Jamie Miller’s analysis of apartheid diplomacy in the 1970s, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival, delivers two important points: that local political agendas mattered to the global history of the Cold War and that international developments prompted ideological reassessment in Afrikaner nationalist circles. To make these points, Miller looks closely at B. J. Vorster, a prime minister of South Africa (1966–1978) whom historians have generally relegated to shadows cast by his predecessor, H. F. Verwoerd, and successor, P. W. Botha. Verwoerd was the intellectual force behind “separate development,” the form of white supremacy that purported to promote ethnic self-determination. This policy remained in place after his 1966 assassination, when Vorster assumed the office. Botha, who succeeded Vorster in 1978, became nearly as influential as Verwoerd: he redirected focus from ethnic politics toward averting a “total onslaught” from communism and African nationalism. He dedicated the state to a “total strategy” that combined political reform with military aggression and police crackdowns. Compared with Verwoerd and Botha, the man in the middle Vorster is remembered for developments he could not control: the resurgence of black nationalism and a minor scandal that brought him down. An African Volk demonstrates that Vorster was more than a placeholder. He, too, had an agenda to protect white power and segregation, to ensure the survival of Afrikaner privilege. More than intensify governmental control of black South Africans, Vorster sought acceptance from newly independent African states. Miller calls this the “Vorster Doctrine” (130). Ultimately, Vorster’s African détente failed, but An African Volk makes the case that his premiership was pivotal in southern African political history. Winning acceptance from the Frontline States, in particular from Zambia and Tanzania, which were firmly opposed to white minority rule, was a tall order, but Vorster also faced challenges at home. Economic development had increased inequalities among the Afrikaner volk that the National Party purported to represent. Apartheid ideologues were separating out into the liberal verligtes (enlightened) and conservative verkramptes (cramped). Cutting across the divide between verligtes and verkramptes was that between diplomatic doves and militaristic hawks. Although all meant to protect white power, these were bitter battles. Vorster’s détente, Miller explains, was a verligte modification of separate development. Vorster abandoned the idea of Afrikaners as European offshoots who held dominion over inferior subjects. Rather, he extolled Afrikaners’ Africanness as the best hope of protecting their separate identity and privileged position. He aimed to convince political leaders north of the Zambezi that white-dominated South Africa also belonged in an ethnically and politically plural Africa. He orchestrated high-level meetings with the governments of Liberia and Malawi. Photographed between two Malawian women at a formal dinner, he scandalized hardline segregationists. The communist threat, Vorster told his critics, was such that white South Africans needed to act diplomatically in Africa. Miller’s recounting of the 1970s convinces the reader that it was not an entirely outrageous plan: South Africa might have managed coexistence with the Frontline States, anti-apartheid countries to the north. In 1974–1975, Zambia cooperated with Vorster on a negotiated settlement for Rhodesia. Vorster also held out a promise for reform in South West Africa. These territories were sacrifice zones; Vorster would have compromised them for the sake of preserving racial hierarchy in South Africa. But Vorster was not successful, for several reasons. The 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal led to independence for Mozambique and Angola. Thus, South Africa lost a critical regional ally. Recognizing that Vorster was liable to cut them off, the Rhodesians did not always cooperate with the South Africans. Divisions in the National Party also undermined Vorster. Most fatally, hawks in the military and cabinet, led by Botha, pulled South Africa into an escalating intervention in Angola’s civil war. The danger was also one Vorster had railed against: communism. But his diplomacy no longer appeared sufficient to the threat. Thereafter, Henry A. Kissinger himself stepped up to support Vorster’s détente, but by mid-1976 the Soweto uprising had begun and the common ground between South Africa and its neighbors had fallen away. The United States, too, became more critical. Vorster’s poor political skills often worked against him. Re-creating this political world, Miller frequently comments on what Vorster might have done to lessen his failure. As Vorster’s influence declined, Botha consolidated power. Taking inspiration from the French military strategist André Beaufre, he convinced enough of the fractious Afrikaner elite, including verligtes, that South Africa faced a total onslaught. White South Africa might not, he warned, survive. While Botha was still minister of defense, the Angolan conflict served him well. When Cuban troops intervened on behalf of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola in 1975, the South African Defense Force was already involved, but the Cubans pulled them in more deeply. The effect was to empower the South African hawks. Miller demonstrates that the hawks’ total strategy included political reform. Miller’s close reading of Afrikaner politics supports his assertion that regional specifics mattered in the Cold War. His analysis also undermines assumptions about the power of international whiteness. Even within Afrikanerdom, there were differences about whose white privilege merited protection and how it might be achieved. Reconstructing political battles and diplomatic efforts, An African Volk reveals that the National Party of the 1970s understood the need for some change in order to protect white position. This provides an excellent context for understanding Botha in the 1980s. Miller explains how, in South African terms, Botha could be both a hawk and a reformer. The militarization at the end of apartheid was obvious, but the sincerity of Botha’s political reforms is more dubious. The person who has insisted that Botha was serious about change was Nelson Mandela, who engaged in secret talks with him from prison. Mandela always credited Botha with beginning the process that ended apartheid. Miller’s book helps us understand Botha’s reasons. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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