Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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INSIGHTS

Foreign policy in the international city
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It’s sunny today in South Africa. So it says on my South Africa calendar, another little gift from the folks who showed me that beautiful, tortured country two years ago. The South African Tourist Association, Satour, is good about staying in touch; every few months they send me some reminder of my two weeks in their land.

The purpose of the trip, from Satour’s point of view, was to garner favorable press attention for South Africa itself, which has perhaps the worst image of any country in the world-Russia included. And of course the formula for image-polishing never varies, whether the hypester is pushing a candidate, a nightclub or a country: Bring in the press, keep them full of free booze and food, don’t make them think too much-and wait for the sugary clips to come rolling in.

But South Africa has more of a stake in media-buttering than even the most desperate PR flack. Alone against the world, they know that every bit of negative publicity moves them closer to the day of judgment, the day when their 4.5 million whites must share power or yield it altogether to their 20 million blacks.

That day is hastened by even a symbolic gesture like the Dallas City Council’s recent vote urging that city employee pension funds not be invested in companies that do business in South Africa. Surprisingly, Dallas now has a foreign policy toward South Africa. The council does not accept Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with South Africa; rather, it wants an end to trafficking with the racist regime. Our (Dallas’, that is) new foreign policy is based on morality, not business as usual. In this we are way out ahead of Washington, because U.S. foreign policy has never been-and perhaps cannot be-designed as an answer to the question, “What is the morally right thing to do?”

It is easy to make light of Dallas’ foreign policy. Critics can paint it as empty symbolism lacking practical force. The council vote is non-binding, and trustees of the Employees Retirement Fund had already said they would ignore the problem of apartheid when making investments. Nor was the historic 6-5 vote free of old-fashioned politics and pettiness.

But even if the resolution never forces a dime of Dallas money out of South Africa, the vote against apartheid marks a step in Dallas’ maturation. It gives some solid meaning to that hollow epithet, “International City.” If being an international city means anything, it means accepting our part in a perplexing world of mixed good and evil, where one good (a prosperous retirement plan for city employees) may clash with another good (justice and equality for South African blacks). As Robert Penn Warren says in All the King’s Men, our world is like a vast spider’s web; anytime we touch the web, for whatever reason, we send ripples through the entire gossamer fabric of reality.

The chairman of the Employees Retirement Fund Board said the board would think only of the best return on the members’ dollars, insisting that the fund was “not for the purpose of advocating any social or political objectives.” Some city employees begged the council to “keep the retirement fund non-political.”

But this is isolationist thinking. Whether we love or loathe South Africa, or whether we can’t even find it on the map, let’s be clear about one thing: There is no such thing as staying out of politics on this issue. We have only a choice of political acts. If we pull our money out of South Africa, that will be a political act with its own consequences; if we continue business with South Africa, that will be a different (but no less political) act.

The divestment issue is clouded by the difficulty of knowing just what will be the consequences of either decision. Many of the business-as-usual, constructive engagement people argue that impoverished South African blacks will be the first ones hurt if American companies pull out. As with all modern moral quandaries (abortion, capital punishment, the nuclear freeze), both sides can deluge us with studies and statistics until the only solution seems to be moral agnosticism, paralysis. Since we can’t be absolutely certain about the results of our actions, we’d better do nothing while we wait for perfect knowledge to descend.

We are not usually prepared to accept that spider’s web theory of interdependence and mutual responsibility. Liberal friends told me I should not accept the trip to South Africa. If I did, they said, I’d be helping in a small way to support a corrupt system. They had a point, and I spent a dark night of the soul-or at least a dimly lit afternoon-worrying about it. After all, an issue of Newsweek critical of South Africa had just been banned in the country, and director Richard Attenborough was being urged not to attend the segregated South African premiere of his new movie, Gandhi. In the end I went not as a crusader, but as one curious about a strange country, hoping to form some of my own opinions to go with the mass of second- and third-hand opinions I’d gathered over the years.

During my two weeks in South Africa, we visited Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town (surely the world’s most beautiful city), Stel-lenbosch, Port Elizabeth, Durban and a dozen smaller towns. We were not taken to Soweto or any of the other black townships, but one curious thing did happen. We were in Pretoria, about to transfer by bus from the airport to our hotel, when our Satour representative got a call from his office in the city. He told the bus driver, a black man, to take us on to the hotel where he would join us later. After we had gone a couple of miles, the driver suddenly veered off the highway and took us down a series of small, bumpy roads into a squatters’ village. Words like “miserable” and “squalor” don’t begin to describe that filthy collection of shacks, some made of parts of old cars, some of scrap wood and cardboard, that was home to these blacks. They had no officially approved residence and thus were in violation of South Africa’s “pass” laws (no black person can move from one part of the country to another without a job and prior approval from the authorities). And they were not even secure in these “homes.” Since they were illegal squatters, they could be driven off or jailed by police at any time. Our driver didn’t say anything; he didn’t have to. He just drove us slowly by the shacks and then back to the main road leading to our hotel.

Tragedies like this cry out for a villain, but the white people we met in South Africa seemed anything but racist monsters bent on keeping blacks in their “place.” Everywhere we went, rational, friendly people were happy to discuss race relations. Our hosts would answer our questions politely and then-the pattern was always the same-turn the tables on us. Why did the press distort everything South Africa did? Why couldn’t Americans see that they were trying to make changes? Didn’t we know that the racial experience of the United States was completely unlike South Africa’s?

On they would go, saying that the United States had a black population of around 11 percent, all speaking the same language, and it had taken us two centuries and a civil war to end slavery. How were they, with a 75 percent black population speaking a congeries of different languages, supposed to change things overnight? Someone from our group would say, well, surely the blacks deserve a voice in the government that makes their laws. Then a South African would lean across the table and say, in a voice that always sounded to me like a movie Aussie’s, “Look here. You give the tribesman a vote, what’s he going to do with it? I’ll tell you. Come voting day, his chief is going to tell him how to vote. These people still believe in witch doctors. What do they need with a vote?”

Nobody ever talked about the fact that white South Africa has done almost nothing to prepare blacks for citizenship in the country their labor helped to build. In 1983, the government was spending $677 a year to educate a white child compared to $66 for a black child. White miners make eight times as much as black miners, white construction workers five times as much as blacks. If many South African blacks are unready for life in a modern industrial country-and in a democracy-white South Africans bear much of the responsibility for that unreadiness.

What we saw in South Africa told one story; what we heard told another. Apparently the clash was enough to confuse most of my colleagues. The nine other writers on the trip filed 21 stories between them (all dutifully forwarded to me by Satour). Only one of the stories dwelt much on apartheid. The others were nice travel stories in which majestic elephants and shining skyscrapers shared a ruggedly charming land. A mecca for the traveler. A feast for the photographer. I once added up what it must have cost the South Africans for our little jaunt, and the figure was well over $50,000. Sounds steep, but I doubt they could have bought so much favorable publicity if they had taken out ads. It was probably cheap at the price.

I don’t want to end by knocking my pressbrethren, though. They didn’t interviewfiery dissidents, accost white officials withprobing questions, or write searing exposésdescribing the horrors of apartheid, butneither did I. After all, we’re not philosophers, we’re journalists. The people who runthe pension funds aren’t sociologists, they’rebusinessmen. I guess we all tend to leave thehard jobs to someone else.