Apartheid is not 'dead,' but in transition

"There's cause for pessimism -- and there's cause for optimism." So says one of South Africa's leading black academics in this racially divided country, as he looks ahead into the 1980s.

Dr. Es'kia Mphahlele, nominated for the Nobel prize for literature and author of numerous books and critical essays, is uniquely qualified to make such an observation.

Over the past 22 years, he has distinguished himself as one of the leading academicians in Africa, holding teaching and research posts in Nigeria, France, Kenya, and Zambia. He spent much of the period from 1966 to 1977 in the United States, a time during which black Americans made many of their grains in the quest for full civil rights.

In 1977, he took the unusual step of ending his exile and returning to South Africa, the country of his birth. Since then, Dr. Mhphahlele has emerged as one of the most influential figures in black literary circles here.

A professor in the African Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, he is also a keen observer of political development in South Africa.

In an interview with the Monitor, he took issue with the view that apartheid, South Africa's pervasive system of racial discrimination, "is dead." But he said that the white minority here -- especially the Afrikaner ethnic group -- is beginning to feel an "ambivalence" about its domination of the black majority.

"It's not yet liberalized thinking," Dr. Mphahlele says, "but at least it's a moment of doubt."

According to him, Afrikaners are only now beginning to shake off the influence of former Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd, who was assassinated in 1966. Terming Dr. Verwoerd "the architect of a segregated South African society ," Dr. Mphahlele says inculcated the idea that "there wasn't going to be any common ground" between the races here.

Now, Dr. Mphahlele says, there is "a change in person- to-person relations, more black people talking to more white people" than in the past.

Unfortunately, he says, this dialogue largely takes place "at levels which don't matter much in the political sense."

The whites involved are "by and large, not people with power," he observes.

The government, meanwhile, is engaged in the duality of "saying that apartheid is dead, while removing people and hewing to influx control," he says.

"Removing" means forcing black people off land designated for the exclusive use of whites and into rural tribal reserves, called "homelands." "Influx control" is the complicated system for keeping blacks in the homelands and halting their movement into "white cities."

Such tactics mean that black labor -- "the biggest commodit for us to sell" -- is still fettered, Dr. Mphahlele concludes.

He concedes that the government here has made some concessions to black labor unions, but adds that "a black man's bargaining power is still limited. . . . Things are still under control. [We don't have] trade unions in the sense that we know them in the free world."

Nevertheless, he observes, "Airports are crowded and, particularly in Africa, you're apt to sit around for hours on a delayed flight, and the airlines don't bother to give you any information at all."

The answer, according to Dr. Mphahlele, is still unclear. Instead of coming up with a unified strategy, he says, South Africa's black leaders are locked in divisive quarrels among themselves and splitting along urban-rural lines.

"The so-called homeland leaders [representing rural constituencies] have their backs to the walls," Dr. Mphahlele says. Faced with the pressure from the white South African government in Pretoria, he says, "They're doing things they wouldn't choose to do and then having to justify their positions" by claiming that otherwise "lesser minds" would replace them and accept the government's plans to dub the homelands independent and to denationalize their residents.

Urban leaders "have no sympathy for that kind of explanation," says Dr. Mphahlele, but they expend much of their energy in attacking the homeland leaders instead of developing their own constructive programs.

"This is one of those sad features of an oppressed society," Dr. Mphahlele observes. "People start gnashing their teeth at one another."

The future challenge then, is for "both the leaders in the rural areas and in the urban areas to be more flexible and look for a meeting point," he says.

"The urban leader must realize he's not going to win freedom for the black withouth the rural man behind him, and vice versa," he concludes.

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