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For white South Africans, the danger is acquiescence

By Bob Tucker / July 4, 1988

SITTING in our Johannesburg home the other day, my eight-year-old son and I were watching an inter-provincial cricket match on the television. As the match moved toward its climax, he turned to me and asked: ``Dad, whose side are we on?'' In that instant he was subjected to the persuasion of ``co-option'' (being pressured into taking sides) to which we are all prone. But in South Africa today, those forces of co-option are powerfully prevalent and insidious. The temptation first to acquiesce, then to be co-opted, and finally to collaborate is as subtle as the proverbial serpent.

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It is of course emotionally preferable to be part of the in-group as opposed to being out there on your own. But it is also very difficult to anticipate precisely how acquiescence on one issue might compromise one's independence on much bigger and more important issues.

There is considerable temptation to believe that ``my'' membership in the in-group on an apparently unimportant issue cannot possibly make any real difference to the really big issues. However, an experiment recently conducted in an American secondary school - in which a feather was placed in the middle of the steel axle of a railway carriage and the bend caused by the feather actually measured - compels us to accept that the contribution which each one of us makes is relevant to the course of events.

In South Africa, obvious examples of co-option, both to the left and the right, to the side of the government and the side of revolutionary forces, abound. One might, for example, take two weekly newspapers - the Sunday Times with a circulation of 516,064, and the Weekly Mail with a circulation of 16,000.

The lead story of the Sunday Times edition preceding the date set for the hanging of the Sharpeville Six deals with a young woman who artificially inseminated herself. The lead story of the same edition of the Weekly Mail deals with the Army's involvement in the abduction and assault of a black township resident.

The following week's edition of the Sunday Times (after the postponement of the hangings) dealt emotively and at length with the ``terrorist'' Grosskopff who was sought in connection with a bomb blast. Despite the fact that he had neither been arrested, charged, tried, or convicted, the paper neglected to insert the word ``alleged.'' The Weekly Mail dealt in its corresponding issue with the Sharpeville Six.

The comparison is startling, and can be followed week by week, despite the fact that both newspapers are written under the same censorship laws.

The subtlety of the co-option in this case is into accepting that the role of the media is to give the public what it wants - perhaps even to indulge its idiosyncrasies, thereby maximizing circulation and hopefully avoiding confrontation. It is not that there was any direct attempt to co-opt the media into acting as an effective spokesman for the maintenance of the status quo. Yet by succumbing to the influence of the one, complete effect is given to the other.

The co-option of the business community has been as complete and as effective as it has of the media. We are frequently asked, ``what can you, as South African businessmen, do to bring about a more just society?'' Conventional wisdom gives the answer as ``very little, if anything.'' Today that answer is probably correct - but only because we as a business community have over a period of time been co-opted to accept that the sole function of business is to maximize profit and avoid confrontation or involvement in the affairs of state.

I have little doubt that in the boardrooms of South Africa, the issues under debate today are the implications of the Minimum Tax on Companies and how the private sector will cope with sanctions, buy up divested United States subsidiaries, and participate in the government's privatization program and economic package.