For several years in the 1980s my attention was fixed on the great morality play of the dramatic collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. For a while it seemed as if the promise of that event would end in the festering corruption of the presidency of Jacob Zuma. Now there are signs that the decent forces of democracy may finally come together to end the sordid Zuma era.
My involvement began with a phone call in 1985 from Johannesburg by Bobby Godsell, who was on the staff of Harry Oppenheimer, the mining tycoon and a generous supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. Godsell told me that Oppenheimer wanted to set up an “international commission” about the future of South Africa. Godsell was coming to America and wanted to talk with me about the possibility of my becoming chairman of this group. I had done some work on the issues of what was then called “Third World” development, but I asked “Why me? I have never been to South Africa, know little about it.” He replied: “That’s why we want you as chairman.” I understood what he was saying, but said that this was the first time that someone wanted me to do something on the basis of proven ignorance. We met for a long discussion at the Algonquin Hotel in New York and rather hit it off. A few weeks later I was in South Africa, assembling the group that Oppenheimer had in mind, rapidly getting an education in South African affairs. The following three years absorbed me in the most interesting project of my career as a social scientist—trying to understand a large and complicated society undergoing a rapid process of change. Also, it was morally uplifting, observing from up close the demise of a thoroughly reprehensible regime and its replacement by something much better. As I relive those days in my mind I can still feel on my skin the bracing dry warmth of the High Veldt
The project was active from 1985 to 1988. The working group consisted of about 25 individuals, most of them South Africans of every shade of color plus a few Europeans and Americans. Individuals were assigned to all the major actors in the South African political spectrum—from the radical white groups to the right of the government, to moderate groups in the center (notably the business community and the churches), to the various ethnic (“tribal”) and racial movements, to the “comrades” in the black townships (who defined themselves as “the resistance”). The members of the working group came from very different professional backgrounds—social scientists, political activists, journalists, business people, clergy, even a philosopher. To make sure that there was a common frame of reference, we assembled for three days in a remote hunting lodge in the Transvaal and hammered out a conceptual grid that everyone was willing to accept (more or less). I emphasized that each paper should be objective, representing as faithfully as possible the perceptions and the intentions of the group being studied. This led to a very interesting debate. One of the younger members was Helen Zille, an Afrikaans-language journalist who became famous for reporting that Steve Biko, the radical “black consciousness” leader, had died violently while in police custody. At the time Zille defined herself as a Marxist. She disagreed strongly with my call for objectivity: This was neither possible nor desirable—she was part of “the struggle” and everything she writes must reflect that fact. I finally said, “Okay, do what you can do.” Her assigned group was the extreme (and occasionally violent) Afrikaner right-wing movement, whom she fiercely detested. She did one of the best essays in our book—that is, she did brilliantly what she said could not be done! I have learned a lot from this incident. After the democratic transition Zille became Mayor of Cape Town, Premier of the Western Cape, then head of the Democratic Alliance, the major opposition party. She stepped down from the party leadership because she felt that the time had come for a black leader to head the opposition to the racially homogeneous African National Congress.
When I came back from my first trip to South Africa people asked me whether anything there had surprised me. Two seemingly contradictory items occurred to me. One was the oppressive reality of apartheid in the lives of black people—not the horrors of the regime such as the murder of Steve Bilko that Helen Zille had discovered. Other incidents were perhaps less brutal but also more surreal: The black philosophy professor who was a member of our working group had his home in a township broken into by some “comrades” who wanted to combine profitable free enterprise with their revolutionary activity. They made a big mistake when they tried to steal from moderately affluent blacks. The leaders of the “comrades” took a dim view of such “privatization”—they were in the habit of imposing “revolutionary justice” on the spot. Our colleague and his wife sat behind the wall with the burglars and the revolutionary tribunal, trying (apparently successfully) to convince the tribunal not to execute the burglars there and then. They had to make sure they could not be seen from the outside: A curfew was on, the police were patrolling in their armored vehicles, and they were in the habit of shooting before asking questions. A vignette of humanity under extreme pressure!
Another, quite different surprise was that I developed a certain empathy with Afrikaners—that small white tribe, speaking an antique Dutch and haunted by a dark Calvinism, clinging fiercely to their hold on the southernmost tip of a huge black continent—an empathy that had little to do with my condemnation of the political system. We were at a party in the home of a member of the English-speaking elite—most of them had been Oxbridge graduates, one of them just returned from a grouse-hunting safari in Botswana that he described in loving detail. The pictures on the wall were of horses and hunting dogs. The only non-Anglophile guests were me and a retired professor of Greek from Stellenbosch University, the Afrikaans Harvard. He had just been recruited to serve as “minister of constitutional development” and charged with the still-secret (and illegal) negotiations with Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. Inevitably we sat with each other. I knew that he differed from the views of President F.W. de Klerk, who hoped to save as much of apartheid as possible. I asked him if they knew each other. He smiled and said, “We knew each other from before we had shoes.” They had grown up on adjoining farms in the Free State and went barefoot until age six when they started school. These are ties deeper than most political agreements. (Which is also why members of the Afrikaans Resistance Movement were willing to be interviewed by Helen Zille.)
All of this is now decades in the past, the memories as fresh as ever. I am tempted to indulge in them. But my blog is to have some more general lessons than the sensation of dry heat evoked by memories of summer in the High Veldt. One lesson is the importance of individuals at pivotal historic moments—something that social scientists, always on the lookout for broad impersonal forces, are prone to neglect. The events in South Africa in the early 1980s are overshadowed by the powerful presence of one man, a great man if anyone can be called that: Nelson Mandela, unbroken after 27 years in prison (especially brutal in the beginning), coming out with a fluent command of Afrikaans and ready to negotiate with the enemy. His principal adversary, F.W. de Klerk, was quite remarkable too (though one would hesitate to call him great). He understood that apartheid as a political system was doomed and was prepared to lead his people to a new dispensation in which whites would no longer be in charge, but he hoped to negotiate an arrangement by which whites would not be submerged in a huge majority of black votes. (For example, there was unrealistic mention of something like a racial version of the Swiss canton system!) But every time the government came up with another complicated compromise, Mandela stood by his nonnegotiable mantra—“one person, one vote”—buttressed by a strong code of civil rights. And that is what happened in 1994, when millions of whites, standing in long lines next to their black fellow citizens, voted for Mandela for President. On other matters, he turned out to be very flexible (for example, language rights). I recall watching a scene on television as South African Air Force planes roared over the platform on which Mandela had just been sworn in: An old black man, with tears flowing down his cheeks, saying: “Now it’s my air force, too!” (Of course, this high moral tone was not sustained. The line from Mandela down through the next two black Presidents—Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma—is not an inspiring spectacle. But the constitution achieved in a remarkably bloodless transition to nonracial democracy is still in force, ready to be used for yet another transition.)
Another lesson I may mention is the unexpected fragility of what seemed like irresistibly powerful structures. I remember an interview I had with the chief of staff of the South African military. A middle-aged, self-confident, impeccably polite general, he was frankly bragging: He was in command of the most powerful military in Africa, which could be and was deployed, openly or clandestinely, almost anywhere on the continent. He spoke with mild sarcasm of the intention of the ANC to make South Africa “ungovernable.” He then mentioned two new developments: The arrival in Angola of a large unit of armored infantry from Cuba, about to be deployed under his command; and the ability of that unit to get support in the field directly from the global network of Soviet military intelligence. Actually, the sudden collapse, first of the Soviet empire and then of the Soviet Union itself, is causally related to the collapse of its South African junior ally. With the first two gone or going, the third lost its principal big power support. And I have the perfect image of this: It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. My wife Brigitte and her brother wanted to drive across the old border and explore what, if anything, was left of some family property that had been confiscated by the Communist government in East Germany. They wanted to just drive across, but in case the so-called German Democratic Republic still existed (it had an embassy in Washington and full diplomatic relations with the United States), I thought it might be prudent to call and ask whether a visa would be required. I offered to make the call. The phone rang and rang. No one answered. The much-feared German Democratic Republic, represented by its Washington embassy, no longer existed. “How are the mighty fallen! Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon.” (2 Samuel 1:20)