White fears in the 1960s: Real and imagined (I)

Rodney Warwick says violence in Congo had a profound influence on white attitudes in SA

During the past half century of our country's conflict-ridden history, the context and relevance of several important early 1960s phenomena has been virtually lost to public historical consciousness, or ideologically skewed and simplified by shallow media articles, capricious politicians and people writing "History" on the internet without any training, reading or wisdom.

Such historical issues include: African Uhuru, uMkonte we Sizwe's beginnings and its much mythologized "armed struggle"; Poqo violence, the white Republic referendum; white South African paranoia of impending racial violence. This critical period's events demand an urgent historical re-assessment. Such would assist in highlighting tragedies touching African whites and blacks, thereby deepening our historical understanding of just how hopelessly polarized were the positions of black aspirations, anger and outrageous political assumptions, versus white South African fears and prejudices.

The latter combined into an utterly determined resilience to retain full political and economic power, if necessary with injustice. It was worth reflecting back half a century ago to study where South Africa and the white community in particular were in terms of their mindset and fears; for as Robert Collingwood, the famous 1930s Oxford University historian and philosopher said, the traces of the past remain present amongst us to this day.    

But History is seldom about justice. The fact that I was born in April 1960 makes me, in total contrast to the "Born-Frees" of 1994, an individual whose very first political socialization occurred amidst this insecure, tense South African environment, however "below the surface" it may have been in urban middle-class white South Africa. Many Anglo South Africans like my own parents and grandparents, then living in Natal, were explicitly loyal to both Queen and South Africa. They and my extended family, passionately and angrily rejected the 1961 Afrikaner nationalist republic. But their general political view remained, that during the 1960s, European-style democracy in South Africa was impossible (and during the 1970s and most of the 1980s too).

Such was consistent with attitudes held by most Afrikaners. Equally fantastic, is that during the early 1960s, amongst white South Africans or far more particularly within their military, fears existed of the possibility regarding some kind of United Nations Organization (UNO) or Afro-Asian military intervention, intended to forcibly end Apartheid and establish "one man, one vote" by force of arms. Much of the second part of this article concerns this latter topic based upon research I completed in the Pretoria SANDF archives; but firstly, something of the early 1960s African and South African context.

The violent independence process of the Belgium Congo, starting on 30 June 1960, had a particularly profound influence upon white South African political thinking; for by this date, already 17 African states were independent. But "Congo" was the first of a succession of events during the first half of our decade where white communities in sub-equatorial Africa experienced black nationalistic originated violence of significant scale and extremity. After violent disturbances in the territory throughout 1959, 120 political groups were registered in Congo by mid-1960. Virtually all of these reflected separate tribal origins, except Patrice Lumumba's Movement National Congolais (MNC), the closest collective entity espousing some kind of "Congolese nationalism".

In January 1960, the Belgium government had hosted a conference to discuss independence; discovering the Congolese delegates united in demanding immediate elections and independence by 1 June 1960, despite their own profound tribal/political differences. Fearing a French Algeria war scenario, the Belgium government acquiesced, although as in then contemporary South Africa, actual black Congolese governmental expertise was exceptionally weak. But colonial exploitation grievances and Apartheid in our own country had already gone far in fueling a disastrous impulsivity amongst black nationalist and communist leaders. But then also, an unadulterated often violent desire for power and control was a markedly prevalent feature amongst so many 1960s African leaders, sustained still during successive decades.  

Like the ANC's 1912 origins, where its delegates had sought to be recognized as ‘civilized men' along British Imperial lines, the MNC actually represented a small black Congo elite that had benefited from Belgium education and culture. They demanded an end to racial discrimination, but also assumed a modern democratic state was instantaneously viable in a country of such underdevelopment, geographic magnitude and cultural variety.

Some Belgium colonials expected life to continue as before, particularly within the white officed Force Publique that had historically and often brutally served as the colony's police and military. Immediate post-independence mutinies by the black soldiers, with resultant murders, rapes and assaults upon white settlers, caused scores to flee back to Europe or to white governed southern African states. In the Katanga province an aborted succession attempt occurred, driven by both Belgium settlers and their black allies.

This rejection of a united Congo by its most prosperous province resulted in a UNO military force intervening; this entity being comprised of Indian, Irish and Swedish military components. These acted against Katanga's succession while other Western countries watched, drawing upon Cold War reasoning and rhetoric that Congo must be "secured" for the global anti-Soviet grouping. The UNO action was ham fisted to an extreme and resulted in thousands of casualties to combatants and non-combatants alike; but was finally successful by January 1963.

Meanwhile the very large Indian armed forces grouping now present in Africa was being secretly assessed by the SADF; for India was a leader amongst Afro-Asian bloc hostility towards white South Africa and the action against Katanga was perceived by many southern African whites as African nationalists and international anti-colonial forces combining to force Uhuru on settler/colonialist communities.

A second notable event occurred, this time in Portuguese Angola, which further jarring white South Africa's sense of security, while also grimly confirming notions, long held by "African whites" particularly, ascribing atavistic barbarism as innate to black Africans. From 15 March 1961, the União das Populações de Angola (UPA), later the FNLA, led by Holden Roberto, precipitated uprisings in the Bakongo region of northern Angola. Black Angolan subsistence farmers and plantation workers spontaneously collaborated with UPA armed bands invading from Congo, attacking and butchering Portuguese rural settlers.

Approximately a thousand whites of all ages were killed, many in the most grotesque of manners; others survived, but lived with the trauma of savagery beyond comprehension, including rape, mutilation and pillage. This was a multi-magnified Aneen Booysen -type atrocity, while immense destruction also occurred of private and public property. By September that year the Portuguese Army had finally crushed the insurrection, utilizing the harshest, indiscriminate responses practical, causing death to thousands more often innocent, but now black lives.

Again, such was the extreme racial polarization of this period; it was completely and utterly impossible that any liberal democratic South Africa would have emerged in 1960, even had South African whites been willing to negotiate therefore and obviously they were not. To whites, the Congo and Angolan events, superimposed upon South Africa, seemed the most obvious outcome of any Bram Fisher/Mandela/Luthuli/Slovo-led government. Therefore, Verwoerd's economically illogical, discriminatory and racially damaging alternative received white South African consent; we live today with the vivid consequences thereof.

Shortly before these disastrous African events, the National Party (NP) government under Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd had introduced the concept of Grand Apartheid: Independent blacks states within South Africa, sited according to region tribal identities, located upon the remaining ancestral land following the historical processes of early centuries: Land wars, conquest and the 1913 Land Act. The NP vision was supposedly the magic bullet to solve, to a significant degree, an Afrikaner and broader white South African insecurity over their demographic minority position. Such fears were actualized in the NP slogans promoting a ‘yes' vote for the October 1960 Republican referendum: "Ons Republiek nou om Suid-Afrika blank to hou".

Earlier that year, British Prime Minister Harold McMillan's ‘Wind of Change' speech to the South African Parliament confirmed African decolonization realities. McMillan clarified Britain's pragmatic endorsement of pro-independence movements amongst its African colonies; for such comprised an important potential anti-communist bloc, rather than pander to Verwoedian Grand Apartheid or white South African protests that they were an indispensible "western friend".

But McMillan was also saying to Anglo-South Africans that in terms of Britain's broader international relations priorities, they were entirely on their own. Such was the depressing message to the descendents of the 1820 settlers and 19th century Natal settlers; to the memory of those who had been part of the late 19th century Mineral Revolution; and to those of then contemporary generations, who had served alongside other Empire/Commonwealth troops in two World Wars. On behalf of Afrikaner whites, first and foremost, Verwoerd gave McMillan an instant rebuttal, insisting South Africa was also "decolonizing", but in separate racial states, ensuring "justice" for both black and white.

In the face of danger, Verwoerd's logic appealed to many white South Africans but his ideological dogmatism was to ensure incalculable damage to South African race relations. Verwoedian illogicalities and contradictions abounded - stated both then by United Party (UP) and Progressive Party MPs, Alan Paton, Anglican Clergy and so many others: The NP's appalling treatment of the coloured community; NP virtual complete rejection of the Indian community; impossible and implausible assumed development of the "independent homelands" (beyond their bloated administrations). All was just an NP self-delusion, not least because of the political impossibility of Grand Apartheid requiring a blank cheque from the white electorate's taxes; who were not likely to ever accept paying the full bill.

Just three months after McMillan's speech, the Congo horrors began, playing directly into Verwoerd's ideological vision. The white South African English community, perhaps 38-40% of the 3 million white South Africans, received their clear signal, still not immediately understood by them all, that they were expendable in British objectives to balance diplomatic needs during the Cold War years; namely, Britain being determined to promote friendly relations regarding potential allies amongst the rising Afro-Asian bloc. But a small minority of English-speakers voted "Yes" to the Republic, more than counter-balancing remaining Afrikaner bloedsappe and some Afrikaner farmers who voted "No", along with their Anglo countrymen, out of loyalty to the old Botha/Smuts South Africanism teachings and/or their fears of losing international markets.

A grudging alliance came into play between white Afrikaner nationalist and Royalist Anglo-South Africans; but certainly not towards any syncretised culture. Rather a proto-white nationalism emerged, defined by "whiteness" and manifested by rising election support for the NP by English-speakers who in time also tacitly started accepting the Republic.

By the early 1960s, the beleaguered Verwoerd government was smarting bitterly under intensifying World criticism. African nationalists' positions, whether in Angola, Rhodesia or South Africa, were emphatic in rejected any compromise model allaying "white African" fears. Polarization between white nationalists/settlers versus Africanists, African nationalists or communists, was now an unbridgeable chasm, as white paranoia was exacerbated by blunt African realities.

Many whites were inclined to believe they faced a long term threat of extermination by chaotic and vengeful African nationalism. Directly after Sharpeville, white immigration soared. Further international isolation had followed when by 31 May 1961, Verwoerd in reaction to intensifying Afro-Asian hostility, led the new Republic out of the Commonwealth. 

White fears were also increasingly linked to assumptions of the Cold War's "Rooi Gevaar" being the monolithic source behind "instigating black dissent". Such stock explanations were "verified" by amongst other evidence, the regular purported sighting of unknown (assumed Russian) submarines off the Republic's coast. SADF Commandant General Stephen Melville, no doubt fearing a calamitous incident, specifically instructed in 1960, that no offensive action was to be taken if a SAAF air patrol chanced upon such an uninvited intruder.

The chaos of Congolese independence under Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba continued to intensify white fears and swung the majority of the South African whites to a greater or lesser extent, behind Verwoerd's utopian plans. Like South Africa, Congo included a myriad of different black cultural and linguistic groupings, cobbled together by history within a huge land expanse. The Belgium white minority settlers, with their Flemish and French components, reflected something of the political divisions amongst South African whites.

While Verwoerd's government used the scenario of a hostile Black Africa to opportunistically bolster NP support, there was still nothing imaginary about the grotesque violence inflicted by African nationalists upon vulnerable white settler communities. In Congo from mid-1960 onwards, South African newspapers were filled with stories of atrocities perpetrated upon whites by UN (Indian Army particularly) troops or black Congolese.  

After Sharpeville, the government had declared a State of Emergency in eighty magisterial districts, detaining around 1800 political dissidents, including scores of the miniscule white minority who through Congress of Democrats or SACP membership espoused ANC, PAC and SACP utopian visions of a socialist non-racial South Africa. This strong action further alarmed many whites, whether in agreement with Verwoerd or not.

The white Republic was inaugurated on 31 May 1961 as violent events in Africa were gaining momentum, presaging horrors omnipresent within a multitude of transmitted family/community histories amongst Boer and Settler descendents alike. Many "English" whites loathed the thought of further crude Afrikaner nationalist domination of public life. But the sweeping changes across Africa, sometimes with continuing anti-white violence, made racial fear of Uhuru black Africa amongst South African whites, a markedly important influential factor in comprehending 1960s white South African politics.  In short, racial fear amongst whites was a blunt, unavoidable consistent and a markedly decisive variable to comprehending 1960s white South African politics.

From 1961 a growing white South African paranoia, extensively speculated upon in the press, was the supposed plausibility of general black insurrection, spear-headed by the PAC's Poqo, hardly surprising as the public mind dwelled upon the recent Angolan or Congo horrors, manifesting amidst the Republic's farmlands and cities.

During March 1961, the ANC's Albert Luthuli, a Christian and historically lauded black South African leader, appealed at Pietermarizburg during the "All-in Africa Conference" for a national negotiating forum. Luthuli was apparently extraordinarily ignorant of the futility in expecting white leaders to follow what must have appeared to have been the path towards the same process of Congo/Angolan disintegration.

Meanwhile the Pan Africanist clarion call of "Africa for the Africans" continued echoing across the continent; merging with politically inspired unrest within South Africa during 1960-64, a list of which is numerous and each a study in itself: The disastrous Sharpeville Massacre, perceived by Africa and the World as a white South African "response" to black aspirations; the linked riots in Langa and march from here to Cape Town, the Pondoland Uprising, the start of an "armed struggle" by the ANC/SACP uMkontwe we Sizwe, the tiny white radical African Resistance Movement and perhaps most feared of all, the murderous activities of Poqo, the "armed wing" of the Pan Africanist Congress.

Closely following the NP government's reasoning, the SADF concluded the Soviet Union were prioritizing support for the SACP and African nationalist movements to facilitate the "seizure" of the white south for its mineral resources and Cape Sea Route control. SACP member Bram Fisher, while on the run from the security police during 1964, was cited in SADF classified documents as a credible reason for increased suspected clandestine Soviet naval activity off the Eastern (Transkei) coast; that the Soviets might be even possibly be considering his evacuation off some lonely beach.

Meanwhile growing 1960s prosperity was enjoyed by most South African whites; with working class and agricultural sector Afrikaners particularly protected by the politically contrived benefits of a government, which as a priority, explicitly protected their interests. The larger amorphous community of Boer and Settler pioneers and more recent emigrant offspring, were largely entirely comfortable in their South African identity and national symbolism, but could also not be oblivious to the darkening clouds of increased isolation, felt initially in sporting and cultural boycotts, besides the 1963 arms embargo which was largely complied with by traditional supplier Britain, along with the United States but not France.

But another apparent danger was literally looming on the horizon, the scenario of African/international/Afro-Asian military intervention intended to force the white government from Apartheid and control of Namibia/South West Africa (SWA). Such is introduced in the second part of this article.

Dr Rodney Warwick PhD MA (UCT)

This is the first in a two part series of articles.

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