The Ecphorizer

Boeru, Britu, and the Press
George Towner

Issue #56 (April 1986)

I have visited South Africa three times, and other parts of Africa several more times. Every time I return from South Africa, my liberal friends ask me what it is like. Did I see blacks being rounded up by dogs every evening and herded into their shantytowns? Did the "real Africans"

Suppose the rulers of South Africa had black skins instead of white...

bow their heads and cringe every time a white person talked to them? I always had to [quoteright]reply that I saw none of this. On my last visit, during which I drove two thousand miles through black areas as well as white, I did manage to find and photograph a "whites only" sign at a beach resort. This was the only tangible evidence I could produce of the highly publicized evils of apartheid.

On the other hand, I had to report that I saw black farms and villages cleaner and more prosperous than any others in Africa; a government run by laws instead of corruption; and the only country in Africa without massive crime and endemic starvation. Both in the cities and in the enclaves I saw people as proud and self-realizing as any in Africa. A black truck driver who regularly drove in from Zambia told me he always breathed a sigh of relief when he crossed the border, because he knew he was safe there. It seemed to me that South Africa was a model that the rest of the continent could profitably follow.

But when I reported these observations to my friends they would shake their heads in pity. I had been duped by mere appearances, they said; worse than that, I saw only what I wanted to see because I was at heart a "racist." In this view they agreed with the vast majority of the American press. Nearly every day, for example, the Christian Science Monitor carried an article critical of the South African government. Other publications routinely compared the Boers to the Nazis. The cry for their summary expulsion was universal.

For a long time I wondered how it was possible that my judgments could be so different from those in the American press. Then one day it dawned on me. In my travels I had come to think of African politics in tribal terms; for me, the typical African government consists of one closely-knit group (often, one extended family) ruling over a hundred or more disparate tribes or cultural groups. Africans themselves usually describe their situation this way. So I had automatically treated South Africa as just another African country in which a particular tribe had seized power. To me it was incidental that the ruling tribe had white skins.

But apparently the "non-racist" press saw it differently. Blacks ruling blacks was always okay, no matter how alien their cultures or ruthless their methods. Whites ruling blacks was inherently heinous, a blot on humanity, no matter how beneficial the results.

At the same time I realized another thing. Most press criticism was based on reports of civil rights violations in South Africa, although I was convinced that their record in this area was far better than the African average. It occurred to me that the Boers are unique among African rulers in that they write and publish laws that they abide by. This makes their violations of civil rights a matter of record and hence easily reportable. On the other hand, the inter-tribal repression and discrimination that is common in the rest of Africa is hard to document. It is carried out at night, behind stone walls, by the army. Only in the bigger cases — Angola, Biafra, Burundi, Cameroun, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, and Zaire, to name a few — does it make headlines.

This started me wondering. Suppose the rulers in Pretoria, doing exactly what they are doing now, had black skins. Suppose further that instead of passing repressive laws they simply ordered the army out as they thought fit. How would the American press judge them?

I don't know the answer. But asking this question inspired me to write an alternative summary of my understanding of South Africa, treating the Boers and the British as just two more local tribes. I had to change the names a bit, to get free of their connotations, but you'll understand it anyway. Here it is, for your entertainment.


In the beginning, the southern part of Africa was inhabited by the !Ke ("Bushmen") and the Khoi-Khoi ("Hottentots"). But in the 17th century a number of other tribes began to invade, annihilating the original inhabitants as they came. These tribes included the Sotho, Venda, Tsonga, Nguni, Swazi, Zulu, Themba, Xhosa, and Boeru. The first eight moved in by land from the north-east; the Boeru arrived in boats along the coast. Of the original !Ke and Khoi-Khoi, only a handful remain. There is no serious possibility of their ever establishing a government in their land.

Among the newcomers, the Boeru were particularly skilled in weaponry, although their primary interest was farming. When they met the migrating Xhosa around 1770, they managed to drive them back eastward. About this time another tribe, the Britu, arrived on the coast, again in boats. They generally allied themselves with the Boeru.

Out of this cultural mix, the Zulu rose from a tribe of a few thousands to become the most ferocious warriors. Led by a series of unscrupulous chiefs, they destroyed or enslaved most of their neighbors. Soon they collided with the Boeru and Britu. These "boat people" managed to subjugate the Zulu in 1879, thereby becoming the principal tribes in the region.

Within twenty years, however, the Boeru and Britu were at each other's throats. By 1902 they had settled their differences, sharing the rule under nominal Britu authority. Today the Boeru are on top.

Under Boeru rule, South Africa has become a prosperous African nation. Its crime rate and unemployment are the lowest and its literacy rate is the highest on the continent. Its wage rates are exceeded only in the oil-producing countries. Although government business is conducted in a tribal language (Afrikaans), English is widely spoken.

For the last forty years, the Boeru have been conducting an experiment unique in political history. They are carving out parts of the territory that they conquered a century ago and giving them back to the tribes they conquered. The only parallel I am aware of is the American system of Indian reservations. However, many people regard this program as one of the Boeru's major sins against humanity.

Day-to-day Boeru ruling methods are also unique. The following specific practices, common in the rest of Africa, are virtually unknown among the Boeru:

  • Murdering outgoing officials upon accession of a new government
  • Armed soldiers routinely extorting money from the populace
  • Diverting huge sums of government revenue to private pockets
  • Demanding and then stealing foreign aid
  • Police actively participating in crime
  • Flourishing black markets in goods and currency
  • Requiring bribes for ordinary government transactions.

Nevertheless, it is frequently suggested that foreign governments should intervene in South Africa to oust the Boeru. What would likely happen if the Boeru were driven from power? The same forces would not tolerate the Britu, so power would have to descend to one of the other tribes. Although "democracy" is usually mentioned as the intended outcome, this flies in the face of the whole history of Africa. Of the many attempts at democracy in the rest of that continent, many of them aided by massive outside pressure and support, not one has ever succeeded. I see no evidence to suggest that South Africa would be an exception once the Boeru and Britu were gone.

No, I believe that the likely outcome would be a bloody settling of old scores among the tribes that have been held in peace by Boeru/Britu rule. After that, of course, the Boeru and Britu themselves would have to be neutralized. If they were lucky, they would be allowed to cash out at a few cents on the dollar (as happened in East Africa) and go into exile.  Otherwise they would be quietly annihilated. Then, finally, peace would settle upon South Africa with another tribe in charge. Those that lost out in the power struggle would just have to knuckle under.


If the "Boeru" and "Britu" had black skins, the foregoing summary would read like just another characteristic chapter in the history of African politics — with the exception that outside attempts to force them from their government would be regarded as unconscionable meddling in a foreign country's "internal affairs." But of course they are white. It appears to me that this is where the press draws the line. Behavior tolerated every day in black African tribes becomes unendurable in a white African tribe. That is why the "Boeru" and "Britu" have to go.

A last note about "racism." If your job is writing newspaper headlines or directing 30-second TV "newsbreaks," you will find it much easier to identify black-white discrimination than the black-black variety. Who can keep track of Hausa versus Ibo, or Tutsi versus Hutu? But I am convinced that the latter is a far more destructive force in Africa than the former. Getting rid of the white government in South Africa may remove the one, but only at the cost of unleashing the other. Is that what the American press really wants? 

Your editor, GEORGE TOWNER, has for some time been pressed to "write his South Africa piece." Now, with its publication, he bids a reluctant farewell to numbers of his liberal friends, who will doubtless regard him as an incorrigible imperialist mossback. You can read about George's latest book here!

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