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South African Complexities

Dispensations: The Future of South Africa as South Africans See It

By Richard John Neuhaus

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 317

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Robert Coles

Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School as well as Research Psychiatrist at the Harvard University Health Services. A Contributing Editor of, and regular columnist for, the NOR, his latest books are The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children.

Also reviewed:

Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid in South Africa. By Mark Mathabane. Macmillan. 354 pages. $19.95.


I have been visiting and working in South Africa for a decade and with each year spent there have felt myself both more certain of what I think about that nation’s torment, and in­creasingly perplexed as to what America ought hold as necessary steps for that country to take. It is, really, a “first world” country for white people (and an ex­tremely small number of “coloreds,” Indians, and blacks) and a “third world” country for the overwhelming majority of the nearly 30 million people who live within its boundaries. I hope and pray it is not necessary, yet again, to express outrage at the gross injustices that continue to prevail in that nation — the edi­fice of apartheid that keeps the many under the thorough con­trol of the few. Yet, as anyone who has lived in South Africa soon enough realizes, the moral assumptions and attitudes of Americans such as myself, and no doubt most readers of this magazine, are by no means those of many influential South Afri­can whites, who have quite an­other situation to face, so they insist repeatedly to “outsiders.” A distinguished Johannesburg lawyer, of English background, made this clear to me one day in the summer of 1981: “I read a lot of books on philosophy and theology. You can read those books at night, then the next morning you have to leave your house and go out into the street…. When I see that phrase ‘situa­tion-ethics’ I think I know what it means for us [the white peo­ple] here! I wish some of you outsiders would stop once or twice, just once or twice in your lives, to see the way other people live, to see our world here, not your world, across the ocean. Ev­en now, I know, you are telling yourself silently that I am full of rationalizations and self-justifica­tions and apologias — and that I’d best be more honest with my­self and with you, with all of you in the States. But, in fact, many of us here are so honest with our­selves and one another that it hurts, it really does hurt. We are painfully aware — believe me — how fortunate we are, and how dismal and grim it is for our black people. But we didn’t cre­ate this situation. We were born into it. We are a small minority of Europeans who are living as Europeans do, and we see around us — well, all of black Africa. The countries to the north of us, none of them with apartheid, are disasters economically and politi­cally — and I’ll tell you, racially, too: so much hate and murder in the name of tribes. We are trying to do better — and of course, you outsiders, full of your own homegrown problems and trage­dies, want us to change every­thing here overnight!”

His statements might well have been part of the Rev. Neuhaus’s wide-ranging interviews with white and colored and black South Africans. The book offers the reader a first-rate introduc­tion to the people of that belea­guered country — to their prob­lems, as they regard them, and to their hopes, worries, and quite evident fears. Neuhaus has done a sensitive and skillful job of in­tegrating his interviews into a lit­erate and at times quite compelling narrative. The book, in plac­es, reads like a novel: characters come and go, the authorial voice explains, introduces, comments, or reflects. Plenty of action takes place, because the subject is, alas, one that comes down to, finally, the question of a confrontation that becomes more and more rev­olutionary by the year, by the day, even. Though some of these interviews are predictable — not because they are without impor­tance, but because by now South Africa’s troubles are widely known to many of us — there are some that command attention and inspire the longest possible meditation. I do not refer, by the latter, to the interviews conduct­ed with prominent white and colored and black leaders — the in­tellectuals, the church people, the politicians. It is when Neu­haus breaks away from such company — yes, from the re­marks that the Rt. Rev. Des­mond Tutu and others must nec­essarily keep making in the hope against hope that the rest of us will really attend what we read and hear — that a rather more provocative line of reasoning emerges.

Luci Mbuvelo, for instance, is presented as “one of the most engaging people” the author met during his South African stay. She is General Secretary of the National Union of Clothing Workers, and she is described as “very black, very big,” one who “brooks no nonsense from any­one.” She has for decades been an important black woman in her country’s political and racial struggle — as a “grassroots lead­er,” the author reminds us, rath­er than a voice emanating from a university or religious institution or big business or a newspaper, the usual sources of South Afri­can comments heeded both at home and abroad. She works in a “somewhat tattered office” and makes her daiy efforts on behalf of “the true principles of trade unionism.” She wants to help the workers in all possible ways, but especially with respect to their wages, as well as the conditions that obtain in the various places of employment. She is a reader of the Bible, and her observa­tions on that book — and its life, so to speak, in South Africa — are instructive, indeed: “The Afrikaner, no, he does not really believe the Bible because if they believe the Bible then they would accept everybody. That is what the Bible says. Maybe only the blacks here accept the Bible. The whites they give us the Bible then we believe it, and some Church people say that is bad now, because of what the Bible says about bloodshed, it is all against it.”

She acknowledges, sadly, that many blacks have no use for the Bible. At one point she not only tells us that “many black youth are moving away from the Bible,” but that “they say Chris­tianity wasted time for the achievement of freedom for the black man because it says you go to heaven and that is when you get yours, but everybody else is getting their good thing now.” When Neuhaus asks her directly whether “she thinks the Bible stands in the way of liberation,” she responds with this declaration: “No, I am from the old stock. I understand why young people say it, but I wonder if church leaders should encourage that. These young people, they would not walk as I did, three miles to the Station, just to get a train to come into town. Now they see the white boy has a mo­tor car and they want a motor car. Ah, is it freedom or is it self­ishness?”

She is not renouncing social and political struggle, quite the contrary. But hers is a shrewd and long-term vision. She is not about to anticipate heaven on earth with the ending of apar­theid — and she understands all too well the dubious joys of the world we inhabit in late 20th-century secular America, as does Mark Mathabane, another black South African who speaks at length for himself in his book Kaffir Boy. In South Africa the expression “Kaffir” is an epithet, roughly comparable, as the au­thor tells us, “to the term nig­ger.” This autobiographical ac­count of the boyhood of a black youth who grew up in Alexan­dra, near Johannesburg, is a nec­essary companion to the Neu­haus book. In a way it spells out, subjectively, what all of today’s news stories about South Africa’s shantytowns really mean — the rage a place such as Alexandra prompts in a child who lives there, as the author did, and as do, still, the children I knew in the course of my work in that “district.” Mathabane turned in­to someone “special,” of course; he stumbled luckily into kind and decent and generous whites; he learned to play tennis; he met Arthur Ashe; he got to America; and he has a talent for writing. But the story he tells is ordinary and representative — the manners of a given life, the extreme pov­erty, the brutish exploitation, the denial by a sometimes vicious police force and political system of all political and human rights. Yet, it is hard to finish this force­fully rendered personal state­ment without feeling deeply ashamed (as Conrad did, in Heart of Darkness) for all of us white people, with respect to our long history of colonial greed; and without feeling, too, more than a touch of anger — that even, now, almost 2,000 years since Jesus was born in Bethlehem, some hu­man beings can regard and treat other human beings in the manner this one “Kaffir boy” de­scribes.


©1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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