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Response to Review of An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival

I would like to thank Robert McNamara for his very thoughtful review. I wanted to take this opportunity to clarify a few of the differences in our interpretations of this era, which, after all, was the turning point in the fortunes of the apartheid regime.

An African Volk explains how apartheid South Africa sought to fight off international isolation by arguing that it had a place in the post-colonial world order. It shows how after the crisis years of the early 1960s, when Hendrik Verwoerd relentlessly animated fears of blackness, decolonisation, revolution, and ‘Africa’, his successor John Vorster decided to approach the conundrum in a different way. He chose to draw upon dormant political grammars in the canon of Afrikaner thought to argue that his was in every sense an African nation. He reached out to post-colonial African nation-states, all while the government and its allies in the public sphere extolled Afrikanerdom’s anti-colonial history and explicitly repudiated the Afrikaner’s colonial past. Moreover, this ‘Africanisation’ of Afrikanerdom was intertwined with the separate development program. As the government ‘decolonised’ the homelands into ‘self-rule’ in South Africa, it engaged with governments in Malawi, Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, and elsewhere, with its good faith on one front repeatedly marshalled to bolster its efforts on the other. In this way, foreign policy, state-building, ideology, and domestic politics were all linked. As McNamara suggests, the book is an ambitious one.

I agree with McNamara that we do not have many documents outlining Vorster’s strategy point by point. But we do have some. To take just one example from the book, Vorster opened up on his fundamental political vision for his biographer in these terms: ‘I set myself two goals, first, to create better relations between people, Afrikaans and English- speaking, White, Colored, Indian and Black; sec­ond, to do my utmost to normalize relations between South Africa and other countries’ (p. 41). The Africa policy was the core of this second priority. Files from state archives, speeches, Nationalist Party caucus minutes, policy documents, Broederbond records, oral histories, and other sources that I use in the book all talk extensively about not just the Africa policy, but the political contest over re-imaginations of Afrikaner identity and history that were intertwined with it. The whole enterprise, however unlikely, was highly valued by Nationalists at the time, infused with real optimism for a total reversal in the regime’s international standing. Those feelings may have been delusional, but they were very real.

Now, McNamara is right that Vorster failed to do much more than repeal parts of petty apartheid, or establish viable homelands, both of which were logical policy corollaries of his vision of South Africa’s future as one of parallel nation-states (as I see it). But he spoke at length and explicitly about both, which itself came at a major political cost. I feel that we have to see the politics of the day in its own time and place, and in the context of the political imaginary of apartheid – what voters, elites, and leaders thought it meant, rather than the depravation that it did mean. How else can we explain the ideological dimension, which in turn drove political conduct by and within the regime? I think the post-linguistic turn focus on discourse in political history has much to offer here.

What I am unclear about – and welcome debate on – is where this strategy came from. It is clear that Vorster’s own politics and background made him deeply conformist in his party in some ways and unorthodox in others. But I do not quite share McNamara’s reading that Vorster came to this new strategy upon entering office. I suspect that two other things happened. First, he won the 1970 election in a landslide and purged his party of a group of hardliners, establishing his own political authority. Second, he reached out into Africa and saw, probably to his surprise, that his entreaties were not rebuffed out of hand and that there was plenty of common ground to talk about. The strategy probably developed from there. But, as McNamara suggests, it is hard to know for sure. Hopefully, future research will help.

The central area of difference between us concerns the two iterations of South Africa’s statecraft during this era: the Africa policy, grounded in an identification as a full and explicit part of post-colonial Africa; and the white redoubt policy, rooted in pan-white solidarity as the key to South Africa’s future. McNamara is a (very fine) historian of military geopolitics during this era. His ability to understand the international dimension of his subject, spanning Rhodesian, Portuguese, and South African perspectives, is invaluable. I focus more on the political, in the broadest sense. So it is only natural that we might have differing perspectives. In making his case for the primacy of the white redoubt, McNamara argues that investment in the outward policy was limited. That is true if we look only at finances (and to a point: the extremely shadowy nature of South Africa’s off-the-books foreign policy funds was so extreme that it led to Vorster’s demise in the Information Scandal of 1977–9.) But the political investment was massive. Every meeting with post-colonial African leaders came at the cost of fierce attacks from verkramptes. Every media report noting daylight between South Africa and Rhodesia prompted accusations of a betrayal of white identity and Verwoerd’s legacy. I reproduce some of the damning political cartoons conveying these pointed attacks in the book.

This puzzle of contradictory foreign policies – reaching out to African states on the grounds of being ‘post-colonial’ while cooperating with anti-colonial regimes in Salisbury and Lisbon – can to an extent be resolved, if we look at how each policy reflected different understandings of Nationalist politics during this era as perceived by its adherents. In this sense, I agree with McNamara that South Africa’s foreign policy was ‘Janus faced’: different policies reflected different identities for the state, each with its own intellectual roots. After all, Vorster’s vision of the future of his polity was one that was resolutely white and a post-colonial nation-state. Each foreign policy served one of those identities.

Both were important. But the old thinking that the white redoubt strategy accounted for the core of South Africa’s statecraft during this era must be revised. It coexisted with other thinking and, especially after 1974, was eclipsed by African outreach. Of course, I could be wrong. But if the white redoubt was really so dominant, how do we explain Vorster repeatedly withholding military aid from the exasperated Rhodesians, over the objections of his powerful military establishment? How can we explain his eagerness, even desperation to work for multi-racial political settlements in Rhodesia and South-West Africa, even at the expense of complete breakdowns with two of South Africa’s few allies, the Ian Smith regime and the SWA National Party? We cannot. And when evidence doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom, historians have to find a new theory that fits what we can see. That is what this book does.

There are a few discrete points in the review that I would challenge. McNamara claims that I said that declining defence spending (as a proportion of GDP) meant that the regime was not ‘militaristic’. By its very nature, the regime was militaristic. Both abroad and at home, traditional masculinity coupled with a police state mentality and apparatus combined for some awful social norms. My point in the book was that the spending reflected a certain complacency that developed after the challenges of the early 1960s. Defence Minister P. W. Botha repeatedly asked for increases in manpower, money, and rearmament funds in the late 1960s and early 1970s, only for his Cabinet colleagues to demur. Fear and anxiety did not disappear from the Afrikaner political psyche – far from it – but they now coexisted with a brash overconfidence. One of the most extreme manifestations of that overconfidence was the idea that South Africa could catapult homelands into existence and get African states to recognise the new entities as peers.

A second issue concerns the Angolan intervention of 1975. As I wrote in the Journal of Cold War Studies in 2013, and again in this book, South Africa’s intervention has long been seen through the lens of American Cold War interests. This is methodologically very unsatisfactory. What if we instead look at South Africa’s Cold War interests? If we do that, coupled with a close attention to the historical evidence, we get a very different picture indeed. I do not, as McNamara suggests, ‘discount discounts the idea that the United States encouraged the South Africans prior to the massive Cuban deployment of troops’. The US did encourage the South Africans to get involved, through winks and nods. But that was not the decisive factor in South Africa’s intervention. What mattered more was: intense lobbying by the South African military and its minister, P. W. Botha; the creeping nature of engagement, which ended up with an intervention that nobody could have foreseen at the start; the political dysfunction of the regime; the emphasis on secrecy, which excluded the input of key stakeholders; how events in Angola were seen through the prism of South Africa’s homegrown Cold War ideologies; and the evolution of the perspectives of Vorster’s African allies on events and the collapse of talks over Rhodesia’s future. The existing version – of South Africans desperate to do America’s bidding – just isn’t borne out by the evidence we have available. If South Africa enthusiastically backed America’s plan to intervene in Angola in July 1975 and would do anything for Washington’s approval, why did it have extremely limited resources in the country until mid-October? It just doesn’t add up.

The final issue is my point about how we might integrate South Africa into our narratives of African decolonisation, particularly in the classroom. I am grateful to McNamara for pulling out a point that I meant to be highly provocative. Too often we teach decolonisation in Africa in ways that are oppositional: black versus white, Africa versus the white redoubt. South Africa is the ultimate outlier. South Africa’s efforts to rebrand itself as a post-colonial African nation-state might have been bold, even ludicrous. But they happened, and it can help us see decolonisation in a new light. Pretoria’s identification of nativist nationalism, development, anti-communism, and inviolable state sovereignty as languages and norms that it could use to talk to post-colonial Africa should make us focus more intently on why and how it was able to do so. Put another way, if African post-colonial leaders, who hated apartheid and pillioried it in public as a core ideological pillar of their own legitimacy, were willing to look past that and engage on these issues, surely this must suggest that such issues were particularly resilient aspects of the post-colonial African project? In emulating a post-colonial state, even poorly and ham-fistedly, the Vorster government thus shone a light on aspects of decolonisation that were cynical, exclusive, anti-democratic, and authoritarian.