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Make White Voter Hurt in S. Africa

December 18, 1985|THAMI MAZWAI | Thami Mazwai is a news editor at The Sowetan newspaper.

SOWETO — The South African government was hammered from two fronts in 1985--the international community and black organizations within the country. While the black organizations, at the very least, wanted black-majority rule, the international community focused on a more representative government.

Despite different views of what a new South Africa should be, both groups were united in their hatred of apartheid. Because of the pressures exerted on South Africa by these two forces, one expected at least some significant policy changes from President Pieter W. Botha's government. Instead, Botha wagged a finger at the international community while using an iron fist to crush black dissent. What is the reason for Botha's lack of movement in the face of such severe pressures? While black organizations and many sectors in the international community blamed Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, there is no doubt that, while those two Western leaders played a part, they are not entirely responsible for Botha's ability to resist pressure.

A closer look shows that all the pressures on South Africa this year were aimed at the government and not, as should have been the case, at its white citizens. In one of the miscalculations that periodically punctuate modern history, the international community and black organizations spent many millions of dollars and a great deal of manpower in fighting the government rather than the people who dictate policy to that government. The white voter was forgotten.

The international community and black organizations can succeed in forcing Botha to change only by directing their energies toward voters: the middle, lower and working classes of the white community. These are the people who elected Botha, endorse his policies, provide his soldiers and policeman and can force him to introduce meaningful reform. That is why Botha is more fearful of the conservative element in the country than his liberal opposition. These conservatives are the middle, lower and working classes of the white community, and they hold sway.

For Botha to introduce change, whites will have to be forced to demand change. White voters will have to act as a third force on Botha, in addition to pressures from black South Africans and the international community. Without white voters, the struggle for human rights is likely to go on much longer. Some liberal whites and some business leaders have spoken out against the Botha government, but their protests alone are not enough to make a real dent in the system.

Despite the pressures on the government this year, whites were never fully informed about the seriousness of the problems. The government distorted the truth so that the average white voter was shielded from the international furor over apartheid. Other whites chose to take the typical defiant and defensive Afrikaner stance that regards any demand for change as outside interference. This Afrikaner view invariably sees all such pressures on South Africa as an international conspiracy hatched in the inner recesses of the Kremlin, with the sole intent being to rob him of his motherland.

Recent pressures on South Africa have included isolation from international sports, cultural boycotts, and trade and divestiture threats. The world's leading banks have demanded the repayment of their loans to South Africa, which has precipitated a serious financial squeeze that has brought the rand to an all-time low. While this squeeze, along with divestiture and trade sanctions, could have been the weapons that would make white South Africans really feel what continued allegiance to apartheid would cost, the West has chosen to use this whip sparingly. Instead, sports and entertainment boycotts have been waged as if they would have enormous effect, but the average white South African hardly knows John McEnroe or Frank Sinatra, and whether they come here to work or not is irrelevant.

The international community was not alone in missing the mark; black organizations did, too. Most protest action in the country, apart from Cape Town, burnt itself out in the black townships. The white community, safely ensconced more than 20 miles away in its suburbs, hardly knew what was happening in the ghettoes because the state-controlled press made sure to shield them from the uproar.

For black organizations to challenge the status quo effectively, they need to close ranks and direct their energies against the system, instead of attacking each other with knives, petrol bombs and stones. Groups of frustrated and disorganized black youths harassed members of their own communities more than the white security forces did.

Internal and international pressures on the South African government have failed to achieve any degree of meaningful change for the black community, nor will there be any significant advances in the next few months. Real change will come in South Africa only when the white voter feels the pinch.

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