313. Despatch From the Embassy in South Africa to the Department of State1

No. 291


  • Embassy Staff Study on the South African Race Problem I

Over the course of the past several months, a group of Embassy officers has used the medium of a series of informal evening sessions to further a systematic and intensive study of crucial aspects of South Africa’s disturbing race-color situation with a view to formulating conclusions of possible value to the Embassy and to the Department.2

The study project was inspired by the basic premise that the United States Government, with its present world-wide interests and responsibilities, cannot but be vitally concerned in the growing racial tensions in South Africa. The reasons are well-known but warrant reiteration. Firstly, our strategic interests in the Middle East, together with political uncertainties in the Suez region, require (both for us and for our allies) that the southern sector of Africa with its excellent port facilities remain in a state of political stability and under the control of a friendly and effective government. Secondly, we have an important stake in South Africa’s mineral and industrial economy, especially in its uranium production; we desire to insure not only a continuous flow of its materials to the U.S. and the West, but a denial of access thereto to unfriendly powers. And, thirdly, we must be concerned lest the explosive repercussions of a local debacle in race relations reach throughout Africa south of the Sahara and conceivably beyond. If Blacks come into bitter open conflict with Whites on a mass scale in South Africa, the potentials of far-reaching inter-color hostilities, essentially independent of but most certainly susceptible of being stimulated and maneuvered by Communists for their own purposes, could become a cardinal threat to American security.

A second premise was not initially established but came progressively sharper into focus as the weeks passed. Agreement developed that the condition of race relations in South Africa is not a [Page 808] remote danger to be dealt with a few years hence, but a real and vital one today, in that unless measures are taken now to check or reverse the presently accelerating trends, the forces in motion leading in the direction of crisis may soon push beyond human control.

In the same manner, a third premise evolved during the course of the study, accentuating the reasons advanced to support the first. Although the individual officers were not equipped to pass judgment on the comparative levels of Native development elsewhere in Africa, it was their belief that the educational attainments of a small number of Bantus in South Africa, coupled with the high degree of urbanization (nearly one-third of the Native population), have produced a core of relatively-sophisticated, politically-conscious, and articulate “elite”—numbering possibly a hundred thousand—whose influence is capable of extending beyond the borders of South Africa into and among the Native leadership of other African countries. Thus, it was felt (emphasizing the third reason under the first premise) that the United States Government should be actively and earnestly concerned with the disturbing trends of color-relations here, not solely because of their effects within South Africa, but because of their implications for a large part of the continent.

In consequence of these premises, it was held that the United States Government through its agencies and officers should systematically re-examine the South African race situation in the light of American interests in Africa, and seek to determine what measures, if any, could be taken to ensure the continuing protection of these interests in the coming years.

To provide a structure and direction for the Embassy staff study, we set ourselves four basic questions as follows:

What aspects of South African policies and attitudes with respect to non-Europeans do you think might lead to serious interracial tensions and conflict in a relatively short course of time?
What measures ought to be, and could be, taken by South Africans to correct these trends?
What can we as Americans in Pretoria—officially or personally—do to assist in such an effort?
In the light of all circumstances, what would you recommend that the U.S. Government do about the situation?

Officers participating in the project throughout were First Secretary Sydney L.W. Mellen, Second Secretary Edward W. Holmes, … Public Affairs Officer Thomas V. Graves, Cultural Affairs Officer C. K. Snyder, and the undersigned. The Ambassador and the Second Secretary William L. Wight, Jr. also took part until their departure for Cape Town early in January, and were kept advised of developments thereafter.

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From the fifty pages of memoranda which individual officers prepared, either in formulation of ideas and proposals for presentation to the group, or in summaries of evening discussions which followed, there have been developed three reports, the substance of each of which has been approved by the Ambassador. The first of these, bearing on Questions A, B and C given above is submitted herewith to the Department. The second, relating chiefly to Question D, is classified secret and is being forwarded in a separate despatch to follow. (A full set of the original memoranda, seventeen in number, would be made available for the files of the Office of Southern Africa Affairs if desired.) (A third top secret report will be specially handled by the Ambassador in Washington.)3

In forwarding this first report to the Department, we are conscious that it embodies nothing that is not already familiar to those who have closely followed South African affairs in recent years. Indeed, in seeking mountains, we have probably produced only molehills. But in the process, numerous ideas have been suggested, discussed, amended, and accepted or rejected; every formulation has been subjected to searching criticism; and agreements have been hammered out only as a result of lengthy, and not always harmonious interchanges. Of interest is the fact that the project has been invaluable in clarifying and sharpening our individual thinking on the several questions; of even greater interest is the fact that out of initial and sometimes protracted disagreements there was eventually forged a set of ideas and recommendations concurred in by all.

All things considered, the Embassy is confident that the effort was of considerable value to its staff members, individually and collectively, and that it should in future years be repeated periodically.

The report below embodies recommendations which, having been approved by the Ambassador, will first of all serve as guidance and instruction to officers presently on duty in South Africa. They will keep in mind, and with all due discretion, advance in private discussions one or more of several ideas whenever and wherever it is deemed a useful purpose might be served in the direction of stemming the tide of deteriorating race relations in this area. Secondly, USIS Pretoria is being instructed, subject to approval by USIA Washington to develop programs pointing more sharply at the priority objectives formulated.

The second (secret) report, to be transmitted shortly, presents further considerations of a more highly classified character, including recommendations for the Department’s diplomatic action.

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As a result of these papers, and several previous despatches (e.g. Embassy Despatches 38 of August 6, 1956 and 104 of September 27, 1956),4 the Embassy earnestly hopes that the Department will evolve a new country policy paper for South Africa which will reflect more sharply than heretofore the ominous implications of the South African race situation for the vital interest of the United States.

Summary of Conclusions of Questions A and B

(For statement of questions, see above)

In the consideration of A, our initial formulation contained a clause asking what aspects of racial policies were regarded as “objectionable”. This was rejected at an early stage as being irrelevant from an official standpoint. Our concern was sociological rather than moralistic; we preferred to focus on a realistic appraisal of trends and probable consequences rather than simply to express emotional reactions.

Moreover, it was felt that out of a considerable number of pertinent suggestions offered in response to A, it was necessary to narrow them down by judicious selection and to concentrate on a few. Our motivation in this connection, it will be admitted, was pragmatic. We felt it was necessary to tie in B with A; in other words, to determine what policies and attitudes, in addition to being potentially dangerous, might have a reasonable chance in the South African culture and polity today of being given practical and sympathetic amelioration within the next few years.

We agreed that although many corrective measures ought to be taken, we could not expect to see a culture, with its deeply-ingrained outlooks and habits, revolutionized overnight. There must be a beginning and we should think in terms of steps and directions. At the outset these would have to be limited; they must grow from roots already planted here and there within the White culture, and thus have a fair degree of wider acceptability. It was recognized that such a criterion of selection might not prove sufficient if a substantial contribution were to be made to the task of averting crisis, but, aside from certain considerations to be developed in the secret despatch to follow, it was felt that the limited practical approach was preferable at the moment.

Eventually, we settled upon four main points, or categories of points, under A, with correspondencies under B. In narrowing these down to four, we were also bearing in mind the practical considerations [Page 811] of C: What could we in the Embassy do to aid in the effort to check or reverse present trends?

In the interest of succinctness, these considerations have been boiled down as follows, the response to A being indicated as the “Problem”, and the response to B as the “Action”.

1. Inter-Racial Contacts

Problem (A): The failure, or reluctance, of the vast majority of Whites to establish inter-communication links with non-European leaders, as a necessary condition to the creation of a measure of mutual understanding, and to the development of consultations on the course of inter-racial relations.

Action (B): Upon the initiative of SABRA5 and progressive leaders of universities and the DRC,6 steps should be taken to develop more regular contacts with non-European leaders, together with a series of conferences, with the purpose of exchanging views, developing a greater measure of mutual confidence, and finding areas of agreement on inter-racial relations. (Note: Such small groups as the Liberal Party, the Institute of Race Relations and the Labor Party, which already have such contacts, should be encouraged to extend them.)

Discussion: The widening gap between the Whites and the Blacks was regarded as the most basic of all the circumstances we considered. A great many South Africans of various persuasions recognize this fact clearly yet, tragically, the present weight of political power is against them. At this very moment, new legislation, inspired by Dr. Verwoerd,7 is in the course of being enacted which would seriously undermine the few remaining bridges left. Nevertheless, the idea will not be extinguished.

2. Safety Valves for the Elite

Problem (A): The failure to provide channels of opportunities for economic advancement, or avenues for responsible political expression, for a small but steadily increasing number of educated non-Europeans.

Action (B): Under the auspices of the White groups indicated above, and (if possible) with the collaboration of the Department of Native Affairs, facilities should be established to open up further avenues for professional employment, and other outlets for talent [Page 812] and ambition, and to provide practical assistance to Natives seeking such opportunities.

Discussion: There was complete acceptance of the proposition that the “danger-spot” of the next decade lay among the urbanized masses, rather than among the larger number of Natives living in White rural areas on the one hand or in Native reserves on the other. And in the urban areas are concentrated the “educated elite”, with its veneer of European culture and ideas, capable of leadership, aggressive and ambitious, psychologically susceptible to the extremes of Black Nationalism or Communism, frustrated at the limited opportunities available, and increasingly resentful of restrictions imposed by the Whites. It is exceedingly difficult to find the answer to the problem: certainly, something in the way of a “safety valve” outlet is essential. In addition, this “elite” leadership should, somehow, be won over to a policy of accommodation with the Whites.

3. Improving the Living Standards of the Urbanized Masses

Problem (A): The lack of adequate recognition of, and attention to, the fundamental economic (and social) problems arising from the mass concentration of Natives in compartmentalized locations removed from, but dependent upon, urban centers.

Action (B): The undertaking by governmental authorities and chambers of commerce and industry of systematic studies, among urban Natives, of the ratios of costs of living to family incomes, with a view to more equitable adjustments of wages and transport charges; the enlargement of opportunities for Natives to occupy semi-skilled and skilled jobs; a vigorous economic development of Native reserves, thereby enhancing their attractiveness, and hence improving the competitive position of Native workers in the urban industrial market; and a fuller recognition by Europeans of the practical economic value of promoting a sense of well-being and contentment among the large mass of Native workers and consumers.

Discussion: Providing “outlets” for the urban leaders would be insufficient; the leaders and the led react one upon the other and, indeed, are complementary. The very concentration of hundreds of thousands of Natives in urban locations provides receptive mass groups, closely inter-linked (despite tribal frictions) by residence and fate, responsive to suggestion and emotional appeals, and capable (as in the bus boycott) of resolute combined actions. Despite the infusion of many influences, including the threats and appeals of the African National Congress, into the current thought-action centers of the urban Natives, it was firmly believed by the group (as well as by many South Africans) that a vigorous program of economic amelioration [Page 813] of their (the Natives’) lot would lessen their present susceptibility to militant demagoguery. (The Manager of the Johannesburg Non-European Affairs Department told me this week that his best estimate places the average cost of living for a Native family in the Johannesburg area at about £22 a month; only some 20%, he added, receive income of this amount.

4. Humanizing the Attitudes of the Whites

Problem (A): The entrenchment of an attitude of mind on the part of the Whites that the non-European is basically and unalterably inferior—resulting in policies and practices of “basskap” and inequitable treatment.

Action (B): A wider and more systematic development in school and college curricula of socio-cultural studies of non-European peoples; experimentation by European newspapers with a column (like Jan Burger’s) by a Native on the Native outlook; similar experimentation by SABC8 with programs by Native singers and entertainers; the broadening and strengthening of the work of SABRA and IRR,9 etc.

Discussion: The problem is basic and any solution may take too long to be of any value. But the educational approach is essential and one grasps at straws in order to further it. An individual Black may be known and patronized by the White as an employee or servant; for the rest, they are an indistinguishable and unfathomable mass, and feared as a consequence. To learn to understand the Native as a personality, within his culture, will involve a slow and tortuous process but its essentiality is beyond question. Various isolated, but helpful, suggestions were made along this line, including one or two indicated above. Some hope was also seen in the present gropings at the University of South Africa and also at Stellenbosch University to establish an African Institute.

(Note: The suggested “actions” under the four points were regarded as minimal—simply as steps in the right direction to be successively followed by others. They were felt to be within the limited range of early practicality. They were not regarded, in themselves, as being sufficient to reverse the current alarming trends.)

Summary of Conclusions on Question C

It will be recalled that this question posed: What can we as Americans—officially or personally—do to assist in such an effort?

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Within the limits imposed by our official positions, and except on specific instructions from the Department, it was recognized that any contribution we could make in the direction of alleviating tensions, or towards the avoidance of ultimate conflict, could not be expected to have great impact. And yet, in keeping with our conviction that unless present trends are reversed, a stage of acute crisis may be reached before many years have passed, which could adversely affect American interests, it was felt that we must formulate a program of Embassy action, however limited it might be. We would do what we could, and if we could settle firmly upon a few things, we might do something useful.


The systematic planting of the above ideas and an exertion of positive influence to gain an acceptability therefor at every opportunity.

Every officer in the Embassy finds himself frequently a participant in private conversation with a South African, or South Africans, on the perennial subject of race relations. The American is often invited, or expected, to offer his views. Emphasizing that he is speaking only as an individual and not as an official, he will usually and almost necessarily from a social standpoint, have something to say on the subject. And because of the respect in which the average American is held in South Africa, his views will usually receive close attention.

The Ambassador has approved the study group’s recommendation that all officers in South Africa be advised of the four priority categories of ideas presented above in response to Questions A and B, and that they be instructed to bear them in mind when engaged in private conversations and, with all judiciousness, introduce them whenever possible.

It is suggested that in this concentrated, but discreet, advancement of a few ideas, we should avoid adopting a superior moral attitude; rather, we should stress the danger of deteriorating race relations for South Africans, and for all of us in the West. We could remind them of the Communist menace, and also of the threat of militant Black nationalism. We could also suggest that if a few constructive things be undertaken in vigorous advancement of a given suggestion, something might be done to regain foreign (especially American) confidence and good-will.

By concentrating our attention on four areas of ideas, varying our emphasis and approach with the particular auditor, hammering [Page 815] the points home, expressing them with sincerity and conviction (as if, necessarily, they were our own personal ideas), defending them with vigor, and utilizing every appropriate opportunity of contact with South Africans to do so, we will be employing the device most appropriate to us as individual officers. Each officer has different contacts, high and low, Nationalist and opposition, official and non-official, covering every sort of occupation; a concentrated idea or set of ideas launched among these with sincerity and effectiveness can conceivably reach many ears.


The concentration of USIS Programs on the promotion of the four objectives and utilization of all appropriate media to drive them home.

The Leader-Grantee program is already directed, in part, towards several of them; it should be concentrated even more, and expanded to provide for a larger number of persons. A more positive approach should be made in contacts with press and radio leaders to stimulate thinking along these lines. Various materials should be stressed pointing up, in line with the four points and from U.S. experience, feasible channels of inter-racial contacts, the achievements of outstanding Negroes, the pragmatic value to society of developing adequately-paid and contented worker-consumers, and the changing human outlook of Americans towards Negroes. Materials might be used from areas of heavy Negro concentration, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the southern states, and even from the British West Indies, where the Blacks outnumber the Whites far more than in South Africa.

The group decided to recommend to the Ambassador that he instruct USIS to re-examine its programs in the light of the above in order to concentrate on the approved specific purposes and that, where necessary, it should request USIA to authorize a revision of the country objectives. The Ambassador has accepted this recommendation, and USIS will be instructed accordingly.

As indicated earlier in this despatch, a further report, of a secret classification, on the results of the Embassy staff project will follow.

William P. Maddox
Chargé d’Affaires a.i.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 745A.00/4–1157. Confidential. Also sent to Johannesburg, Durban, Leopoldville, Luanda, Nairobi, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Lourenco Marques, and Salisbury.
  2. Maddox convened the first meeting of those participating in this staff study on October 17, 1956. Various memoranda which served as a basis for this despatch and the despatch infra are Ibid., Pretoria Embassy Files: Lot 64 F 39, 350-Embassy Staff Study of Race Problems—1957.
  3. Not found in Department of State files.
  4. Documents 307 and 308.
  5. South African Bureau for Racial Affairs.
  6. Dutch Reformed Church.
  7. Dr. Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, Nationalist leader in the Senate and South African Minister of Native Affairs.
  8. South African Broadcasting Corporation.
  9. Institute of Race Relations.