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Getting better all the time?

May 1980

Premier P.W. Botha is leading South Africa along a radical new route. Changes include racial mixing in hotels and restaurants. Consultative councils have been set up and black trade unions are being recognised. Job reservation for whites is being cut back and higher wages are being conceded. This encouragement of a black middle class is part of a ‘total strategy’ intended to reduce social tensions. How genuine is this grand design and what are the chances of its success? John Kane-Berman reports from Johannesburg.

Prime Minister Botha’s ‘total strategy’ against the ‘total Marxist onslaught’ is a concept being bandied about with more heat than light. It’s a blueprint for adaptation and survival, says Botha; it’s a betrayal of Afrikaanerdam,say his right wing adversaries, its a conspiracy to perpetuate white domination, say his more radical critics. But the question must be asked, Is this total strategy coherent? or simply a desperate gamble for survival.

To the nationalist rank and file, it must seem confusing. One moment a former Rhodesian Minister is invited to tell the party caucus how South Africa can avoid Rhodesia’s mistakes, the next the Minister of Foreign Affairs says Mugabe’s victory has no particular lessons for South Africa. One moment the Leader of the Party’s right wing is wondering why ‘coloured’ schoolboys can’t play rugby on their own; the next, Prime Minister Botha says coloured people can no longer be treated as ‘lepers’ and ‘hurtful and unnecessary’ discrimination must go. But then the Transport Minister says apartheid signs are still needed on the railways to avoid ‘friction’.

Total strategy not only lacks total conviction at the top, causing total confusion below, but also risks total rejection by the people at whom it is aimed. Take Botha’s twelve-point plan, which he says the Afrikaaner nationalists must accept or quit the Party.

These points create no such qualms amongst blacks. They are either rejected, derided or simply shrugged off. It’s a poor start for a plan to enlist the supposedly moderate black middle class against the much feared Marxist onslaught. And Pretoria’s propaganda barrage blaming Marxism for the overthrow of white rule in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe is the only pro-Marxist propaganda that is lawful in South Africa. What irony! Smearing black nationalism with the Marxist brush is so authomatic a reflex that the total strategists cannot conceive that they may actually be undermining themselves.

Robert Mugabe’s victory in Zimbabwe has caused Nationalist politicians to wonder how they misjudged Rhodesian blacks so massively. Yet it does not occur to them that by silencing black leaders in South Africa they are paving their own way to an equally massive misjudgement. How foolish the government’s press made itself look on this issue. The lesson of Rhodesia, it said, was that South Africa must talk to the ‘real’ black leaders, not the puppets. So influential blacks launched a campaign for the release of ANC leader Nelson Mandela. ‘No, no,’ cried the papers, ‘we didn’t mean him: What about Mangope and Matanzima - the ‘independent’ homeland leaders?’

Nor is this the only kind of thing that destroys the strategists’ credibility. How can you say in one breath that coloured people are no longer lepers, and then let one of your Ministers announce that thousands more are going to be evicted under the Group Areas Act? Group areas removals have so alienated the coloured community that even their moderate leaders have shown barely a flicker of interest in plans to include them in a new President’s council, which will apparently be a forum of discussion with the government. The same goes for the response of urban black spokesmen, like Soweto’s Nthato Motlana, to Botha’s announcement that urban blacks may be given a political say outside the Bantustan structure. Blacks are not even talking about it. For them it’s another meaningless cosmetic change.

A key pillar of total strategy is to give privileges - union rights, better housing, greater job mobility - to urban blacks, in the belief that they will then back the government against the rural unemployed and dispossessed.

This is where total strategy becomes a gamble. How do you ensure that the black middle class, once bought, will stay bought? How do you keep its allegiance except by never-ending concessions? Creating a black middle class to ensure stability entails giving more black children higher levels of education and opening up more skilled jobs to them. Will this enlist them in the defence of capitalism? Or will it simply put them in a position to exert more pressure for change? White reactionaries see this dilemma clearly. Thus a Minister of the Dutch Reformed Church defended his eviction of blacks from the funeral service of a white on the grounds that letting them into his church for a funeral would encourage them to come to ordinary services, which would eventually lead to ‘total integration’. It is too easy to dismiss this as an absurd manifestation of roc ist behaviour. That misses the point, for the sentiments express a profound fear which generations of apartheid propaganda have bred into the Afrikaaner minority.

This fear also lies at the heart of the controversy about black trade union rights. The total strategists believed that giving blacks these rights is a means of co-opting them to the defence of ‘free enterprise.’

With the exception of the miners - although even they are changing - white unions in South Africa are pretty tame. As expressed in the Wiehahn Report on industrial relations government philosophy is that black unions will also be tame - provided that they are subject to strict statutory control. But the white unions fear that the controls will eventually break down. In recognising black unions they feel the government, like Dr.Frankenstein, is creating a monster that it will not be able to restrain. Ironically again, it is the white reactionaries who see very clearly that the position of black and white workers is different: whites can exercise political rights through recognised channels, blacks cannot. Blacks are therefore likely to use unions for political ends.

A further weakness in total strategy is revealed in another key blueprint, the Riekert Report on manpower utilisation. Under Riekert’s proposals, most of which the government has accepted, the price of the new deal for urban blacks will be paid by those in the rural areas, particularly the Bantustans. Better housing and higher wages for the urban insiders entail stricter influx control against the rural outsiders. But this undermines the army’s strategy for ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of rural blacks against growing guerilla activity. What is the point of seconding white soldiers to teach in Bantustan schools when it is going to become even more difficult for those youngsters to get jobs in the central urban economy? What is the use of talking about greater consolidation of the Bantustans when existing proposals already provide for another million blacks to be removed from the white areas and resettled there? How can the army cope with even more problems dumped in its lap by the social engineers?

Confining - and even exporting - black unemployment from towns to Bantustans, which is another effect of Riekert, also undermines total strategy. It increases the demands for sanitation and other facilities from the Bantustan homeland authorities, but their expenditure on social services is already so large that little is left for economic development. The likely consequence is that desperate jobseekers will become more and more hostile to the homeland governments. They in turn will resort to tougher repression, so eroding their already limited democratic base. The result? Poverty­stricken mini-dictatorships. Not the most stable allies in the constellation of states that Pretoria wants.

Total strategy is more than cosmetic change, whose main aim was to fool foreigners. It is an attempt to restructure internal power relations to ensure continuation of Afrikaaner control. It is so full of contradictions that it is likely to fail. But in the process of failing it may unleash forces that will be controlled not by co-option but in the more traditional South African way:by naked repression.

John Kane-Berman is a journalist, formerly with the Johannesburg Financial Mast, and author of ‘South Africa: The Method in the Madness’.

Total strategy

The South African Prime Minister has devised a twelve point plan for the future of the Republic. The points include:

Africans of different tribes must become citizens of different nations cut away from the white Republic. Many blacks see this as ethnic arithmetic, using a 'divide and rule' policy to make sure they are not in the majority.

This is a new gobbledegook term for apartheid.

Such consolidation is planned to make the minute fragmentation of Bantustans look slightly less absurd. It is important to homeland polititians but of no interest to urban blacks.

This separation of power between whites, Indians, coloureds and blacks is rejected by most Africans They see it as another attempt 'to gang up against them, and they are supported by most Indian and coloured leaders.

The government report on the Soweto riots found that blacks think all racial discrimination is offensive. But what does the necessary /unnecessary distinction mean if not that petty apartheid will go, but grand apartheid - like who gets the vote - remain?

Proposals for economic and even military co-operation with neighbouring states are seen as an attempt to tie the entire sub­continent to the apron strings of apartheid.

But are the insurgents who cross the border really foreign? Blacks see freedom fighters where whites see terrorists.

Whites think the West treats them badly, but many blacks want tougher international action against apartheid.

Whites fear blacks are rejecting capitalism in favour of the collective planning of the Soviet-block countries.

This feature was published in the May 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 87

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