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article imageOp-Ed: Parallels in U.S. and South African history

By Robert Weller     Dec 9, 2013 in Politics
Cape Town - The disenfranchisement of the black majority in South Africa did not begin with the rule of the Afrikaner-dominated Nationalist Party in 1948, but after a history of British colonization much like the U.S.
Instead of fighting the British, Boer (Dutch-speaking pioneers) moved north looking for land and wanting to be left alone. On Dec. 16, 1838, a wagon train of an estimated 470 people circled into a laager, armed with rifles, alongside Blood River, as they did in the U.S. West when they were surrounded by Indians, and fought off an estimated 10,000 spear-carrying Zulus, suffering only minimum losses.
The area first came to Europe’s attention when Portuguese ships sailing to India around the Cape of Good Hope, originally more appropriately known as the “Cape of Storms,” sought shelter in the harbor below 3,500-foot-high Table Mountain in the late 15th century, one of the world’s most spectacular views.
Protestant Huguenot refugees from France and Dutch settlers began settlements in 1652. It was more than a century later that the British became interested and conquered the independent republics the settlers had built. Diamonds were discovered in 1867, and the British seized even the small settled areas in the hinterlands.
The British also banned the slave trade. There had been perhaps 1,000 slaves in the settlements.
Several wars resulted, including the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the 19th century when 28,000 white pioneers, mostly women and children, and 15,000 blacks died in what historians describe as the first European genocide on the continent, and the first use of concentration camps.
The British imposed the strict racial laws, setting a precedent for apartheid, and South Africa’s whites fought along side the British in both world wars and its air force joined the U.S. in the Korean War.
Ronald Reagan inherited the policies on South Africa from Jimmy Carter. South Africa was surrounded by Marxist governments, backed by the Soviets and their Cuban proxies. The Soviets wanted the vast mineral wealth of the region. Reagan supported apartheid no more than President Mandela supported communism, but wanted to keep the minerals from the Soviet Empire. Cuban troops were on the border of Southwest Africa.
In those Cold war days, countries became, as John Le Carre called them,"frenemies." That means they could be friends, enemies or rivals.
Under pressure from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and others, Reagan's assistant undersecretary of state for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, adopted a policy of "constructive engagement." The theory was that it would be easier to persuade Africa’s economic and military powerhouse to move to democracy through dialogue and support .
South Africa had seen what followed the independence of former colonies on the continent, and was terrified tribal and Christian-Muslim wars would commence under black rule. The Biafran War in Nigeria was estimated to have left as many as three million dead, most from starvation and disease.
At the end of World War II the country could have been a haven for European refugees, but the Dutch-speaking Afrikaners did not want to share power with others, not even their English-speaking South African countrymen.
The Dutch-speaking Nationalists took control in 1948 of the independent former colony, and made the country a target by creating the apartheid system, or “apart hate” as critics called it. It formally made blacks and mixed-race South Africans nothing more than guest workers with virtually no rights.
The Nationalist Party created a whole new language. Non-whites were “plurals,” residents of small enclaves, sort of like American Indian reservations, in the most desolate parts of the rich country.
As often occurs, this tyranny first came to the attention of the West in literature, Broadway musicals and the classic book/film “Cry the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton and musical “Lost in the Stars” by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson. The country became a fountain of great writers and playwrights.
Although political activists were imprisoned, and some art banned, there was built in resistance within the English-speaking white minority, to the kind of censorship imposed in many other countries, and places such as the Market Theater thrived, putting on shows that were meant to bring down apartheid. South Africa was a democracy--a democracy whites only.
The Cold War delayed any significant reaction to the injustices, but by the mid-1980s, Democrats in the U.S. forced through sanctions.
South Africa’s military was able to get the weapons it needed, and even build a nuclear bomb. In some ways the sanctions made its economy stronger, making it a leader, for example, in the production of synthetic fuels.
But most sports teams and entertainment stars would not come. South Africans couldn’t get visas for many countries. They were truly a pariah state with one major ally, Israel.
Ultimately, military leaders persuaded the white-minority government that they could fight off black liberationists indefinitely but many young whites would die in the struggle, and the country would no longer be a paradise of swimming pools and Sunday braais (barbecues) .
Just as the nation was blessed to be handing power over to Nelson Mandela, a man without a vengeful bone in his body, its white leaders were wise to let go of power before it was wrested from them in a bloody struggle.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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