South African whites: between hope and fear

Issue 

MARINA CARMAN's family left South Africa in 1977 and returned for their first visit in December. Here she describes what she found.

The one word that hits more than any other and around which everything else seems to circle is: change. Attitudes to change, the form it should take, the problems it poses, the barriers it faces and the wish to influence and control its course are integral to politics and society.

There can be no doubt that change has occurred. There is no longer official segregation. Blacks can go to the same schools, hospitals and beaches, live in the same areas and use the same services as whites. They can move through the country and cities freely, purchase land and join the now legalised liberation movement.

There has been a massive influx of blacks and coloureds into the numerous high rise apartment blocks that surround the central business districts in cities such as Johannesburg. The streets of the city centre are lined with stalls selling just about everything imaginable, and the crowds along the streets and in city centre shopping malls are almost entirely black.

The ANC slogan, "Mass action for democracy. Occupy the cities", on a poster I brought back with me, takes on a strange meaning as the whites retreat to decentralised suburban shopping malls and houses in the suburbs. In the country, one can also see the increase in black land-holdings, although the percentage of land in black hands is still pitifully low.

Just as clear are the limits of the change that has occurred. Prejudice and privilege are still the driving force behind white attitudes. Distrust and deference are still all too common among blacks. Apartment houses are run down. The cities are dirty and violence is rife. Public transport is sparse and dangerous to use. The signs of violence and poverty are everywhere: alarms on cars, broken shop windows, beggars, news each day of new deaths.

Squatter camps and the townships still house a significant proportion of the black population in abject poverty and are growing daily. Durban is presently the fastest growing city in the world, as peasant squatters flock to the cities in search of work and money — usually in vain. Black land, concentrated in arid areas, is devastated by the methods farmers are forced into by economic pressures; you see red raw earth, massive erosion, valleys turned into dust bowls.

The benefits of change have their price, and not all can afford to pay. Those who can have emerged as the new black and

coloured middle class — living in mansions, sending their children to previously whites-only schools. These gains do not change the dire situation of the majority of the black population.

Violence and the fear that it engenders are an inescapable part of South African life. You can put up big fences and alarm systems if you can afford to, but it doesn't go away. It affects everyone and is a force shaping attitudes towards change. Violence, both criminal and political, has become increasingly important as a destabilising and dividing element.

The liberation movement has analysed the gains that government forces resistant to change make from this politically disruptive problem. They stress three major types of state-engineered violence: aggravation of tribal conflicts, random bandit-style attacks, assassinations.

State involvement in tribal conflicts, particularly through connections with the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Movement, is a bastion of the "divide and rule" tactics of the old regime, but it is far from being a thing of the past. Reports continue of secret funding and police escorts of rioting factions from and back to the mining hostels.

Bandit-style killings take the form of hit squads making indiscriminate and often quite public attacks, such as machine-gunning a train carriage full of people. State involvement in this style of killing is harder to prove but the lack of investigation into such crimes is suspect. In the past two years, train violence has been the cause of 250 deaths and 1000 injuries. Investigation has yielded only five arrests.

A 1992 Amnesty International report on "Security Force Complicity in Torture and Political Killings" condemned the lack of acknowledgment that a problem exists.

Engineering or simply not acting on the violence is a political tool of the white minority government. The violence is aimed most obviously at disrupting the liberation movement. It is also aimed at dividing tribal groups, and at preventing white-black collaboration.

Most people, particularly the white population, who have limited contact with alternative sources of information, are unaware of the government's shady dealings. Among whites the violence is most commonly viewed as a problem caused by the blacks, and is used as a justification to be "concerned" about the rate and direction of change. Among whites the most common fears are loss of privilege and black retaliation and infighting.

The government still has a hidden agenda. It shows little

shame for its past actions, and continues to manipulate the people and disrupt the freedom struggle. And it maintains the support of a vast percentage of the white population.

When asked their hopes for the new South Africa, whites I spoke to separated into those who seemed to have a genuine wish for a new future and those who claimed to support change while hoping to avoid the worst. This idea of non-participatory change is unfortunately pervasive among whites.

The struggle for liberation is not over, but it continues to grow in strength daily. When I visited the ANC, the waiting rooms were crowded with new members or people turning to the ANC for support in its new and powerful position. The Communist Party and trade union movements are also growing rapidly and many believe will play vital roles in the new power structure of South African politics as checks on the ANC.

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