Divisions in the White Community

South Africa Table of Contents

Increasing economic and political pressures caused splits in the white political parties. In 1968 Vorster had dismissed three conservatives from his cabinet. One of these, Albert Hertzog, a son of J.B.M. Hertzog, founded the Reconstituted National Party (Herstigte Nasionale Party--HNP). Hertzog and the HNP argued that no concessions should be made in pursuing the full implementation of apartheid, whereas Vorster and his allies argued that compromise was necessary. The split was commonly labeled a division between the verligtes (the enlightened) and the verkramptes (the narrow-minded), although the differences often seemed to be primarily tactical rather than ideological. The HNP contested elections in 1970 and in 1974 but without winning a single seat from Vorster. In 1978, however, the unfolding of a major national scandal brought about Vorster's downfall. An official investigation determined that Vorster, together with a small group of supporters including the head of the Security Police, General H.J. van den Bergh, had secretly and illegally used government funds to manipulate the news media in South Africa and to try to purchase newspapers overseas, including the Washington Star . Vorster resigned his position as prime minister for the largely ceremonial post of president; his preferred successor, Connie Mulder, was purged from the National Party, and P.W. Botha, minister of defence since 1966, became prime minister.

Botha, strongly supported by Afrikaner businessmen and by the armed forces leaders, initiated a self-styled program of reform. He tried to do away with aspects of "petty" apartheid that many had come to regard as unnecessarily offensive to blacks and to world opinion, such as the allocation of separate public facilities and the use of racially discriminatory signs to designate who could use the facilities. Hoping to develop a black middle class that would be impervious to the socialist message of the ANC, Botha also accepted in large part the recommendations of two government commissions appointed to investigate the way labor and pass laws were applied to Africans.

The Commission of Inquiry into Labour Legislation (Wiehahn Commission), established in the aftermath of the strike wave of the early 1970s, argued that blacks should be allowed to register trade unions and to have them recognized as part of the official conciliation process. The commission also recommended the elimination of statutory job reservation. Legislation incorporating these recommendations was passed in 1979 and resulted in a huge growth in African trade unionism in the early 1980s.

The Commission of Inquiry into Legislation Affecting the Utilisation of Manpower (Riekert Commission), accepting the fact that poverty in the homelands would continue to push tens of thousands of Africans into the cities, recommended in 1979 that instead of using the pass laws to punish Africans who were illegally entering urban areas, the government should prosecute employers and landlords if they gave jobs or housing to blacks who lacked documentary proof of their right to live in the cities. Botha accepted this recommendation, although it was not until eight years and more than 1 million arrests later that he introduced legislation abolishing the pass laws.

At the same time, Botha pursued harsh measures against those he deemed his enemies in order to ensure the maintenance of white power. The late 1970s and early 1980s were marked by numerous military interventions in the states bordering South Africa and by an extensive military and political campaign to eliminate SWAPO in Namibia. Within South Africa, vigorous police action and strict enforcement of security legislation resulted in hundreds of arrests and bannings and an effective end to the ANC's stepped-up campaign of sabotage in the 1970s. Botha also continued to support the homeland policy, arguing as his predecessors had done that Africans should exercise political rights only within what were deemed to be their own communities, which in the 1980s continued to be as small and fragmented as they had been in the 1950s.

Yet one issue loomed ever larger in the eyes of apartheid's architects, and that was the matter of demographics. Whereas whites had accounted for 21 percent of South Africa's population in 1936, by 1980 they constituted only 16 percent. Future projections estimated that by 2010 the white proportion would be less than 10 percent and falling, while the African population would make up 83 percent of the total and would be increasing. In light of these projections, Botha's government proposed in 1983 that political power in South Africa be shared among whites, coloureds, and Indians, with separate houses of parliament to be established for each racial group. This proposal caused angry opposition among a number of National Party members, sixteen of whom, including Andries Treurnicht, were expelled when they refused to sign a motion of confidence in Botha's leadership.

Treurnicht formed the Conservative Party of South Africa (CP), bringing together old enemies of Botha such as Connie Mulder and supporters of the verkrampte faction of the NP. Botha proceeded with his plans, calling for a referendum in which only white voters would be asked whether or not they approved of the prime minister's plans for constitutional change. Some liberal opponents of the government, such as Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), and Harry Oppenheimer, head of the Anglo American Corporation, denounced Botha's plans because they would permanently exclude Africans from having any political role in South Africa. Many other politicians and businessmen, English- and Afrikaans-speaking alike, argued that any change in apartheid would be an improvement. Most white voters agreed, and two-thirds of those who participated in the referendum voted "yes."

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress