Liberal voice in South Africa's wilderness: Benjamin Pogrund interviewed the former editor of a newspaper that was a constant thorn in the side of apartheid's champions

THIRTY years ago this month, six newspaper articles caused a huge stir in South Africa. Headed 'The nation that lost its way', they rejected the apartheid of the Afrikaner Nationalist government as both unjust and impracticable, and urged whites to accept racial integration.

The articles were in the Rand Daily Mail, the country's foremost liberal newspaper. The writer was the editor, Laurence Gandar, celebrated for his political analyses written with a power and clarity that no one else in South Africa has come close to matching. Living now in retirement in the coastal city of Durban, Mr Gandar remains a perceptive observer of South Africa.

His articles were eagerly debated at the time, although they had no immediate discernible effect on the government. It is tantalising to look at what might have been had South Africa's whites heeded the warnings of Mr Gandar and the Mail.

In 1963, Mr Gandar summed up the mood among South Africans, and especially the whites, in terms which could in many ways still apply today: 'Here is a nation that has lost its way. Caught in as cruel and forbidding a set of circumstances as any has had to face, it is afraid to move decisively in any direction. . . Events in Africa and the world at large have crowded in on the awareness of our people here, smothering the tender faith in multiracialism that blossomed so promisingly 18 months ago. Bloodshed in the Congo (now Zaire), authoritarianism in Ghana, corruption in Nigeria, tribalism in Kenya, one-party rule in Tanganyika (Tanzania), and wholesale political turmoil in all territories of that intended showpiece of multiracialism, the Federation (Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe) - so it goes on, with the near-war in Katanga and assassination in Togo adding to the pile of evidence against any easy accommodation between whites and blacks in Africa.'

Liberals had remained true to their beliefs, wrote Mr Gandar, but there were few of them. 'In an age of change, reform is regarded with acute suspicion. Instead people cling grimly to the familiar and the traditional, going through the habitual motions of political activity but in fact achieving nothing.'

Mr Gandar went on to argue: 'There are two choices and only two. There is racial separation, with massive economic sacrifices - or there is economic integration, with far-reaching political concessions. There is no middle course. At present we are trying to get the best of both worlds, and it is killing us.'

But the Afrikaner Nationalist government retreated further into the laager, imposing even more apartheid and enacting harsh authoritarian laws to keep whites in power. That continued until February 1990 when, by releasing Nelson Mandela from his life imprisonment and unbanning anti-apartheid organisations, the government began to turn the country round.

Speaking now, Mr Gandar says apartheid has poisoned race relations, isolated the country in the spheres of sport, trade and culture, and deprived South Africa of development capital. It has stoked inflation and quickened the brain drain and the flight of capital.

It has also promoted the ceaseless burgeoning of a vast, top-heavy system of bloated and immensely costly bureaucracies. Mr Gandar quotes from recent figures revealing the extent of the bureaucracies created for different colour groups: astonishingly, some 150 state departments with 13 prime ministers and chief ministers in the 'homelands', with a total of 1,250 members of parliament and regional assemblies on the payroll.

'This has to be one of the longest gravy trains in the world,' Mr Gandar says.

He credits F W de Klerk with the vision without which countries can perish: 'Because I trusted - and still (I think) trust President F W de Klerk, I was astonished, thrilled and deeply moved by his watershed address in February 1990 which won acclaim around the world,' said Mr Gandar. 'It was a speech of moment and stature, akin to Harold Macmillan's 'wind of change' speech in Cape Town in January 1960.'

The commitment to enfranchise a disadvantaged majority and hand over to it a large measure of power 'must surely rank as one of the great human dramas of the century'. However, instead of this drama being acted out in the heroic terms it deserves 'it has proceeded thus far in fits and starts, in accusations and outbursts, personal pique, raw political point-scoring, unashamed grandstanding and in much needless nitpicking.'

If talks are not resumed, the only prospect is of 'turmoil, sporadic killings, surging unemployment, economic decline and, yes, something close to mass starvation in our own Somalias in the rural areas'.

As for the future, Mr Gandar oscillates between optimism and pessimism 'almost by the day'.

'I have come to believe that most of the violence arises from the reality that a huge and growing segment of our population can find no proper place for itself in our society in terms of the basic requirements of life - housing, enough food, education, health care and, above all, jobs.

'The truth of the matter is that the country is nowhere near coping with the needs of its fast-growing population - doubling itself every 25 years - never mind the vast backlog of amenities that already exists. The result is the persistent violence, much of which is random and mindless. This weakens the economy further, which fuels still more violence - a classic downward spiral to disaster.'

But on the positive side, says Mr Gandar, 'everyone seems genuinely anxious to talk and much is going on informally behind the scenes. More importantly, there has been a greater flexibility in standpoints than might have been expected. Above all else there is a growing awareness among the people of South Africa of their interdependence . . . As for tomorrow, that is Thursday, so it must be pessimism day.'

The Rand Daily Mail was closed in 1985 by its owners, the Anglo American Corporation.

(Photograph omitted)

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