By Donella Meadows
–August 14, 1986–
“I can’t decide whether to go to crew practice or to the anti-apartheid rally,” one of the freshmen in my class sighed, very sincerely.
The others recommended the rally. They were all going.
As we talked about South Africa a realization dawned on one of the students. “You mean the blacks can’t VOTE there?” he exclaimed. They can’t, I said, though they constitute 75% of the population. They also can’t own land, travel freely, live where they like, organize, express their beliefs, or earn a living wage. The students gasped.
I was gasping too. What did they think the rally was about? These bright 18-year-olds had not absorbed the most basic facts about South Africa. They knew only that apartheid is bad, and that one should demonstrate against it.
I asked the students to read everything they could find about South Africa and write a paper listing what, if anything, Americans can do to end apartheid.
The papers came back ringing with the easy judgements one can make after a two-week study of a problem 8000 miles away. Most of the students favored divestment and sanctions. None of them had any idea what the effects of such actions might be. South Africa was still not a real place to them; it was still a backdrop against which they could display their own righteousness.
I wondered how I could communicate to them South Africa’s agony, beauty, and insanity, without actually picking them up and taking them there.
Then I found Joseph Lelyveld’s magnificent new book Move Your Shadow. As New York Times correspondent, Lelyveld moved across racial lines in South Africa for four years. He came to see, with honesty and compassion, the complex humanity, not the whiteness or blackness, of the people. And he describes apartheid not as an economic system, but as a mindset. It is dependent not on the economic or political support of outsiders, but on the shared illusions of its practitioners.
Move Your Shadow describes a black torturer of blacks who implements with professional pride the techniques he learned from the whites. And a minister, born into the center of the white Afrikaner elite, who cannot stomach apartheid and becomes an outcast.
Lelyveld rides a bus that leaves KwaNdebele at 4 every morning to take blacks on the 3-hour commute to their jobs in Pretoria. He visits Sun City, a glittering resort for whites within a black homeland; and Vosloorus, a squalid barracks for black industrial workers; and “Tycoon’s Village”, a subdivision of neat houses for black employees of an American corporation — a subdivision that creates a barrier between its high-income inhabitants and the surrounding black slums. Apartheid within apartheid.
Lelyveld describes angry blacks, hopeless blacks, heroic blacks, and blacks with “beautiful, tolerant, and patient souls”. Fearful whites, liberal whites, whites in Zimbabwe who are gracefully adjusting to black rule.
The blacks suffer from the illusion so easily absorbed by oppressed people, that they are in fact inferior; an illusion reinforced by lack of education and basic freedoms. Blacks who challenge that illusion experience the full brutality of the state: arrest, torture, spying, the systematic destruction of anyone who may become a leader.
Whites are lulled by a deeper, crazier set of illusions: that the blacks are either uncivilized tribals or communist-inspired terrorists; that the land can be carved into separate sovereign nations, black and white; and of course the ultimate delusion — that the color of one’s skin is a key to one’s character.
Most whites never enter black communities; they never hear of their government’s brutality. Though blacks work beside them every day, black minds, hopes, lives are no more real to some white South Africans than they were to the freshmen in my class.
Lelyveld’s book suggested new avenues of action to my students and me. We began to understand why the South African government imposes bans on the media. Full exposure of itself to its own people is the worst thing that could happen to it. We began to wonder how to shatter the illusions; to hold a mirror up to apartheid so whites and blacks see it as it really is, and to open communications to and from the rest of the world, so they can see that there are other ways to be.
We thought we could start a Peace Corps to bring skills and empowerment to black South African communities. Create more scholarships for blacks to study abroad. Enroll a kamikaze press corps to defy South African media restrictions, get thrown out, and publicize the throwing out. Support and be guided by the Tutus and Boesaks working nonviolently within the system to establish a multi-racial government. Ask them how we can help. Smuggle millions of copies of Lelyveld’s book into South Africa.
In 375 pages of text Lelyveld scarcely mentions divestment or sanctions. His description of South Africa makes those measures obvious, not as actions against apartheid, but as simple acts of self-interest. No moral person could knowingly profit from South African investments, any more than from a slave-market. No practical person could trust important assets or strategic trade relations to such a tinderbox.
The world is finally aware of racism in South Africa. The next step is to learn more about it. The more we learn, the more we will see that sanctions are the beginning, not the end, of what we can do.
Copyright Donella Meadows Institute 2011