The Contradictions of Apartheid

South Africa Table of Contents

By the middle of the 1970s, apartheid was clearly under strain. The popularity of black consciousness and the massive levels of participation in the Soweto demonstrations illustrated profound discontent among the black population, particularly the young, and an increasing readiness to challenge the system physically. Indeed, hundreds of young Africans slipped across South Africa's northern borders in the aftermath of Soweto and volunteered to fight as guerrilla soldiers for the ANC and the PAC. In the late 1970s, some of these people began to reenter South Africa secretly and to carry out sabotage attacks on various targets that were seen as symbols of apartheid.

Labor discontent had also grown. The combination of discriminatory legislation and employer reliance on the use of inexpensive labor meant that African workers were poorly paid and were subjected to an enormous number of restrictions (see Legal Restrictions, ch. 3). Economic recession in the early 1970s, followed by inflation and a contraction in the job market, resulted in a dramatic upsurge in labor unrest. In the first three months of 1973, some 160 strikes involving more than 60,000 workers took place in Durban; in the early 1970s, no more than 5,000 African workers had struck annually, and in the 1960s the average had been closer to 2,000. Labor unrest spread to East London and the Rand and continued. In addition to the high level of participation they engendered, the strikes were also noteworthy for other features. Fearing that the police would arrest any person who organized a strike, the workers chose not to form representative bodies or to elect a leadership. Rather than entering protracted negotiations, they also engaged in sudden "wildcat" strikes, thereby limiting the ability of employers and police to take preventive measures. Over time, an African union movement developed out of these strikes, but it did so on a factory-by-factory basis rather than through the establishment of a mass-based industrial movement as had been the case in the 1940s.

Urban-based African strikes drew attention to the fact that, despite the segregationist ambitions of apartheid, the South African economy depended on blacks living and working in supposedly white areas. Nearly three-quarters of South Africa's urban population in 1980 was black. Only half of the African population lived in the homelands, and even then the rural land available was so inadequate that population densities were far greater than they were in the rest of the country. At least four-fifths of the homeland dwellers lived in poverty.

Yet the South African government persisted in arguing that Africans were really rural dwellers and that they should exercise political rights only in the homelands. In 1976 the government proclaimed the Transkei an independent nation-state and followed this move by granting independence to Bophuthatswana in 1977, to Venda in 1979, and to Ciskei in 1981. Citizens of these states, including the half who lived outside their borders, were then deemed aliens in South Africa. Another six ethnically based homelands were granted limited self-government in preparation for eventual independence: they were KwaZulu, Lebowa, Gazankulu, QwaQwa, KaNgwane, and KwaNdebele (see System of Government, ch. 4). None of these states received international recognition.

Within South Africa, there was great opposition. Blacks viewed the homelands as a way for whites to perpetuate a form of "divide and rule." Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi, the government-appointed head of the KwaZulu homeland, while building up an ethnically oriented power base with his Inkatha Freedom Party, argued that independence should not be accepted on the government's terms because that would mean Africans would be giving up claims to the bulk of South Africa forever. He proposed instead the development of a unified multiracial South African state (see The Interim Constitution, ch. 4).

South Africa's international borders also became much less secure. Until 1974 South Africa had been part of a largely white-ruled subcontinent, with the Portuguese still governing their empire in Angola and Mozambique, and Ian Smith and his white-settler regime controlling Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). Botswana had achieved independence soon after Lesotho in 1966 and Swaziland in 1968; however, they were surrounded by white-ruled areas, and their economies depended on that of South Africa.

The 1974 overthrow of the government of Premier Marcello Caetano in Portugal dramatically changed matters. Portugal withdrew from Angola and Mozambique in 1975, and both countries gained independence with governments that were avowedly Marxist and that strongly denounced apartheid. These events directly threatened South African control of South-West Africa (called Namibia by the United Nations [UN], which in 1969 had terminated South Africa's trusteeship over the territory and had demanded its return to the international organization). South African forces invaded Angola in 1975 but were forced to pull back by the arrival of Cuban troops. Seeking both to destabilize the Angolan government and to prevent infiltration of guerrilla fighters into Namibia where the South-West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) was fighting actively against South African forces, South Africa maintained a military force in southern Angola.

In Rhodesia, Africans fighting against Ian Smith's government began to turn the tide, and by 1979 Smith was forced to the negotiating table. In 1980 Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party won a landslide election victory and formed a government that, like those in Angola and Mozambique, was Marxist and antiapartheid. The South African government thereafter pursued a policy of occasional armed intervention in Zimbabwe and other frontline states and sent in strike teams periodically to destroy what it considered to be bases for guerrillas planning to infiltrate South Africa. South Africa also expanded military support for the Mozambican National Resistance movement (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana--MNR or Renamo), an organization originally formed by Ian Smith's security forces to destabilize the Mozambique government (see Relations with African States, ch. 4; Regional Issues, ch. 5).

Crackdowns on opposition groups in South Africa and the country's readiness to invade neighboring states led to increasing international condemnation of the apartheid regime. The administrations of United States presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, including United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger, had favored working with the National Party government. They saw South Africa as a key strategic ally in the Cold War and had both encouraged the invasion of Angola and promised United States military support. President Jimmy Carter, however, considered South Africa a liability for the West. His vice president, Walter Mondale, told John Vorster that the United States wanted South Africa to adopt a policy of one person, one vote, a principle that the ANC upheld but that no white group in South Africa, not even those opposed to apartheid, supported. Antiapartheid sentiments also grew in Britain and in Europe, while the UN, composed of a majority of Third World states, had in 1973 declared apartheid "a crime against humanity" and in 1977 had declared mandatory the existing embargo on the sale of arms to South Africa.

Such criticism had a considerable material impact. South Africa had to invest large sums in the development of its own armaments industry (see Arms Trade and the Defense Industry, ch. 5). Because of an embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), it also had to pay more for oil and purchased most of its supplies from the shah of Iran until his overthrow in 1979. Foreign investment in South Africa, on which the country depended for much of its economic growth, also became increasingly expensive and uncertain in the second half of the 1970s. A growing sluggishness in the South African economy, coupled with concerns about the country's political stability in light of the Soweto demonstrations, caused most investors to seek out more attractive ventures for their capital in other countries. Foreign capital still flowed into South Africa, but it was primarily in the form of short-term loans rather than investments. In 1976, for example, two-thirds of the foreign funds entering South Africa were in short-term loans, usually of twelve months' duration (see External Debt, ch. 3).

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress