Index of Memos


A Note On Cape Town

(In what follows the word ‘non-white’ is used, even though it covers a wide variety of skin colours. It accurately reflects the thinking of the Afrikaners, who, having classified a person as not white, have rarely bothered to discriminate further.)

History provides plenty of support for the view that, no matter how worthy their initial aims, nearly all violent revolutions do more harm than good. Like ‘just’ wars they miss their target. More often than not they hit the very people they were supposed to benefit.

There is the occasional exception. The American revolution, for instance, was not only understandable but also beneficial to those who rebelled and even, arguably, to those against whom they rebelled. But for every exception such as this, there are a hundred others where the very process of revolution has defeated its initial aims. The cure either kills the patients or leaves them in worse condition than before.

This view is of course open to the objection that, taken too far, it can mean that no regime, however oppressive, should be challenged by force. Do you really mean, asks the objector, that the only remedy for the oppressed is to work patiently and gradually towards an improvement in their lot? How can they, when the regime efficiently denies them the education, social conditions, enfranchisement etc which would make improvement possible? The objection has to be met by the hard evidence that it is in the nature of violent revolutions to get out of hand, or rather, to get into the wrong hands. A new, and often more thorough, oppressor will replace the old.

Is this view challenged by the history of Africa during the 20th century? An easy reply could be that the changes in most parts of the continent do not properly belong within the category of revolutions. Instead they are examples of what happens when an imperialist power (for its own good or bad reasons and in its own good or bad way) withdraws from the scene, leaving its former colony to govern itself as best it can. But they do throw depressingly familiar light on what force and violence can do. The normal pattern has been either an immediate military take-over or an initially well-meaning attempt at democracy followed by a military coup. The new (military) rulers have then negotiated with the ex-imperialist to exploit the resources of the country but have done very little to improve the condition of the poor and in many cases have imposed on them a more efficiently oppressive regime.

(These are short-term results and it is far too early to draw long-term conclusions from them. It could be that many of the countries concerned, presently seen as administratively and economically hopeless, will, given time, find their own way to stability.)

If most of Africa lies outside what (if anything) we can deduce about ‘revolutions’, then South Africa, and particularly the Cape Province, seems to be an exception to an exception. Its climate is acceptable to Europeans and much of its soil is good for the kind of farming with which Europeans have been familiar. As early as the mid 17th century the Dutch began settling in Cape Town and were joined later in the century by small, but extremely valuable groups of Huguenots. Unlike visitors to the African coasts nearer to the equator, they wanted to settle by farming and were hungry for land. To satisfy this hunger they needed to expand to the East and North, into land already inhabited by local tribes, predominantly the Khoi and the Zhosa. This they achieved by a ruthless mixture of bribery, deceit and guns. They were never in doubt that they were superior to the natives and thereby had the right to subdue and govern them as they thought fit. As will be seen, this mind-set proved to be very durable.

But the further they expanded their farmlands, the more the Dutch were vulnerable to attacks from what now would be called ‘terrorists’. They were, both in Europe and in South Africa, short of manpower and, in the course of the 18th century, Holland itself was in relative decline as an economic and naval power. It was from necessity rather than choice that in 1806 control of Cape Town was ceded to the British.

Morally it is difficult to choose between the new and the old governors. The Dutch had been, and remained, openly racist. The British were more interested in naval bases and trade than in farming. They, officially, deplored racism, but stopped short of passing or enforcing legislation which might have offset it. As their confidence and power grew in the early 19th century, they sent an increasing number of missionaries (who, to their credit, set up schools for the non-whites), but they never lost sight of their hard-headed belief that missionaries were good for trade. Clothing the natives in cotton grown in India and finished in Manchester was very good for trade.

But between the British and what, by now, should be called the ‘Afrikaners’ the signs of trouble were already apparent early in the century. Whether under British or Afrikaner control, white expansion was continuing north into the Transvaal, the Orange Free State and Natal, but it was particularly in the Cape Province that land for farming was becoming more difficult to take from the local tribes. And despite equivocations and compromises by the British, differences in governmental ideology were opening up between them and the Afrikaners. Increasingly the Afrikaners felt that their way of life was threatened by the, apparently, more liberal British.

The Afrikaners tried to solve the problem by what, ironically, might be described as a precursor to Apartheid. From the Cape Province a considerable section of them emigrated north between 1836 and 1854 on what became known as The Great Trek. But it has to be said that despite the hardship and courage involved, this did not, in the long run, provide the solution the Afrikaners wanted. The British were already established at Durban and had the military power to threaten the Afrikaner way of life. Against this, as events were to show, the Afrikaners were tenacious, they knew the country and were expert in guerrilla warfare.

To condense history more than somewhat, the result at the end of the century was the Boer War – which has variously been described as ‘a civil war’, ‘a revolution by the Afrikaners’ and ‘a penal and just measure by the British’. Whatever its description, it was the first major armed conflict between rival white communities in South Africa.

To the contemporary British the conflict was presented as the result of obstinacy by the Afrikaners in clinging to a regime which meant near-slavery for the non-whites. But other causes were at work. In the last third of the century British economic and naval supremacy was under threat. As the mineral, strategic and other assets of Africa were revealed, other European countries, growing in relative power, were claiming their share of the spoils. There was a need for the British to consolidate their hold on South Africa.

These developments had been accelerated by the discovery of diamonds (Kimberley 1867) and gold (Johannesburg 1886) which attracted huge numbers of prospectors. Many of the long-term effects of these discoveries properly belong to the history of international finance. (Production and marketing were quickly brought under steady corporate control.) But they did have a significant social and economic impact. Some of the profits were used to subsidize the building of roads and railways (useful, inter alia, for the transport of troops). They brought to prominence a small group of successful financiers, notably Cecil Rhodes, who (among even wider visions) was determined to bring about a Union of all the South African territories. In this he eventually succeeded and the Union was recognized by the British in 1910.

They also had more ominous effects. The hard and dangerous job of mining, as distinct from supervising it, was done by non-whites. The product was highly stealable. This led to the system whereby non-white workers were made to live within men-only, tightly guarded compounds, to be subject at any time to body-searches and (foreshadowing the future) at all times and on pain of heavy physical punishment, to carry a pass.

They accelerated the migration of non-whites (and to some extent of whites) from farm-lands to cities. They helped to create a new class of poor-whites. To keep mining profits high, wages were kept to a minimum and strikes were harshly crushed. .

Meanwhile can it be said that these developments - the international shifts of power, the discovery of minerals and what the contemporary British would have called ‘the Afrikaner revolution’  - did anything to improve the condition of the 90% of the population who were non-white? If anything, the contrary is true. Acquisition of tribal land became more efficient, assisted by the development of the machine-gun and better facilities for the transport of troops. Those dispossessed of land drifted to the mines and cities in search of work, but it was only work at the price of total subjection to new ‘chiefs’. During the Boer War itself the non-whites suffered casualties as heavy as the nominal combatants. Those who, by either side, were regarded as ‘suspect’ were herded into the forerunners of concentration camps.

As regards the non-whites, the same negative answer must be given to the effects of the Union and its gain of status as an independent Dominion in 1931. Despite much liberal legislation on the Statute Book, in practice the new regime, now unfettered by British control, followed traditional Afrikaner racialism. Of Cape Town, for instance, it could almost be said that the non-whites were back to where they had been before the surrender of power to the British in 1806.

But, particularly after the First World War, there were signs of change. The missionary schools offered to promising non-white children the chance of progressing beyond the bare necessity of literacy. It was to a considerable extent from these schools that there began to emerge politically educated groups who thought in terms of uniting the non-whites against the 10% white minority who governed them. At the same time, and not surprisingly, the power-holding minority began to be obsessed with counter-measures.

It was bound to take time before the political scene settled into any coherent order. During the decades between the two world wars and for some time after the second, both whites and the non-whites formed extremist parties, most of which collapsed. But there was a foretaste of unredeemed Afrikaner racism in the ‘Broderbund’ (which had entered political life as early as 1931) and came near to gaining power in 1945. It was a short step from there to the electoral victory of Malan in the ‘Apartheid Election’ of 1948.

As regards the non-whites, two political organizations, the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress emerged as predominant. The first of these was and remains the more conservative of the two, and has been politically far more successful, but the PAC (whose political programme involves what the whites would regard as the destruction of the economy) remains very much alive and ready, if circumstances favour it, to take over power.

The ‘theology’ of Apartheid (endorsed by The Dutch Reformed Church) was strikingly similar to that of Nazi Germany, including a local version of Aryanism. But with one crucial difference. Throughout the various phases of Apartheid between 1948 and 1990 the Afrikaners recognized that those whom they regarded as inferior were essential to the economy. In effect the Afrikaners wanted it both ways. They wanted a cheap, submissive, unskilled labour-force, but not one which was dangerously well-educated, or politically powerful or lived embarrassingly close to their own houses.

But they were also aware that non-white education and political organization had gone too far to be reversed without a level of violence that they dared not risk. Such measures as they took were often contradictory and suggestive of a quiet but progressive panic. They alternated between banning and making limited concessions to non-white political groups. They did all they could ( including the notorious razing of District Six in Cape Town) to exclude non-whites from the centres of cities, but they did nothing (could they, given their political philosophy, have done anything?) to stop the enormous growth of shanty-towns on the edges of cities, except to reinforce and enforce the old ‘pass laws’.

In the end their nerve failed. By 1990 they recognized that the choice lay between a tidal wave of non-white violence the results of which they could not contain and the effective enfranchisement of the non-whites. President de Klerk announced that the bans on the ANC, the PAC and other non-white parties were to be lifted. Also that Nelson Mandela was immediately to be released from prison.

It could be said, cynically, that in Mandela, who as the victimized leader of the ANC was virtually bound to become the new President, the Afrikaners knew their man. Long imprisonment had left him astonishingly free from bitterness. His view of change was conservative. He was known to favour a gradual transfer of economic power. And so, during his tenure of power, he proved to be. In personal terms, his life must be one of the most truly triumphant in recorded history. It seems almost impertinent to question whether he was what South Africa needed – and perhaps still needs.

A good test is Cape Town as it is today. To the short-term visitor there are no signs of police brutality towards non-whites, nor of open hostility by the non-whites. The high-rise office and hotel city centre could be Vancouver or Seattle. The harbour areas and shopping malls are efficiently touristic and the roads are well-planned.

On a further, slightly harder look, it is difficult not to notice that all manual work is done by non-whites (under a white supervisor), and that outside the city all walkers are non-white. Also unavoidable are the shanty-towns a mile or two outside the city limits.

But even less avoidable is the attitude of the more prosperous whites. To put it simply, they live in self-imposed ghettoes surrounded by high walls and obsessed with ‘security’. At first the visitor regards this as prudence against burglary, but it soon becomes clear that there is an underlying worry that goes far deeper than that. Among the causes of this worry is that the political dismantling of Apartheid has manifestly left a two-tier economic structure intact.

The truth seems to be that the white South Africans know –but are very hesitant to say – that sooner or later there is to be a reckoning that stretches back more than three centuries. On this long scale Mandela will eventually be assessed as a minor saint who delayed, but could not prevent the reckoning. There might even be those who will argue that a time-bomb was unavoidably there and that, despite the risks of drastic governmental action, it would have been better to defuse it earlier.

This returns us to the arguments for and against violent revolutions. It may be that successive non-white governments will inherit Mandela’s wisdom and gradually legislate for the transfer of economic power. It is worth thinking hard about what more precipitate legislation would involve. A Union-wide minimum wage or the repossession of farmlands, for instance, would immediately be opposed by the white community as the prelude to economic ruin. A take-over of the gold and diamond cartels would, so it would (perhaps cogently) be argued, provoke a flight of international finance. There would also be a parallel flight of much-needed professional skills.

Even more fundamental in terms of violence, it seems unlikely that the Afrikaners would submit quietly. The allegiance of the police and the armed forces might well be in question. There might well be a danger of international involvement, with a predictable line-up between neighbouring African countries on the one side and ex-imperialist powers on the other.

What seems fairly sure is that the Afrikaners cannot reasonably hope for an indefinite economic stasis. There will be change. It remains to be seen what form it will take and what effects it will have.


February 2001