Project of IISHJ

South Africa in Transition

The Jewish Humanist, November 1990


South Africa is a troubled nation. I know, I spent three weeks there this past summer.

I was also there in 1973 at the height -of-the apartheid system. I did not – imagine at that time that-the whites -would yield- their power willingly. I imagined that only a violent revolution could change the system.

But in 1990 I seemed to be wrong. Dramatic concessions were made by the- white government. Nelson Mandela, the black leader, was released-from prison after 27 years of confinement. The African National Congress, long banned, was declared legal.

I was overwhelmed by the changes. I wanted to see them with my own eyes. I wanted to experience the difference.

Now South Africa is not a nation. It is a collection of nations. Situated on a piece of land about the size of Texas and California put together, it is the home of many ethnic groups. Some 35 million people are divided among blacks, whites, coloreds and Indians. The blacks constitute over seventy percent of the population. They are divided into three great nations, Xhosa, the Zulu and the Sotho. The whites number almost 5 million. They, in turn, are divided into the English and the Dutch. After three hundred years they call themselves Afrikaners.

Ever since its beginning as the Cape Colony, South Africa has experienced white domination. In 1948 white supremacy was turned into an official policy called apartheid (separation). Laws were passed that turned blacks into aliens, forbade them to own land in white areas, forbade them to live in white areas without special permission and confined them to inferior housing, school and work. Other laws were passed to reinforce this “racism”. Anti-apartheid propaganda was labeled communism and communism was banned. A powerful army and police force, assisted by black collaborators made sure that these laws were enforced.

Apartheid culture was the South Africa culture I experienced in 1973. It was a culture of two worlds. Whites belonged to the First World, coddled by affluence and servants, Blacks belonged to the Third World, living in hoveIs and reduced to walking for basic transportation. This system of contrasts was infused with religious piety and conservative virtues, which were intended to delay the entry of South Africa into the twentieth century.

However, ever since 1976, the apartheid structure has been slowly collapsing. Black resistance, which began in Soweto grew in number and in power. The white government first responded with repression and then responded with concessions. Petty segregation was ended. A new constitution was written granting the vote to coloreds (mulattos) and Indians. The past laws were abolished. Sex and marriage between, the races were no longer forbidden. Mandela was released.

Of course, these concessions did not come about only because of black resistance. The composition of sanctions by the world community, including the United States, hurt the economy severely. Unemployment, failing businesses and a falling rand were painful prices to pay for apartheid. Ultimately the white Afrikaner Nationalist government threw in the towel and announced its commitment to dismantle apartheid.

When I arrived in South Africa last summer the process of dismantling apartheid had just begun. The blacks still had no vote. The land was still segregated. And negotiations between De Klerk, the white president, and Mandela had just begun.

But there were many changes from 1973.

Hotels and public accommodations were desegregated. Blacks were too poor to use them. But more prosperous Indians were present in the hotels and resorts in large numbers.

Token affirmative action was in place. In many banks and corporate offices, black managers and executives appeared from time to time to illustrate the beginning of new racial policies.

Strikes and boycotts were everywhere. Black unions were demanding more pay and more benefits. Black demonstrators were marching through white areas. Black customers were withholding their business from firms that insisted on preserving apartheid.

Freedom had a new lease on life. Censorship was gone. The change was so dramatic that some liberals had difficulty adjusting to their new liberty. Radical anti-government literature abounds. Even Communists were publishing freely.

Politics were turned upside down. The right-wing Nationalist party, which controlled the government and which had invented apartheid, was now a party of the “left” committed to the dismantling of segregation. Disgruntled conservative whites had organized another political party to argue their cause. But their new party found itself in the opposition and without real political power.

White homeowners were now outraged by the emergence of thousands of black squatters in their neighborhood and on their beaches. With the past laws gone, many unemployed poor blacks had moved from the black homelands to the white areas in search of jobs. But there are no jobs and no housing, and no more places in the black townships.

Three years ago the squatters would have been ruthlessly removed. Today a timid and ambivalent white government lets them stay.

Violence was everywhere. Blacks were killing blacks in the black townships. The Zulus, an imperial black nation that had ruled all the others, wanted their share in the scramble for power. Their leader Bathilezi and his political party Inkotha wanted equality with Mandela, a Xhosa, and the leader of the African National Congress. White vigilantes were encouraging the Zulus, with the hope that if blacks could be encouraged to kill blacks, the whites could remain in control.

Important issues were hotly debated by whites and blacks. Should capitalism be returned? Should wealth be redistributed? Should a new constitution guarantee one person one vote? Should Afrikaans, the language of the hated Afrikaners, be retained as one of the two official languages of South Africa? How should the control of the army and police be transferred to a black majority?

Most whites in South Africa are bewildered by the changes. They struggle to cope. Some have accepted the inevitability of black control and are steeling themselves to live with it. Some still hope that the blacks will kill each other off or die of AIDS and white supremacy will remain. Some are determined to resist, even though they are not quite sure what they would do. Many are talking about emigration, preferably to Australia or southern California.

The Jews in South Africa are also bewildered. Still 110,000 strong with over half of their number in Johannesburg, they struggle with the emerging realities. Strongly Zionistic and religiously conservative, their leadership has provided a timid and cautious resistance to apartheid. The close ties between pariah South Africa and pariah Israel make them reluctant to provoke the government.

Most Jews are ambivalent about leaving. Their lifestyle is so comfortable, especially in a servant culture, that it is hard to depart in the absence of any overt assault. Even the reemergence of anti-Semitism among right-wing Afrikaners (who now blame the Jews for the demise of apartheid) is not a sufficient stimulus to start an exodus. If a black government retains capitalism many Jews will remain.

“So what is going to happen?,” people ask me. I do not know. If the Xhosas and Zulus get together, a black majority government with socialist edges will take over. If the whites and the Zulus get together, a black-white coalition may be the political consequence. Most blacks want the first. Most whites want the second.

But continued bloodshed and chaos could produce many other alternatives.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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