Apartheid: More about personality than policy

2012-11-22 00:00

HOW far away must the past be to be able to cast a cold eye on it, for pain and injustice to be no more than pale words that have bled out along the path to a better world?

Hermann Giliomee calls The Last Afrikaner Leaders a “reassessment” of the leadership of the National Party. It takes a brave writer even to suggest a disinterested reappraisal of as loathed a figure as H.F. Verwoerd, never mind the dour B.J. Vorster or the finger-wagging P.W. Botha.

Lines from the poet Robert Burns serve as a prologue to the book: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”. Giliomee has never supported apartheid, so he can’t be suggesting that it was a good idea gone wrong. It’s been argued, largely by Germans in the decades after World War 2, that Adolf Hitler had some good ideas — look at the autobahns and the VW Beetle — but that he got a bit carried away. Giliomee’s argument is not of that nature. What he does argue, is that apartheid did not start off as a clearly defined grand scheme, complete in its conception, immediate and comprehensive in its implementation, coherent and consistent in its vision. He makes a strong case.

He argues further that individual Nat leaders critically influenced the course of events: they stumbled, they changed direction, they lost track or they lost courage. He doesn’t go so far as to say that they made apartheid up as they went along, but he comes close, especially in his portrayal of Verwoerd, whose pursuit of the homelands policy is attributed to his inability in the fifties to co-opt the Natives Representative Council into accepting self-government within townships. Had that turned out differently, suggests Giliomee, grand apartheid may never have come into being.

History, for Giliomee, is not, as it is for materialists such as Dan O’Meara, a progressive unfolding of fundamental factors. It is, rather, determined by “individual leaders and the contingent nature of events”. Such an approach, in the context of discourses of culpability and oppression, tends to have an exculpatory undercurrent, aimed at rescuing Afrikaners from a tendency, both in South Africa and abroad, to lump all of them together as collectively guilty of crimes against humanity.

There’s no denying that the protection and wellbeing of the volk were apartheid’s raison d’être, and Giliomee has no quarrel with an ethnic group trying to secure its survival. What is up for grabs, in Giliomee’s telling, is how widespread the buy-in was by Afrikaners as well as English-speaking whites, and how concepts of separate development, segregation, and ultimately power-sharing were understood. Throughout the dark years from 1948 to 1994, he suggests, the confluence of nuances could have taken South Africa in any number of directions. He shows, for example, that already in 1953, the Minister of the Interior, Eben Dönges, noted that apartheid could only be a short-term solution for the “protection” of whites. In that decade too, there was a realisation that “partition was impossible, black labour was indispensable, black urbanisation irreversible, the growth in black numbers inexorable, and the prospect of chaos not to be discounted”.

And yet they persisted. And whites, in increasing numbers, backed them.

There were moments when momentous changes in direction could have taken place, and which would have brought about the hastier demise of apartheid. One such was P.W. Botha’s “Rubicon speech” in Durban in August 1985. Chris Heunis, Minister of Constitutional Development and Planning, drafted a speech proposing power-sharing and extensive reforms in the belief that P.W. Botha had given it his blessing at a special cabinet committee meeting. Foreign Minister Pik Botha talked it up to the world as “the biggest thing in South Africa since the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck”, and termed the moment as South Africa’s Rubicon. But, as Giliomee reveals, P.W. had had a stroke, and whether because he was under doctor’s orders to keep calm, or whether he did not grasp what was happening, he was not in agreement with such a big leap and baulked at the last minute.

It ultimately fell to De Klerk to cross the Rubicon. But whereas PW unilaterally rejected the verligte push in his cabinet, De Klerk dragged his cabinet, often without a mandate, into handing over power, supporting Giliomee’s thesis of the role of individual leaders in shaping history.

Verwoerd comes across as the only genuine ideologue among the Nat leaders, one who put himself and his political life on the line by making far-reaching decisions, often unilaterally, if he thought they were in the volk’s interests. Vorster is portrayed as a maintenance man, happy to promote what he saw as a duty entrusted to him by Verwoerd’s policies, but unable to engage innovatively with changing events. P.W. Botha, blood clots aside, is shown as a leader who aggressively took charge domestically and on the world stage. De Klerk, the very last Afrikaner leader, is the conservative who unleashed the forces of change and who, it is wryly noted, sold out the Nats but saved the whites. Van Zyl Slabbert, who was not a Nat, is thrown into the mix to show what could have been, had a good Afrikaner leader taken the helm and, in the words of the poet Van Wyk Louw in 1958, allowed the Afrikaner “not merely to survive, but to survive in justice”.

These character cameos are interesting, but the most riveting aspect of the book is the quick-fire way in which Giliomee describes decision-making and policy shifts from the position of the Nat leadership. Especially gripping is the telling of the tumultuous period of constitutional negotiations, with tactical and strategic shifts taking place by the day, and during which De Klerk fought frantically, although ultimately unsuccessfully, not to be outmanoeuvred by the ANC.

Setting out to secure a power-sharing deal in which whites had a say (as whites), he ended up getting his party to sign its death warrant. That certainly wasn’t the plan, and as far as the volk were concerned, things had gone seriously awry.

• The Last Afrikaner Leaders is published by Tafelberg. Giliomee is also the author of The Afrikaners (Tafelberg), which serves as a companion volume to The Last Afrikaner Leaders, and, together with Bernard Mbenga, of New History of South Africa (Tafelberg), offers a broad perspective of the country.

AFRIKANERS seem to live under the microscope, a strange species whose existence is a perpetual puzzlement, not least to themselves. Since before apartheid, before the Boer war, literature and public debate have been peppered with the question “Who is the Afrikaner?”, usually in tandem with “Whither the Afrikaner?” Antjie Krog, for one, has made such soul-searching her life’s work. A poignant aspect of this questioning is an assertion of the right to belong; that in spite of everything, they are part of this land.

Fred de Vries is the latest writer to go in search of the Afrikaner, and his book Rigting Bedonnerd, presents a moving, complex portrait of a group (some of whom don’t see themselves as belonging to a group) at times adrift, at others resolute in adapting to a radically changed world.

The title translates loosely as “Buggered Direction”, and the sub-title is On the Trail of the Afrikaner Post-94. De Vries is Dutch, and his introduction to South Africa in the early nineties drove him to des­pair that he would ever understand a country that was “not for sissies”. In time, however, he was won over, and developed a strong empathy for Afrikaners in particular. The book chronicles how he became seduced to the extent that he bought a getaway in the Free State (which didn’t turn out well), and ends up redefining his own identity, somewhere between being an Afrikaner and a Rotterdamer. Along the way, he interviews scores of people — from Koos Kombuis to Antjie Krog to ex-troepies to Oraniers to expats and bittereinders — with their own identity issues, most of which revolve in some way around the question: “Is there a place for whites in South Africa?”

Their responses?

Pieter Mulder, leader of Freedom Front Plus: “If the Arabs are welcome in Africa, then we too are welcome here … there must be place for us.”

Antjie Krog, writer: Whites “must learn to live here as a minority, as a powerless minority. The current situation, in which we want to keep everything as it was because it was best for us, is no longer sustainable — especially not for us Afrikaners.”

Rian Malan, writer: “The first question is: how do you calibrate the distance between ‘all whites are criminals’ and the gas chambers?”

Christi van der Westhuizen, writer: “I first want to pose a counter-question: What are whites?”

Koos Kombuis, singer: “Under Mbeki, I felt that as a white person I was being marginalised, but that feeling is busy fading.”

Mark Kannemeyer, founder of Bittercomix: “The future of the Afrikaner? Truly no idea. I am not part of that group of people …”

Johann Rossouw, philosopher and returned exile: “Is there room for a black person in South Africa? Or a Chinese? Or a Greek? Or an Indian? Or a Griqua? Or a Bushman? I bet you that if you asked people of these communities, some will say ‘yes’ and some will say ‘no’.”

De Vries himself has found his place here. As for the Afrikaners, he says it’s not for nothing that the word “bittereinders” is such a “winged word”.

• Rigting Bedonnerd is published by Tafelberg.


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