A-Z Challenge – untold story behind apartheid

I have tried to keep the following cool and unbiased, presenting just the points. I grew up in the system, voted for its abolition, and struggle to understand it in context. This blog may raise more questions than it answers – it did for me.

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Apart from a brief period during the latter part of the 2nd world war, when the USSR became one of our Glorious Allies, the Western world’s attitude to Communist Russia was one of deepest suspicion and alarm. The Glorious Alliance didn’t last long, and the Cold War started in 1947. It would last until 1991.

The USSR was the world’s largest supplier of gold, diamonds and minerals – which are all needed for industrial purposes. Whatever the cost, the Western world’s biggest source of gold, diamonds and minerals at that time – South Africa – had to be kept capitalist.

Whatever the cost.

Never let anyone tell you that your government didn’t know about, or support, apartheid.  It was an unofficial social policy in many countries in the world in the late 40s and in some countries remained so into the 60s. (The sign used is, as can be seen by the spelling, American.) Jan Smuts, who led the country through WW2, was set to create a strong black middle class, entrenching capitalism and financial empowerment so thoroughly that when the entire population did start voting, the country wouldn’t be turned into the latest state of the USSR.  As it happened, his party lost the next election and the National Party took power in South Africa in 1948, promptly turning apartheid from social policy into law.  It is possible there was relief in the international corridors of power – the Nats may have hated the English with a passion that dated back to the atrocities of the concentration camps of the Boer war, but they had no hostility to the other western powers and were profoundly right wing. Communism would get no foothold, it was safe to believe, while they were in control.

They stayed in power until 1994. Just give a second ‘s thought, here, wherever you live, to what it would be like to have the same political party in power for 46 years.  No left wing vs right wing shifts in policies. No bowing to political winds of change. No campaign promises broken after election. The press reporting that all was well. One strong party, voted in every four years with a safe majority by a trusting population.  Remarkably little corruption, under what must have been tempting circumstances, if compared to the corruption rife in governments that last less than a quarter of that time.  Six leaders, in 46 years.  One steady, even fatherly, government which was leading South Africa ever onward into prosperity and success.

The prosperity and success was largely white.  By the late 1950s observers were increasingly concerned to see that far from steady empowerment, the black section of the population was no further forward than it had been.  Other races in SA were thriving, and bang on track, and the country itself was doing very well. Employment was high, everyone was housed, fed, basically educated, morale was good, progress was – not.  It was the height of the Cold War. Western world governments needed South Africa  to remain capitalist, but also needed to be seen to be protesting for more progress. Pressure had to be seen to be applied. The Nats took South Africa out of the Commonwealth in 1961.

Black activist groups were using Russian weapons and equipment in growing urban terrorism. The SA communist party, along with other fledgling parties that wanted majority rule, were banned. Nelson Mandela, high profile urban terrorist, deputy leader of the ANC and co-founder of the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe, who had been nicknamed the ‘Black Pimpernel’  and had evaded capture for years,  was finally caught. He was tried for arranging fatal bombings on civilian targets, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1962. It didn’t stop the terrorism, but harsh controls drove it further underground.

By 1970 apartheid, even as a social policy, was phased out of Western society, and activists were turning their attention outside their own countries.  In South Africa progress took another huge step backward, with the abolishing of non-white representation and the creation of ‘homelands’ – meaning most black citizens lost their South African citizenship, retaining only the rights of migrant workers. It was an ultimately unsuccessful first attempt to end white-only voting, by removing the majority of black voters. Membership of any banned party was treasonable and martial law was frequently invoked.

Looked at now, with cool hindsight, it seems incredible that the Nats, representing barely 10% of the country’s population, were still backed by the majority of the voters. To put it into perspective – the country was thriving, employment was high, and countries that were telling South Africa what to do were in worse shape themselves.  Immigrants were, in fact, flooding in, from other countries in Africa, and also from the strike-torn faltering UK.  The immigrants couldn’t vote, but they could stay and find work in a thriving economy.

When a man is employed, fed, and housed, the urgent desire to vote, to use a lavatory or a hospital or a school marked ‘whites only’ when there is another nearby marked ‘blacks only’, to potentially  improve things for his children but only at extreme personal risk, isn’t that urgent.  Indignation is powerful, but when to protest is a threat to life and liberty, it usually dies into resentful resignation.  The Western governments knew that nothing could change while things were bearable under the status quo. By now under serious public pressure to counteract a situation created nearly 30 years earlier under a hidden agenda, they called for sanctions, which started to bite deeper and deeper.  International companies started pulling out of South Africa – banks, car manufacturers, major employers. Unemployment rose dramatically, and brought suffering, crime and social unrest.

Prime Minister – later State President – Vorster held his ground, even with an increasingly restive voting population, but from the early 1980s, under PW Botha, progress finally began on the original brief, to encourage the growth of an economically-strong black middle class.  In 1989 FW de Klerk took over as State President, mended some very old fences with Thatcher’s UK, and eventually released Nelson Mandela. He had already lifted the ban on the ANC and other banned parties, including the SA communist party.

In December 1991 the USSR was dissolved, ending the Cold War and largely signalling the end of the threat of communist dominance in the western world.

Only months aftewards de Klerk called for a referendum.  Is it, he asked the white-only voting population, time to give the vote to all?  The answer was an emphatic yes.  At the following election the ANC swept into office with a staggering majority and has stayed in power ever since.

Was the communist threat real? The very possibility changed the lives of millions.

If the Soviets had controlled 90% of the world’s supply of industrial diamonds and minerals for the second half of the twentieth century, would the ‘free world’ be a different place now? In how many ways?

8 thoughts on “A-Z Challenge – untold story behind apartheid

  1. I agree absolutely about the imprisonment of convicted terrorist bombers; in the mid-eighties, when my understanding was that Mandela refused to accept the offer of freedom in exchange for renouncing violence, I became increasingly convinced by the arguments of much better informed people that real progress would only happen once he had been released (having already served 20 years) and that if he was sitting at the table neither he nor his followers would encourage violence. I was so shocked when the truth about his wife’s activities came out.

  2. TBH I had and have no problem with terrorist bombers being jailed (ask anyone in Boston today) and if you had told me, at the time that dodgy wife of his was playing with her matches, that Madiba would be the best leader SA ever had or is likely to have, I’d not have believed it! I’m a huge fan now but I wasn’t then, I voted for change despite him because apartheid was unbearable,and have tried all my adult life to understand how it lasted – the western governments could have ended it in a year at any time by refusing to buy gold, platinum, industrial diamonds, our only real exports. Why didn’t they? This is the first solution that makes any sense to me.

  3. I was about 14 when they imprisoned Mandela and started marching and chanting about lots of “causes” soon afterwards but it was not until the 1980’s that I can remember signing anti-apartheid petitions and singing(?) “Free Nelson Mandela.” I vividly remember listening to Desmond Tutu’s words at that time. However, I never made the connections you have written about in your post and it has made me think about apartheid in a completely new way.

  4. Elizabeth, I read your post earlier but did not want to respond immediately as I wanted a bit of time to digest it. It was a shameful period in our history; I lived through it and left the country for a while to live abroad, ashamed to say I was a South African. But there were many dissenters, the Rand Daily Nail, Helen Suzman, The Black Sash, and ordinary men and women who voted for the Progressive Party and who treated their workers with respect. The status quo was just that – no movement. In spite of it all, there was already an emerging black middle class.
    How are things now in SA? Well, I am sure you know what’s going on as much as we do … the wheels within wheels keep on turning so much so that we are dizzy with it all. All I do know is that power corrupts, and that once obtained, no-one likes to let go. And we are ALL aware of this. Time and place and circumstances may change but the dynamic remains the same. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    Susan Scott’s Soul Stuff

    • My SA experience stretched from Verwoerd to Mbeki and at my most impressionable age it was Vorster, then Botha, who frustrated me – how could they not SEE what was so obvious to the Progs? This answered some questions for me – not how they could do it, but at least why they were so stubborn. Hence the final questions 🙂

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