Wasted apartheid years

2008-01-07 00:00

South Africa was a place of alarming possibilities in the late eighties: overthrow of the state by mass demonstrations — the so-called Leipzig option; a protracted rearguard war by the security state against a revolutionary army; or a White right-wing guerrilla war against the Pretoria government, for instance. All seemed feasible. None of them happened. The people on the street were not confident enough; MK was never a match for a disciplined force; and modern South Africa was no place for Boer War-type commandos. Instead, the main protagonists embraced constitutionalism.

No political outcome is inevitable. But Christi van der Westhuizen’s lucid and important book on the history of the National Party (NP) shows that this one was perfectly logical — not as unexpected as some might still believe. The heyday of the ethnic welfare state, the apparent aim of apartheid, was remarkably short. It was only in 1966 that the NP achieved electoral security and John Vorster was shortly to start the process of co-opting English speakers. Just 10 years later, apartheid’s self-confidence was fatally upset by Soweto’s uprising.

Throughout its history the NP showed a routine ability to adapt its tactics to the aim of retaining power — apartheid did not last long as a pure blueprint. Van der Westhuizen argues that the verlig movement was driven by economics, seeking alliances that would secure a growing middle class. The main victims were white workers whose numbers and political clout were never sufficient to challenge NP political strategy. After the tricameral parliament drew in the coloured and Asian communities in 1983, it took a remarkably short period of time before accommodation was reached with the ANC, historically an essentially bourgeois party.

So the conservative F. W. de Klerk delivered liberal democracy to a country that had recently and briefly tasted fascism. Van der Westhuizen compares this with the deal between maize and gold producers at Union in 1910, labelling the outcome an arrangement between elites that preserved white economic power. She flirts with the idea that the constitutional preservation of property rights inhibits the redistribution of wealth.

It is hard to see how a peaceful transition could otherwise have been achieved. Social justice will not prosper without accompanying stability and development. It is true that far too many of South Africa’s people remain in poverty today, but that is the responsibility of those wielding political power, not of the settlement that handed it to them.

This book also provides a cautionary tale about nationalism, the most arid of all political ideologies. The NP and ANC were founded within two years of one another. But the former was little more than 90 years old when swallowed up by the latter — the NP had no more to offer in opposition than ethnic identity. Afrikaans speakers had at last embraced modernity and middle-class individualism and realised that individual rights enshrined in the Constitution were their best option. They trekked to the Democratic Alliance, some of them complaining inexplicably of betrayal.

The NP had wasted the best part of a century blending power, racism and religion, and “borrowing and stealing from the past” in Van der Westhuizen’s evocative phrase. This exercise in futility and its “meagre inheritance” cost South Africa in ways that may yet prove fatal. And this book contains an implicit warning for the ANC: while nationalism served Afrikaners badly, African nationalism will do South Africa no favours either. Mobilisation around popular figures and symbols at the expense of real debate about political options and engagement with the practicalities of development will spell disaster in a globalised world.

The similarities are real enough: the NP, even though its electoral system was constituency-based, also had a rubber stamp parliament and favoured the centralisation of power. There are signs that increasing numbers of African middle-class people are no longer actively participating in the ANC. Their material ambitions presumably no longer require political activism. Maybe there is, after all, something in dialectical materialism and its claim that history is about the conflict of social forces and the resolution of contradictions around material concerns.

• White Power and the Rise and Fall of the National Party by Christi van der Westhuizen is published by Zebra Press.

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