For South Africa, an American Example

<i> William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion. </i>

The House of Representatives voted this month to impose severe economic sanctions on South Africa, including a ban on new American loans and investment, unless the Pretoria government reforms its apartheid system. Comparable action is expected from the Senate sometime this summer. What Congress is doing, in essence, is casting a vote of no confidence in the Administration’s policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa.

The United States is in a remarkable position to influence South Africa, not because of our economic or political power, but because of our moral experience. One of history’s great moral transformations occurred in our own society in our own time. The civil-rights revolution gives us exceptional authority. The experience was painful and difficult, and it is certainly far from complete. But it enables us to show South Africans peaceful possibilities, ones they can hardly bring themselves to imagine. It does not have to be “the fire next time.”

The parallels between South Africa and the American South--and Northern Ireland too, for that matter--are striking. In all three cases, the dominant culture has religious roots in the Calvinist Reformation. Afrikaners are mostly of Dutch descent. Their language is a variant of Dutch, their church is Dutch Reformed and their heartland is the Orange Free State. Ulster Protestants are also Orangemen--orthodox Calvinists of the Dutch school. King William of Orange, who ruled both Holland and Britain, is the savior of their faith. The Orange Order to Ulstermen is like the Broederbond to Afrikaners, the secret lodge that guards their militant Protestant tradition.

The Scotch-Irish strain in America, especially strong among white Southerners, is also Ulster Protestantism. In the 19th Century, the American Protective Assn., a viciously anti-Catholic group, was a predominantly Scotch-Irish fraternity.


The religious heritage these cultures share is somber, pietistic and predestinarian. (Upon arriving in San Francisco, Mark Twain, who was well acquainted with the Scotch-Irish religious tradition, wrote, “I could tell at a glance this town was no place for a Presbyterian. And I did not remain one for long.”) These cultures share something else as well--a strain of racism that has been, in various contexts, militantly anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Indian. President Andrew Jackson was Scotch-Irish; he was also vehemently anti-Indian and a strong advocate of Indian removal. In fact, our policy of Indian reservations is not far removed from the South African policy of Bantustans.

South Africa has apartheid. We had “separate but equal.” They ban race-mixing. We had Jim Crow laws. They have Afrikaner Nationalism. We had white supremacy. They have police repression. We had lynching.

The similarity of historical experiences is striking. Afrikaners, Ulster Protestants and Scotch-Irish are all implanted cultures. They originated with the migration of religious minorities seeking not just refuge, but cultural hegemony. Each came up against a native culture (Indian, black, Catholic) that was regarded as primitive and heretical. Of even greater consequence, however, was their common experience of social discrimination and political domination by a stronger power--Southerners by Yankees, Scotch-Irish by the English, Boers by British imperialists. Southerners and Afrikaners share the deep resentment that comes from having lost a civil war. However arrogant or oppressive these cultures appear to the outside observer, deeply embedded in their consciousness is the feeling of having been victimized.

Apartheid in South Africa, white supremacy in the American South and Protestant rule in Northern Ireland represent more than cultural prejudices. They are racist ideologies that define the social order and legitimize the power structure. Internal reform is highly unlikely in such societies. Any attack on the official ideology is an attack on the power structure. Would the South, if left to its own devices, have ended the Jim Crow system, desegregated its schools and enfranchised blacks? Not very likely. For that matter, historians now tend to agree that slavery would have persisted if there had been no Civil War.


Change in such systems usually comes from outside intervention. In the South, the federal government intervened, first in the 1860s and again in the 1960s.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz got it precisely wrong last April when he said, “A white government that no longer sees itself as besieged from outside its borders will be better able to take the steps it must to reform its own society.” (He was talking about South Africa. The rule apparently doesn’t apply to Nicaragua.) The South Africans have had plenty of time. Now, more than 25 years after the Sharpeville massacre, it is clear that nothing has really changed.

Today, the race issue in the United States is more a problem of inequality than of discrimination. In South Africa and Northern Ireland, discrimination, not inequality, is still the principal issue. For instance, Protestants and Catholics are not all that unequal in Northern Ireland; neither is particularly well-off. But there is enormous discrimination. A BBC interviewer once asked a Protestant at a street-corner rally in Belfast, “Can you tell me exactly what it is you have against Roman Catholics?” “Are you daft?” the man replied. “Their religion, of course.”

Defenders of apartheid usually ignore this point. As one of them put it in an interview on American television, “Economic growth will produce justice in South Africa.” Government spokesmen like to point out that South African blacks are better off economically, and possibly more secure physically, than blacks elsewhere in Africa. Indeed, blacks migrate to South Africa looking for jobs. The government has indicated its willingness to allow more social contact between blacks and whites, and it may tolerate some progress toward economic equality. But it will not end political discrimination. The issue right now in South Africa is political rights, not economic well-being.


Economic growth will not make racial injustice palatable to blacks. But it can help make racial justice palatable to whites. Whites, not blacks, are the ones who must change in South Africa. Whites fear that ending apartheid will overthrow the power structure, subject them to black rule and ruin them economically. The lesson of the American experience: not necessarily. One of the surprising aspects of the civil-rights revolution is the way white leaders in the South came through intact. Even George Wallace learned to accommodate the new reality.

The most constructive thing we can do is urge white South Africans to take the risk of power-sharing. It is a greater risk for them than it was for us--their population is 70% black-- but the alternative is more catastrophic. Our own experience should be reassuring to whites: It can be done, and it can work without creating social or economic upheaval.

All revolutionary regimes export their revolutions. The French did it, the Russians did it and the Iranians try to do it now. Our own civil-rights revolution was felt all over the world. It was inspiration for the Catholic civil-rights movement in Northern Ireland, and it had significant influence on the black freedom movement in South Africa. But there is something from our civil-rights revolution that we can offer the oppressors as well as the oppressed: an example of moral courage, a determination to overcome.