South Africa: Can race war be avoided?

The waning of summer is a deceptive time on the high veld of South Africa. There is an ambivalent coolness in the air, which could just as easily mark early spring as the onset of autumn.

The political climate in South Africa nowadays could be described in similar term -- but some analysts worry that there are more signs the country is heading toward hibernation than renewal.

This was supposed to be the period when South Africa's Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha introduced a number of reform proposals into the whites-only Parliament of this minority-ruled country. Instead, he has called for new elections -- and put off major changes in race policy for at least another nine months.

Indeed, there has been increasing reticence on the part of the government in recent months to introduce even minor changes in the system of racial segregation and control known as apartheid. Instead, it is clamping down on dissent with a ruthlessness that is by now all too familiar.

The government has shut down the country's two mass-circulation black newspapers and silenced prominent black journalists. Prime Minister Botha has ruled out the possibility of including blacks on a newly empaneled President's Council, a purely advisory group of whites, Coloreds (people of mixed race), and Indians that might recommend a new constitution for the country.

On the international scene, South Africa's isolation deepens as the Pretoria government refuses to carry out a United Nations plan to bring independence to Namibia, a disputed territory in South Africa's western border. And South Africa's eastern neighbor, Mozambique, has been raided by South African soldiers striking at exiled black activists bent on the overthrow of white-minority rule here.

South Africa's violation of Mozambique's borders, according to some analysts, could provide a rationale for the introduction of more Cuban and East German troops into southern Africa. In fact, even before the rubble had been cleared, Mozambique officials were calling on Czechoslovakia for more military aid to ward off further attacks.

In the first month of 1981 alone, it is likely that well over a score of people were killed in the Mozambique raid and the continuing guerrilla war in Namibia, formerly South-West Africa. (The government keeps exact casualty figures secret.) Against his backdrop, the question "Can race war be avoided in South Africa?" takes on heightened importance.

The South African security apparatus provides one answer to the question -- for the short term, at least. Some 1,500 riot-equipped vehicles, 600 trained dogs, and a mind-boggling array of chemical weapons, batons, and whips are used by the South African police with chilling efficiency. Although there have been no deaths of people in police custody recently, allegations of police torture of detainees are still routine -- as are police denials.

The South African military, estimated at 72,000 regulars and some 250,000 draftees and reservists, is arguably the most efficient fighting force on the continent. Military planners in Pretoria are confident they can ward off any foreseeable threat to the country -- except, of course, direct conflict involving a superpower.

Nevertheless, guerrilla penetrations into the country have become more numerous and costly over the past few years. And despite Mr. Botha's hard-line attitude to late, government strategists know that there can be no long-term military solution to South Africa's travail unless it is coupled with political change.

And just what is Mr. Botha's formula for meeting black aspirations? That is difficult to say, since he seems to be in the midst of a backpedaling exercise during the current election campaign. He is retreating from his earlier call for whites to "adapt or die" in favor of entreaties for white unity in the face of a "total onslaught" from Marxist forces outside the country.

However, before this retreat (which may prove only temporary), Mr. Botha seemed to be moving toward creation of an urban black middle class that would share South Africa's cities with whites.

This black middle class would be freed from many of the more overtly discriminatory measures that encumber the black majority here.It would be given relative economic privilege and security of residence. The government's hope is that it would then subjugate its political aspirations for fear of losing out on its favored status.

This would be coupled with even harsher restrictions on black people in rural areas. Their entry into South Africa's cities -- where most of the job opportunities are -- would be closely regulated. The impoverished tribal reserves in which most would be forced to live would be declared "independent" of South Africa, and the government could then discriminate against them on the basis of "nationality," not race. Practically speaking, most black people here would be unaffected by such moves. They would still feel that raw edge of apartheid daily, in the circumscription of freedom of movement and denial of a role in political decisionmaking. Nevertheless, the white government could then claim to have "done away" with many forms of racial discrimination -- without asking whites to yield effective political or economic control.

Some top officials are even pushing the notion among whites that "common interests" -- not race -- should determine political association. This is apparently the beginning of an effort to persuade whites to forsake the hard-line racism of the past and accept at least some blacks on fairly equal terms.

Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, a prominent critic of the government, sees the move as a cynical exercise.

"There are going to be just enough blacks," he says, "to ensure that South Africa no longer attracts the [criticism] that naked racism naturally attracts."

Nevertheless, it is problematical whether Mr. Botha will be able to effect even this slight departure from the strict racial-separation dogma that his ruling National Party has espoused over the past 33 years. Already, right-wing white resistance to these "reforms" is growing, punctuated by a number of bomb attacks on people and institutions that advocate changes in racial attitudes.

And even if Mr. Botha did undertake the improvement of the lot of urban blacks, there are those who doubt it will make much difference.

One is Gen. Hendrik van den Bergh, former head of the South African security police. He recently told the Johannesburgh Star newspaper, "There are people in this country, and I specifically include the present government, who believe that economic growth, more jobs, increased expenditure on black housing, and education and training will by themselves ensure stability and temper moderate black political aspirations."

"Those who adopt this attitude, he said, "are living in a fool's paradise."

Black activists are somewhat divided in their assessment of the likely outcome of Mr. Botha's moves. Some freely admit that a few of their colleagues will "opt out" of the political struggle in return for a modicum of economic security.

One black community worker predicts they will quickly be replaced by younger, more militant activists more deeply committed to the overthrow of white-minority rule.

Another activist in Soweto, the huge black township outside Johannesburg, takes a somewhat different view. He says that as blacks better themselves economically, they will realize what is beng denied them politically -- and end up even more committed to changing the South African system. On this point, General Van den Bergh seems to agree.

"It is in these areas -- the home of the urban black elite -- that the government is arousing a steadily rising level of expectation," he said."The systematic removal of discriminatory measures and other crash programs for improving the quality of life must inevitably lead to the removal of the final form of discrimination -- political discrimination," he adds. And that, the general concludes, will lead to black majority rule.

Many black activists now see outright majority rule as the only outcome of the conflict in South Africa. Even a few years ago, they say, Pretoria could have persuaded blacks to settle for something less, some form of power sharing in which political control was diluted between ethnic groups. That time is past , many of them now say.

Some blacks also seem to have given up hope that the transition to majority rule will be peaceful. They say the current white political system, in essence, can deliver only one thing: a timetable for conflict. If whites elect a relatively moderate government, they argue, black anger could be defused for a while longer. But a hard-line white supremacist as the prime minister would, they argue, only speed up a clash that they now see as inevitable.

"The issue," says a member of the banned African National Congress, "is not how the country is run, but who runs it."

And therein lies the nub of the conflict.

"Why can't anyone concede that the whites of Africa have the right to form a nation?" asks a white government supporter.

The government and its followers hold that the whites of South Africa in general -- and the dominant Afrikaner ethnic group in particular -- form a unique "nation", with its own values, traditions, even language, that must be protected.

This "nation" would perish under majority rule, they argue. And they point to the rest of Africa, with its problems of economic underdevelopment, overpopulation, and ethnic divisions, as an object lesson of what would happen here.

Prime Minister Botha perhaps said it the bluntest and the best when he vowed that whites "will fight to the last" to prevent majority rule in South Africa. To which some blacks reply that they may very well have to -- unless they begin yielding power quickly and gracefully.

Faced with this disquieting picture of turmoil and growing violence, what should the United States do?

Volumes have been written on the subject. American interests in South Africa are substantial, ranging from the $1.8 billion direct investment of US corporations to American industrial dependence on a wide range of South African mineral exports.

And the Soviet Union has an interest in the conflict. It acts as chief backer of the African National Congress, which appears to have a substantial popular following among the country's embittered black populace.

Consequently, US policy toward South Africa could well have major implications for US economic well-being, its defense preparedness (since many South African minerals are vital for weaponsmaking), and its relations with the Soviets.

Moreover, black-white relations to the United States could hardly be helped if racial conflict broke out in South Africa -- especially if the US was seen to be supporting the white-minority regime.

And black African nations are becoming more and more impatient to see the end of apartheid. Nigeria, the No. 2 supplier of US oil imports, is likely to come under increasing pressure to use its "oil weapon" to push for tougher American and other Western opposition to apartheid.

Tempting as it is to outline solutions to the South African dilemma, one thing should be borne in mind: Solutions imposed from the outside have little chance of success.

The ruling Afrikaners are still deeply distrustful of the intentions of the outside world. That is one of the legacies of the Anglo-Boer war. Some 80 years after that conflict, many Afrikaners still bear a grudge over what they view as British imperialist conquest. They are determined not to allow any outsiders again to decide their fate.

And no matter how artfully any plans for constitutional reform might be drawn , they stand no chance of acceptance here unless black South Africans who have widespread popular support are involved in their creation.

Perhaps, then, there is a sort of bottom line for evaluating any options open to the US in dealing with South Africa. Simply stated, it is this: Will this action bring South Africans, both black and white, closer to a bargaining table to plot their own collective future?

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