Apartheid: Still no answers from the right-wing critics

John Kane-Berman says only alternative to Verwoerdian fantasy was a common society under majority rule

Last week this column argued that the only alternative to the Verwoedian fantasy of ethnic self-determination via the homeland system was the South Africa we have today – a common society under majority rule. It challenged those who blamed liberals for this outcome to explain how they would have achieved a different one.

None of the critics who appended their comments to the column took up the challenge. Some argued for "radical partition". Others advocated "separate black and white countries". Nobody explained how this could have been brought about. The previous government once threatened to build 5 000 kilometres of fences around homelands to keep black people out of the common area. Nobody mentioned whether or not this idea should have been implemented, or how many watchtowers and border guards would have been needed at the fences.  

Nobody spelt out how the fact of an integrated economy could be unscrambled. Nobody took up my challenge of quantifying how many additional forced removals would have to be carried out to create "separate black and white countries". Would a separate white country be one with an economy built on voteless black migrant labourers? Would it be one where whites do all the work down the mines, on the farms, in domestic households, and everywhere else?  

Some of the comments argued that the "apartheid government" should have made the homelands more viable in a federal dispensation. They did not explain how this would be done, let alone how much it would cost. Should that government have made more land available to make the homelands more "viable"? If so, how much land would whites have been willing to give up? At what cost? How would black opposition to the homeland system have been overcome? One commentator suggested that everything could have been settled by discussion with a few "tribal leaders". Ja well no fine. But what about blacks owing no allegiance to such leaders?  

Apart from ducking my challenge that they deal with some of the practicalities of bringing about "radical partition", the comments ignored the question of how to implement political ideas that most of the population opposed. While most whites took refuge behind such things as banning orders, detention without trial, and torture of detainees, liberals warned that the result of such repressive measures would be violent reaction – which is precisely what happened.

When the police, to the applause of the great majority of whites shown by John Vorster's landslide election victory the following year, violently suppressed the student rebellion in Soweto in 1976, it was the liberals who warned that students would flee the country and wind up in the welcoming arms of Umkhonto we Sizwe, giving that organisation and the then feeble African National Congress (ANC) a new lease of life at exactly the moment when they needed it most.

Anyone who believed that the ANC could be destroyed by banning it and driving it into exile was as much living in cloud cuckoo land as those who believed in the Verwoerdian mirage that you could put the clock back and implement ethnic self-determination in a society after a century if not more of economic integration.

Some of the comments on last week's column suggested a federal solution – which the column indeed said would have been preferable to the unitary state we have. Dating back at least to the national convention which led to unification in 1910, liberals have all along argued for a strongly decentralised political system.

Liberals in the 1950s founded a Union Federal Party. The leader of the Liberal Party, Alan Paton, was a keen federalist. The Progressive Party, founded in 1959, adopted federalism as one of its key principles. In 1962 that party's Molteno Commission produced a detailed federal blueprint. However, in the next general election only one MP favouring federalism made it to Parliament. Most whites in fact chose to keep on voting for parties that opposed federalism just as they opposed even a qualified franchise for blacks. Federal solutions proposed by the Buthelezi Commission in 1982 and by the KwaZulu-Natal Indaba in 1986 were spurned by the National Party government.

The NP became a late convert to federalism during the constitutional negotiations at the World Trade Centre. Most of the other delegations supported federalism, but the ANC torpedoed the idea when it entered into its bilateral "memorandum of understanding" with the NP.

It is a pity that those who now berate liberals did not wake up to the virtues of federalism before it was too late.       

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.