Illusions and Realities: Against the Necklace

Since no one else seems outraged, let me raise a small voice against the cruel method of torture that is being practiced in South Africa. It is not often shown in all its horror on TV. It is called “the necklace,” and it is symptomatic of troubles ahead.

Suppose that you were trying to be a “moderate” in South Africa, working for the soon-to-come day when apartheid is no more, but unwilling to join those who call for a violent uprising now. Then one day a menacing crowd surrounds you. As they pull your hands behind your back, and you feel the wire twisting into them, terror turns your blood to ice.

You see youths pouring gasoline into a tire. You see it coming. You struggle but they hold you. They cheer as the tire comes over your head, bruising your ears. Your nostrils smell the gasoline, it drips down your shoulders. You fear suffocation when they light the match to it. The flame will burn your lips, your nose, your eyes, your hair. Where is your wife, your children? God be merciful!

Let us suppose that those singled out for “the necklace” are guilty of something. One must suppose this, for there is no trial. And let us suppose that apartheid is so great a crime that victims must be slaughtered to atone for it. How many? Why you?

Where will it stop?

We are told every day that violence must come in South Africa. If so, how many will soon be killed? How many “necklaces” should we expect?

And for what will they be killed?

An end to apartheid is not likely to mean freedom. It is not likely to mean an end to violence, either. Has the violence stopped in Uganda, in Zimbabwe, in Ethiopia, in Liberia? Where has it stopped?

There are many all-black states in Africa. From them hundreds of thousands of blacks stream into South Africa each year. There is no out-migration from South Africa. Even with apartheid, blacks come toward South Africa, not away from it.

Moreover, apartheid — which came into practice relatively suddenly — is suddenly beginning to be dismantled. One by one, the laws that constitute it are being repealed. As a legal structure affecting identity cards, rights of movement, rights of home ownership wherever one chooses, and full and unimpeded scope for personal choice, apartheid must steadily and swiftly be repealed. That day is en route.

Then the truly long road will begin: of upward mobility, education, training, and free opportunity seized and turned to benefit. There is much to be done in South Africa’s economic order.

In the political order, the problems seem to be more formidable. If there is violent revolution, neither economic nor political progress will be possible. If there is not, economic progress may be easier than political progress. Abstractly, the only correct political solution is universal suffrage, one man, one vote. In the concrete, that solution has many drawbacks, unless it is scheduled on an orderly, perhaps internationally guaranteed, timetable.

What is wrong with universal suffrage instantly? The history of democracy in the rest of Africa tells against it. Perhaps there is somewhere in South Africa a black military strongman who can impose order, schedule elections, and force the many races, tribes, and factions into peaceful cooperation — assuming that he can be elected and reelected. But the history of military strongmen in Africa is an ugly one.

Politics is about power. The current structure of governmental censorship prevents the world from seeing who are the likely bearers of power in South Africa. Are they the people who cheer on the necklaces? An end to apartheid must and will come. But it may not mark the end of cruel and bloody tyranny. Watch and see.

What kind of system will South Africa have, after apartheid has been dismantled? Dismantled it will be, and soon. Who are the likely new rulers? Where are the media on this subject?

Let us hope that the new social system will be one in which the “necklace” is never employed again on human flesh.

Michael Novak


Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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