When we Americans look at South Africa, we tend to view that troubled country through the prism of our own history--two and a half centuries of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and, most of all, the civil rights campaign.
Apartheid seems to many Americans to be another form of racial segregation, more severe but not fundamentally different from the Jim Crow era in the United States. Certainly, it is easy to cast President Pieter W. Botha as a segregationist governor defending the Southern “way of life” and Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., another Nobel Peace Prize winner.
And the common conclusion is that what worked in America to end segregation and to make equal opportunity at least the nation’s goal, however short we still fall, will also work in South Africa.
All natural enough, but a delusion that warps most American judgments about South Africa and has rendered U.S. policy there ineffectual.
The situation in South Africa is fundamentally different from that in the United States 30 or 40 years ago. Apartheid is more than racial discrimination, in this case against the majority of the country’s people; it is a political, economic and social system that ensures, through the oppression of the black majority and ultimately through armed might, the continued power and privilege of the white minority, who number fewer than 5 million in a population of more than 36 million.
The civil rights campaign in the United States sought the fulfillment of ideals expressed from the nation’s founding and the achievement of constitutionally guaranteed rights. But the struggle in South Africa against apartheid is to end the brutal subjugation of 87% of the population by the other 13% and to establish a system that will reflect, for the first time, the aspirations of all the country’s people, black and white alike.
William Finnegan, the author two years ago of “Crossing the Line,” which recounts his experiences as a teacher in a mixed-race Colored high school in Cape Town, recognizes these differences in his new book, “Dateline Soweto,” but he hesitates to stress them as he explores the complex anti-apartheid struggle there. He consequently has difficulty, perhaps like most Americans who go to South Africa, in evaluating what he describes as South Africa’s “ragged, slow-motion revolution.”
Finnegan, who is now a staff writer for the New Yorker, in which most of this book first appeared, returned to South Africa in the guise of an American tourist interested in sportfishing for six weeks in 1986. He spent most of that time in Johannesburg with black reporters at the Star, the country’s largest daily newspaper, getting an insight into the complex, sometimes contradictory nature of the anti-apartheid struggle.
On one level, “Dateline Soweto” is about those black newsmen, their white editors and the difficult position of all journalists working in South Africa today. On that level the book is highly readable. The events that Finnegan recounts are, of course, already footnotes in South African history, but he uses them to remind us how intense the struggle is for the future of that country.
I should declare a bias here: Jon Qwelane, the reporter whom Finnegan ably profiles, is a colleague for whom I developed a lot of respect in my four years as a correspondent in South Africa and a man whose judgments I value, though I sometimes disputed them.
But, on another level, Finnegan has made a sort of home video of South African politics, a collection of scenes, of the people he met, of experiences he had in black South Africa with Qwelane and the other black journalists at the Star. Here the book falls short of its potential of taking an American reader deep into the liberation struggle: What is the point of these well-told anecdotes? As he wandered through Soweto, that sprawling black sister city outside Johannesburg, did Finnegan not ask what the prospects were for the anti-apartheid movement and what the people, the black people who constitute the majority in South Africa, wanted for themselves and their country?
Finnegan, for example, visits the tribal homeland of Kwandebele with Qwelane and hears of the reign of terror under local officials who, installed by the Botha regime, are trying to force the region into “independence.” He writes about how Qwelane gets that story, mostly from an Irish missionary, and how he scribbles his notes on the inside of a cigarette box and on scraps of paper he stuffs into his socks in hope of keeping them if he is stopped and searched by the police.
But Finnegan does not write about what the turmoil in Kwandebele meant. What was important when he was there two years ago was the way in which the region’s residents united to defeat the independence plans. Their resistance probably extinguished Pretoria’s last hopes of erecting a network of “bantustans,” which would turn all blacks into foreigners in their own country. It also showed that the 12 million blacks who live in rural areas can, with strong leadership, play a crucial role in the overall liberation struggle.
Finnegan similarly recounts the frustration--professional, political and personal--of Qwelane and other black journalists when Botha imposed a state of emergency in June, 1986, in an attempt to break the anti-apartheid struggle and to halt its gains over the previous two years. But he attempts no serious analysis from the black perspective of where the struggle then stood and what its prospects are today. The result is an impression that the government’s crackdown was directed mostly at the press rather than the developments it was reporting.
Like many Americans, Finnegan seems, in the end, to place more of his hope for change in South Africa in the liberalism espoused by some whites rather than in the ability and readiness of blacks to end minority rule and to shape a just political system. This is a hope, of course, that change will come peacefully to South Africa and that a solution can be found for the country’s problems short of revolution, short of a racial civil war.
But Finnegan should have listened to Qwelane, who is as savvy as he is engaging. Qwelane knows, and says so with great conviction, that whites, however liberal, cannot save South Africa, for the simple reason that they see change as a zero-sum game, that whatever blacks gain whites will lose. The Star, and by implication white liberals, are “a very audible voice for change,” Qwelane tells Finnegan, but what kind of change is another question. “When you come down to it, those guys in the mahogany (board) room don’t want majority government in this country,” Qwelane says. “They just want a more humane white order.”
What Finnegan should have concluded from his travels with Qwelane, who is an ardent African nationalist, is that the country’s future will ultimately be determined by its black majority, that their aspirations can be delayed but not defeated. Blacks, amazingly, still beckon to whites to join them in that struggle and help shape that new society, but the longer that most whites refuse, the more violent the struggle will become.