South Africa's Whites Free Themselves

March 22, 1992|By PETER HONEY

WASHINGTON — Iknow a young Afrikaner in South Africa who grew to hate himself, to hate his Afrikanerness and his whiteness with its cloying stigma of racism, so much that it literally drove him mad.

When he left high school Koos had wanted to be a dominee, a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. But the master of the college saw the rage in him and asked him to leave.

He tried to kill himself. The psychiatrists called it schizophrenia, calmed him down and sent him back into society.

When I last saw Koos a few years ago he was working for a black-run anti-apartheid newspaper in deep trouble with the government, then under president P.W. Botha, and loving it. The security police were such frequent visitors that, like everybody else on the paper, he knew them by their names, their foibles, the cigarettes they smoked and the wear-shine on their rumpled suits.

It was a cat-and-mouse life that he relished for its focus. But his dark eyes were haunted by a bitterness that I suspect had less to do with his circumstances than with the who and the why of his own existence.

I thought of Koos last week, as the results of Tuesday's white referendum came in, confirming what should have been a widespread expectation: that with the chips down, two-thirds of white South Africans are prepared to cast their lot with the black majority.

I don't know if Koos voted, but he was too politically involved to have stayed aloof, especially if it meant pulling the chain on white exclusivity. It would not have quenched the fires within him, but it might have brought him solace to at last be counted among the majority.

It is something that I too now understand, although my circumstances were quite different from Koos'. Though part-Afrikaner, I was reared in an English-speaking opposition household, without the passion, the Calvinist gloom and the fears of extinction that define the Afrikaner psyche. This week, for the first time in my 39 years, I have begun to feel at ease with my provenance. No longer is there that self-conscious twinge, almost of shame, when I tell the curious that I was born in South Africa.

Like Koos, though, and probably most of the nearly 2 million who voted for reform, I doubt that we will ever quite feel free of the injustices inflicted on generations of our black compatriots. Nor should we. Nor should Germans for the holocaust, nor Americans for Hiroshima.

Which is why the referendum was so important. It gave white South Africans the chance -- forced them, really -- to stand alone briefly, with only a pencil and their consciences, to shove aside their whiteness, their ideological and ethnic differences, and simply be South Africans. That is not easy when all your life you have been defined as a minority -- as a minority of a minority in a society locked up in boxes of minorities.

That it took a whites-only vote to do it is sadly ironic. But as president F.W. de Klerk said afterward, there was ''an element of justice'' in asking the white South Africans who started apartheid to let him negotiate an end to it; effectively to deal away their monopoly on power and their social and economic domination.

''It doesn't often happen that in one generation a nation gets the opportunity to rise above itself,'' he said. ''The white electorate has risen above itself in this referendum.''

It is easy to point out, as several commentators have done, that without threats of renewed sanctions, diplomatic isolation, black uprising, economic disaster and the rest, Mr. De Klerk's mandate would not have been so secure. That is indisputable. He might have won it anyway, but anything less than two-thirds would have been a doubtful mandate.

But really, are the means as important as the act? Should American, Dutch and German pat one another on the back and say, as some now seem to be doing: ''We did it. Without us they would have been lost.''

To speak as if the struggle against racial domination in South Africa began a few years ago, or even a few decades ago; to think that this is just about racism, black oppressed vs. white oppressor, bigotry, the good ol' boys -- a kind of ''back of the bus'' addendum to America's civil-rights struggle.

That is not only to misunderstand the last 150 years of South African history, but also to demean the agonies of thousands of South Africans, of all races and creeds, who fought for liberty in successive ages long before ''apartheid'' existed or became an international cause celebre. Conflict, division, suffering characterized the Afrikaner nation even before it sought to call itself that.

There is not the space to pursue the origins of apartheid here: colonialism, war, the intricacies of cause and effect, etc. But let it be said that alongside those Afrikaners who codified and executed apartheid -- Malan, Strydom, Verwoerd -- stand the names of those who, often from widely opposing platforms, have helped to bring it down: Braam Fischer, Eduard Roux, Hein Grosskopf, F.W. de Klerk, for a few.

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