Feeding white fears

2010-06-30 00:00

FIFTY years ago the independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), starting on June 30, 1960, had a profound influence upon white South African politics. It was one of a succession of events during the first half of that decade where white settler communities experienced violence that had its origins in black nationalism. Later an aborted session attempt in Katanga by Belgium settlers and their black allies brought the United Nations into the DRC, supported by strong Indian, Irish and Swedish military components. The bloody struggle against secession lasted until the middle of the decade and was perceived by southern African whites as African nationalists and international anti-colonial forces combining to force Uhuru on settler-colonialist communities. In February 1960, British prime minister Harold MacMillan clarified to the South African Parliament the United Kingdom’s pragmatic endorsement of pro-independence­ movements among its African colonies rather than pander to Verwoerdian apartheid. Even South African whites of British origin interpreted this as forewarning looming isolation from their historical and cultural home. Britain would not side with white South Africa against the numerous emergent African and Asian nations that comprised an important potential anti-Communist bloc during the height of the Cold War. Many English speakers who were politically comparatively moderate shifted into supporting the Afrikaner nationalist National Party (NP), while a minuscule minority­ of whites threw their efforts behind the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) with visions of a socialist nonracial South Africa.

Likewise, the Sharpeville shootings and the later emergence of the violent Pan Africanist Congress-aligned Poqo­ appeared as a local manifestation of events in Angola during March 1961, where followers of Holden Roberto­’s União dos Povos de Angola had, after an earlier massacre of striking black cotton workers, slaughtered 1 000 white settlers and 6 000 black workers. These and other processes further convinced whites that they faced the threat of extermination by chaotic and vengeful African nationalism. Already by October 1960, Hendrik Verwoerd’s National Party government had narrowly won a referendum among white voters over the adoption of a republican form of constitution and shortly afterwards Verwoerd led the new republic out of the Commonwealth.

But it was the chaos of DRC independence under prime minister Patrice­ Lumumba that intensified white fears more than any other single event of the early sixties. It swung the majority of South African whites, to a greater or lesser extent, behind Verwoerd’s utopian plan of grand apartheid envisaging separate black states from tribal areas formally legislated by the 1912 Land Act. It is not difficult to understand why because the DRC represented white South Africans’ darkest nightmare. The Belgian colony also included a myriad black cultural and linguistic groupings, cobbled together by history within a huge land expanse. The Belgian white minority settlers with their Flemish and French components reflected something of the still uneasy political divisions among South African whites. Verwoerdian segregation proponents amplified the urgency of white South Africans purportedly to ensure their own survival to stand behind Verwoerd’s policies. In terms of human rights abuse, Belgian colonial rule in the late 19th century had probably been the worst of all colonial administrations, surpassing in scale even the German near-complete genocide of the Namibian­ Herero. But with violence too, the South African Boer­ and British settler forbears had achieved complete victory over the Xhosa­, Zulu and Sotho people during the 19th-century land wars and laid the foundations for racial segregation after­ the Union in 1910. South Africa’s history of racial violence may not have been as dramatically extensive and crude as King Leopold’s minions hacking Congolese hands off for inadequate rubber quotas, but deep fears of a future black revenge were long existent within white psyches.

By mid-1960, 120 political groups were registered in the DRC and virtually every party reflected tribal origins­, except Lumumba’s Movrement National Congolais (MNC) which represented something of a collective Congolese nationalism. After­ violent disturbances throughout 1959, the Belgian government had invited the most prominent DRC political leaders, including Lumum- ba­, to a Brussels conference in January 1960 to discuss a road map for independence. Belgian government representatives were faced by an all- Congolese delegation ignoring their own profound political differences, but united in demanding immediate elections and independence by June 1, 1960. Fearing a French-Algerian war scenario, the Belgian government acquiesced to independence by June 30.

In South Africa in March 1961, Chief Albert Luthuli of the ANC appealed for a similar forum at the All-in African Conference in Pietermaritzburg, apparently extraordinarily ignorant of the futility of expecting white leaders to follow what must have appeared to be reflecting the same DRC process. Like the ANC’s 1912 origins when its early delegates had sought to be recognised as civilised people along British imperial lines, the MNC actually represented a small black DRC elite who had personally benefited from Belgian education and culture. They demanded an end to racial discrimination, but they also assumed that a modern democratic state was instantly viable in a country of such underdevelopment, geographic magnitude and cultural variety. Some Belgian colonials expected life to continue as before, particularly within the white-officed Force Publique that historically, and often brutally, had served as the colony’s police and military. The post- independence­ mutinies by the black soldiers and resultant murders, rapes and assaults upon white settlers, along with the attempted Katanga secession, resulted in scores fleeing to white-governed southern Africa. This further endorsed a powerful perception, particularly in South Africa, that the emergent African nationalism sweeping the continent was not amicable to any form of compromise with white communities. The antiwhite violence­ in the DRC received coverage in the South African press where readers had already been bombarded with a disturbing range of internal and external African events that were all charged with racial violence.

Within the historical context of the period, DRC independence illustrated for white South Africans the sheer impossibility, if not lunacy, of political racial integration. At the very least, ANC and SACP leadership were expecting the white minority, in the wake of the DRC horrors, to accede to political disempowerment and probably a range of socialist experiments which would have brought economic melt-down and at worst DRC-type disintegration and civil war. However profoundly much of this context has shifted 50 years later, it is impossible to conceive of South African whites in 1960 adopting majority rule within a unitary state. However, completely erroneous it may appear from today’s vantage point, the lesson whites drew from the DRC experience was that their control of all political power represented the only means at the time to ensure their survival, because the evidence of the DRC illustrated that once in power black nationalists with their demographic majority would not really seek any political partnership. The DRC and other black nationalistic manifestations during the early sixties intensified white resolve to resist political change, tragically mandating Verwoerd not just to pursue grand apartheid, but also to intensify the most damaging of the other aspects of apartheid legislation, particularly forced removals. The ANC- SACP’s spluttering armed struggle of 1961 to 1963 achieved not one gram of civil rights for black South Africans, but further accentuated white fears and ensured additional state repression against extra parliamentary groupings. The DRC experience of independence beginning over a half-century ago demonstrates how cumulative historical processes, for better or worse, elicit the deepest political impacts for later generations to grapple with in a different context.

• Dr Rodney Warwick has a PhD in historical studies from the University of Cape Town.

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