The art of the impossible

You can't see Soweto from Johannesburg. It is hidden by an elevated motorway, then by huge dumps of waste from the gold mines, and finally by the shroud of its own smog.

Today, like every day, thousands of Soweto dwellers started their journey to work well before dawn. By eight o'clock nearly a quarter of a million will be at their jobs, either in the commerical heart of Johannesburg, or scattered throughout its suburbs. At the end of the day all of them must retreat from the city again. And the police are vigilant. By midnight some three hundred blacks will have been picked up for 'pass offences' - being where their pass books say they ought not to be.

Tomorrow morning their cases will be heard and sentence passed. In the space of 40 seconds each, some will be fined, some sentenced to forced labour on a white farm, and others ordered to be out of the district within 72 hours. The only place to go is their officially chosen homeland.

The White South African Republic is a wealthy nation. In the past twenty years it 'has enjoyed a rate of growth second only to Japan. Johannesburg itself is a fashion-conscious city, sharing the western taste for taut demin and pointed shoes. The country's four million whites enjoy high wages and good living.

But what of the twenty million black people - the workers who disappear at night, the women with babies on their backs pulling bits of firewood from under wire fences, the barefoot children carrying old petrol cans filled with water on their heads. They are the Third World within the First World. For South Africa is a microcosm of both.

Most of the white population sees nothing wrong with this. They can't understand what all the fuss is about. They feel embittered and persecuted by what they see as a new kind of 'anti-white' racism. Their argument runs like this:­

The British made a bad mistake trying to force black and white into one nation. This is our country and most of the blacks here really belong in neighbouring countries like Botswana and Lesotho. So now we're going to give back to the blacks their own independent countries. That's what the homelands policy is an about - giving each tribe their own nation. That way they can govern themselves independently. What's more, we'll still let them work here if they want to. And by the way, we're more than fulfilling our obligation to these new black nations. Transkei, for example, is getting more aid per capita than the UK is planning to give to Zimbabwe.'

Those people in Soweto all belong to one homeland or other and they can go and live there whenever they want. If they choose to work here, then we'll help them with housing and education. But if they stay in our country illegally - without a job - then we'll have to deport them.'

Black South Africans see it differently. 'South Africa is one nation.

We may come from different tribes, but so do the whites - Dutch, English, French, German - you name it They first came in 1652, but some of us have been here since the Stone Age. The fact is that the whites must learn to share this country with us. The Government talks about giving back our 'historic homelands'. That's nonsense. The British created those reserves to safeguard their gold mines. You can't have 80 per cent of the population living on 13% of the land. And we didn't choose to work for the white man. There was never any choice. We had to work to pay the white man's taxes and to buy our food. We still do. And under this Government's plans we always will.'

Strict control over land and labour was originally established by the British. It provided the foundations of economic discrimination upon which Afrikaaners could then build apartheid. After subduing the Africans with superior firepower, the British would have been happy to give them some democratic privileges. But not the Boers. Afrikaaner nationalism has always been unrepentantly racist. 'Political ideas which apply to our white civilisation do not apply to the administration of our native affairs' said General Smuts, South Africa's second Prime Minister, in 1917. Africans were to have no democratic rights and no claim to advancement in white society.

With the discovery of gold and diamonds and the manufacturing boom which followed, there was an ever-in­creasing demand for black labour. But the white economy wanted only labouring men and women. Spouses and children became unwanted 'appendages' to be left in the homelands.

Life has never been good in the homelands. While men were drawn into the mines by their need for cash, women were left to cultivate the unyielding soils.

From the outset of the homeland policy, the government itself calculated that in order to support a planned population of seven million, even at subsistence level, there would have to be widespread agricultural development and 1,250,000 new jobs. By 1970 the seven million people had already been crammed into the homelands, but sorghum production had dropped 50 per cent and only five per cent of the jobs had been created. More than two-thirds of land is now considered unsuitable for cultivation because of soil erosion or low rainfall.

With agriculture providing only one­tenth of family income there is often no choice but to leave the homelands in search of work. Many people return to the cities illegally. In October 1979 the Johannesburg Financial Mail calculated that a black person could spend nine months out of very twelve in gaol, but still earn 85 per cent more during the remaining three months in the city than he could in a full year in a homeland. And so the cycle of unemployment, prosecution and migration in search of work continues. Last year more than a quarter of a million blacks were arrested for offences against the pass laws alone. In this way, apartheid makes a crime out of job-seeking and punishes the attempts of women to stay with their migrant-worker husbands.

But one in every three black South Africans now lives in an urban area and the black industrial workforce now totals about three million. Unlike those who stay in the homelands knowing nothing but poverty, urban blacks experience their inequality at firsthand. Their labour creates wealth and provides services for the white society. A black maid has the most intimate knowledge of white domestic life. Every day she sets before the 'madam's' children food that she can never hope to afford for her own.

And so it is with the black miner working alongside his white supervisor whose pay packet is ten times the size of his.

More than half the families in Soweto have incomes below the poverty datum line. They know that they are poor. But they also see the white wealth which surrounds them. Added to this there is the routine humiliation of 'petty' apartheid: having to use different entrances to shops, different park benches, different elevators being excluded from restaurants, 'buses, hotels and hospitals. The bitterness runs deep.

Black opposition to apartheid has its roots in the townships. While the rural poor remain hungry, dejected and disorganised, township life provides the only real basis for black solidarity. But resistance has met with immediate, often brutal repression. In June 1976 when Soweto schoolchildren demonstrated against being taught in Afrikaans the police turned their guns on them. The first to die was a twelve-year-old schoolboy. In the following days there were uprisings in townships throughout the country. Everywhere the police fought stones with bullets. More than six hundred people died.

The need for violence is now gaining wider acceptance amongst blacks. After the Soweto uprising hundreds of students fled the country in order to join the liberation movements. Of those who trained as guerillas some have already returned to fight. Twice this year Soweto police stations have been the target of grenade and machine gun attacks.

As majority rule has come to each of its northern neighbours in turn, South Africa's white-ruled 'cordon sanitaire' has been swept away. Mozambique, Angola and now Zimbabwe have won their independence under radical flags. Only Namibia remains. The threat of a full scale guerilla war is now greater than ever. It is a war which South African generals believe cannot be won on the basis of military might alone. 'Bullets kill bodies, not beliefs' says General Magnus Malan, chief of South Africa's defence forces. Hence the army's campaign to win the 'hearts and minds' of the black population in strategic rural areas. Without their support, South Africa cannot hope to keep the guerillas at bay. 'The rural population is the key to the entire struggle,' says Brigadier Lloyd. 'Rural developement must take place to prevent insurgency or revolution.'

Already then there is a chink in the armour of giant apartheid. The need to give concessions to blacks is accepted by the new generation of strategists. A recent government commission on black trade unions, for example, decided that militant workers could no longer be dealt with by repressive measures alone.

Such measures, it was argued, would only 'add fuel to the flames of radicalism on the part of those who wish to overthrow the system'. Blacks must be rewarded, the Commission concluded , for continuing to work peacefully within the apartheid economy.

Predictably enough, this 'verligte' (enlightened) policy threatens to split the ruling National Party. Whilst new Prime Minister Botha throws his weight behind a policy designed to nurture a black middle class as a bulwark against more radical change, the right-wing diehards in the party grow restless and angry.

Big business supports the new strategy. Its own 'Urban Foundation' already provides improved housing in the black townships. With the giant Rembrandt Corporation's first $1 million contribution to the Foundation came the statement 'we cannot survive unless we have a free market economy and a stable black middle class, with the necessary security of tenure, personal security and a feeling of hope.'

The Government's new employment policies also aim to improve the chances of some urban blacks. They promise more skilled jobs and higher wages. But it is the white working class who will have to pay the price. Their privileges are often tied directly to employment legislation which reserves certain jobs for whites only. 'Africans must do the work we want them to,' says white mineworkers' leader Arrie Paulus, adding a personal note that 'I will not mix with blacks'.

This mixture of economic and racial self-preservation fuels the opposition of Botha from within his own party. But Botha's supporters say that the National Party must now go beyond simple ideological preference.

The 'verligte' group argues for economic realism. This means the creation of a black middle class to fill the country's crying needs for skilled workers and to stem the tide of more radical opposition. The old racist ideology must give way to a new constitution and politics, they say, must become 'the art of the necessary'. But what kind of constitution can they offer? Even 'enlightened' Botha still says 'one man, one vote is out'. The fundamental equation remains the same - blacks must work for whites on white terms only.

The terms haven't changed either. 'Don't try to do something unconstitutional,' Botha warns 'or you will be sorry'. But without a black mandate it is still a minority white constitution that he's talking about. And the Third World is littered with the burnt-out shells of constitutions like this.

Most blacks see only empty promises. They know that behind the new 'realistic' concessions the Afrikaaner fist remains clenched.

Black or White?

In 1950 the South African government decided that the entire population should be classified into four racial groups - African, White, Coloured and Asian. In mid-1977 the official population estimate for each of these categories was as follows:

White 4,365,000 Coloured 2,432,000 Asian 765,000 African 19,369,000 Africans, Coloureds and Asians are all discriminated against. Political differences do exist between them but most believe in a common cause - One man, one vote. Throughout this issue of the New Internationalist the 83% of the population which the South African government calls 'non-white' (i.e. Coloured, Asian or African) is called 'black'.

New Internationalist issue 087 magazine cover This article is from the May 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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