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Minority report.

I have probably read a couple hundred articles describing apartheid in the past six months and have certainly heard that number of sermons, speeches and pious interviews on the subject. It is, together with saving the whales and defending the Constitution, one of the few things about which people with advanced opinions appear to agree. It came almost as a relief to me, then, to find that the leaders of Margaret Thatcher's Student Federation has passed a resolution calling for Nelson Mandela to be hanged. Here, I thought, are neoconservatives who are not afraid to stand up and be counted. Let's have no hypocrisy.

The reason for my unease at all this unanimity and moral indignation is that I have yet to read an article that describes how gruesome and obscene apartheid actually is. I also have yet to write one. But I feel I dought to try.

Not many years go, I persuaded a black lawyer in Johannesburg to give me a tour of Soweto. My friend was under a banning order which forbade him to travel without permission, which prevented him from writing for or being quoted in my newspaper, which, in effect, made him a prisoner in his own home and, outside it, a nonperson, with no legal existence. But he was a brave man and a good host, and he wanted me to see his home township. So, defying curfew and a regulation that required him to report me as a visitor, he showed me around.

One should never omit the obvious. Soweto is the most populous area of Johannesburg. In fact, it is a city in its own right and outnumbers the parent metropolis, but as we drove toward it from downtown Johannesburg it didn't appear on any road signs. Its very name, as people are inclined to forget, is a bureaucratic anagram standing for South-West Township. In other words, its inhabitants exist only on the most casual sufferance, and it would be a compliment to the ruling elite, which loves animals, to say that it treated the people of Soweto like cattle.

If you have the opportunity to go as I did, evading the requirement that you have a permit or an escort, you can see how South-West Township lives. It lieves, for one thing, in the noxious fumes of Johannesburg's largest power station. In return for the fumes, it has almost no access to electricity. Most of its dwellings have no lights, no telephone, no running water. The facilities for shopping, medicine, education and transportation are what one would expect, only worse. Do you remember that in 1976 the authorities were shooting and clubbing schoolchildren there? Of course, everybody remembers. But do you remember why the children were protesting? They were protesting because the language of instruction in their schools was to be the debased Dutch spoken by the Afrikaners. That is apartheid.

But that wasn't my moment of revelation. That lay ahead, when my host offered to drive me home. He was strictly forbidden to leave his house, let alone his township, after dusk. I laconically said I would find my own way back. He briskly pointed out to me the unwisdom of being a strange white person on those streets and made it clear that either the police or the local youngsters would forcefully demonstrate this point. So, risking more than I had the right to ask him, he borrowed a car and took me back. As we approached the lights of Johannesburg, I made my big mistake. At least, I said, I could offer him dinner in reutn for his courtersy. He looked at me as if I had learned nothing from the day we had spent together. Where, he inquired with ironic politeness, did I propose to take him for his treat?

I don't mind feeling a fool once in a while, but I recent looking like a bloody heartless fool. I knew perfectly well that the law barred men of different color from using any common facilities. Indeed, the mania and sickness of apartheid is most flagrant in the prohibition (still in force, whatever they tell you) of multiracial eating, defecating and bedding down. You don't need a psychiatric adviser to diagnose that. Yet I had responded as if there could be normal human relationship between this man and me, while he had lived his entire life knowing that such was not the case. I still curl my toes when I think of it.

The most pungent and economical way of summing up the leadership of the Africaner Nationalist Party is this: President P.W. Botha and his cronies lead the only government in the world, apart perhaps from Paraguay, that officially deplores the result of World War II. The party's cadres and its hard core were active, conscious Nazis then and they have never renounced their sympathies. When our dumb President Reagan said, with his usual combination of mendacity and sentimentality, that South Africa had been on our side in every war we ever fought, he made a mistake that was egregious even by his own outrgeous standards. In the war that really counted, the rpesent South African leadership was on the other side. (This is, of course, tough news for its Israeli friends and benefactors as well as for the large and parasitic English populations of the Cape.)

Most accounts of the current crisis treat South Africa as if it were Mississipi or Alabama in the bad old day. Black militancy, white concessions, liberal developments, that sort of thing. Not so, Anthony Lewis and William Safire, not so. The civil rights epoch in the country ended with the Rev. Albert Luthuli a generation ago, as even the until recently moderate Bishop Desmond Tutu has recognized. Apartheid has sown dreadful divisions between tribes and races, even between shades of black. This factionalism can possibly be overcome. What needs to be overthrown is the system that imposed and lives off it. Apartheid is not an aberration to be fixed b bargains between an incompetent White House and a cynical Pretoria regime. Apartheid cannot, by definition, be reformed or modified. The brave people now fighting to destroy it have grasphed the intoxicating idea that theirs may be the last unfree generation. This is not protest, or even revolt, but revolution.
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Title Annotation:South Africa
Author:Hitchens, Christopher
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:column
Date:Aug 31, 1985
Previous Article:Minority report.
Next Article:Zimbabwe's elections; Mugabe brooks no opposition.

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