The South African "celebration" is fraying. Even liberal whites are frightened and many are leaving. RW Johnson, who last year returned to South Africa from Oxford, explains why they are worried but why he plans to stayby RW Johnson / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
In one sense the white minority of South Africa (roughly 5.5m people out of a total population of 40m) is only now getting used to being a minority. It is not just that until the last few years it had the political, economic and military power that normally only majorities have but, at a certain level, it actually felt it was, if not exactly a majority, at least somehow more authentically South African than black or brown South Africans could ever be.
Whites (even English-speaking whites) used to say things like: “So-and-so’s a real South African-he loves rugby, boerewors and speaking die taal.” Even relatively liberal whites sometimes slipped into such patterns. I can remember, in the political science department in which I used to teach in Durban, the departmental secretary, Miss X-a charming, intelligent woman, fiercely opposed to apartheid-typing up the seminar lists of students after universities were desegregated in the 1980s. In the first “open” year, only 2 per cent of the students were African or Indian; in the second year about 6 per cent; but in the third year the number shot up to 28 per cent and the year after to over 50 per cent. The result was that Miss X found herself typing lists which not only included Browns and van der Merwes but Tshabalalas, Poovalinghams and Ntsebezas. After a while a weary sigh escaped Miss X, bent over the keys: “Oh dear, such a lot of foreign names this year!”
But while whites were the only full citizens-making up the army, all the police officer corps, all the leading positions in business and the professions and, of course, the only ones with a full vote-they also knew, at a more fundamental level, not only that they were a numerical minority but that they were, as such, deeply threatened. When President de Klerk crossed the Rubicon in 1990, unbanned the ANC and announced universal suffrage elections, many whites believed that he had all sorts of hidden aces up his sleeve, that he had no real intention of letting “them” take over. This impression was so wide and deep that a friend of mine who is a sophisticated liberal politician was so unsure of whether de Klerk had fully understood that the process he had begun could only end in the transfer of power that he sought out the president and questioned him himself.