Crossing the Roads of South Africa
Lars T. Waldorf '85
When Lars T. Waldorf '85 was an undergraduate, other students called him a racist and a fascist for his views on South Africa. The next year, when he was helping provide material aid for Black South Africans, Afrikaaners called him a communist.
Waldorf, now a first-year law student, still isn't sure where he fits into the political spectrum, but he knows that he's concerned with the problems of apartheid.
Waldorf says he went to Lesotho, an independent country surrounded by South Africa, at the age of 17 with his father, an economist who works for the World Bank and the United Nations. During this time, he attended university in South Africa for a few months.
The experience sparked an interest in South Africa, and four years later, Waldorf wrote his Government thesis on the possibilities for confederal reform in South Africa--he said the prospects for reform were poor. That year, he decided to apply for a Rotary Foundation grant to study for a year at the University of Capetown after he graduated.
While at Harvard, the Binghamton, N.Y. native was considered conservative. As editor of the Salient, a right-wing political journal, he wrote several articles denouncing disinvestment, provoking members of the Harvard community to label him "a fascist and a racist," he says. Yet while he lived in South Africa, many white Afrikaaners called him a communist because he didn't support apartheid.
"It's quite an experience to jump the political spectrum in addition to suffering from jet-lag," Waldorf says.
The 23-year-old spent most of his year in South Africa with the white students at the University of Capetown. He says "the classic Afrikaaner word `jorl,' which means to party, sums up white students in South Africa."
"It's a society based on escapism," Waldorf says. "They want to escape from Black Africa."
South Africa's system of apartheid sets up homelands, like Bophuthatswana, where Blacks may live. If Blacks have a job in a white urban area, they may live in a township, like Soweto, an all-Black settlement closer to their jobs. But there's not enough housing in the townships for all those who need it, so many Blacks live in illegal squatter camps.
In March, Waldorf visited a Black township for the first time to attend a funeral for seven African National Congress members. The funeral march, made up of 30,000 mourners, struck Waldorf with its "exhilarating spirit." He says he found "a sense of unity and solidarity in the Black community. Yet three months later that unity had evaporated."
Beginning on May 17, Black vigilantes from one of five sqatter camps that made up Crossroads, an area outside Capetown, drove all of the other sqatters in the camp out of their homes, and burned the buildings, in an effort to get the land for themselves. Once the vigilantes had cleared the area, government bulldozers flattened the camps and enclosed them with barbed wire, but allowed the vigilantes to stay.
The government supported the vigilantes in order to drive the squatters into Khayelitsha, a new settlement the government created by bulldozing sand dunes, or back to the homelands. Meanwhile, the refugees had no desire to go to Khayelitsha--"it's one of the most barren places I've ever seen," says Waldorf--and had little choice but to flee to the nearby townships.
Periodically, the vigilantes, supported by the police, raided the townships to kill off their opposition and drive the refugees farther toward Khayelitsha.
Soon after the first attacks, a welfare group from the University of Capetown started going into the townships to bring food, blankets, and clothing to the displaced sqatters. Waldorf decided because of what he termed a "journalistic desire" to accompany them on one of these missions early in the Crossroads conflict.
"The first day I went into the township, I saw policemen standing on an armored personnel carrier shooting into a crowd. I saw Black vigilantes tearing down squatter shacks," Waldorf says. "All this 20 kilometers from the beautiful white suburbs. It was like a Twilight Zone `Parallel Universe' episode."
Episodes like these inspired Waldorf to quit his classes at the university and work with the welfare group for his last two months in South Africa. In addition to handing out material aid to the refugees, the group negotiated with various political factions in the townships who did not want the squatters in their churches.
"There were Black ministers who did not want squatters dirtying up their churches, and who literally closed the churches' doors," Waldorf says.
The group also received urgent calls from township residents in the middle of the night, saying, "We think the vigilantes are coming here tonight. Please help us." The volunteers then called ministers and liberal parliament members and went with them into the townships to wait for the expected violence.
Waldorf says that Afrikaaner university students accused the group of acting only out of "white liberal guilt," but that he thought they were responding to a more important call.
"The people I worked with were so incredibly brave, going into the townships at night," he says. "I don't think they put their lives on the line because of guilt. It goes much deeper than that."
Waldorf still finds himself very confused about the violence and injustice he witnessed. He says he is still not sure how much his politics changed in the experience.
When he returned form South Africa, Waldorf says he met with a conservative friend who reminded him of many of his former arguments against sanctions and disinvestment. Waldorf says that he still agrees with a lot of the arguments, but that they seem "a little too pat" to him now.
Students in the Social Studies junior tutorial on nationalism, for which Waldorf is a teaching assistant, say that they expected him to be very conservative because of his past work on the Salient. But he turned out to be less conservative than they had anticipated.
"I remember the thing he wrote for the Salient. He was solidly opposed to disinvestment and sanctions," Dane Smith '88 says. "He seems to have opened his eyes a bit."
Waldorf says he is still opposed to disinvestment, but not for the usual conservative reasons. The people most effected by disinvestment, says Waldorf, are those who are most unionized. "And the unions are the most important force for political change the Blacks have," he says.
"When I was working in Crossroads I could be very supportive of disinvestment because of a moral need to pressure the South African government," Waldorf says. "But when I reflect on it, I realize there's no way to pressure the government."
Waldorf says that the Afrikaaners do not care what the United States or other countries think of their treatment of Blacks. "Their view is that this our business, and we will oppress Blacks as we want," he says. "International pressure has virtually no effect."
One day while sitting in a police station in the townships, Waldorf says he watched policemen beating three Black suspects. "To me this shows an absolute arrogance of power. They are quite pleased for you to see them brutalize the Blacks," he says. "It lets you know who's in charge."
This arrogance has led Waldorf to believe that there is little hope for South Africa. He says that he found little incentive for the Afrikaaners to abandon their policy of apartheid.
"The great lesson was how incredibly successfulapartheid has been," Waldorf says. "It hasinsulated the whites, who are oblivious to Blacksuffering. And it has divided the Blacks."
Waldorf cites the explosion of Crossroads as anexample of this division, adding that Crossroadswas not an isolated incident, and that right nowvigilantes are doing the same thing in a legaltownship near Brits.
The success of apartheid has steeled whiteSouth Africans against international criticism,Waldorf says. He says he has trouble endorsing anyof the policies now discussed in the UnitedStates.
"I don't want to support sitting on the fence,which is essentially what constructive engagementcomes down to. But I also don't want to support aviolent revolution," Waldorf says. "I don't knowthat there's anything in between, but neitherseems very moral to me."
From War to Torts
Waldorf's students say they have noticed thisconfusion. They say that Waldorf seems to haveconsidered the issues a great deal, but does notreally fit into a specific political category.
"I think he was a lot more conservative beforehe went to South Africa. It toned him down a lot,"says one of his students, Sean McKenna '88. "Heseems to have thought things out a lot more than alot of people around here. But he's hard toplace."
Another problem Waldorf has encountered sincehis return is his guilt at not remaining to helpthe volunteers. "It's difficult to adjust to goingsuddenly from being the midst of a civil war tostudying torts."
Waldorf has tried to stay in touch with SouthAfrica by continuing research on various topics,some for the nationalism tutorial. He has alsowritten three articles for the NewRepublic, two of which have already beenpublished and one of which should appear in thenext week or so.
Though he would like to return to South Africa,Waldorf says that he doubts the government willgive him a visa, both because he worked in thetownships and because he has written aboutapartheid.
Yet the feeling of frustration remains. "Irecognize that my own contribution in thetownships was a short-term alleviation of theproblem. But at least I had the sense that I wasactively doing something," Waldorf says.
"It's hard to see the universities buildingshanties when I just got back from seeing thoseshanties being torn down," he says