Policy Analysis No. 81

Better Now Than Never: Economic and Social Reforms in South Africa

By Peter J. Spiro
January 27, 1987

Executive Summary

It requires some courage to write optimistically about the prospects for peaceful change in South Africa, for to do so is to take a decidedly unfashionable viewpoint. No doubt the present situation there remains grave. Uncompromising protest by a frustrated black majority has met with an equally uncompromising crackdown on the part of the government’s security forces, resulting in hundreds of black deaths, thousands of summary detentions, and a suspension of civil liberties and basic rights that makes a mockery of Pretoria’s long-standing claim to be a civilized nation. The South African economy, whose deterioration antedated the outbreak of unrest in the late summer of 1984, has suffered further as the violence takes its natural toll on productivity and commercial stability. Levels of unemployment and inflation have seen steep turns for the worse, which as a matter of course translate into greater black despair and more violence, the long-term solution for which can only be majority rule.

Indeed, as many observers, both within South Africa and around the world, have rightly hoped, these developments mark the beginning of the end of white political dominance in South Africa. Majority rule has long been inevitable, but only recently has that object moved into the realm of the near future. Now too the nature of this transition is taking form: unrest, of varying degrees of intensity, will gradually wear away at the determination of whites to govern, probably culminating in the sort of measured capitulation that characterized the transfer of power in Zimbabwe. Admittedly, the position of whites in South Africa is stronger than it was in Zimbabwe and there is a more tenacious determination to retain dominance. The Afrikaners will not surrender control without a fight—one that will take the lives of many more black South Africans, and an increasing number of white ones. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that they will cling indefinitely to an untenable cause. Most of them, after all, have nowhere to go, and they have simply too much to lose by dragging out human and material destruction beyond anybody’s conceivable interests.

The process will be drawn out over the next decade or longer and will, at least ostensibly, occur almost wholly on the stage of politics and ideology against a backdrop of physical force. Black opposition and resistance elements have been rebuffed and suppressed too harshly and for too long for it to occur apolitically. The leaders of the African National Congress, the United Democratic Front, the black workers’ unions, and most other groups will not acknowledge as worthy of acclaim any action by the Pretoria government save the final turnover of political power. Reforms in social and economic spheres are routinely dismissed as forlorn attempts to coopt black South Africa, to buy time for minority rule. This dismissal is perhaps a fair, if incomplete, characterization of government initiatives in these areas; it is, moreover, strategically critical to the long-term objective of these groups to focus on their gaining political power.

Apartheid unquestionably constitutes an affront to the core values of civilization, and opponents are justified in working for its prompt demise. Standing alone, however, the abolition of apartheid is an incomplete and inadequate objective. The advent of majority rule in South Africa does not by itself guarantee a benign future for that nation. The eventual political structure is an important concern, but an equally vital question is how a society based upon respect for individual rights (including economic liberties) can be forged during the transition to majority rule. Most Western critics of apartheid have thus far failed to address this crucial issue. Such an omission is especially unfortunate since the ultimate shape of South Africa’s future may be determined as much in the economic and social realm as in the political arena.

Read the Full Policy Analysis

Peter J. Spiro was a correspondent for the Johannesburg Financial Mail and is now Notes Editor of theUniversity of Virginia Law Review.