Talking to South Africans
Dispensations: The Future of South Africa as South Africans See It.
by Richard John Neuhaus.
Eerdmans. 317 pp. $16.95.
The subtitle of Richard John Neuhaus’s important and fascinating book is “The Future of South Africa as South Africans See It.” Happily the book does not live up to the subtitle. Discussions of the future of South Africa almost invariably involve two elements: first, scenarios of possible future developments, with the most probable often being the least desirable; and, second, prescriptions of what should be done to realize a more desirable outcome. Neuhaus provides neither of these elements. Instead he furnishes something much more unusual for the general reader interested in this crucial part of the world. The bulk of his book is devoted to explaining how individuals from the principal groups in South Africa view themselves, their compatriots, and their country. The sources are, in most cases, interviews which Neuhaus had with group leaders and some rank and file. Some of these interviews are reported quite extensively, others more briefly, and an effort is made to relate interview materials to particular themes, so that one may run into what Bishop Tutu, for instance, told Neuhaus at several places in the book. In a rough count I estimated reports of interviews with about fifteen Afrikaners, four English-speaking whites, ten blacks, four Coloureds, and two Indians. All in all, Neuhaus presents a highly nuanced picture of the diversity, complexity, and ambivalence that exist in South African society.
Two limitations of his interview reports should, however, be noted. First, with one minor exception, the interviews with whites are with private persons, primarily religious leaders and academics, while the black interviews are entirely with leaders of the black community. Thus, on one side, the views of the Botha government and the National party leadership are missing and, on the other, so also are the views of rank-and-file blacks as well as local leaders who lack the stature of Motlana, Tutu, Tambo, Buthelezi, or Makatina.
A second limitation is the absence of an analysis of the extent to which the views of South Africans are changing. Neuhaus did most of his interviewing in 1983, as the new constitution was being debated, but he also includes material from other visits to South Africa, ranging from his first in 1971 to his most recent in August 1985. Rarely, however, does he indicate the dates of the specific interviews recorded in the text, and the implicit assumption appears to be that over the past fifteen years the views of South Africans have remained fairly constant. This, of course, is very far from the case, and it is unfortunate that Neuhaus did not elaborate to a greater extent the changes over time in the views of the individuals he interviewed and did not put these in the context of broader changes in public opinion. He makes no use at all, for instance, of the vast amount of South African survey data relevant to the questions with which he is concerned.
Within these limitations, Neuhaus has provided a rich, insightful, and penetrating description and analysis of South African attitudes. He is particularly good, in his opening chapters, in giving an illuminating picture of the psychology of the Afrikaner and the nature of traditional Afrikaner outlook manifested in the mythology of the Great Trek and Blood River and the corporatism of the Dutch Reformed Church, Broederbund, and National Party. All these are powerful forces for unity and cohesion. At the same time, however, the Afrikaner can often be ambivalent or schizophrenic. In particular, he has no easy answer to the question of whether he is primarily an African or a Westerner. On the one hand, he identifies with the West and tries to portray himself as a front-line fighter in the defense of the West against Soviet Communism. On the other, he also claims to be an African, the first tribe to settle in southern Africa, and Mr. Neuhaus quotes statements by both blacks and Afrikaners as to how they have much in common as Africans.
Neuhaus is a Lutheran minister who was active in the civil-rights movement in the 1960’s and who is currently head of the Center on Religion and Society in New York. His religious background and concerns are manifest in this book. Clergymen and professors of theology are prominent among his interviewees. He makes a compelling argument, however, that religion is central to understanding the political outlook of both Afrikaners and blacks. Key elements in both groups believe that God is on their side. “It really is an amazing thing,” as one Marxist Afrikaner theology professor(!) observed. “Black and white are both turning to God as they turn against one another. It will be a civil war between Christians when it comes. Whether this means it will be less bloody or more bloody, I really don’t know, and I really don’t want to wait around to see.” In Lebanon and Ireland people of the same race now kill each other because they differ in religion. In South Africa in the future, this analysis suggests, people of different races could be more likely to kill each other because they have the same religion.
Eleven out of twelve chapters in Neuhaus’s book are devoted to the presentation and discussion of the views of South Africans. The last chapter, however, is primarily concerned with a paper I wrote in 1981 at the invitation of the South African Political Science Association. This paper attempts to lay out the ways in which a South African government, if it were committed to reform, might attempt to carry out reform in this deeply divided society. At that time Prime Minister Botha had proclaimed the need to move away from apartheid, and his government had taken some modest steps in that direction. A commission was at work preparing a new constitution. Purportedly a struggle was under way within the National party between the “enlightened ones” or verligte, who were committed to change, and the standpatters, or verkrampte, who were strongly opposed. Drawing upon what seemed to be the most relevant experiences in other countries, I outlined a strategy the government might follow in attempting to move to a post-apartheid political and social system. The paper attracted considerable attention in South Africa, and has occasioned recurring discussion as to whether the strategy it outlined has indeed been the strategy of the Botha government. Neuhaus quotes Dennis Worrall, chairman of the constitution reform committee, to that effect: “You’ve read Huntington. That’s it. That’s the Scripture. Not necessarily in the specific details, but that’s the spirit and the substance of what this government is trying to do. That’s it.”
For a social scientist, such testimonials may be titillating but they are not necessarily flattering or true, and I would like to enter two important qualifications. First, my paper was written before I ever visited South Africa and without consultation with any government or National party official. Nor have I had any such consultation since its publication five years ago. Hence the paper clearly was not written to express the strategy which government officials may have had in mind. If it did so, that was a matter of coincidence.
Second, during the past five years, the government has deviated sharply from the reform strategy outlined in my paper. The paper emphasized the need for a reform government to keep the initiative, to preempt potential demands, to broaden its base of support, and to avoid rhetoric which could only arouse expectations. Since 1981 the South African government has not followed these injunctions. As a result, it has gotten little credit for the reforms it has made and it now faces sustained violence in the black townships which it seems incapable of controlling. During the past two years it has failed to distinguish between those moderate black leaders who insist on the end of apartheid but have, to date, remained committed to nonviolence and the new, radical, younger generation of blacks who do not eschew and, indeed, often appear to prefer violence. By treating peaceful demonstrations, marches, funerals, and church services as if they posed implacable threats to public order and existing authority, the government has antagonized and weakened the moderate blacks (well-represented in Neuhaus’s book) whom it should be attempting to strengthen and win to its side. Its actions are, in effect, producing polarization which is the prelude to revolution rather than accommodation which is essential to reform.
As a result, the possibility, which might have existed in 1981, of the government leading a reform process where it controlled the direction and tempo of change has probably disappeared. If apartheid is to be ended through peaceful means, reform will have to come through negotiation rather than imposition. Is it conceivable that through some means the leaders of the key groups in South Africa could come together and work out a post-apartheid political, economic, and social settlement in which the vital interests and rights of all groups would be protected? In less demanding circumstances, this has happened in other countries. In the late 1950’s, the leaders of the key political and economic groups in Venezuela collaborated to overthrow the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship and then negotiated a series of “pacts” defining a constitutional and social framework that has made Venezuela the most stable and participatory democracy in South America for the last quarter century. (Given the fact that previously Venezuela had had the most unstable and dictatorial politics of any South American country, that was no mean achievement.) Also in the late 1950’s, the leaders of the Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities in Malaysia agreed on a framework for sharing power that has given that country a high degree of political stability. Could something like this happen in South Africa?
On the basis of the South African attitudes reported by Neuhaus, one cannot be optimistic. Dispensations might well have been titled Suspicions. One cannot come away from reading it without a depressing sense of the extent to which distrust and antagonisms exist among groups and individuals. It is clearly not simply a question of white versus black. Afrikaners have contempt for English-speaking whites. The Indians of Natal are deeply fearful of the blacks at whose hands they have suffered racial violence. Zulus and Xhosas gird themselves for the struggle for power in post-apartheid South Africa. “Vigilantes” and “comrades” now fight it out in the black townships. Leaders of the various groups seldom seem to like or to trust each other. Buthelezi appears to have little use for Tambo, Motlana little for Buthelezi; other black leaders are suspicious of and perhaps envious of Tutu for the support and reputation he has in Europe and America. The Coloureds are split between those like Allan Boesak, who identify themselves with the blacks and attack the system head-on, and those like Allan Hendrickse, who attempt to change the system by participating within it. Most important, perhaps, is the distinction pointed to by Neuhaus between those black leaders, such as Buthelezi or Luci Mbuvelo, a major labor leader, who have organized constituencies and those who do not but are attempting to create constituencies.
Neuhaus closes his book with the vivid image of a meeting of South African leaders from all groups in which they come together to “articulate a new and inclusive covenant.” “Please God,” he writes, that the time for such a gathering “may still be coming.” One can only add “amen,” for on the evidence of this sobering book such an outcome is more likely to be the work of God than of man.