Commentary Magazine

Return to South Africa

Though my latest return to South Africa coincided (quite unintentionally) with the country’s savage political crisis, my single overwhelming impression of South Africa, when I look back now, is not political. What I chiefly remember of the country are its spaces, simply; all the forlorn and undramatic landscapes of a country that still seems to lie bereft of any human past, untouched by its own history. Blue sky, brown earth, and people who live unaccommodated between : that is the abiding image of South Africa. There is something remote, far-sunken about the land, dwarfing the people who live in it, and making them, in turn, seem remote from one another. Divided and self-divided again, they live: the English-speaking whites, the Afrikaans-speaking whites, the black-skinned peoples, speaking a multitude of their own languages. Yet, strangely, it wasn’t the blacks who seemed most remote to me this time, but the Afrikaners, the Boers, who claim, of all South Africans, to be most truly South African. If they are, it is because, in a lost country, they are most lost: a people with a past they are unable to recognize for what it was, a present that is hateful to them, and no future at all.

The trains cross and recross the Karroo, where the gaunt koppies stand out of the veld, littered untidily with boulders, as if the gods who had made them could not be bothered to clean up the mess of their own materials; alongside the railway tracks, there runs the clean blue National Road, and at intervals a moving car glitters on it, traveling faster than the train, yet seeming to make no progress at all against the spaces of earth and sky beyond. Then one comes to a tiny bleached station; the train waits for another train, or for nothing, and moves on again, north or south. North lies Johannesburg and the gold mines, with all their shining dumps among the suburbs; southward is Cape Town, “the fairest Cape we saw in our circumnavigation of the globe,” as Sir Francis Drake described it—still fair, too, classically so, with the mountains to one side and the sea to the other. But how far apart from one another these cities are, what silences lie between them!

Space, then, is vivid in the memory; and so too, unexpectedly, is poverty. Of course, the poverty of the blacks was expected; and yet it came as a shock, it is so much uglier and more degraded than one could possibly expect or recollect, living in a country like England. But this is not the only kind of poverty one sees in South Africa; there are poor white people too, and one sees their houses everywhere: corrugated iron above, tiny stoeps in front, a linoleum bareness indoors. The people who live in these houses occupy menial positions, they earn miserable wages, they clamor for credit at the end of each month from their local Indian trader. True, they are far better off than the Africans; true, they are better off than they themselves have ever been in their own history. Yet remember them: they are poor, threatened people, almost entirely Afrikaans-speaking; there are tens of thousands of them, and they live in every town and dorp in the country.

How easy it would be, seeing the islands of habitation and poverty in the great emptiness of the country, to imagine South Africa depopulated, stagnating, ignored, as it was through most of the 19th century. But they found diamonds! They struck gold! Then, and only then, did that sad and unattractive outpost, which had previously drawn fewer immigrants than Australia or New Zealand, call urgently to Cornish miners and Lithuanian Jews; then the African tribesmen began streaming to the cities, which only then began to grow. Now South Africa supplies half the world’s gold and half the world’s diamonds; it exports uranium and manganese, fruit and fish and wool. Stark on the veld the cities grew, and still grow: cities of apartment houses and department stores, private swimming pools and parking problems. The trains and planes run on time; the radio advertises Drene shampoo and Pepsodent toothpaste; the newspapers appear and are avidly read; the factories send their smoke into the air; the universities do research into the origins of heart disease. (Why, why are the Africans so much less prone to heart disease than the whites?) Crudity still marks the manners of the people, black and white alike, still marks even their faces; but who could be surprised to find so recently developed a country crude and provincial? And if the cities are still small by European or American standards, it must be remembered that half the cities’ populations travel in to do their work, and travel out again miles, to the shadow cities that lie around every named city. From his trains the white man sees these shadow cities: rows of small barrack-buildings, marching across the sides of barren and nameless hills.

The contrasts of silence and noise, isolation and busyness, poverty and wealth, are in themselves bewildering; and yet at the same time they help to make plain the nature of the conflicts which rack the country.



The English-speaking—that is, those who are of English descent, and the Jews who are associated with them—still own the cities; they own the mines, the factories, the department stores, the homes in the expensive suburbs. For the sake of the mines, the English fought the Boers, in the Anglo-Boer War at the beginning of this century, and defeated them. After the Boers had been defeated, the English were magnanimous to them, and gave them self-government; but the English kept the mines and were contemptuous of the people to whom they had been so magnanimous. The English now are a minority among the whites, and there is not a single English South African on the government benches in the Houses of Assembly; but the English retain in their hands most of the wealth of the country. And though they themselves hardly know it, they retain too something of a pragmatic, self-seeking, and hence self-saving temperateness that seems to have come to them with their language, and with as little effort as their language. Individual English South Africans may loathe the blacks as heartily as individual Afrikaners; but as a group, the English-speaking would, I am convinced, try to make peace with the blacks, while there is still time.

But politically they are powerless. Power is in the hands of the Nationalist Afrikaners; and with them the case is entirely different. Who can describe an unknown people in a paragraph? It is better perhaps not to make the attempt, especially when the people is as complex and as psychologically riven as the Afrikaners. All one can ask is that the attempt be made to imagine a European people who settled in a strange land, at the foot of a remote continent, and who then trekked away into the interior—trekked away not only in search of better lands and wider pastures, but fleeing, always, from the dominance of Europe. Even when “Europe” was the Holland they came from, they resented it; when “Europe” became an alien England, they redoubled their efforts to get away from it. Significantly, their language ceased to be Dutch and became Afrikaans, a language that Hollanders now have difficulty in following; and what happened to their language happened too to many of the other laws and institutions which they had brought with them. Even their Christianity seemed to become more an Old Testament than a New Testament creed; and in the image of the Chosen People, wandering among the heathen in the wilderness, the Afrikaners saw themselves.

The heathen were the blacks, whom the Boers met as they moved forward, and whom they fought and fought again, and conquered. Then, in the interior of the country, they established their two Republics. And by a cruel and malignant irony (as it still seems to many of them) they established their pastoral republics right on top of the diamond and gold fields. The diamond fields were taken away from them easily, by the British; the gold fields were more difficult to filch, and a war had to be fought before the Boers were broken and the investors in London felt their money to be safe. And the British broke the Boers again, when the war was over, by their contempt: the contempt of the victor for the vanquished, of the rich for the poor, of the metropolitan for the colonial, of the townee for the “backvelder,” of the man who spoke English for the man who spoke an unrecognized and (at that time) unwritten taal. Contempt was worse than war, turned defeat into rancor, persisting from generation to generation. And to this day the background of the Afrikaner Nationalist movement has remained an unquestioned enmity toward the blacks, a deep sense of grievance toward the English, and an immense sensitivity to insult. Its hope, so far as it has any, has remained the two lost but unforgotten Republics.

And what of the Africans, outnumbering by three or four to one both the English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites? In the Reserves a kind of semi-tribal life still persists, and the tourists can see the women grinding corn and making beer. But the young men are absent, away in the cities, and though they come to the cities empty handed, they bring with them qualities that are the secret envy and wonder of every white man: a litheness of limb, a quickness of laughter, an ability to endure discomfort that is as much an attitude of the mind as a quality of the body. But they come, too, it must be added, pitifully ignorant of what is needed to wage successfully a political and social struggle like the one in which, willy-nilly, they have been thrust: they come illiterate, they come ignorant of the most rudimentary technical skills, they come divided among themselves. Leaders are emerging, the skills are being acquired; but about the mass one must say that only a people shorn of their own history would have been so slow in formulating a national ideal for which to struggle; and only a people so poor that they can in some measure be contented with, or even count as riches, their wages and possessions in the great city slums, would ever have tolerated the conditions under which they live. One can say too that only a people who have never learned to handle firearms or explosives would hitherto have offered so little effective fight against their own servitude.



Consider again what has been the experience of the Afrikaner in relation to the English: the Afrikaner has suffered defeat, dispossession, and contumely. Then consider what the black man has suffered at the hands of the white: defeat, dispossession, and contumely. Consider too that the Afrikaners have hitherto been primarily a pastoral people, only now being drawn into the cities: is this not true, too, of the Africans? Afrikaner and African alike remember their defeats with bitterness; alike they are frightened and confused by their own emergence into cities that belong always to others; alike they hunger with an unceasing hunger for the goods and glories of these same cities: the fish-and-chips shops, the Coca-Cola girls with naked legs twenty feet high, the great pneumatic cars, the cinemas, the houses with private swimming pools. (The full-fed intellectuals of Great Britain and the United States may already have turned away in disgust from these things; but for people who come from the isolation I have described and the poverty I have described, the products of the factories and assembly plants are the wonders of the world, to be seized, emulated, adored. And if, in their fastidiousness, the intellectuals of Britain and the United States should ever forget this, they will show themselves to be unthinking and irresponsible fools. In this context South Africa is but a single instance of a universal truth.)



Of course, to return to the comparison between the Africans and the Afrikaners, there are immense differences between the two. Whatever the disadvantages he has suffered vis-à-vis the English, the Afrikaner has had every advantage over the black. The Afrikaner has always been the master of the African, he has always had some knowledge of technology, he has always had a say in the government over him: in a word, he has always had a white skin. Yet the parallel between the two groups remains true enough and close enough to make what I am writing hateful to both African and Afrikaner, who cannot but hate the reflections of themselves each sees in the other’s features. There is no peace for them, no common cause, in the similitude, that’s for sure. And yet—and yet. . . .

Over the last few decades, and certainly since the beginning of the Second World War, South Africa has become steadily wealthier and wealthier. The “poor whites,” as a class, have all but disappeared, though many whites remain comparatively poor; the Afrikaans farmers are generally prosperous; the Afrikaans’ share in the commerce and industry of the country, though still very small, is growing with every year that passes. At the same time, the earnings of the blacks—though they remain deplorably low—have risen even faster, proportionately, than the earnings of the whites, and a tiny African middle class has begun to emerge. For this reason there is a deep reluctance on the part of many Africans to risk what they have in an all-out political war against the whites; and for this reason, too, it is just possible that the Afrikaners, on their side, might be prepared to make concessions that would have been unthinkable to them only a few years ago. The more they share in it, the more the Afrikaners value the prosperity of the country, which can be sustained only by peace.

And not only have the Afrikaners grown more prosperous; by their repeated political victories over the “English” opposition, the Afrikaner Nationalists have managed to assuage something of their own rankling sense of defeat and injury. Materially and psychologically, the Afrikaners have a greater stake than ever before in the well-being of the country.

This is perhaps the strangest truth about South Africa: if the Afrikaner will make concessions, it will be because he now has more to lose, not less, than ever before in his history.

But which, for the Nationalist Afrikaner, is stronger: the voice of his own material hopes for himself, or all the embittered and enraged voices of his own past? Does he want to build more than he wants to destroy? Does he want to live more than he wants to die? At the moment, it is certain, he wants to do both: to build and to destroy; to live and to die.

Death for him has many attractions, and he gives it his dearest names: “the purity of the race,” “the destiny of the volk,” “white civilization,” “baasskap” (boss-hood). But under these names of life, there lurks the will to war and destruction: destruction of the enemy and the self alike. Why should the Afrikaner Nationalist not have wanted to destroy? The country that he wanted to destroy—did he, until very recently, feel it to be his?

Now he feels it is more his than ever before, and he is less eager to shed his blood in its name, and more eager to live in it. So the emphasis has shifted from naked baasskap to the more famous word, apartheid. Piteously, the Afrikaner Nationalists plead that they, like any other national group on earth, are entitled to a country of their own, and that South Africa is their country—which is true, and yet not true, for unlike any other national group they have never had a country of their own. They have always shared South Africa with the Africans, who are now beginning to claim the country as their own too. So from the truth that if they are to live in it at all, the country must be shared, the Afrikaner Nationalists recoil into the monstrous delusion of apartheid. Let the Africans, they say, have a country, or countries, of their own, within South Africa; as long as we can have a country of our own there too. We will create “Bantu National Homes,”1 the government cries; we will divide South Africa justly and impartially and live in our separate communities as equals.

As equals? No, not quite.

The Bantu National Homes are to be the already eroded, overcrowded, and hungry Reserves, slightly expanded. (Though no expansion has yet taken place.) Cities, mines, fertile farmlands, are all to remain in “white” South Africa. Within their Bantu National Homes, the Africans are to have self-government, “when they are ripe for it.” In the meantime, every single official is to be appointed by the white South African government, which alone is to decide when “ripeness” has come to the blacks.

So much for the putative Bantu National Homes. What about “white” South Africa? Is that to be denuded of the black labor on which its economy totally depends? By no means. The blacks are going to continue living in the “white” areas, but on the understanding that they are “visitors” there only, and thus not entitled to any political rights whatsoever. True, they will actually be residents; millions of them will be born in the “white” areas, in the cities and on the farms, and will die in them too; but in some mystic and unexplained way they will not belong where they are born and die, but to the distant and as yet non-existent “National Homes” mentioned in the previous paragraph.



Such, in outline, are the main projected developments of the apartheid policy. These outlines may be decorated as taste and inclination suggest. For instance, when those Bantu National Homes are fully established, each smashed tribe in its own Home, the Homeland authorities are going to appoint “ambassadors” to the “white” areas of South Africa. These ambassadors are not, however, to represent the Homeland in the courts of the white government (that would be a bit pointless, seeing that the white government appoints the Homeland government, anyway). No, these ambassadors are going to represent to the blacks who live in the “white” cities their own—that is, the blacks’ own—Homeland. Can you work it out? This will have the effect, you see, of creating loyalty among the urbanized blacks to those Homelands of theirs; and a very important task it will be too, seeing that none of them will ever have seen their Homelands. And do you know what is the shape of the ideal city of the future, according to Dr. Verwoerd? The ideal city of the future, according to Dr. Verwoerd, is to be round, and cut into segments radiating from a center, like a sliced cake, with a different race in each slice. (For there are not only blacks and whites in South Africa; there are Cape Coloreds, Indians . . . any number of possible classifications.) Then, you see, each race will be able to travel to and from the center of the town without ever crossing into the territory of another race! And this bizarre, multicolored, and segmented city, it must not be forgotten, is to be situated in what is solemnly, as a final touch of absurdity, always called white South Africa!

Grotesque? Laughable? Paranoid? Certainly. And all the more dangerous for being so. I will give later my reasons for saying this: at the moment I want to repeat that all of what I have written above are the government’s hopes or plans for the future. In the meantime, and with an eye to this idyllic future, things are much simpler; all the government has to do, as the first step in implementing its policies, is to make it plain to the blacks that they don’t belong where they happen to be. And this has been most zealously done already. Politically, economically, socially, every miserable little right the Africans had—of representation, of consultation, of organization—has been taken away from them; the “pass laws” have been made more stringent; and the policy of “separate facilities” has been introduced even in places where it was unknown before. (And heaven knows there were few enough places in South Africa before where black and white could ever mingle casually outside their work.) In addition, penalties of the most severe kind have been introduced for any infringement of the government’s new laws: for example, if you urge a black man to stay away from work, and he does so, both he and you run the risk of being flogged, jailed for five years, and subsequently banished to a remote part of the country.

But this, all this, is not oppression, the government asseverates; they are merely the measures preliminary to carrying out the policy of “positive apartheid,” as described above. And now that the word apartheid has fallen into international disfavor, the Nationalists are trying to think up alternatives to it. Aparte ontwikkeling (separate development) is one phrase that has been suggested; another is aparte vryheid (separate freedom).

In a way, I suppose, the fact that the Afrikaner Nationalists feel the need to talk of aparte vryheid, rather than of plain baasskap, is an advance of a kind. But if it is an advance in one direction, it is a retreat in another. The talk of baasskap at least had a direct and evidential relationship to the facts of South African life. The talk of “positive apartheid” or aparte vryheid has no relation at all to anything visible, or anything conceivable, in modern South Africa. And I repeat that it is this total unreality, this dreamlike and utterly fantastic character of the government’s utterances that makes them most dangerous. It is this, too, which helps to give the events in South Africa their distinctively 20th-century character.



Of course, the South African problem is usually seen as being very much a part of a particular series of 20th-century events: the throwing off, by the former colonial peoples, of their white overlords. And it is true enough that these events are a very important factor in the development of national consciousness among the blacks in South Africa, and one that is likely to become more and more important, as the territories to the north one by one assume self-government. But the comparison of South Africa with the other territories of Africa, and with the new states of Asia, is not altogether acceptable. There is one great difference between South Africa and the countries with which it is compared, and that is that in South Africa the whites are not just officials, traders, and missionaries, as they were in most of the other colonial territories. Nor are they even white “settlers,” like the colons of Algeria, who insist that they are before all else Frenchmen, and then only, if at all, Algerians. The white South Africans are true inhabitants of their country; most of them have never known any other, and the Afrikaners have not even the most tenuous links with any metropolitan power.

Once it is accepted that the whites in South Africa are there by right, as much of South Africa as the Africans themselves, the country’s problems seem then to resemble not so much the classic colonial situation as a kind of paradigm of the history of much of Europe in the 19th century. South Africa is going through an industrial revolution very much like that which England underwent in the 19th century; the mass of its people are fighting for the rights of political representation which the people of Europe fought for a hundred years ago. And like those people then, the Africans are confronted with an oligarchy of wealth and power which seems determined, at almost any cost, to cling to all of its wealth and power.

But one cannot wage a 19th-century struggle in the middle of the 20th century: every century uses its own weapons. And the weapons in the hands of the present government in South Africa are indeed those of the 20th century. They include Sten guns, Saracen armored cars, walkie-talkie radios, and jet planes (and would the Bastille have been stormed if its defenders had been equipped with these weapons? Could the people of Hungary, better armed and a hundred times more skilled in modern combat than the Africans, prevail against the armed superiority of the Russians?). But the greatest weapon in the hands of the South African government is the Big Lie, the delusion which is so far removed from reality that it cannot even be rationally controverted. The Nationalist Big Lie is, of course, the policy of apartheid.

Students of totalitarianism, like Hannah Arendt or George Orwell, have told us that in order to make effective use of the great delusion, one needs a press, a radio, mass rallies, youth movements, secret hierarchies of power within the party itself; and all these the Afrikaner Nationalist movement has. One needs to iterate and reiterate the grossest untruths so often that even one’s opponents, let alone one’s supporters, find it impossible to believe the evidence of their eyes; one has to destroy in one’s supporters their sense of where their own material interests lie, so that for the sake of “higher” ideological interests—that is, for the sake of the delusion itself—they will sacrifice their goods and their lives.



Compared with the Nazis of Germany, or the Stalinists of Russia, the Arikaner Nationalists are beginners, bunglers, lazybones, lovers of the easy life; some of them even do have a positive respect for the processes of the law and the traditions of parliamentary debate.2 Their supporters have not been driven to desperation by hunger or any recent war; the leaders themselves have a deep hankering for the good opinion of the world. But they are trying to impose a delusion upon the real world; and there are people among them who have announced, repeatedly, that they would sooner kill and be killed than give up one single fragment of their dream.

And one of the most dangerous things about the politics of delusion is that its example must be contagious, by its very nature. Already from African leaders one is beginning to hear statements which in their unreality match those of the government. “Africa for the Africans!”—is that really a rational call in South Africa, where black and white, Indian and Colored, already live and must continue to live? Or to give another example: “What,” I once asked a liberal white, who was prophesying the imminent and total success of the revolution, “are you going to do with the Afrikaners, after the revolution?” The question seemed to irritate him; eventually he replied, “Teach them to speak Zulu!” Thus, as brusquely as Dr. Verwoerd ever dreams of doing, was a nation disposed of—by a man who thinks of himself as a liberal.



Even with the best will in the world, South Africa’s problems would be extremely difficult to solve: indeed, I do not believe that they ever can be “solved” in any simple sense of the word. Furthermore, one of the reasons why the country’s problems are so intractable is that there is so much justice in the claims of all the contending parties. Particularly it is necessary to say this about the Afrikaners—and not only because I have written about them so unflatteringly here. The Afrikaners are not inhuman monsters, altogether unlike any other people who have ever been seen. For the most part, they are very much like other people: most of them are conformists, who are taken along by their society, as people are everywhere. And when one thinks of them as a group, it is impossible to regard their past struggles and their bleak future without being moved by a sense of profound compassion for them. They have never had a chance, one cannot but feel: history has again and again tricked and cheated them. Now they are trapped in their own history; and they can escape from it only by making an effort that almost no other people has ever been asked to make.

There are real, as well as unreal, problems in South Africa; there is a reason for, and reason in, the fears of the Afrikaners; there is justice in some of the demands they make upon the world.

But to say all this is not to yield one inch in one’s belief that their present leadership has set itself on a course which has made a complex and difficult problem a thousandfold more difficult; which is turning the inevitable dangers of political and social life in South Africa into the certainties of suicide and murder.

I have never shared the views of those who foresaw in South Africa a single violent and apocalyptic Day of Reckoning approaching. To my mind, the Africans were, and still are, too weak for any single paroxysm of theirs to overthrow the power of the state. People outside South Africa do not appreciate the sheer size of the white establishment in South Africa; nor how irresistible is the might of a modern army and police force, equipped with all the arms it could want; they do not know that the white oligarchy in South Africa mans its armed forces entirely, so that there is no possibility of subversion from within. Conversely, people abroad do not realize how much divided among themselves the Africans are, how unskilled politically and technically; how uneager they are to risk the little they have for a cause which has only just begun to seem plausible to them. For all these reasons it seemed inevitable that, rather than a revolution, South Africa would have to pass through a long series of crises, each one very similar to the crisis it has just gone through, and the one which it had experienced previously in 1953.

That, I believe, is still true; but while it once seemed possible that the crises, and the pauses in between, could be prolonged indefinitely, for generations perhaps, this no longer seems at all likely to me. Ahead of South Africa there still lies a series of hideous days, scattered perhaps over many years; no one can guess how many. But not over generations. Not, perhaps, over a single generation. And this is true for many reasons.

First of all, the strength of the African attack in the recent crisis surprised everyone, including (I am told) the African leaders themselves. It is true that the outbreaks were beaten down, and the country now is silent again. But when will the next campaign take place, and what form will it take? It is impossible to answer these questions; but one cannot refrain from asking them. To compare the campaign of 1953 with the campaign of 1960 is to realize just how far and how fiercely the African people have come forward in the last seven years.



Then, the reaction of the world to events in South Africa is of the greatest importance, and, for reasons both of morality and expediency, it is going to continue to be strong and uniformly hostile. South Africa depends on the countries outside it for trade, for investment, even for arms; and even apart from any question of sanction or boycott, the condemnation of world opinion has an accumulatively weakening effect upon the morale of the Afrikaner Nationalist—precisely because of his particular historical sensitivity to insult.3 It is true that being sensitive in this way, insults and reproaches from abroad may make South Africa’s leaders more fanatic in their paranoia than they already are. From my own observation, however, I would guess that even if this were true of the leaders, it would not be true of the followers; the hostility from abroad unquestionably weakens them more than it strengthens them. They simply cannot stand being hated and despised, indefinitely, again, again!

And in talking of the morale of the Afrikaner Nationalist I have already come to the third reason why I believe the whites in South Africa might not hold out as long as their own physical strength would enable them to. The last thing I would want to do is to minimize the gravity of the crisis the country has just endured; yet I must say that the pressure brought to bear upon the government by the African campaigners was not, as things go in this world, very great; it was never sufficiently sustained over sufficiently wide an area really to threaten the authority of the state. But to meet even this degree of pressure the government called out the army, declared a state of emergency, arrested hundreds of political prisoners, turned the country upside down almost more effectively than the campaigners had done. What more can they do next time, then? And next time the pressures will be more severe, let it be remembered; and may take forms which the government has not yet even remotely been required to face. (Remember Ireland, Palestine, Cyprus, Algeria?)

An army could deal with the pressures, whatever forms they may take. But the white people of South Africa could not—not over many years, not over generations. They are not an army; they are people, with families, children, businesses, private ambitions. It may be argued that so too are the colons of Algeria, who have yet managed to hold out for years against pressures more severe than any that are likely in the near future to be brought against the white South Africans. But the colons insist that they are Frenchmen, and have the might of France to prove their claim—an army of 500,000 fighting for them. The white South Africans are quite alone; no metropolitan power will ever come to their assistance; they will have to do their own fighting, and pay for it all, out of their own purses and with their own lives. I do not believe that even if they were united among themselves they could do it for long. And they are not united: to the English the government is an alien and incompetent one; not all Afrikaners, by any means, are Nationalists; the Nationalists, for the very first time, are beginning to show some tiny signs of dissension among themselves.



But the last and most difficult question of all remains: is it possible to envision in South Africa a multi-racial society, each group in it meeting the others on equal terms?

There are two sides from which one must attempt to answer this question: the white and the black. About the blacks it is often said that even if the whites in South Africa were now, in good grace and with the best of intentions, to begin making real concessions to the Africans, the latter are so enraged and embittered at what they have suffered that they will continue to work reasonlessly and revengefully for a “Black South Africa.” And to support this argument people put forward the cases of Kenya or Northern Rhodesia, say, where the government has granted concessions which in South Africa have not yet been dreamed of, and where the blacks nevertheless remain implacable in their opposition to the whites.

The case of South Africa is, I believe, very different. After all, it is possible to imagine Kenya or Northern Rhodesia clean of whites—for though they are “settler colonies,” their white populations can be counted in tens of thousands. But to imagine South Africa clean of its millions of whites, one has to be insane. And the blacks in South Africa are not—yet—insane. To this day they are grateful for friendship which is offered to them (though a riot-maddened mob is another matter); they are eager to learn the skills which the whites can impart to them; they are eager to benefit from the products of the white investment in the country. There is no doubt that the longer the whites maintain a brute-force supremacy, the more certainly will it be replaced, ultimately, and at unthinkable cost, by a brute-force black supremacy. But if the whites yield, crack, give way before too much blood has been shed, then the blacks will, I feel, be ready to live with them.

But even if that were true, is it possible to imagine the whites of South Africa ever admitting the blacks as their equals? To the overwhelming majority of whites in South Africa the blacks are at best objects of patronage; and at worst objects of loathing, dread, and contempt. Can these people change the attitudes which are bred into them by every shred of tradition, custom, and usage they possess? I have implied that habits of subservience among the Africans die hard; how much harder will be the death of the habits of authority and superiority on the part of the whites.

Well, I have never thought they will die easily; they will never die altogether, for no habit ever does, in history. But the same habits can assume very different forms and issue in very different actions when circumstances compel them to. And vague and unsatisfactory though this formulation may seem, it will have to do to describe the changes that may take place among the whites who want to continue living in South Africa; and these changes, once they begin, may take place much faster than now seems possible.

In talking of this aspect of the South African problem people often compare the country with the Southern states of the United States. Look, they say, at the whites there, who cling to their contempt and hatred of the Negroes, even though the Negroes are so outnumbered, and offer no real threat to the dominance of the whites in the country at large. What can you expect, they ask, if such is the tenacity of human prejudice, of the whites in South Africa, who are outnumbered and to whose dominance a real threat is offered?

What people overlook, in putting forward this argument, is that it is possible to reverse its terms and arrive at quite a different conclusion. Surely, it is because the Negroes in the South are so outnumbered and powerless that the whites there have been able to afford their prejudices. What does it cost the Southern white to “keep the Nigra in his place”? The economy of his region is possibly developed more slowly as a result; and his country as a whole suffers in its bid for friendship among the colored nations of the world. But these are remote and impalpable considerations for the white Southerner, compared to the satisfaction of his immediate fears and aggressions. His livelihood, whatever it may be, is placed in no danger when he puts on his robe and prances through the streets of a Southern town; still less is his life.

But in South Africa, “keeping the Kaffir in his place” may well cost the white his livelihood and his life. And to keep his life and livelihood a man will sometimes put aside others of his most cherished possessions; sometimes even his dreams and delusions and prejudices.



In any case, it must not for a moment be imagined that white and black in South Africa are not already living together. It is true that every South African city is two cities; every town, two towns; every dorp, two dorps: one black, one white. It is true that every post office, public lavatory, railway station (even every footbridge over every railway station) is double; true that the white man goes into his cinemas and beaches and cafés and never sees a black, except for those who happen to be working there; true, too, that these divisions are being extended with a frantic and sickening zeal, wherever one turns. Yet, in the face of whatever denials and divisions the government may attempt to foster, anyone still in his senses can see that every day, everywhere in South Africa, without cessation, black and white men are meeting one another, talking to one another, learning from one another, becoming more and more like each other. This is the single overwhelming truth about the country, and it is a truth that continues whether or not there are riots, midnight arrests, liquor raids, pass raids, old oppressions or new apartheid legislation before the House of Assembly. Every unnoticed and unreported day that passes in South Africa ties the black and white communities more closely together; and though the contiguousness arouses the hatred, it lulls too, it makes brothers of those who hate each other.

And their brotherhood is figured forth in one fact which is hardly ever mentioned or commented upon: the fact that the “whites” of South Africa are no longer white. If you come from abroad, from Europe, where you have lived for years among those who are truly European, it is impossible not to be struck by the admixture of non-white blood which has passed into the veins of those who claim still, after three hundred years, to be “European.” In noticing this, we cannot console ourselves with pictures of an ultimate indiscriminate peace which will come to rest over the country. Before then the generations must live, the present generation at least. How will it live? The answer is: Badly. Bitterly. Wastefully. In pain. And one cannot set a date to the bitterness and sadness and waste and pain. But nor can one set a date to the life.

And that is why, whatever way the country goes, it will not go the way Dr. Verwoerd wants it to go. People hear much of the crises in South Africa; they do not hear of the indifference there is in South Africa, the lethargy, the greed. But as surely as the forces of enlightenment and compassion and justice, these human failings or weaknesses, too, are working against the government. And this should cause us no surprise. To deny full humanity to others is to make the attempt to deny it—in all its strengths and weaknesses—to oneself. Proudly, boastfully, the attempt is being made in South Africa, as it has been made a thousand times before in a thousand different places; miserably, squalidly, painfully, it is going to fail, as it has always failed before.




1 “Bantu” is the official government word for the blacks in South Africa. “Africans”—the word used everywhere else—sounds too much like “Afrikaner” for its use to be encouraged locally.

2 In the years before and during the Second World War the Nationalist movement in South Africa was directly infected by Nazism; and Dr. Verwoerd himself was found, in a court judgment given during the war, to have consciously used the newspaper he was then editing as an instrument of Nazi propaganda. (Dr. Verwoerd's explanation of the court's finding was that the judge was a Jew.)

In fairness, it must be added that successive Nationalist governments, including Dr. Verwoerd's, have been scrupulously correct in their attitude toward the South African Jewish community; and more than correct in their friendliness toward the State of Israel.

3 In fact, after the world had expressed its disgust over the Sharpeville killings the police acted with remarkable restraint—by South African standards—throughout the crisis. It is clear that they were acting on instructions; and it seems pretty clear that the overseas reaction was a most important factor in the issuing of these instructions.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.