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18 December 2000

They cling on, by their fingernails

Will the southern Cape be the end of the road for the white man in Africa? Bryan Rostronfears that i

By Bryan Rostron

“SA on its way to two-party state,” trumpeted the Cape Times after last week’s local government election, playing both on stereotypes of African despotism and deep-seated white South African fears of a black government. This was a curious reaction six years after our first democratic, post-apartheid elections, but it expressed a general consensus that the official opposition had now made sufficient gains to challenge the hitherto almost total supremacy of the African National Congress.

Two-party politics; sounds good. But will it be so? The newly formed Democratic Alliance, cobbled together only six months ago, garnered an impressive 22.5 per cent of the nationwide vote, as well as consolidating its control of the Western Cape. But there will be a price to pay for the emergence of this opposition, and that is the further racialisation of South African politics. For the Democratic Alliance (DA) is essentially a white-based party and made its gains by shameless racial scaremongering.

The DA is a union between the old Democratic Party of Helen Suzman and the National Party of P W Botha. This coalition between white liberals and the party of apartheid has already had two extremely unfortunate effects: it has encouraged many whites to continue to identify solely with their colour and class interests, and there is evidence that the ANC will shrug off legitimate criticism as racial prejudice from colonially minded whites.

Explaining the DA election strategy in the Western Cape, for example, a senior party manager told the Cape Times: “We focused on white areas and, off the record, made sure we scared the living daylights out of them.”

This is not healthy for South Africa’s new democracy. What we need is a genuine opposition, not a white-interest party that gains “coloured” and Indian votes by playing to their fears as minority groups. General Constand Viljoen of the ultra-right Freedom Front, which campaigns for an Afrikaner “homeland”, has publicly conceded that he is losing support because nervous white diehards believe that Tony Leon, the pugnacious DA leader, is more effective in fighting for “white rights”.

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In future, the DA may be able to expand its black membership; but, by playing so blatantly to white fears, it has made that job extremely hard for itself.

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The ANC, in contrast, ran an astonishingly complacent campaign; it did, however, stick to an early decision not to be negative. But will the ANC continue to abjure such racial politicking under pressure? If not, Africa’s fearful whites will have succeeded once again in creating the very thing they dread.

So one is entitled, I think, to withhold those two cheers for this acclaimed democratic “two-party” advance and ask: what kind of opposition party do we now have?

The DA flyer stuck through my letterbox screamed: “ANC victory means – higher rates, more crime, crumbling services.” Most prominent, however, was a bright red box with a skull and crossbones, and the large warning: DANGER. This would be instantly recognisable to any South African as a swaart gevaar (black peril) warning.

Before the election, I went to a local DA meeting, where Tony Leon was the star speaker. “I’m not just here to scare you,” announced Leon to his almost completely white audience. He then proceeded to do little else. You could have been forgiven for leaving the meeting with the impression that our government was intent on driving the persecuted, hard-working whites, if not into the sea, certainly out of their homes.

At least there was unintended satiric relief from his colleague, the “new” National Party’s (successful) mayoral candidate Peter Marais, who blamed the ANC for all the woes in the Western Cape – the only province the ANC does not control. The audience nodded vigorously in agreement, forgetting that the speaker belonged to the very party that had ruinously foisted apartheid on us for nearly half a century, and which has continued to rule the Western Cape since 1994.

White South Africans are, as a result of this amnesia, drifting back into old attitudes. Our historical pigmentocracy – after an all too brief period of modest silence – is simply reverting to type. Increasingly, I hear white people voice attitudes that I don’t believe they would have dared vent, say, two years ago.

It is as if, like someone who has held his breath till bursting point, they are expelling a long pent-up discharge. I hear it almost daily, often from unexpected quarters, and buried in the most casual remark. “These people . . .” someone will say, with a dismissive wave of the hand, referring carelessly to the majority of our population. The question is left hanging: well, what can you expect from such people?

What I find alarming is not so much the crude racism from predictable quarters, but the more subtle slippage among whites of liberalish views; in other words, exactly those who need to come to terms with the new era if our multiracial democracy is to work. Here, for example, are some of the euphemisms I have heard during the past year from professional English-speaking whites: “our little green friends from Mars” . . . “our non-rate-paying citizens” . . . “our indigenous friends” . . . “non-reflexives” . . . “them”.

An indication that this is fairly accurate as a national drift was borne out by a survey conducted by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, published three months ago. This was faithfully summed up in the headline “Whites in denial about new SA”. The survey found that the majority of white South Africans rejected the value of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: 77 per cent of black South Africans believed it was an important initiative for nation-building, against just 29 per cent of whites. Only 50 per cent of white South Africans indicated any willingness to participate in nation-building.

Leon has dismissed “the factor of guilt over the past” as an unhealthy “neurosis”. With such talk, the denial of historic realities and a retreat to racial selfishness is encouraged by his party. Hence, celebrations over the advent of a strong opposition are premature. What, we may ask, are they really opposing?

An old South African political axiom runs: till the end of the Second World War, politics was a debate among Afrikaners about what to do with the British; then it became a debate among whites about what to do with the blacks; finally, it will become a debate among blacks about what to do with the whites.

This encourages apprehensive white South Africans to retreat into a siege-mentality parody of, well, whiteness. A friend who works in government told me that an actuarial estimate has predicted that, by 2010, about 80 per cent of South Africa’s white population will live in the southern half of the Cape – the DA’s stronghold, and the only province that the party governs.

This is the last station of the via dolorosa of colonial retreat: Kenya, Tanganyika, Rhodesia; a southward migration in the face of black emancipation. South Africa is the end of the line for the short history of the white man in Africa. Today, the Cape Peninsula, where I live, sometimes seems like a nature reserve for colonial recidivists, clinging desperately by their fingernails to the southern tip of the continent.

Clinging to whiteness is not a long-term option. One of the greatest illusions of apartheid was that it deluded most whites for nearly another half-century that they lived in a virtual European society. Many still cannot wake from this dream.

Now the decisive question looms: can South Africa’s traditional pigmentocracy get over their sense of “whiteness”, privilege and entitlement – or will they condemn themselves to become the final colonial caricature in Africa, with possibly tragic results?