South Africa’s Rule of Violence. Patrick Duncan. Methuen, 7s. 6d.

White supremacy in South Africa has survived as it was built: on violence. This is the thesis of Duncan’s book, illustrated by extracts from the South African press over the last ten years and held loosely together by snatches of analysis. The straight accounts of police assault and the brutality of white farmers, are excellent in their obvious intention—to jolt the British public into their ever-present liberal abhorrence of direct cruelty.

On the scale of the last three hundred years, at any rate, the diffuse and direct oppression of the African people of South Africa is almost without parallel. Duncan hardly mentions this, and fails to distinguish between the violence accompanying this economic and social oppression and the repression which has resulted from growing African resistance to exploitation. The book has all the defects of the liberal approach: it is a series of kaleidoscopic pictures of ugly events, unrelated to the total socio-economic situation. There is no analysis of the pressures that have turned white South Africans into a seemingly more barbaric group than other men.

But Duncan is essentially a liberal, moved by assaults on his conscience. He has, however, the courage to say and practise what he believes, when some are still only thinking. He was almost the first white man to recognize publicly the necessity of violent opposition to the Verwoerd Government, and in doing so left the non-violent Liberal Party to join the Pan-Africanist Congress. He joined this in preference to the African National Congress in an attempt to consolidate the latent anti-communism of the pac. The distinction between the pac-inspired terrorism in South Africa, and the more politically conscious plans for revolution of the anc (seemingly revealed by the Rivonia trial) points to another of Duncan’s liberal weaknesses: his failure to distinguish between politicized and non-politicized violence, the former being a characteristic of revolution involving economic and social change.

The book must be seen against a conceptual framework of a type I shall outline. The whites in South Africa initially stole from the indigenous population their cattle and their land, holding what they had seized by force of arms and pushing the Africans steadily back. The discovery of gold and diamonds led to capitalist exploitation of black labour, by a group of fresh immigrants. Meanwhile the farmers, their expansion checked at its limits, drifted to the towns or existed on ever smaller plots of land. There grew up a class of ‘poor whites’ as ‘bywoners’ (sharecroppers) or as a quasi-proletariat in the towns. Here, impoverished by the operation of the market laws which naturally favoured cheaper black labour, they succeeded in forcing a legislated colour bar in industry. Through this artificial boost they were elevated to the status of a petty bourgeoisie. It is from these two groups, the small farmers and white workers, bred on a hatred of the African, and with their fear of his military might replaced by a fear of his economic power, that the routine brutality of the South African régime springs. The farm labour system, the Police force, the outbreak of fascism in the thirties, the present Nationalist Government, are all outward manifestations of this social force. The mining magnates, and even more the secondary industrialists, on the other hand, would prefer white supremacy with kid gloves.

With integration into the capitalist economy, the resistance of the African turned for a period of 80 years from military to political, with a diverse set of influences mandating a demand for reform in the system, rather than a struggle for liberation. It the post-war period the development of African mass movements, however, intensified the contradictions in the society—forcing on the one hand white unity behind the naked police state that now exists, and on the other, a return to violence, now revolutionary in character, by the Africans and their supporters of other races.

It was at the time when this polarization was developing, and when State repression became formalized, that liberal opposition to apartheid solidified: Duncan records how an unprovoked assault on an African by two white youths in 1948 prompted him to begin a file of violent incidents.