Photo by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Contents photo by Nick Lammers.

Rebuilding South Africa

by Nancy Scheper-Hughes

I first went to the Cape of Good Hope to lose myself in a new anthropological field site, following the publication of my book, "Death without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil," which concluded more than a decade of research on the impoverished sugar plantations of northeast Brazil. I'd come to South Africa to be where something good, beautiful, and hopeful was about to happen.

But the approaching democratic elections that would sweep Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power were preceded by a final, desperate attempt by the National Party-led government's internal security and defense forces to disrupt the transition. It turned 1993-1994 into the worst year of political violence in more than a decade of undeclared civil war. The forces of democracy prevailed, however, and Mandela's inauguration was celebrated in May 1994 with an honor guard of South African Air Force jets roaring over-head.

But the legacy of the Old South Africa remains. The scars are deep and etched into the gutted and destroyed landscapes left by the apartheid state, and in the wounded bodies and spirits of those who survived the violence or who lost loved ones in the struggle.

I returned to South Africa in 1996 to observe the recovery and reconstruction that was under way. For the past two years an official Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been attempting to liberate South Africa from the ghosts of its past. In hundreds of hearings around the country, more than 2,000 victims of apartheid-era brutality have told their stories to the independent commission. A far lesser number of perpetrators of the violence have come forward to confess the details of their savage attacks on civilians in exchange for political amnesty. Those South Africans seeking truth today do not want the partial, indeterminate, shifting "truths" of the postmodernist, but the single, sweet, "objective" truth of the moralist, and with it a restored sense of wholeness and a taste of justice.

F.W. deKlerk, the last white president of South Africa, remains a central figure in the nation's reconstruction. But as the leader of the albeit "reformed" National Party that had once brought apartheid to the world, deKlerk struggles with opposing loyalties. As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate he is jealous of his international reputation as a peace-maker and midwife to the birth of South African democracy. As a proud Afrikaner he strives to be true to the Boer version of "children, church and kitchen." He seems visibly caught in what he calls "the ethnic trap of history."

DeKlerk's decision to resign in April 1996 as deputy president of the coalition Government of National Unity shocked many. His more recent decision to quit the TRC proceedings and to deny any personal responsibility or knowledge of the bombings, killings, disappearances, and

tortures which took place under his government-expressed mandate to "wipe out terrorists" seemed a move to end his internal conflict. He would, at least, die a loyal Boer, faithful to the last white tribe of Africa. But with his latest decision in early September to resign as head of the National Party and to retire from politics, there is speculation that as a private citizen deKlerk may now be able simultaneously to clear the air and his conscience.

The TRC, which concluded its hearings in June, is expected to disband in January 1998 and to issue a report and recommendations in March 1998. It will be up to the South African Parliament to decide what actions - including reparations to apartheid's many victims -- should be taken.

My meeting with deKlerk occurred shortly before he resigned as deputy president. The evening before I was to meet him I attended an all-night going-away party at Chris Hani squatter camp where I had been working as an anthropologist. A dozen sangomas - Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho-speaking healers - danced and tranced, diagnosing the needs and ills of the new camp.

I arrived at the center of Cape Town the next morning in a sweltering, gasoline-leaking, packed minivan, the "people's" taxi service. I quickly washed my face in a public sink and tried to compose myself for the formal interview. In the New South Africa one learns to move rapidly in and out of First and Third World contexts.

Following a cursory search of my bags I was escorted to the 17th floor and ushered into the large, nondescript office of the deputy president. Each corner of the room was decorated with a New South Africa flag, but directly over deKlerk's desk hung a painting of the Great Boer Trek. DeKlerk was waiting and he rose formally from his easy chair and crossed the room to greet me. An assistant sat unobtrusively behind deKlerk keeping a hand-written record of our meeting.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes: What does your National Party (NP) stand for today?

F.W. deKlerk: Family values and common decency. These are the ethical foundations that we of the NP stand for. And, we have defined a new vision: What this country needs, if we want to preserve a true multiparty democracy, is a new political movement which can become an effective counterbalance, a democratic opposition, to the ANC.

The ANC has too much power. It is too big. It is not a healthy situation. I believe that there is a new South African majority that we can bring together around social values. We must break out of the ethnic trap of history in our politics. And we must ensure that we get a values-driven and values-based political system.

Q: Aren't the values represented by the ANC closer to the universal, middle-class values of the modern world? The ANC's permissive stand on abortion and on banning the death penalty hardly represent "ethnic" values. How does the National Party feel about these?

A: If we were to hold a national referendum on both those moral issues today, I have no doubt in my mind that the death penalty would get an overwhelming majority just as the majority of all South Africans would vote against abortion on demand. I have no doubt in my mind about that. We are not out of step with what the majority of South Africans want.

Q: How have your traditional supporters responded to the National Party's decision to withdraw (last year) from the Government of National Unity, and how has this decision affected the NP's organizing strategies?

A: The reaction (has been) overwhelmingly positive. Our withdrawal will enable the NP to be much more forthright and to achieve a clear alternative identity and platform well before the coming 1999 presidential election.

Q: What are your plans for making the NP more inclusive and making inroads into the African and colored communities?

A: Slightly more than 50 percent of the four million people who voted for us (in the 1994 elections) were people of color. About two-thirds of the colored community, people of mixed origins, voted for us. More than 50 percent of South Africans of Indian origins voted for us. More than

50 percent of the whites voted for us. A proper scientific analysis reveals that between 500,000 and 800,000 blacks voted for us.

What is not generally realized is that the NP has already become, since five years ago, a fully nonracial party. At every level where we have elected representatives you will find black South Africans, white South Africans, colored South Africans and Indian South Africans.

Our party structures and our federal council look like that as well. Our Federal congress has five vice chairpersons, two of whom are women, and one of whom is a colored lady. There is a black, there is an Indian. So, we have already renewed ourselves from within (so as) to make that necessary breakthrough toward the black voters possible.

Q: What would attract black South Africans to the NP?

A: I believe that there are millions who share the same values that we stand for, which are the conventional sort of centrist values; in the economic sphere with an emphasis on the free market, while nonetheless realizing that one of the biggest problems that we face in this country is the war against poverty. We need economic growth, and you only get that if you apply those conventional (capitalist) and balanced economic policies.

Q: How well does your new "Rainbow Party" approach appeal to your traditional, (white) Afrikaner constituency?

A: Unfortunately, there are many misperceptions that the typical Afrikaner is not the progressive Afrikaner like me, but rather like those on the far right, which is simply not true.

That does not mean, of course, that all Afrikaners don't share certain concerns when it comes, for example, to the mother tongue and to mother-tongue education, which is also the policy of my party. We all agree when it comes to the mishandling of the language issue by the South African Broadcasting Corporation. All Afrikaans speakers - and not only white Afrikaners - love their language.

Afrikaans is the mother tongue of almost three million colored (mixed race) South Africans - that is, of the overwhelming majority of them - and they love their language. Now that the political liberation has taken place they speak the language with a passion and an ardor. But the Afrikaans language is not being given a fair deal at the moment. So in that sense there are some issues on which there is deep agreement (across color lines).

On the issue of nonracialism, the majority of Afrikaners in my party are happy with that and fully committed to it.

Q: But I have found - taking the instance of the rural wine-

producing community of Franschhoek in the Western Cape where I am studying the political transformation - that there is deep resentment among many Afrikaner farmers, a feeling that they have been left behind by the National Party. This is expressed in resistance toward affirmative action policies, such as the hiring of black police.

A: Your findings would have been different if you had gone to the northern provinces and settled there in a small community where exactly the opposite is happening. It depends on the balance of power in a particular locality as to who are the underdogs and who are the top dogs, as happens in every society. I am not saying it is right, but simply that it happens. You have chosen to work in a place where the revolutionary forces and those whom they represent do not form a majority and where there is a tendency of (white) people to say and feel that they are still the majority and they hold the political power. But it is just the reverse in many other places throughout South Africa.

That does not mean, however, that Afrikaners in my own party are not also concerned about what one might call unbalanced affirmative action which runs the risk of becoming a new form of racial discrimination in reverse. Yes, they are concerned about it. And so am I and I say so publicly. So, I am not saying that the Afrikaners are all happy with everything that is happening in South Africa today, but they are not going to vote for another party because of that unhappiness.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit about the NP's stand on political and criminal violence in the country both before and since liberation? Especially the role of the former "young comrades," the militant Young Lions in the black townships. And, could you say something about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

A: Political violence from the side of government forces is wrong. Political violence from the side of the so-called liberation forces where innocent civilians have been killed is equally wrong. There should be even- handed treatment of this violence (by the TRC). I fought for the acceptance of that principle. The first draft of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a double test (standard). Now there is a single test. The very same test will be applied when amnesty is considered for anyone.

That doesn't mean that we stand unsympathetic toward the social problems of youth. When I was still president, we put a plan together for a form of national social service, a very workable plan which I believe must be implemented in South Africa. There are a million or million and a half particularly young black South Africans who dropped out of school early, who were drawn into the struggle, who did not acquire any skills, and who are absolutely without a destination. And now that the struggle is over, unfortunately, they are becoming more and more involved in crime.

We need to reach out to them, we need to bring them together, we need to give them skills, we need to give them a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep on and two meals a day and a monthly stipend.

Q: The difficulty in putting state violence on the same level with

a revolutionary army's violence is that a revolutionary force is transparent and is not bound by any formal social contract with the people. Police and military resources have been given in trust to the state. So when a state turns itself - as the NP government had - against its own people, it is a much graver moral failing.

A: Yes, but it is a fallacy that the state behaved as it did just to suppress people. It is also a fallacy that everything was done to promote apartheid. And remember that most of the civilians who suffered at the hands of the (ANC) revolutionaries were black South Africans who were as strongly opposed to apartheid as the revolutionaries themselves. Their sole failing in the eyes of the revolutionaries was that they did not support the revolutionary movement and that they chose to manifest their opposition to apartheid in a peaceful manner. And so the distinction that you draw cannot be drawn.

I'm not saying that when security force people went beyond what is internationally acceptable in fighting terrorism, it was right.

I don't want to whitewash it at all. It is wrong. There are international norms. But what do you do when you are fighting revolutionary forces aiming to overthrow the state in an unlawful manner when that state (i.e., the apartheid state) is internationally recognized, as ours had been?

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

A: As someone who made a positive difference, that I had the guts to take very fundamental decisions when the time was ripe.

This is excerpted from Nancy Scheper-Hughes' forthcoming book, Who's the Killer?

Violence and Democracy in the New South Africa (University of California Press).

[Table of Contents] [Berkeley Magazine Home] [UC Berkeley Home]

Copyright 1997, Regents of the University of California, All rights reserved.
Please e-mail your comments to