The problem that haunts Afrikaners

The broedertwis or ''quarrel of brothers'' that has split the ruling Nationalist Afrikaners of South Africa into three warring political factions should not blind observers to what is common to all three: their passionate sale of ''survival'' to their anxious whites-only constituencies.

I, who was born in South Africa and lived there for 60 years, cannot remember a time when Nationalist Afrikaner politicians were not manipulating for ''survival.'' The struggle predates apartheid - the legalized discriminations piled on the country's peoples of color these past 38 years.

Apartheid conceals the despair of the Afrikaners about their situation in changing Africa, and perhaps the time has come for the world to take as much note of this despair as it does of the arrogance, ruthlessness, and aggression which front and conceal it.

The Afrikaners know a period in their history when they were at the edge of the precipice. This was at the turn of the century when three devastating events crowded in on them: defeat in the Anglo-Boer War, the loss of 25,000 women and children in the concentration camps of the period - a frightful disaster for the then so small a volk - and the threat of a massive plowing under by immigration from Britain. The experience bit deep.

The fear then born of extinction either by the extirpations of war or a plowing under by alien numbers is carried over today in the Afrikaner's approach to the millions of blacks by whom he is surrounded and whose presence he cannot escape. They are, to him, the carriers, like imperial Britain once was, of the double menace. The weightier fear today is that of being overwhelmed by black numbers.

The Afrikaners number 3.5 million, the blacks between 21 million and 23 million. The black population growth is 30 per 1,000 in contrast with the white growth rate of 8.2 per 1,000.

If, then, you want an answer to the question why three decades of stinging criticism of South Africa's race policies have not made any notable dent in the thinking of the country's rulers, who remain deaf to any proposal to bring blacks into the processes of decisionmaking, this is it: the fear of one day being plowed under. According to a recent report of an official committee, the country is heading for a population of 175 million in the year 2050, the overwhelming majority black. Impotence against this might of numbers is the specter that gnaws at the Afrikaner psyche. Turning what were tribal reserves into tribal ''homelands'' has not mitigated that fear nor can it.

The Afrikaner's survival problem is as genuine to him today as it was at the turn of the century, and this should be recognized. However, if genuinely approached, it could, I believe, be solved. What hinders answer is insincerity, demonstrated by the fact that the secrets of survival, real survival, are not and have not been the search of Afrikanerdom's political leaders at all. They have used the longing of their people for continuity as a screen behind which to concentrate total power into the hands of the volk. Or, interpreted more generously, they persuaded themselves and implanted the conviction into the minds of their people that without total power they are lost. The common utterance is that they don't intend to commit suicide by power-sharing with the black majority.

Are they lost? Would they be committing suicide?

We should engage the Afrikaner on the issue he has raised, opening with this question: Isn't it the lesson of history that power, a political and military commodity, is impermanent and transient, and therefore cannot serve the cause of true survival? Survival embodies the idea of permanence, lastingness, of ''pilgrimage through time.'' The best definitions of survival are in the Bible and come with breathtaking simplicity, as for example, ''. . . his name was Elkanah, the son of Elihu, the son of John, the son of Zuph. . . .'' This speaks of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow in a positive sense; it sees the cavalcade of the generations.

That is survival.

Question, then: Is it wise for a people to base their survival hopes on ephemera like political and military power? Survival, it has long been argued, is a chemistry fed mainly by nutriments outside the scope of politics. Certainly the Hollanders, the Flemish, the Walloons, the Welsh, the Scots, the French Canadians, and other small peoples, survive without reliance on military might or exclusive political power.

The facts of the South African situation actually indicate that the Afrikaner is well positioned for survival, since he has many of its incandescences: a language, a literature, a culture, a religion, a history, and an identity. What he lacks is a land of his own or a land in which he is not hopelessly outnumbered. The intertwining of the races in South Africa - white, black, colored, and Asian, is beyond unraveling. What is still possible, or should be in so large a country, is deployment of land dramatically to ease survival anxieties. The political literature of the country has thrown up several ideas on this. They may be odd but no one so odd as the official one claiming 87 percent of the land as ''the white man's.'' That's not seeking survival, but self-destruction.

The merit of the other ideas is that they require the Afrikaner to pay for his survival and not force the blacks to pay for it. Consider some of them:

* The ideas of the Lombard Report which, in suggesting race zones, envisioned Natal Province as three geographic areas - a white zone (therefore a survival zone), a black-Kwa Zulu zone, and a multiracial zone, in the latter citizenship and voting rights to be for all regardless of race.

* The ''white growth points'' idea which designates districts in which whites would do all the work, including the dirty work. That automatically would make the areas white.

* The suggestion of a homeland/dispersion pattern of existence for the Afrikaner, which creates a homeland within the confines of present-day South Africa for some part of Afrikaners; and a diaspora in the other parts in which power is shared.

As these ideas show, the problem of a territorial anchorage for the Afrikaner's survival is not, or should not be insuperable. Its resolution needs the will of the volk to reach out beyond the motifs of its political leaders, who keep them enslaved to their historical nightmares.

The role of international opinion, particularly Western opinion, should be to join the Afrikaners in the debate they have laid before us - that of their survival - and to attempt to take it to a higher level than that in which it now lies mired.

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