Non-racial politics

2010-01-13 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Origins of Non-Racialism: White Opposition to Apartheid in the 1950s

David Everatt

Wits University Press

THIS is a fascinating work of ambiguity and irony, a book that delves back 50 years to provide context for ­contemporary debates about South Africa. Don’t be put off by the fact that it has not been as fully converted from its thesis origins as it might have been.

David Everatt argues, correctly, that the Freedom Charter is our key non-racial document; yet it divided the anti-apartheid movement. It is also closely associated with the ­African National Congress, whose historical tendency has been towards multiracialism. For 60 years, its Youth League has banged an ethnic drum, often loudly. The Liberal Party was far more firmly committed to non-racialism than the ANC; but excluded itself from the 1955 Congress of the People out of irrational anti-communism.

The author hails a courageous, ­visionary generation that took great risks to lay foundations for a constitution that eventually made liberal democracy possible. Yet it was fruitless, Cold War ideological conflict among whites of that era that set back non-racialism. In the process, the common-front politics of the post-World War 2 years that had promised so much were jettisoned.

Everatt’s account contains a healthy dose of revisionism. He rehabilitates the South African Congress of Democrats, often vilified as a ­neo-communist organisation, but which accommodated a wide spectrum of left-wing individuals and opinions. And he points out the socioeconomic radicalism of the Liberal Party in its later years, much of it ­truly Charterist.

But most importantly, he quotes from an obscure 1953 article in which Albert Luthuli argued that the ANC is primarily an African nationalist organisation. Its communist ­elements he discounted, pointing out that the real challenge would be to counter the greater danger of ­extreme nationalism. It is a thought for our times, alongside the sober ­realisation that in spite of Everatt’s 1950 visionaries, non-racialism is definitely on the back foot.

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