No Great History of Tolerance in Africa

January 24, 1991|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. This is what we call ''a shower,'' says Koos van der Merwe. Is he kidding?I can't tell. He is the Conservative Party whip in the South African parliament, and is showing me around his house in suburban Johannesburg so I can see ''how a typical Afrikaner lives.'' It's more or less how a typical American suburbanite lives, except for a lot of dead animals on the wall.

''His shower'' is a shower. Perhaps that's his point: the international fellowship of white people. We are First World people ''like yourselves,'' he says. ''The creator has dumped 5 million of us among 30 million Third Worlders.''

In fact, his mind is unfathomable to me. Does this educated man, who interrupts our chat to give radio interviews in French and Portugese, really think that shower'' is an Afrikaner word or custom?

Mr. van der Merwe, a friendly, bearlike fellow, is so open that you almost feel it's cheating to quote him. He sincerely believes that his case only needs to be laid out to be accepted by any reasonable white person. The CP wants a separate white nation carved out of South Africa, like the black nations of the government's failed homelands'' policy. He is coy about where his homeland would be. But he hints that he might be prepared to abandon Johannesburg.

That would mean giving up the house Mr. van der Merwe is so proud of. It also would mean giving up his black servants, something Koos claims he is prepared to do. But throughout South Africa's history, ostensible separate development'' has always turned out to be arrangements for white power and black labor. Koos says he is a nationalist, not a racist. I don't want to be a red Indian or an Eskimo or a Zulu. I want to be an Afrikaner.'' But this doesn't explain why he would welcome English-rooted whites into his homeland.

Mainstream and liberal whites in South Africa like you to meet Mr. van der Merwe, so you'll have more sympathy for their own various exquisitely modulated positions. A year after President F.W. de Klerk unbanned the African National Congress and committed himself to majority rule, the vast majority of whites accept that apartheid of any variety is dead. In fact, it's hard to find anyone who didn't actually oppose apartheid all along! Roelf Meyer, a government minister working on rewriting the constitution, was elected to the all-white parliament in 1980 and, ''it immediately struck me when I sat down on those green benches that this is unreal.'' Bright fellow.

In redesigning the South African government, Roelf Meyer says blandly, ''It won't do to consider only modern Western theories. We must consider Africa.'' Meaning? ''In Africa, there is not a great history of tolerance.'' Oh, I get it. The concern of whites about their fate under black majority rule is understandable, as is the effort to temper that majority rule with constitutional protections for minorities and individuals.

But blacks are rightly irritated that, in these negotiations, the whites posture as keepers of the flame of Western civilization. After all, in the present constitution, written by and for whites, there is no Bill of Rights, there are no checks and balances. Even overlooking the complete disenfranchisement of three quarters of the population, the current South African government is a virtual elected dictatorship of exactly the sort whites now fear. Who the hell is Roelf Meyer to tell me, I don't want rights to be trampled'?'' says Saki Macozoma of the ANC. But put that aside,'' he adds, grudgingly.

Black-white relations in South Africa are almost hopelessly poisoned by political oppression and economic disparity. These realities impinge on almost any contact, from a close working association or even romance to sharing an elevator ride, in a way that makes race relations in America seem blissfully easy. Whites enjoy their sunny bourgeois lifestyle,if they can, behind security gates and protected by black security guards who may or may not be trustworthy in the pinch.

The poison goes beyond the straightforward mixture of hatred and fear. Twice I struck up conversations with black strangers: at a gas station and a bookstore. Both times our friendly exchange ended with a sheepish request for money. There isn't enough sense of shared humanity to sustain a two-minute chat, without the reality of the social relationship intruding. Sorry to sound like a Marxist.

To be a white person in South Africa, I suspect, it helps to be either utterly saintly or utterly callous. To be comfortable but well-meaning -- my own preferred moral stance -- is a recipe for almost certain frustration.

Nature as well conspires to make South Africa unsupportable for whites. Remember that hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica? South Africans say it's moved over their territory. Half an hour in the sun this year equals two hours a year ago. White people in Cape Town swallow Vitamin A tablets daily.

One black activist claims that half the whites have foreign passports, just in case. Hard to believe. But I met a young white, third-generation South African who gave me the standard liberal ''I am an African, too'' rap, bragged about joining the ANC after it was legalized,then revealed that he has an Irish passport. (One grandparent was Irish.) He got it to travel with, after a Belgian border guard used his South African passport as toilet paper. Or so he says.

This is the first of two parts about South Africa.

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