Methodological Approaches and Political Values
The most repugnant form of lying is to tell, all of it, whilst hiding the soul of facts.
Reluctant reconciliation is taking shape in South Africa. The ambivalent alliance between the two major contenders for power, the National Party (NP) and the African National Congress (ANC), results from a balance of forces where neither side can defeat the other. It is their mutual weakness, rather than their equal strength, that makes both longtime adversaries embrace negotiations for power-sharing. Like a forced marriage, the working arrangement lacks love but nonetheless is consummated because any alternative course would lead to a worse fate for both sides.
The emergence of multiracial domination has surprised those observers who viewed the battle over apartheid as a clear moral issue, the defeat of the last colonizers by a widely acclaimed movement of national liberation. During the 1970s and 1980s the international debate on South Africa was preoccupied with the obvious immorality of legalized racism. The apartheid state was invariably treated as a monolithic racist entity, and internal strategic developments were overlooked or reduced to simple dichotomies between oppressors and victims. This either-or reasoning ignored local contexts and obscured the ambiguities, contradictions, and irrationalities of life under apartheid. Undoubtedly, the grotesque Verwoerdian social engineering was brutal; but it also contained a certain paternalistic benevolence that oiled the system and helps explain why apartheid lasted so long. Incontrovertibly, the system of racially defined privileges designated oppressors and victims, but if we are to understand South African politics, victimology needs to be balanced by accounts of how the seemingly powerless survived, gave meaning to their lives, and acted upon their particular historical circumstances.
Developments in South Africa have also been widely misunderstood owing to the tendency to apply false colonial analogies or popular stereotypes of violent tribalism. Later, the personality cult surrounding Nelson Mandela and the accolades accorded to F. W. de Klerk have further romanticized a conflictual relationship, personalizing it into a literal matter of black versus white, and thereby obscuring the social conditions and constraints under which these leaders act, the passions and interests that drive their interacting constituencies. Criticizing the ANC became taboo among anti-apartheid activists. But it is precisely because the ANC and Nelson Mandela are key players in South Africa’s future that they cannot be treated as above criticism or scrutiny. Sympathy for the essential legitimacy of the ANC’s claims, and respect for Mandela’s moral stature, statesmanship, and pragmatic wisdom do not require progressives to endorse at face value everything the ANC says about itself. Critical solidarity, not cheerleading, is required.
To contribute to a more nuanced understanding of South Africa, this study probes the various competing forces in the ongoing transition. How did the miracle happen that allowed for multiparty negotiations? What are the sources of the continuing violence, which threatens these historic negotiations? What are the prospects for the success or failure of democracy in a society characterized by such extremes of affluence and poverty? How can the legacies of apartheid be overcome without creating new injustices? Can postapartheid South Africa, the most industrialized society in a war-ravaged continent, serve as the engine of growth for all of Southern Africa? What are the options for international assistance in the postapartheid era?
In a referendum held on March 17, 1992, a surprising 68.7 percent of South Africa’s whites supported a negotiated abolition of their minority rule. The same cabinet ministers and Afrikaner National Party that presided over the implementation of apartheid in defiance of world opinion, were now, with the support of two-thirds of their constituency, to act as democratic reformers. The approval of the referendum has been universally hailed as unprecedented in the annals of politics. Whites, however, did not vote to transfer power to the black majority, as the media reported, but only to share power.[*] They agreed to democratize a system in which they themselves will necessarily remain major stakeholders. Though strong in symbolic support, the ANC is weak in bureaucratic resources, military capacity, and economic leverage. Real power will therefore remain in the hands of the present establishment; even if Nelson Mandela becomes president of South Africa, the economy, the civil service, and the army will have to rely on white skills, capital, and goodwill for a long time to come.
Faced with the threat of a beleaguered siege economy, the ruling group thus opted for an inclusive ideology that may in the future even win substantial support from like-minded black conservatives. Moreover, by not insisting on guaranteed racial group representation, as white Zimbabweans had, the dwindling white minority in South Africa set in motion the prospect for a broad coalition government of national unity in which whites could emerge as a powerful legitimate force.
The goal of transformation through negotiation corresponds to neither the revolutionary nor the reformist agenda for South Africa. Socialist adherents of the former always falsely assumed South Africa to be the only developed capitalist country “[that] is not only ‘objectively’ ripe for revolution but has actually entered a stage of overt and seemingly irreversible revolutionary struggle.” The reformist agenda, on the other hand, was falsely predicated on selective co-option as the most effective method to buy off dissent while preserving political inequality. The multiparty negotiations, however, will neither leave the status quo intact, as the reformers had hoped, nor utterly reverse all power relations, as revolutionaries had expected. Instead, the negotiations grant all major forces a stake in a historic compromise by which each party stands to gain more than it would lose by continuing the confrontation. Most likely, economic and bureaucratic power will remain largely in the hands of the present establishment for some time, even as political power increasingly passes into the hands of the formerly disenfranchised. The negotiations concern the precise terms of such a deal.
As a widening consensus on constitutional and economic visions emerges, the prospects for peace depend on more than the designs of political leaders. The continuing political violence serves as a reminder that social conditions and unrecognized ideologies can wreck any official accord. Although the political violence is often simplistically characterized as the result of a power contest between the ANC and Inkatha, and inflamed by state agencies, the dynamics of the urban-rural divide and the hostel cultures explain the daily atrocities far better.
In the former Soviet Union we have seen how liberalizers can be swept aside by the liberalization they unleashed. But de Klerk’s situation differs notably from Gorbachev’s: Under rising pressure from below, de Klerk preempted revolution from above. De Klerk also has the advantage of presiding over a reasonably functioning industrial economy that, although severely depressed, is potentially buoyant, with a highly developed infrastructure and an established pool of managerial skills. Nor is de Klerk confronted by powerful secessionist forces. Perhaps most important, he enjoys what Gorbachev did not: a democratic mandate from much of his constituency for his commitment to reform.
It may be useful to situate our approach more clearly within the existing research on South Africa. The recent literature may be crudely classified into four categories:
(1) The vast majority of publications are descriptive accounts or running commentaries on the latest events. Granted, journalistic narratives by perceptive authors often contribute valuable insights, particularly when produced by such skilled hands as Allister Sparks (1990), Marq de Villiers (1987), Joseph Lelyveld (1985), Ken Owen (1992), or Rian Malan (1990). But works in this genre tend to focus on personalities as movers of history: comparisons between de Klerk and Gorbachev abound; books on Mandela’s life, loves, and trials still proliferate. Such personal accounts add a richness and flavor typically lacking in abstract theoretical conceptualizations of social formations, classes, and structures. But individual biographies cannot explain complex political developments, and academic interpretations must go beyond the conventional wisdom of editorials. While the particular outlooks and idiosyncrasies that result from a public figure’s personal history undoubtedly inspire the style and sometimes even shape the course of politics, political leaders always act within massive constraints. Leaders, however charismatic, can only be effective when circumstances are ripe. Consequently, political analysis is at its most astute when it focuses more on the social conditions and other forces that propel or circumscribe individuals than on their personal characteristics.
(2) Many publications, notably histories of protest and activism, are essentially polemics: they are accusatory accounts. Frequently with the best intentions, their authors aim at advocacy—but this approach easily degenerates into a propagandistic exercise. Writing on South Africa by certain authors has become utterly predictable, even when significant shifts in policy call for a fundamental reevaluation. Nothing has changed in the apartheid state; apartheid will be dead only when its entire legacy of inequality has been removed. So runs the tired refrain of that supposedly radical critique.
(3) Less partisan but equally one-sided are the many prescriptive accounts. These offer with great persuasion detailed solutions, be they a free market in a Swiss canton system (Louw and Kendall 1986) or a Japanese “high road” (Sunter 1987). More sophisticated analyses in this genre, by outstanding academic writers on divided societies, prescribe power sharing in a consociational grand coalition (Lijphart 1985) or an alternative system of voting (Horowitz 1991).
Similar rather single-minded preoccupations used to dominate the vast Marxist literature, which was concerned with changing modes of production and the various crises of capitalism. Only recently have analysts on the left begun to address current and future transformations more systematically and pragmatically (for example, see Gelb 1991), instead of chronicling a familiar pattern of conquest, exploitation, and heroic resistance. Conceptually more diverse, liberal authors have mainly preoccupied themselves with detailing a rich history of oppression and manipulation, often to the extent of ridiculing the “backward” Afrikaners caught in stale mythologies (Thompson 1985). Most activists in the anti-apartheid church network also fall into this group, writing above all with a moral outrage and a normative insistence.
(4) In their search for a politically feasible means to incremental progress rather than the elusive grand design, pragmatically oriented authors move into an analytical realm of strategic debate. We would like to align our work with this approach, while adding a healthy dose of eclecticism. Politically we write as social democrats who identify with the underdog but lack the enviable certainty of orthodox Marxists or liberal moralists about the best solution. By aiming at the second-best compromise, social democrats usually earn the distrust of ideologues on the left and neoconservatives alike. However, with the conclusion of the cold war, and the resulting ideological confusion, history has not ended. Instead, it has become more fluid and amenable to pragmatic solutions. When the former staunchly socialist governments of Mozambique and Zimbabwe embrace structural adjustment programs and free-market policies; when Afrikaner nationalists praise a thoughtful Stalinist like Joe Slovo, who appears regularly on the state-run television; when former apartheid ideologues renounce their racial exclusiveness and leading African nationalists advocate inclusive policies of sharing in place of turning the tables—who is to say who betrayed whom?
The tradition prevalent among social scientists of predicting gloom and doom on the evidence of perpetual crises or the deficiencies of human nature overlooks a self-fulfilling danger: such predictions can promote the very conditions so deplored. This defeatist stance also evades the basic fact that people learn and adapt. Radicals may deliver witty, cynical, despairing commentary, but in so doing they reveal how far they have reconciled themselves to their marginality in influencing the course of events. Equally trapped, however, are the perpetual optimists who naively claim linear progress by ignoring its obstacles, who substitute mere exhortation for sober evaluation.
The most sophisticated social science position, one that avoids both pitfalls, is best illustrated by Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action, in which the focus of philosophy is shifted from consciousness to communication. In this approach, actors’ interpretations of the world are discursively negotiated through reasoned argumentation. Rather than leading to a false consensus dictated by power relations, such communicative rationality aims at a common understanding. Although Habermas fails to specify how conflicting claims of validity are adjudicated—how we decide which is the “better” argument—his emancipatory project holds out the greatest promise for arriving at a common meaning. In contrast to the abdicating relativism of the postmodernists, modernity is retained as a universal potential, constructed not to totalize but with the ability to particularize. We write in the spirit of this vision.
This study is based on a critical evaluation of the vast body of social science work on South Africa, including an ongoing debate over policy in which we have actively participated through several publications. Modernizing Racial Domination(1971) developed the concepts of a “pragmatic oligarchy” and a “democratic police state” at a time when most writers assumed the irrationality of a fascist-like Afrikaner racism. The possibility of internal liberalization and reformist adaptation was further explored in Ethnic Power Mobilized(1979), coauthored with Hermann Giliomee. This volume traced the rise and fall of Afrikaner power not in terms of Calvinist ideology or frontier isolation from the Enlightenment but in light of the changing condition of South Africa’s political economy. At the height of South African revolutionary fervor we published the revisionist South Africa without Apartheid(1986), a work that both predicted the negotiations now underway and argued the case for accommodation in an integrated, economically interdependent consumer society. Our skepticism about the revolutionary outcome so widely assumed at the time was stoutly rejected by those who believed in the likelihood and feasibility of a socialist transformation of racial capitalism. At the same time, an unexpectedly warm letter from Pollsmoor prison in 1987 revealed that Mandela had read our book. So, it turned out, had two cabinet ministers. The fact that our theoretical studies were taken seriously by both sides in this fierce ideological battle was to us a cherished vindication of the idea that an academic analysis can make a practical contribution toward shaping perceptions of alternative policies. Rather than the inevitable unfolding of predetermined antagonistic class or racial forces, history now seemed far more open-ended, susceptible to intelligent intervention by progressive actors.
It was against the backdrop of the repressive 1970s and 1980s that we tried to make this contribution. During the 1960s we had both taught at universities in South Africa, where K.M. was born and educated and where our extended family still lives as part of the Indian community in Durban. After being forced into exile and refused visas in the 1970s, we nevertheless persisted, eventually succeeding in upholding our right to visit our family in South Africa. During regular annual visits during the 1980s we continued our field research as insiders rather than outsiders. During 1986–87, at the height of P. W. Botha’s emergency, H.A. was acting director of the Centre for Intergroup Studies at the University of Cape Town. Our daughters attended a local high school, and K.M., who was attached to the Faculty of Education, addressed parent meetings and teachers groups as frequently as she did her academic classes. We mention all this because these wide interactions over several years gave us many of the insights into South African attitudes and social conditions that inform the present analysis.
Since the inception of this study in July 1989 we have spent several months each year in South Africa, based at the University of Cape Town. We individually conducted interviews with a variety of South African politicians, journalists, academics, community leaders, union activists, and businessmen. These included six ANC executives and seven cabinet ministers, as well as the former state president P. W. Botha at his retirement home in George. In addition, two research assistants tape recorded interviews with key individuals in the legal profession and opinion makers on the Afrikaner right wing. H.A. participated as one of the few foreigners at the historic ANC-Afrikaner meeting in July 1987 in Dakar, led by F. van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, and, in October 1988 in Leverkusen, Germany, at a similar Idasa-sponsored conference, with Soviet academics, executives of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, and liberal Afrikaners. Together with contacts from numerous other conferences on South Africa around the world, we developed a network of friends and acquaintances on both sides of the ideological divide.
Apart from these conventional research methods we engaged in participant observation of relevant events in South Africa. We attended dozens of political meetings, rallies, funerals, political trials, and workshops in order to add rich atmospheric texture to our readings and formal interviews. We make no apologies for our strong views and even biases—which, of course, all analysts exhibit, whether explicitly or implicitly. All knowledge is socially and historically shaped, and the contingent character of the social “sciences” has long been exposed. This may explain our skepticism when some of our colleagues pontificate about transformation, about the need for sacrifices in the South Africa where our relatives live. Reconciliation and negotiation remain the priorities, although the economic restructuring of a skewed racial capitalism cannot be put off indefinitely. Inasmuch as economic redistribution implies further destabilizing confrontation, transformation will have to be postponed if anything is to survive to be transformed. The less outsiders interfere in negotiations at this point or try to impose their solutions or choose their winners and losers, the better for the domestic legitimacy of the outcome. In any case, given the West-centric bias about political developments in the Third World so typical of moral imperialists of all hues, they are hardly in a position to render counsel. South Africa’s critics should be guided by the particularities of historical experience, rather than by universalist formulas or false analogies with developments elsewhere. In short, context-sensitive historical analysis is called for.
Celso Furtado, one of the leading economists of Latin America, has argued that the vast political problems developing countries now face reflect historical circumstances substantially different from those the already-industrialized states passed through in the early phases of their development. Describing these different conditions as “beyond the ideological rationales derived from the experience of classical capitalism” (1970, xxv), Furtado insists that solutions must be developed within the countries themselves. Much the same could be said of the sociopolitical experience of South Africans. What passes as a democratic compromise will depend on South African consensus far more than on international norms. We may hope the two will coincide—but a hope is not a prediction, nor is it a moral stipulation.
1. Paul M. Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, “The Stakes in South Africa,” Monthly Review, April 1986. [BACK]