Monday, December 01, 2003

1. Setting the Stage: 1948-1976
After the victory of the Purified Nationalist Party in the 1948 elections, the South African state embarked on a program of hardened social boundaries along "racial" or "ethnic" lines.*1 Passport laws were hardened, control of influx to the cities were strengthened, the Immorality Act banned interracial marriages etc. In the 1950s Sophiatown was dismantled. Afrikaans gained recognition as an official language on par with English. On short, the attempt to suture the social by erecting non-permeable boundaries between whites and non-whites was pursued to the full extent of its logic. Cities were to be white, while non-whites were moved into townships and homelands.

This policy wasn't implemented without protest. The demonstration that in some ways inaugurated the modern resistance to apartheid was a peaceful protest by women burning their passports with the slogans "with passports we are slaves" and "women don't want passports." The period also saw the establishment of the PAC, the ANC Youth League, and the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, led by Nelson Mandela, who was later convicted for treason in the Rivonia trials. By 1976 the protests were widespread and organized, to some extent, around popular imagery, such as the widely circulated picture of Nelson Mandela behind pridon bars. When the state, then, introduced Afrikaans as a compulsory language in schools, riots broke out in the South-Western Townships of Johannesburg (Soweto) and other areas. Schoolchildren refused instruction in what was perceived as the oppressor's language, and took to the streets, marching and singing songs of protest. The state responded with bullets. (See, e.g., Sarafina (starring Whoopi Goldberg) for a Brechtian rendition.) The international community responded with sanctions against the apartheid state.

2. The Total Strategy
By the time PW Botha took power, then, it was beyond doubt that the regime was in a serious crisis. It was threatened both from within and without, and the state articulated the juncture as a conspiracy of communists set to wreck havoc.*2 Botha's remedy, termed the total strategy, was two-pronged. Domestically, the state would attempt to manufacture and coopt a "black middle class" (this concept is still prominent in contemporary discourses on South African society), while, as a matter of promotion, it would reformulate a number of oppressive mechanisms to make them appear as more contemporary.

Hence, the homelands were now increasingly referred to as nations, with a degree of political autonomy. Passports controls were eased, while other forms of influx control was intensified. The powers and resources of the secred police grew immensely. Various programs of more "scientific" population control was investigated, such as the infamous project by Dr "Death" Besson to devise a chemical agent that would only kill people with a dark complexion. Foreign operations were intensified. (There is still suspicion that the South African Secret Service may have been behind the murder of Socialist prime minister Olof Palme, perhaps because of his vehement, principled and articulate opposition to the South African regime.)

In short, the total strategy consisted of intensified surveillance, increased powers of detention and detainment, and an attempt to appropriate modern discourses of democratic nationalism and free, individual choice as means to sustain the order. It was, however, not successful.

3. The aftermath: Articulating a chain of signification
The 1980s saw an increasing fragmentation within the hegemonic bloc. Business leaders got concessions on the National Party traditionally anti-capitalist line, signalling a shift from state intervention in the political economy to an increasing focus on maintaining an orderly social climate for business. The Wiehan report in 1979 recommended easing the long-standing ban on African trade unions in order to prevent wild strikes, and the Riekert Commision advised dismantling white job reservation while maintaining a rigorous control on influx to the cities. Complusory primary eduction was also introduced, though multiracial schools could only be run privately. Public amenities, such as hotels, restaurants and theatres, were no longer compulsorily segregated. In line with the 'total strategy', these measures were introduced to "intensify class differentials while reducing racial ones" (Hyslop 1988, Worden 1994), or, in a word, to make it possible to preserve entrenched social division within a global discourse of 'fair capitalism'.

With the failure of the tricameral constitution and intensified sanctions from the international community, FW de Klerk was may have been put in power with the task of dismantling the apartheid state as quietly and gracefully as possible. Hence, by the time the multiracial Mass Democratic Movement launched their civil disobedience campaign (the first sign of a major movement against the regime that included large numbers of those who had benefitted from it), the National Party was already busy repealing some of its most unpopular measures, such as the banning of ANC and PAC, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the colonization of Namibia. In 1991 the Group Areas, Land and Population Registration Acts were repealed, and the CODESA negotiations instituted. After South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela and the ANC took over as custodians of the South African state.

Let's fast forward a bit, to Thursday August 16, 2001. We are at a racism conference in the Western Cape province, an event held in conjunction with global UN conference on racism to be held in Durban, South Africa, later in the month. In Durban, leaders of states, international organizations and NGO will give well-meaning speeches on their fight on the scourge on racism. Tonight, however, we are about to witness Wanda Stoffberg taking the stage. She has been running the butchery Vleis Paleis in George, on the South African garden route, in face of increasing protests from neighbouring small- holders. As she serves a predominantly black clientele, her neighbours have successfully petitioned the local zoning authorities, controlled by the Democratic Alliance, to have her butchery closed. Stoffberg, in return, contacted the local branch of the ANC to recruit their support, and announced as much in the local newspaper. Tonight she will tell of the reaction from her local community.

At the gate of her smallholding, two men attacked her from behind, hitting, kicking and throttling her. Then one of them, who she saw from his hand was a white man, carved a "K" into her left breast.

"He said: This is a message from our boss. Those were his exact words. And kaffirboeties like me can't stay in George." The men said the "K" was "because I'm a kaffir-lover".

While goodwill prevails among ordinary people, she says, white supremacist attitudes had been forced on whites during the apartheid reign.

> As a child growing up in Beaufort West racism was "force-fed" to her every
> day of her life and at one stage she was even scared of black people.
> "One day you wake up and realise you have been part of something so bad
> and so wrong, for so long."
> People felt guilty when they realised this. Some ignored the guilt but
> others chose to deal with it.
> She said she had reservations about coming to speak at the conference,
> "but I decided to stand up for the truth for once in my life, a truth
> which many of us are still in denial of.
> "We should not tolerate any form of discrimination or racism in our
> country. The perpetrators should be punished. This is the humble message I
> want to bring to you," she said.
> "I want something positive to come from this. We are a nation in the
> process of healing... and I learned and believed today there are enough
> people in this country with goodwill to heal this country."
> Stoffberg, sitting on the stage after delivering her testimony, later
> broke down as another victim of a racist attack, Zola Plaatjie, wept as he
> was describing how he was assaulted by whites in Milnerton, Cape Town.
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I am not suggesting here to view 1994, the year of South Africa's first parliamentary elections under general suffrage, as a moment of democratic redemption, of sorts, in the history of the country. Confining the practices with which apartheid is associated to the past enables the type of "current amazement that the things we are experiencing are 'still' possible [which] is not philosophical," as Benjamin demonstrates. By allowing the present to be defined as a state of emergency, it performs as the rule of which fascism becomes a normal expression. "One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm," Benjamin notes in his "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (249). With Benjamin, it might be necessary to work in tandem with two different notions of time. The dominant notion of time, the "homogeneous, empty" version, would perceive fascism as an aberrant form of politics, and, consequently, confirm the normality of the hegemonic formation.

Against this temporal conception, Benjamin holds the thought-image [Denkbild, in Weigel 162] of the "angel of history," a figure, who, while facing the past, is propelled backwards by "a storm blowing from Paradise" into the future, "while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress" (Benjamin, 249).

*1 The categories that became dominant towards the end of the apartheid epoch was "white/European," "coloured," "Indian" and "African." These categories were of course highly problematic, both in their implementations and conceptualizations.

*2 By this time, the theological justifications for white rule was of less importance. Dominantly, the situation was articulated as one of an embattled agent of order against a sea of disorder and chaos.