Franklin H. Williams

Apartheid: What to Do?

VTR Date: June 15, 1985

Guest: Williams, Franklin H.


VTR: JUNE 15, 1985

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. An open mind, yes, but not I trust one so open that my brains have fallen out. So right up front, I want to say that like most Americans I take it as a given that apartheid in South Africa is an abomination, an unmitigated evil. That government ordered, government sponsored, government maintained racial segregation can be considered nothing other than morally bankrupt and thoroughly unacceptable anywhere in the world. But that doesn’t mean, even with all the moral indignation you and I can feel and express, that we know enough about the nature and extent of apartheid in South Africa. And what we don’t know well enough we surely can’t defeat well enough. So that I have invited here today to discuss apartheid a distinguished scholar, practitioner, and activist in the field of African-American relations, Franklin H. Williams, former United States Ambassador to Ghana, President of the prestigious Phelps-Stokes fund. Mr. Ambassador, I do appreciate your joining us today. I do have the feeling that, and I know I reflect my own ignorance here too, that we don’t in this country…because I think our minds are boggled by the reality of what apartheid is in South Africa…we don’t understand it well enough. What are the dimensions that we should know?

FRANKLIN: I think you’re right, Dick. One of the mistakes that most Americans make is that they tend to think of apartheid the way we thought of racial segregation in Mississippi and in Alabama and Georgia, the kind of segregation that our Civil Rights movement struggled with over a period of a half-century. We tend to think of apartheid as a reflection of that, namely, segregated housing, segregation in public accommodations, segregated schools, segregation on the job. In short, the kind of pattern of racial separation that marked the Deep South and the United States for so many years. Apartheid is that and ten times more. Apartheid is a long-range strategy of the South African government that is dominated by a white minority controlling a vast and rich land area where there is some 22 million Blacks and less than 5 million whites and a smaller number of two other significant minority groups, Asians and Coloreds…Coloreds being less than 2 million and they’re the product of interracial relationships over the years. It’s a strategy to control that Black population so that the segments of it that are necessary to sustain the economy can’t function without Black support and Black participation, so that those who are necessary to it are available when needed at the price that we care to pay and those that are not needed are someplace else and are not our responsibility. Apartheid is a grand design, in short, of the South African government to denationalize, to deny citizenship, rights and privileges to 90 to 95 percent of the Black population. And that process is well under way. And all of the talk and all of the discussion we’ve had recently about so-called progress in South Africa is meaningless of one examines what the real strategy is. The strategy is working and South Africa is moving towards its ultimate goal.

HEFFNER: What’s the origin then of the thought in this country that changes are taking place?

WILLIAMS: Well, it’s part of South Africa’s strategy to give the world the impression that progress is being made. For example, very recently a constitution was put up for the electorate to consider. The problem being that the Blacks were not permitted to vote on it, and that constitution provided for a new parliament. A parliament divided into three houses: One representing whites and a proportion of four, the second representing the Coloreds and a portion of two, and the third representing Asians and a proportion of one. In other words, 4, 2 and 1 with all of the ultimate power of decision remaining with an even stronger president…a centrally selected president with a group of advisors around him. Now that was viewed by our President and by many people as progress. Because for the first time in some 50 years coloreds and Asians have some kind of opportunity at least to make their voices heard in what appears to be a formal governmental body even though the body itself is powerless. Nevertheless, they can be heard. And people call that progress. Another law that has recently been appealed was a statute which made it illegal for races to intermarry. Well, that’s meaningless in terms of apartheid. While it looks like it’s progress to say you’re not going to be prosecuted if a Colored should marry a white or a Black should marry an Asian, it’s meaningless because all of the other laws are still on the statute books. You can’t live where you want to, you can’t work where you want to. If you’re Black you can’t move where you want to. So what are you going to do with your Asian wife or your Colored wife or your White wife or your Asian husband or your Colored husband or your White husband? So these are superficial changes. These are cosmetic changes, Dick, which don’t get at the heart. The heart of apartheid is the design to create ten homelands to give them an independent status. These are ten land areas that are scattered throughout the Republic of South Africa. They are the most barren land areas in the Republic. And all of the Black population of South Africa, theoretically at least, are assigned to one or the other of those homelands. And the theory is that once those homelands are granted independence, and four of them have already been granted independence, all the rights and privileges which you enjoy must come from that homeland. Thus, you’re no longer a citizen of South Africa. And I can see the day coming within the decade when pressure mounts on South Africa to make some real change. And South Africa will probably say, all right. We’ll give the vote to all of our citizens. The fact of the matter is, Mr. America, we only have a half-million Black citizens. And you and I will cry out and say that’s ridiculous. You created these phony independent states, now dismantle them.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, I understand what you’re saying, that this is called progress. Why is it that at the level of the White House and at the level of the Department of State this is considered progress?

WILLIAMS: Well, I believe that they perceive any change, any break in what they see as a hard line of not giving an inch on any front to be progress. And I guess in a sense one can say it is. If today there was no hotel in South Africa that you and I could stay in and tomorrow there was a hotel that had petitioned for the right to have interracial guests and the government granted them that right and gave them the label of an international hotel, I guess it would be progress. Because now we could stay in a hotel and we could eat together and measured by that kind of criteria, it is progress. My concern though is that this is a kind of progress which may lull us into the belief that some fundamental change is occurring in the apartheid system. It’s not fundamental. It is cosmetic and it’s not solving the basic problem. As a matter of fact, the basic problem is getting worse.

HEFFNER: You’re suggesting then that it is misunderstanding, not an attitude, but misunderstanding.

WILLIAMS: Well, I believe that most people in the United States don’t understand exactly what apartheid is.

HEFFNER: No. I meant at the level of officialdom.

WILLIAMS: Well, I would be hard put to charge deliberate dishonesty.

HEFFNER: Carelessness, perhaps?

WILLIAMS: I don’t believe, quite candidly, that this administration cares a great deal about Black South Africans. I think what they want to have happen in South Africa is to avoid some kind of a blood bath, avoid some kind of an outbreak that would involve other countries in Africa and other countries in the world to avoid as much interruption in the economic situation as they possibly can. And so they will grab hold of any change in the circumstance of Blacks or any portion of them in South Africa and point to it as progress. But they must know that the granting of independence to four homelands even though we don’t recognize them de facto, other states are doing business with them. There are bilateral trade regulations, and other things going on. And very recently our own government took a step which suggests to me a form of de facto recognition…when they said that families of our embassy personnel could go to these so-called homelands for rest and relaxation. Now rest and recreation if we’re going to visit them, in one sense you could say, well we’re acting as if it’s still part of the Republic and we’ll go anywhere we want in the Republic. That’s what the administration says. But you can’t just go. You’ve got to get permission of the authorities who are controlling and running those homelands in order to go. And to the degree that you knuckle under to that, to the degree that you let them stop them at the border, to the degree that you permit them to enforce their alleged independent rules and regulations, you are in a de facto sense recognizing their independence.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, do you find anything constructive about constructive engagement?

WILLIAMS: No, I don’t. As a matter of fact, I think it’s been a very dangerous and damaging policy. It has encouraged the South African government to believe that it could continue to do what it has been doing…namely, to destabilize its neighbors without real criticism from the West; Two, to continue the process of denationalizing its citizens without any severe response from the West, particularly from the United States. It has made Black South Africans discouraged. They had…when they saw our own Civil Rights struggle and they began to look to America as a pattern for a solution of their own problems, they had some reason to believe that this great democracy in the final analysis could stand on the side of the rights of all of the people. I doubt that there are any Black South Africans in any significant position today who trust America’s policy of constructive engagement and as a result they’re looking elsewhere. And that is forcing them away from looking to the West to looking to other kinds of solutions. Embracing Socialism, looking to other countries for support and encouragement, and that’s going to increase the polarization in the country. And it’s creating the very situation that we say we’re trying to avoid.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s go into that business of alternatives for the Africans themselves. What are they, in terms of looking away from this country? Where, specifically, will they turn?

WILLIAMS: Well, if you have tried for a half-century to negotiate a peaceful resolution of your situation, a s situation in which citizenship rights are totally deprived and you have failed to achieve that, you then have to turn to some other strategy. And the strategy of the African National Congress, which is the major freedom fighting group in South Africa, both in and out of South Africa, was for a while a kind of irritating, occasional bomb or interference with the infrastructure of the government. But it has turned now literally into urban terrorism because they see no other solution to their problem except to use force and violence. Well, you can’t do that with sticks and stones. You’ve got to have guns. You’ve got to have weapons. And if the West will not sell them to you, and the East will sell them to you, you get them where you can.

HEFFNER: Is that happening now?

WILLIAMS: Oh, absolutely. And any time South Africa invades as they have done recently, neighboring states where they claim African National Congress groups are located, they invariably hold up Russian-made weapons, Russian-made arms for the press to see and that’s designed obviously to confirm what they claim is the danger, namely, Communist influence in the southern portion of the continent. We’re the ones that are creating that situation making that possible.

HEFFNER: If we stick to our present position, what do you see as happening in the next half decade?

WILLIAMS: Oh, within the next ten years, I don’t have to wait for…

HEFFNER: The turn of the century?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I’m not sure. Let me put it this way: I’m not sure that five years is going to resolve it. But certainly in the next ten years we’re going to have in South Africa a situation in which the confrontation between Blacks and Whites will be universal. There will be no peace, there will be fear in the streets, there will be continuing conflict leading to bloodshed on both sides, increased oppression, therefore, on the part of the army. There may even be a military takeover of the government. I suspect already that the military’s influence in South African government is disproportionate to what it should be and certainly greater than what it was two years ago. I doubt that we’ll have a coup. What we certainly will have in effect is a military government using military might and oppression to maintain control within the society.

HEFFNER: Now in our own country the steps that you would have us take, what are they?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think that we’ve not done enough to make it clear that we disapprove. We’ve used words at the same time that we’ve said we abhor apartheid. We’ve gone on to do things which have encouraged the forces of apartheid to continue the pattern of denationalization and enforcement through oppression of all of the range, the wide range of apartheid laws.

HEFFNER: Besides the moral statement, what would you have us do as a nation, Mr. Ambassador?

WILLIAMS: Well, I’d like to see us do a variety of things. I would recall our Ambassador permanently. I would lower the level of diplomatic representation. While that may seem like a small thing, in international affairs, it’s a major step. It shows real disapproval. We did it in Sweden when Sweden was being so critical of our involvement in Vietnam. For years we didn’t have an Ambassador there. We did it in Ghana under Nkruma. For years we didn’t have an Ambassador there. I would close down a number of our consulates. I would deny visas to South Africans to come here rather than encouraging them to come. I would on a case-by-case basis review their application and every time South Africa refused an American permission to come there as they do…I, for example, have never been able to get a visa to South Africa, I would deny a South African the right to come here. In short, I would do with South Africa what we do with other countries when displeasure mounts. When we’re attempting to show that what they’re doing internationally meets with our national disapproval. I would enforce a boycott of South Africa in strategic areas. I would go far beyond what allegedly we do now in the nuclear cooperation. The fact of the matter is under this administration we have seen military leadership come here and be received at the highest levels of government by the Defense Department and by our Ambassador to the United Nations. Something which must signal to them that we’re not disapproving of what they’re doing. I would bring pressure upon my allies to go along with whatever form of economic pressure we mounted whether it’s the deprivation of the right to sell Krugerrands here. I wouldn’t permit South African airlines to land here. I would not permit American business to do business in South Africa to the degree that our laws could have an impact on that by refusing permission to have new investment.

HEFFNER: Would you disinvest old investments?

WILLIAMS: Oh, yes, oh absolutely to the degree that you can. You know, you can’t disinvest but so much under the laws of South Africa. The South African government can move in and take over your holdings at anytime that it wants to. But I certainly would deny American business the right to put any new money in there for a range of reasons…not the least among which is the fact that in addition to encouraging South Africans and helping to strengthen the economy, I think it’s a bad investment. South Africa is going to blow up. And we shouldn’t be so tied up in that arena.

HEFFNER: Do you think that that is why we are tied up, because of our investments, assuming them to be good ones?

WILLIAMS: Oh, no, I think that it’s much more complex than that. I think there are undertones of racism. If you were to reverse the racial composition of the people in South Africa, we would not be involved in it the way we are today. There’s no question, Dick, if you could so clear your head that you can imagine that situation, a nation in which 5 million Blacks totally controlled and oppressed 22 million Whites, deny them any privileges or benefits of citizenship. What do you imagine this country would be doing? If you can imagine, and I doubt that the average White American can, then you have the answer. Whatever you would do in that situation is what we should do now. And there’s a whole range of options that we would have available to us ranging all the way from breaking diplomatic relations to going to war to economic boycott to a range of things.

HEFFNER: So that you feel that attitudes, racist attitudes, are more important in this than economics?

WILLIAMS: I think they’re fundamental. I think they’re fundamental. I think economics…I would be hard put to balance the one against the other. I think they’re both involved. I believe that as long as you can make a dollar, after all we are a capitalist state, I’m not criticizing that. I’m stating that as a fact.

HEFFNER: But, you were going to say, as long as we can make a dollar…

WILLIAMS: As long as we can make a dollar, the tendency is to make it, and to look at the moral issues and consider them secondary.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, I then have to ask you though, what’s the down side of what you’re suggesting? No further investments, de-investment where it is possible? Boycott, etc.? Is there a down side as some people have claimed that in a very real sense we might be doing more damage on balance?

WILLIAMS: Well, I don’t see how we can do more damage already. I guess again it depends on where you’re standing and looking at the situation. If you’re a Black South African it can’t be any worse. If you…

HEFFNER: Is that true, though? Because the statement is made, and you have to help me in understanding this, that in a very real sense damaging the economy of South Africa and that would be the only reason in a sense for taking these economic steps.

WILLIAMS: Dick, damaging slavery, damaging slavery in the United States destroyed the security of a lot of people who had three meals a day, a warm place to sleep, and who had some kind of security. But they had no freedom. And the arguments were made then and all we have to do is read our history books by the proslavery people, what are we going to do with these people? They’re untrained, they’re unskilled. And they were untrained and unskilled. And many of them did wander around the streets. And many of them did go hungry. And my of them didn’t have a warm place to sleep, but they were free. So that if you’re a Black South African, you have no freedom to choose where you can work, you have no freedom to choose where you can live. You have no freedom to move where you want to. You can’t move about without carrying a pass. That’s…that’s…how can it be any worse than that?

HEFFNER: If the administration seems to be not necessarily deaf to these notions, but not hearing them quite as loudly and clearly as you do, what about the Congress? What indication is there that in the Congress of the United States there are changing attitudes on these matters?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the introduction of so much legislation of a range of enforcement potential in the Senate and in the House would indicate that the Congress is listening to what is going on in the streets of the United States. There is a growing spreading concern in this country that I think has gone beyond Blacks and students into institutions beyond the church as well, expressing concern about our continued tolerance of a system, which in a sense, one would have to describe as a Fascist state. Not in a sense, South Africa is a Fascist state. It’s a state in which arbitrarily the government has decided that 22 million of its people shall have no rights whatsoever, can be arrested, can be held indefinitely without trial, without charge, without informing anybody. What kind of a society is that that we’re doing business with? The Congress is responding to that because the people are beginning to express their outrage. And I believe in the next few years that that outrage will result in this administration or some subsequent administration in taking much more vigorous action.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, there is a question that bothers me a great deal. Perhaps you can help me with it. I know that there are those who say what you’ve just said, that this is a Fascist state and we have as a nation of free people a very real role to play. And let us take these positive steps in playing this role. Some of these people are the same people who say that when the President says that a nation in Central America is a Communist or on its way to becoming a Communist state, and we must play a role, we have a moral obligation…that some of these same people say, we must not interfere with the inner workings of another nation. How to respond to that if one takes, sees some kind of parallel not in terms of the nature of the oppression but in terms of the nature of the involvement with another nation’s institutions and activities?

WILLIAMS: Frankly, I don’t know of a state in Central America which you made reference to presently in office that has the kind of laws and practices that South Africa has.

HEFFNER: Not the kind, but you will concede that certainly the President, the present administration has said, there is a threat in terms of the totalitarian activities in this government of that.

WILLIAMS: Well, yes they have. And they’ve said it and applied it to governments who…in which predecessor governments were even more oppressive than those presently in power. I’m not going to pass judgment on any particular situation in Central America in the context of South Africa. I do believe that we have a right as a people to observe as we have in the USSR as we have in Poland as we have in Chile as we have in Uganda and where we have observed oppression to speak out and condemn it. And call for disengagement of our economy and our people in the perpetuation of that system. I was one of the first ones in this country to call for the coffee boycott of Ugandan coffee when Amin was in power and it became clear that he was a killer. And it was a very difficult time for Ugandans. And American business, coffee brokers and others, didn’t want to back away. They were making a dollar. They wanted to close their eyes to what was going on. I guess one could say that if you were to withdraw from trade and economic relations with every country in which human rights violations occurred, you wouldn’t be doing business with anybody, not even with yourself. That’s not what we’re suggesting.

HEFFNER: Then where do you draw the line?

WILLIAMS: Well, I believe when a state becomes so fundamentally oppressive in its very constitutional structure, no less in its day to day practices. The state of South Africa in its constitution has built into its social, economic and political body the concept that 22 million people are not and shall not in the future be citizens of the state even though they were born there and their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were born there. I draw the line there without question. If I were to pose to me the next step someplace else I would take a look at that. I drew the line as most of us did in Nazi Germany when a whole people because they were Jews or because they were Catholic were viewed as expendable and were about to be expended and were being expended.

HEFFNER: Then you’re referring here to internal structuring and activities…but perhaps the Soviet incursions into Afghanistan that would not come into the same category?

WILLIAMS: Oh, I wouldn’t put the incursions into Afghanistan in the same category as South Africa or Nazi Germany. I’d be very happy to discuss the incursions into Afghanistan today or at another time and if you listen to the…Mr. Gandhi recently…you’d have to understand it’s a little more complex than just a nation going in and taking over another one by force and violence. It’s a little more complex. I’m not going to defend it, but I don’t compare it to South Africa. And I believe that we did condemn…as a matter of fact we not only condemned it, we initiated a variety of boycotts of the USSR because of it.

HEFFNER: And then ended them, too.

WILLIAMS: Sure we ended them.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, we’ve come to the end of our time here. And I do wish we could go on along this line, too, because it’s one that puzzles me and bothers me. Therefore, promise to come back again.

WILLIAMS: I accept the invitation.

HEFFNER: Thanks so much, Mr. Ambassador.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”