Christian Realism and South Africa

When I represented the U.S. at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, I spent as much time with delegates from Black Africa as I could. They showed a special warmth, gentleness, and candor in return. I usually inquired about South Africa.

Most admitted that their own nations trade heavily with South Africa. Most recognized that the tide of black migration is into South Africa, not out. Most recognized that the economic and civic condition of blacks in some other African nations is worse.

But there is one point about South Africa that they found intolerable and about which their own self-identity was passionately engaged. Whereas in some other nations of Africa, the rights of millions are being abused in daily practice, in South Africa the law is the instrument of abuse, as a matter of principle. This feature of apartheid invariably moved my colleagues to rage.

The use of law, legal principle, and constitutionalism to declare the civic inferiority of blacks attacked them, they suggested, at the roots of their being, in their souls. Hypocrisy they might have been able to live with; a failure to live up to ideals might have been tolerable, just as they have to tolerate much in their own countries. What cannot be stomached is that apartheid is declared openly in the law. “How would you like it,” one asked, “if the law singled out people like you?”

Since most of the Africans admire Anglo-American emphasis on constitutionalism and rights, they did not understand how we, above all, could not see how horrible it is to use such sacred means to express such evil.

Give white Afrikaners this, then: They are not hypocrites. As they do, so they say. They have made their abhorrent view vocal, legal, constitutionally explicit. This very sense of legality ironically condemns them.

That is why, like a Greek tragedy, for years nearly every outside observer has felt a sense of inevitable, slowly escalating disaster. One would have hoped that changes had come faster, and that a rapid evolution had been planned and executed. Stubbornness—not least a righteous stubbornness—has instead come to be seen as a national Afrikaner trait.

No one should underestimate the capacity of a disciplined party of four million to maintain twenty-four million others in subjection. The Communist Party does it all the time. What must be doubted is whether white South Africans can pursue the logic of repression to the bitter end. Whatever the condition of the law, the moral convictions of many will demand reform. Some will flee. Some will lose heart.

Moreover, every reform, every liberty and advantage granted, will introduce a radical conflict into legal principle. Half the heart of the white South African will be appealing to humane principles implicit in the process of reform. Another portion will cling to the horrid logic of apartheid. A house divided will not forever stand.

Thus, the free world watches with morbid fascination as the tragedy unfolds. One is tempted to cry out for a great leader such as Abraham Lincoln. Yet even Lincoln was not spared the bloodiest civil war in history. Apartheid is going to end. We may hope it does so without a bloodbath. It is already time to be thinking of the future, after apartheid.

(1) There is only one way South African blacks can gain rising skills, education and leadership: through economic growth. Already South Africa has more black professionals than any other nation in Africa. Growth has already far exceeded the manpower capacities of whites. Even after apartheid is dismantled, growth will be necessary.

(2) The deep tragedy for the West is that the piece of geography that South Africa possesses is not insignificant, poor, and of no strategic importance to the rest of us. Irony of ironies, the country most like South Africa, not only in the terrible hold of a minority over a majority, but also in its mirror-like profile of major mineral resources, is the Soviet Union.

Between them, the USSR and South Africa hold the major part of the world’s gold deposits (68 percent), chrome (84 percent) , manganese (93 percent), vanadium (64 percent), and platinum (99 percent). Were the USSR to gain South Africa and thus to monopolize the world’s markets in gold, diamonds, chrome, and platinum, the free nations of the world would be in a desperate position.

The paramount question for U.S. foreign policy is: After the collapse of the regime of apartheid, who will gain custodianship of South Africa’s mineral wealth?

From Libya, Angola, Syria, and Ethiopia, the USSR already exerts considerable strategic leverage upon black Africa from the north. If the USSR comes into possession of South Africa, the vise will close from the south. From South Africa’s ports, the Red Navy would control passage between the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. It would also control the South Atlantic, exerting great pressures on Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil.

The drama in South Africa is far larger in significance than most people dream.

We who are concerned about moral issues must take responsibility for the strategic, as well as for the tactical, consequences of our acts. Which nation in Africa would we like South Africa to resemble? In whose hands do we wish to see its unmatched resources fall? Apartheid must go. South Africa must not.


In the September issue of Commentary magazine, the British historian Paul Johnson presents one of the most intriguing perspectives on South Africa yet to appear in print.

Mr. Johnson argues against the popular assumption that South Africa is a unique case in Africa, so uniquely evil that it must be destroyed out of fundamental morality and common sense. He argues that apartheid, like feudalism (of which it is a descendant), must indeed be dismantled. He believes that this can happen only through the replacement of feudalism by capitalism (since, for the latter, discrimination is dysfunctional). He argues that there is now an urgent race between rapid reform and a disastrous descent into violence.

There are six respects, Johnson finds, in which South Africa is typical of other African nations. (1) Its very rapid population increase. (2) Its severe racial problems, which are as complex as those of Nigeria, Zaire, and the Sudan.

The largest racial group in South Africa are the Zulu (5.4 million); second are the 4.5 million whites (divided into four ethnic groups—Dutch, French, English and German—and two linguistic groups, Dutch-Afrikaaner and English); next the Xhosa (2.7 million), the coloreds or mixed-race (2.6 million), the North Sotho (2.3 million), the South Sotho (1.8 million), Tswana (1.2 million), and seven smaller groups. In addition, 4.8 million blacks live in four quasi-independent states, Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Venda. There are 4 major and 23 minor African linguistic groups.

(3) Rapid urbanization, with alarmingly and depressingly high crime rates. (4) Social engineering, including passbooks (universal to Africa) for controlling the movement of peoples; government settlement and resettlement efforts; and widespread neglect of individual rights in the path of bulldozers and social control.

(5) The absence in the whole of Africa of even a single genuinely multiracial society, without racism and nondiscrimination. (6) Half-baked ideologies (of which apartheid is one of many) to justify racialist practices.

Mr. Johnson then lists four ways in which South Africa is unique. (1) Its wealth: South Africa, originally poor, has the largest mineral deposits in the world, outside the USSR. It is the world’s largest supplier of gold, platinum, gem diamonds, chrome, vanadium, manganese, andalusite metals, vermiculite and asbestos fibers, and second or third largest in nickel, copper, tin, silver and other crucial elements.

(2) A modern (although largely feudal) economy—the sole modern economy Africa. With less than 25 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population, South Africa produces almost 75 percent of its Gross Regional Product. Next to the USSR, it has the largest mining industry in the world—700,000 miners, more than the 470,000 in the U.S., 140,000 in Canada, and 70,000 in Australia put together.

(3) Only in South Africa have the real incomes of blacks in Africa risen substantially since 1960. There are more black-owned cars in South Africa than private cars in the whole of the USSR. Immigrant workers from the rest of Africa stream into South Africa; black emigration is virtually unknown. (Life expectancy in South Africa is 63 years compared to Nigeria’s 50 and Tanzania’s 52; its infant mortality rate is 55 compared to Nigeria’s 109 and Tanzania’s 98.) Black South Africans already constitute the largest black middle class in Africa.

(4) More institutions of freedom than in any other African country, even for blacks, although obviously not nearly so many for blacks and coloreds as for whites. While South Africa’s freedoms need rapid expansion to all universally, there are more civic protections available there than elsewhere in Africa.

Johnson believes that the primitive worldview of apartheid is inconsistent with necessary economic advances and with the color-blind needs of a free economy. He believes the current campaign of disinvestment is likely to make supporters of apartheid more insular, stubborn, and self-sufficient.

Johnson holds that the goals black families actually seek can be fulfilled only through a modern economy based on freedom and growth: better education for their children; rights of citizenship; rights to own property and homes anywhere in the Republic; freedom of movement and residence; and freedom from police supervision. Blacks comprise nearly 80 percent of the skilled labor force in the mines and in industry. Expanding such job opportunities is crucial.

Millions of blacks desire rapid and steady progress, but not the destruction of South Africa. How many concrete dreams will collapse if violence and terror succeed in cowing these moderates? The race is between a rapid expansion of universal liberties and a hardening of force and repression. Mr. Johnson does not believe that black extremists will prevail. He thinks that may bring down worse repression and all hope of reform.

Paul Johnson’s vision may be disputed, but it is sobering. To call for the abolition of apartheid is easy. How that will be accomplished without making crucial matters of daily living worse, is less easy to diagnose. Moral wisdom appears to be on the side of substantial and rapid reform. Violence and terror highlight its need. But if violence and terror become ends in themselves, or precipitate new cycles of repression, they will destroy the dreams of all.

The hopes of the free world depend on the vision, courage, and success of all those in South Africa who desire rapid progress in dismantling apartheid. Such a task cannot be achieved in one single dramatic finale. Those who are moral must think of practical steps, methods, and means. There is, alas, no simple whisking away of a deeply rooted evil. Thinking in grand abstractions is murderous. Washing our hands of practical thinking is immoral.


“It now appears inevitable,” wrote Business Week last June 24. “The U.S. will impose economic sanctions in an effort to force South Africa to change its white supremacist policies.” If so, what will result?

A great many American activists will feel pure and clean. They will have done their job. But what will result in South Africa? Nobody knows.

Some, like labor-consultant Kenneth S. Zinn (Washington Post, Sept. 1), think that the South African economy is already teetering, and that an “economic shove” will “mortally weaken the white minority government.” Others, like Paul Johnson the British historian, believe that the South African economy will achieve tighter self-sufficiency, and that the minority supporters of apartheid will be confirmed in insularity.

Mr. Zinn thinks that the capitalist economy is the strongest pillar of apartheid. Mr. Johnson thinks that the capitalist economy is the major force undermining apartheid.

Mr. Zinn’s reasoning is that apartheid is “propped up” by South Africa’s profit system. “Cheap black labor,” as he puts it, is the source of profits. But there is “cheap black labor” in all African countries, and it does not lead to wealth remotely comparable to South Africa’s.

As Mr. Johnson shows, black laborers in South Africa receive higher wages than blacks in any other African nation. Theirs are the only real wages in Africa that have risen substantially since 1960. Only a growing economy can bring yet higher real wages.

Mr. Zinn in part concedes this point, by arguing that today’s investment is capital intensive. It is not, then; premised on cheap labor. Mr. Zinn argues that American firms directly employ only 70,000 blacks, Asians, and coloreds. (He ignores the scores of thousands who find employment in satellites to these firms.) This suggests, alas, how very easily they will be replaced.

Japanese and European firms are already taking away American computer business. They say Americans are unreliable and, after disinvestment, will not be able to service American products. Other non-American manufacturers will argue likewise.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson says, “Take the profit out of apartheid.” But apartheid does not depend on profits. Apartheid is a racialist, not an economic, ideology. It impedes development, restricts markets, and fails to activate the talents of millions of persons left relatively uneducated and without opportunity. Apartheid lowers profits. But profits make possible a wider expansion of opportunity and greater freedoms. The lack of profits—i.e., stagnation and decline—narrows horizons.

And profits do not depend on exploitation. Nations with profit systems pay far higher real wages and have far higher standards of living than statist systems. South Africa’s system, hobbled as it is, is far more productive than any other in Africa.

Utopians dream that one great dramatic act—a revolution, total disinvestment, etc.—will bring “change.” Utopians have two weaknesses: (1) A tendency to believe that “change,” any change, always leads to something better. Often, it doesn’t. And (2) a failure to think concretely about what will happen after the great climactic act.

Maybe disinvestment will work. Maybe it is just the shock the system needs to induce rapid reform. Maybe America should do the simple “moral” thing: Walk away from the problem, keep its own hands “clean.” Many assume that history rewards those who follow the “simple” path of moral purity. Often, it doesn’t. Witness Iran, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and scores of other “revolutions” since 1917.

History is compounded of irony and tragedy. Irony appears when those who act with pure intentions produce the opposite of what they hoped: decline, not progress. Tragedy occurs when good people, through fundamental moral weaknesses in their own make-up, over and over choose the same destructive path.

Americans typically desire to do what seems purely and simply moral. This is referred to as our “innocence.” The campaign to mobilize this historic passion behind disinvestment has both ironic and tragic elements: ironic because it may produce a strengthening of apartheid and a brutal suppression of the champions of reform; tragic because Americans have so often erred by excesses of innocence. (And how “innocent” is it, after the sixth or seventh time?)

No matter which course is followed, America’s actions regarding South Africa will be morally ambiguous. No one knows the consequences of disinvestment. Maybe it will help. More likely, it will hurt South African blacks, the cause of abolishing apartheid, and the United States. There is no guarantee that it will work. And, afterwards, what leverage will the U.S. have?

On the other hand, in truth, there is no guarantee that resisting sanctions at this time will help. To resist public sentiment will require moral courage. But the results of not imposing, sanctions may also be ironic and tragic. Forces for reform in South Africa may be too weak and proceed too slowly.

It is crucial to affect the future of South Africa creatively. We desperately need to articulate our own vision of that future. We cannot dictate such a future. But we must build, not solely destroy. We must work for those changes that most nearly satisfy all the needs of all the people of South Africa.

In this respect, sanctions and disinvestment resemble ominously the posture of Pontius Pilate. While pretending to superior morality, we must not allow more cynical and hardened agents to do their violent work.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak held for many years the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is now a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. He is a philosopher, theologian, and author, as well as the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written over twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. He also founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982.