Weisberg on Fukuyama's South Africa

Weisberg on Fukuyama's South Africa

Mini Teaser: Every student of international relations has thought about the question of why world communism fell apart when it did.

by Author(s): Francis FukuyamaJacob Weisberg

Every student of international relations has thought about the question of why world communism fell apart when it did.  Fewer have considered the sudden and dramatic collapse of another totalitarian bulwark which many deemed equally impregnable before 1989: the South African apartheid state.  In his fine overview of recent developments and future scenarios ("The Next South Africa," Summer 1991), Francis Fukuyama offers many insights into the causes of this other democratic revolution, and helps explicate its relationship to events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that overshadowed it.  

Fukuyama finds the most basic source of South Africa's transformation in the country's phased economic development.  To summarize briefly, when the National Party came to power after the Second World War, it represented a constituency of Afrikaners who were themselves resentful, second-class citizens of a former colony.  "They were poorly educated and many were not even literate: fully one-fifth of the Afrikaner population in 1949 could be classified as `poor whites'," Fukuyama writes.  Such a people were necessarily isolated from the commercial and intellectual influences of the modern world.  But the Pretoria regime's battle against the pressures of modernity was a losing one, thanks to urbanization and the rising material condition of the Afrikaners.

Fukuyama believes that economic progress created inevitable contact with the powerful liberal democratic idea, which in turn cut loose the moorings of the apartheid state.  As Afrikaners began to recognize the injustice of apartheid, the economic irrationality of the system became increasingly evident as well.  Thus internal modernization, abetted by international disapproval, helped apartheid fall victim to its own "internal contradictions."  Fukuyama touches on a number of more temporal causes of reform, such as the failure of the Dutch Reformed Church to continue to provide a theological rationale for apartheid and the decline of communism as a meaningful alternative.  He even makes a grudging bow to international economic sanctions, which he believes had a "real, though secondary effect."

This analysis does a better job of explaining why apartheid was ultimately doomed than why it tumbled.  Fukuyama notes that there is a strong correlation between socioeconomic advance and democratic development around the globe.  This linkage is genuine, but falls short as a causal explanation.  Economic and political modernization can remain out of alignment for generations, if not centuries.  In the 1940s, Afrikaners as a people were already largely post-agricultural, and nearly as prosperous as the Spaniards, Greeks, and Portuguese when their respective countries democratized in the 1970s.  Latin American nations whose per capita income lags far behind that of white South Africa have already been democracies, of sorts, for several years.  The poverty-stricken Philippines went democratic in 1986.  Yet monarchies rule without challenge in many wealthy Arab states which have extensive contact with consumer capitalism, as well as a high degree of urbanization.  Egypt, the most nearly democratic of the bunch, is one of the poorest states in the Arab world. 

To explain why apartheid fell when it did, it is necessary to move beyond historical inevitability and examine more closely than Fukuyama does the quotidian political, economic, and moral pressures that broke its back.  The most direct and important cause of apartheid's downfall, which Fukuyama somehow manages to ignore entirely, was resistance by black South Africans.  Economic systems based on exploitation, or even slave labor, can function effectively for the benefit of the masters, but only so long as the laborers who make the system work remain cowed and quiescent.  This was never the case in South Africa.  The entire history of apartheid is one of massive, sustained, and largely peaceful internal disobedience.  As in Eastern Europe, South African dissidents, who were punished and in some cases killed for their beliefs, developed popular followings that translated into a legitimacy the regime lacked.  The institutions of apartheid crumbled in response to acts of rebellion that were based sometimes on economic need, sometimes on political or moral belief, and sometimes on a combination of the two. 

To take only a few important examples, black unions were legalized in the 1970s after they became an undeniable reality in industrial relations.  The hated pass laws were abolished after more than 17 million blacks were arrested for violating them between 1916 and 1982, and the annual tally continued to rise exponentially.  Laws against black residence in white neighborhoods and attendance at white schools were scrapped after blacks became an unremovable presence in both.  The influx control law, which prohibited blacks from living in cities, was finally scrapped in 1986 after repeated bulldozings and burnings failed to roust hundreds of thousands of illegal squatters from shanties around Cape Town and the other large cities.  The uprising of 1984 to 1986, which made the townships totally ungovernable for the first time, was not the beginning of the resistance struggle; it merely accelerated it and brought it to the attention of the larger world.  It might be said that apartheid failed when the Afrikaners realized that if they were not about to be overthrown by revolution, they could not indefinitely contain the revolt either. 

External pressure was crucial, both in effecting specific reforms and in fostering an overall climate of change.  One analyst points to the importance of Margaret Thatcher raising the issue of influx control with P.W. Botha when he visited her at Chequers in 1984.(1)  But pressure of the unfriendly variety, in the form of sanctions, was more obviously effective.  It is possible to credit the international sports boycott with integrating South African athletics.  (According to one survey, more than half the white population was willing to support broader political changes before de Klerk came to power just to get South Africa back into world sports.2)

For the most part, sanctions worked not because they put a coercive financial squeeze on whites, but because of their psychological effect.  Sanctions and, even more important, the threat of sanctions made clear to Afrikaners that the alternative to democratic reform was eternal pariah status.  Not only would this eventually lower the white standard of living, it would have denied whites access to the West, to its consumer products and cultural life.  Afrikaners often used to pride themselves on their isolation from the modern influences they correctly understood would undermine their peculiar institution.  (My favorite fact about South Africa is that it had no television before 1976.)  But faced with a future of increasing and punishing quarantine, they flinched.  This is a hard point to discern from white South Africans, including many authentic liberals.  Having bitterly opposed sanctions, often for the legitimate reason that they hurt blacks more than whites, they are still reluctant to acknowledge their effectiveness.  I am in full agreement with Fukuyama that the sanctions are no longer necessary, but would argue that their effect was primary, not secondary. 

Another important factor Fukuyama neglects is the role of ethical change and moral leadership among the Afrikaners.  The revised, nonracist theology of the Dutch Reformed Church is but one of many manifestations of the growing realization that apartheid was not just impractical but also profoundly wrong.  Another institution that reflects this shift in sentiment is the secret Broederbond, which like the church counts most of the country's political leaders among its membership.  Talking to Afrikaners of de Klerk's generation, one is struck by the genuine moral awakening many of them have experienced, often brought on by contact with blacks.  De Klerk has told friends and acquaintances that he has undergone such a spiritual conversion himself.(3)  To my mind, he is not, as Fukuyama views him, a representative Afrikaner.  After coming to power, de Klerk quickly overtook the terrain held by the liberal Democratic Party.  This was, and remains, a risky maneuver: de Klerk has no white mandate for a one person, one vote democracy, but he's going ahead with it anyway.  So far, he has been masterful at pulling a hesitant party, and an even more recalcitrant constituency, along with him.

The comparison of de Klerk and Gorbachev is instructive in this regard.  Where the Soviet leader appears to back reform for purely pragmatic reasons, de Klerk evidences a moral as well as a practical motivation.  Gorbachev wants to modernize Soviet communism to enable its survival.  De Klerk wants to scrap apartheid entirely because it is unjust, even though he will probably put himself out of office if he succeeds.  The last two years have seen Gorbachev pulled along by events, dragging his feet on fundamental reform.  The same period has seen de Klerk moving far in front of white public opinion.  As recently as a year ago, the conventional wisdom held that de Klerk could not repeal the Population Registration Act, the most fundamental cornerstone of apartheid, until he had a new constitution in hand.  He repealed it anyway.  Aware that both the far-right Conservative Party and many elements in the ANC view him as Pretoria's answer to Kerensky, de Klerk has sought to protect himself by keeping the pace of reform so rapid that his opponents cannot organize a response. 

If Fukuyama underestimates de Klerk, it seems to me he also overrates the danger that an autocratic and dictatorial ANC will succeed him in power.  The troublesome signs Fukuyama points to are genuine enough: the preeminence of Communists among the organization's leadership, its lack of internal democracy, and its allegiance to potentially ruinous ideas about redistributing wealth.  I too am worried about the ANC's poor record in support of press freedom, its intolerance of other black political parties, and the pressure it puts on independent groups of all kinds to bow to its leadership.

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