Where it's easy to be a liberal on race

"Meet Peter Tonge. He's from South Africa. He's one of the good ones." I was being introduced by a mutual friend to a fellow journalist, a black woman committed to civil rights in this country and somewhat suspicious of a white South African.

By "good one" I presume my friend was implying that I was largely free of the racial conservatism that characterizes much of South African society. I have pondered that introduction since then and wondered how "good" I really am. Was my frined being overly generous towards me?

Here in the safe and secure American situation, multiracialism is no threat to me. I have nothing to lose, and I never did have any problem relating to blacks, African or American, on a personal level. In short, I find it a simple matter to be liberal in the United States.

After living 13 years in the US it is now a simple matter, too, to be rational in my approach to the South African situation. The changes I would like to see take place -- steady and meaningful concessions to black aspirations -- could take place and still leave a place in the sun for the white South African. I have also tended to believe that in a multiracial situation South African blacks would run the country responsibly.

But living in the US, I have lost nothing if I am wrong. There is no threat that my family's freedoms might be circumscribed. I still have a future of relative peace and economic well-being to look forward to.

Had I remained in South Africa, would I be this rational? I believe I would have been among those ardently calling for more rapid change but I might well have joined the paramilitary home guard, undergone weekend maneuvers, and peppered a target from 100 yards "just in case." Very likely I would have pointed to the excesses of many black governments to the north as justification for avoiding an all-black government at home. My sense of principle, in this respect, would have been compromised by fear of the outcome.

When I first arrived in the US, I came with a sense of guilt about South African racial attitudes. IT felt almost as if some genetic defect had made us that way. Since then I have come to see that racism is a quite impersonal evil, a human failing that arises whenever the conditions are riper for it to do so.

The british have a record of liberalism at home that never went out with them to the colonies. Historically the Dutch have a record of liberalism more impressive than the English, yet their descendants in South Africa are the more avid supporters of racial separation in that country.

Hendrik F. Verwoerd was prime minister of South Africa until assassinated in the mid '60s. He was a Hollander by birth, emigrating from that country with his parents when he was three years old. A natural leader of men, he may well have risen to high office in the Netherlands had he remained there. Would he then have been a supporter of South Asfrican racial laws? In the secure Dutch situation his thoughts and opinions would have been molded differently, and it seems reasonable to believe that he would have concurred with general Dutch condemnation of South Africa. Yet in South Africa he became the principal architect of the homelands or Bantustans, as they are sometimes called.

In every case the more vocally liberated societies of this world are those where one ethnic group or skin coloring is in an overwhelming ruling majority. The very numbers of such a group preclude the possibility of sudden change requiring dramatic and possibly painful adjustments. In short, men are readily highly principled in situations which preclude sacrifice.

South Africans sometimes look at the US scene and ask: What adjustment of any significance were white Americans required to make in the name of civil rights? Did they lose any control over their country's destiny? Was their country's name changed? Did they have to pledge allegiance to a different flag? Did the threat of a one-party state loom over them? Why then has the commitment to civil rights in the US so often proven painful?

The Guardian, a British newspaper which has always vigorously opposed South African apartheid, nonetheless editorialized that one man, one vote in a unitary South Africa logically leads to one man, one vote in a unitary world. It suggested that Western societies would find such a minority role as difficult to swallow as white South Africans do majority rule in South Africa.

This is not to plead the case for apartheid at all. Criticisms of the South African government's handling of its racial situation are, for the most part, totally justified; it is the oft accompanying self-righteousness that is not.

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