Credit for Killing Apartheid

April 29, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

VIENNA. — I was 18. I had been at college only a week and there was this poster asking us not to buy South African oranges. It seemed so obvious and so compelling that I wrote immediately to my parish priest at home demanding that he preach on the topic that Sunday. I truly believed that if enough of us students did as I did, the walls of Jericho would soon come tumbling down.

That was 34 years ago. I have since learned not only that it takes more than the marching feet of students to change South Africa, but that South Africa is only one of many terrible examples of man's bestiality to man. Yet to me, as to many of my generation, South Africa remains the special case that affected us more intimately and emotionally than Guatemala, Afghanistan, Iraq or Rwanda.

That South Africans would vote freely seemed, until very recently, unlikely ever to happen in our lifetime. In the end apartheid imploded as swiftly and unexpectedly as did Soviet and East European communism. And just as political scientists and historians now wrangle over who and what was responsible for the defeat of European Marxism-Leninism, there will be, for years to come, an irresolvable debate about what exactly made apartheid fail.

Some credit the international boycott. Our student boycott of oranges grew and spread until it became U.N. policy and was implemented by all South Africa's major Western trading partners. It certainly took its toll on the South African business community, but it was never clear whether politically, on balance, the boycott was a plus or a minus. Did it make the Afrikaners even more obdurate? Did it hurt the vulnerable black working population more than the relatively more secure white middle class? Did it not slow down economic growth that is arguably the greatest liberalizing force of all?

A second problem is why, for all the superior organizational skills of the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress, no deadly war of violent attrition was mounted against the state as was done successfully by guerrillas in neighboring Zimbabwe and Namibia. Guerrilla activity there was, but never on a scale to really hurt. Was it, perhaps, the Christian-Gandhian nonviolent legacy of the ANC's great leader, Albert Luthuli, who preceded Nelson Mandela?

Perhaps the explanation of change is less dramatic. Perhaps myriad acts of rebellion, one-by-one, gradually worked to undermine the confidence of the regime. The quiet but disturbing passive resistance of Nelson Mandela in his jail cell. The student boycotts. The strikes of the mine workers and the consumer boycotts. And the everyday stoicism of ordinary black men and women.

Side-by-side with black agitation were two other important movements in white South Africa. One was the power of South Africa's white literati. Novels and plays by Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard and others reached and exposed the raw soul of white society in a way no confessor or preacher was able to do. Supporting these giants of literature were the humble scribblers in the mainly English-speaking press, in particular in the Johannesburg Star and the now defunct Rand Daily Mail, who over many years provided honest reporting and wise commentary.

The biggest breakthrough of all probably came in the mind and heart of Afrikaner society and particularly in the internal reflections and meditations of the Dutch Reformed Church, whose grip on the culture and conscience of Afrikaner society has always been profound.

This Calvinist sect is both distinct from and connected to mainstream Christianity. Distinct in that it could rationalize, in fact propagandize, apartheid. But connected in that it could never quite bring itself to break with its Dutch and Swiss origins, or from other Christian denominations that became ever more outspoken about the evils of racism.

The last few years have seen the theologians of Afrikanerdom reinterpret their sacred texts: The black man is after all an equal. If anything touched the soul of President F.W. de Klerk and his brethren it was this, not sanctions, nor guerrillas, nor strikes, nor literature, nor newspapers. Perhaps, after all, God moves in mysterious ways.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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