great friendship towards the State of Israel, Dr. Malan himself being the first prime minister of any country to visit Israel since the establishment of the state. Mrs. Lewsen states that the Nationalist party in the Transvaal does not allow Jewish members: this is no longer true, the party having rescinded that clause in its constitution some years back. As far as one can judge, in fact, despite the once vociferous anti-Semitism of the Nationalist party, the Jewish community in South Africa today is as secure or insecure as any other white community in South Africa; and the particular problem of group survival that it faces is that of all other Jewish communities outside Israel.

Mr. Calpin, the editor of the book, contributes an article on the Indian community—it is the one community which does not speak for itself—which is adequate but unexciting. Messrs. Golding and Joshua are surprisingly brief on the Colored (mulatto) community. Mr. Selby Negobo contributes an article which is mostly given over, wrongly to my mind, to a general anthropological discussion of the various African tribes. It is interesting to know that the Nguni tribes prohibit parallel and cross-cousin marriage; but the application of that sort of sanction can hardly be mentioned without also mentioning that as a result of the appalling conditions under which the urbanization of the African people is taking place, the illegitimacy rate among the people assembled in the locations and squatter camps around the major European cities rises in some cases to as high as 50 per cent of all births—to give only one example of the breakdown of the tribal social codes and their replacement by what is little short of social anarchy.

The book also contains articles on education in South Africa, the country’s political institutions, political parties, and the economic factors in the country’s life. The South African Way of Life was prepared on the request and with the financial help of UNESCO, and I suspect that some of the book’s patchiness is due to the fact that the contributors were on their very best behavior for such an international occasion. There is a South African way of life, but it is an unhappy one, and one that the book underplays. For all these different groups, white, black, Colored, Indian, whether they like it or not (and the present government of the Union certainly claims not to like it) live together; and the South African way of life, if it exists at all, exists most markedly in the tensions and strangenesses, the fears and necessary intimacies between the groups, and not only in the ways of life within the groups themselves—if one can for the moment make such a distinction. Unfortunately, though the other contributors refer often enough to it, and though the chapter on the country’s economy indicates clearly enough why it must continue and grow more intimate, only Dr. Marquard deals directly with that unhappy integration in an epilogue which can be commended for its objectivity and forthrightness.

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Mrs. Sarah Gertrude Millin, author of The People of South Africa, worked with none of the limitations imposed upon those who contributed to The South African Way of Life, She can therefore deal foursquarely with what I have called the characteristically South African way of life in a way that the others could not. Her book is partly a history of South Africa, partly a discussion of the country’s politics since Union in 1910, a couple of brief chapters called “Living in South Africa,” and then successive chapters on the different racial groups, as in the first book discussed. Mrs. Millin has been observing her country closely for many years, and her book has the advantage of being written by a single hand from a single viewpoint, with tone and approach unified. I would recommend it more strongly than The South African Way of Life to anyone interested in learning about South Africa, but do so with a certain amount of guilt. The South African Way of Life is sober, contains numerous tables of figures, and the writers refer to their authorities. Mrs. Millin’s book, on the other hand, contains few references to her authorities; she is given to the mystery of Africa; and her history is inclined to be that of the great South African names—Kruger, Rhodes, and Smuts.

But the feel of the country is in her book to a greater extent than in the first book discussed; The People of South Africa tells far more than the other what it is like to live in South Africa. The reader would, however, be well advised to moderate in his own mind the effect of what he reads. Things are bad enough in the Union, but they are bad in a generally duller and more day-to-day manner than one would gather from this hook, and roost people are engaged, consciously at any rate, in simply going about their business: Mrs. Millin’s prose style has an excessively portentous effect. And then one must add that Mrs. Millin’s own race attitudes are not above suspicion—she seems to be a white South African by more than birth and residence. Some of her remarks on the Colored community are deplorable. And there is rather too much of this sort of thing: “The natives have long memories for grievances. It is as hard to win their forgiveness as their gratitude. The reason is that they lack civilisation. They have a sense of their own rights, but not of the rights of others. They will remember for years a trifling wrong or a deprivation. They will kill for a stolen grain-sack, for a mulcted sixpence.”

Well—some might, but a great many others will not.

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