John Derbyshire: What Does South Africa Tell Us About The Prospects For A Successful Multiracial State?
Print Friendly and PDF

Nelson Mandela will be buried on Sunday December 15. South Africa will, at least until then, have the world’s attention. What, if anything, does the history of that country have to tell us about the prospects for a successful multiracial state?

The official, Inner Party-approved dogma is upbeat.

The blacks of South Africa were cruelly oppressed by a white minority for many decades. The whites put in place a system of formalized segregation called “Apartheid,” and kept the pleasant neighborhoods and good jobs for themselves.

Blacks were forced out of areas they had occupied for generations and forced to scrape a living in barren Bantustans, or as servants of the whites. Those who resisted were shot down or jailed.

Among those jailed was Nelson Mandela. The moral force of the blacks—under his guidance, and inspired by the U.S. Civil Rights struggle—together with boycotts by Western nations, at last wore down the will of the white minority.

Mandela was released, and magnanimously negotiated a settlement with the whites. Full-franchise democracy was established and South Africa became the Rainbow Nation, a model for multiracial harmony, a triumph of Diversity!

This official not a totally mendacious account of what happened, although it leaves much out. The key factor in resigning whites to a full franchise in the 1990s, for example, was not moral force so much as sheer numbers.

The 1911 census in the newly-founded British dominion of South Africa showed whites as 22 percent in a population of 6 million. By 1980, although their actual numbers had more than tripled, they had dwindled to 16 percent in a population of 28 million, with a birthrate half that of blacks. The demographic writing was on the wall. (Whites are now nine percent in a population of 53 million, just twice the proportion of whites in 1970s Rhodesia, and of course still falling.)

The white South Africans of the late 1980s had grasped the thing we keep telling you at Demography is destiny.

The feeling among whites at the time was that, absent some power-sharing accommodation with the blacks, they would be alone in a friendless world, fated to ultimate destruction.

They had, however, no illusions that their lives would be improved by admitting blacks into government.

Afrikaners ceded control despite their negative expectations of black rule. “More than eighty percent believed that the physical safety of whites would be threatened. Less than ten percent believed that life would continue as before.”

[Into the Cannibal’s Pot by Ilana Mercer, p. 223. Mercer is quoting Hermann Giliomee’s The Afrikaners.]

White South Africans will tell you, too, that F.W. de Klerk, who became President in 1989 and negotiated the transition to a full franchise, was less than frank with the white electorate about his intentions, and mixed his multiracial progressivism with good doses of crony capitalism.

The key factor throughout South African history, though, has been what Cold Warriors know as the Correlation of Forces between blacks and whites. (There are other recognized races, at about one-eighth of the population, but black-white has been the dynamic that matters.)

When I was growing up in 1950s England, the oldest of the Old Soldiers were those who had fought in the Boer War of 1899-1902. Key events of that war were still part of the nation’s collective memory: Black Week, Spion Kop, and of course the Relief of Mafeking.

The last of those three almost established a new verb in the language: “maffick—to celebrate with extravagant public demonstrations.” The second is still remembered by supporters of Liverpool Football (i.e. soccer) Club: The stands at the south side of their stadium are to this day called Spion Kop in honor of the many men of the local regiment who died in the battle.

An elderly relative of mine, although not a Boer War veteran, would, at the slightest provocation, sing “Goodbye, Dolly Gray,” a song English people associated with the Boer War, though it was written for a different one.

There are plenty of printed and online descriptions of the war. James Morris gave a good impressionistic brief account in Chapter 4 of Farewell the Trumpets.

Here’s the interesting thing: In these accounts of the Boer War, the blacks are hardly mentioned. Morris restricts himself (later herself) to:

The Boers thought the British were resorting to genocide, and reproached them for betraying the white man’s code by arming African scouts and sentries.

Not, please note, fighting soldiers.

Yet to judge from that 1911 census (there was no earlier one), blacks must already have been a majority in South Africa. It seems extraordinary that they played even less part in this white-on-white war than American blacks had in the Civil War forty years earlier.

Multiracial South Africa continued in this style through most of the 20th century as demography worked its slow magic. Whites paid as little attention to blacks as they possibly could.

Almost any mid-20th-century English person had a relative or acquaintance who lived, or had lived, in South Africa. (In my case, a first cousin.) They never talked about the blacks; nor, so far as one could tell, thought about them.

But eventually they had to. The black population simply grew faster than the white, in part due to immigration from adjacent countries, but mostly due to higher black birthrates, evolution’s answer to Africa’s heavy disease load.

The 1994 transition to a full franchise did not, as the liberal narrative claims, sweep away an unnatural system of separation and hostility to replace it with a more harmonious arrangement.

The separation was natural, based on universally-understood differences between the races—what Thomas Jefferson called “the real distinctions which nature has made,” and what a later American statesman described as “a fact with which we have to deal.”

Hostility was certainly there, but to the degree that whites thought about blacks at all, the main axis of attitudes stretched from paternalism to contempt. In the spirit of our own Cold Civil War, the real struggle was between idealistic white reformers (both Afrikaner and Anglo) and conservative white nationalists, verligte and verkrampte.

In everything but numbers, blacks were still hors de combat; but it is numbers that count at last.

As to having replaced the Apartheid State with a more harmonious arrangement: Well, the new South Africa is harmonious at some levels. What has actually replaced apartheid is an alliance of black gangster-politics and nonblack crony capitalism.

“Nonblack” there includes plenty of whites; but statistically the main beneficiaries have been Asians (a category which, in South Africa, is about three-quarters Indian, the rest mostly Chinese).  

White proles are being stomped into the dirt, without even the softening consolations of elite paternalism. [In South Africa, whites are becoming squatters, By Finbarr O'Reilly, Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), Marh 28, 2010] 

Since all African politics is a struggle for tribal supremacy, white and Asian elites will eventually suffer the same fate, though with more options for relocation to new domiciles.

At the time of the 1994 deal the joke going around was:

Q: What’s the difference between Zimbabwe and South Africa?

A: About five years.

This can be filed under the heading “true but premature,” along with submarines, wrist phones, and the feelies.

There are several lessons to be taken from the South African experience. The main one is that white people in numbers have no place in Africa.

The qualifier is important: numbers are of the essence. The one percent or so of the population of Ghana that is white lives under no disabilities. As we all know, the first black family to move into the street gets the welcome wagon; the fifth or sixth gets FOR SALE signs. Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Individuals of any race can of course have amiable, indeed loving, relationships with individuals of another, but the amiability doesn’t scale up. A racially homogenous society may be inharmonious; a society containing great blocs of different races must be.

Another lesson: the near-infinite capacity of people who are comfortably situated, like the white South Africans of the middle 20th century, to ignore reality. We ask ourselves: How could they not have foreseen what would come?

How, for that matter, did the 19th-century Boers and Brits, taking in the blacks of the region as cheap labor, and glossing over their commercial interest with paternalism, how did they not foresee the endgame?

The answer: the human capacity for wishful thinking, and our fundamental indifference to reality when it conflicts with out emotional needs or social pressures.

It is not sadism or masochism that makes us urge that the denial be brought to an end. Rather, it is a love of the reality principle, and recognition that only those truths that are admitted to the conscious mind are available for use in making sense of the world.

[Garrett Hardin in Science, April 29, 1960.]

Of course, we can ask the same question about the GOP immigration enthusiasts.

As Editor Peter Brimelow says, adapting the famous line from the old movie Love Story: being an immigration enthusiast means never having to say you’re sorry.

John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by com is  FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at

Readers who wish to donate (tax deductible) funds specifically earmarked for John Derbyshire's writings at can do so here.

Print Friendly and PDF