Friday, 6 December 2013

Reflections on an Era

The death of Nelson Mandela has prompted me to write something on my own memories of the South Africa I grew up in, and finally left forever in January 1988. It is very easy to put on the rose tinted spectacles, drag out the whitewash and try to pretend it was a straightforward and simple situation, but it wasn't. It was very complex, and despite the manner in which the 'history' is now being written by the winners, it wasn't by any means all one way, although it did, post the 1960s very rapidly become increasingly oppressive. I think very few of us, from the "European" tribes there realised just how insidious the Nationalist Party mechanism was. Certainly some aspects of it really only became clear once I had left the country and could access information not available to me while in SA.

For instance I did not fully appreciate just how closely the Nationalist organisations and structures resembled those of the National Sozialist Demokratische Arbeiters Partei - better known as the Nazi Party outside Germany. It had similar structures 'directing' and controlling many things I think most of us never even suspected. Committees 'organised' military housing, 'managed' Police promotions and even directed the Union I belonged to. The Chairmen of these 'steering' committees often had direct access to Ministers and even the State President himself. The Press and Media were tightly controlled, so we were fed a diet of news 'approved' by the Department of Information, and though we knew it was biased, we had no alternative references available to inform our understanding or our world view. Many of those who demanded sanctions and boycotts played directly into the narrative the Nat propagandists wanted to present, unwittingly (or perhaps deliberately) giving them wonderful ammunition to feed us.

Apartheid has its roots in the attitudes and mindsets of the 19th Century, in which all 'native' peoples were regarded as 'inferior' and 'primitives' to be patronised and 'provided for' by their European 'fathers'. It was founded in ideas stemming from the Theory of Evolution and of course, reached it's ultimate form in the Eugenics Theories of the 1900 - 1945 period. The division of power (and wealth) in South Africa was enshrined in the Constitution of the Union in 1910. This provided for "Native Commissioners" to "represent" the tribal peoples and lands in Parliament, set aside the Tribal Homelands as 'reservations' and envisaged the African tribes as being incapable of rising to the heights of civilised society. It must be one of the great ironies that this was written in Whitehall despite reservations expressed by "colonial" politicians in the four colonies soon to be amalgamated into the new Union.

"Apartheid", the Afrikaans word meaning "Separation" was the brainchild of the Nationalist Party. It began in the 1930s with some 'minor' changes to the Constitution which changed the representation of the African population in Parliament. The outbreak of the second World War brought a change of government, Malan's Nationalists were replaced by Smuts' United Party, and South Africa sent its volunteer forces to liberate Abyssinia and then fight in Egypt, just as they had done in 1914 - 1918 in South West Africa, Tanganyika, Gallipoli (you never hear of that one!) and Flanders, as well as to sea in the RN, RNVR and the fledgling SANF, the RAF and the fledgling SAAF. Unfortunately Smuts lost the election in 1947 and the new Nationalist government lost no time in introducing changes to the constituency boundaries which more or less guaranteed they would always have a majority.

Many of their leading members had spent the war in internment because they supported the Nazi cause and embarked on a campaign of sabotage to weaken the South African war effort. Now they brought all of that evil ideology into government. Of course nothing happened overnight, they'd learned how to manipulate the system, the people and to subtly take control of key positions, key Ministries, the military and the police in ways that would not be obvious or arouse opposition. The architects of all this were Verwoerd, Vorster, Malan and Hertzog. Verwoerd hated the British, and by association, the English speaking half of the white South African population. Vorster was no better, and people really should have taken note even that early.

Little changes gradually began to bite, and the ANC to organise. As a school child one was aware of the tensions, but never really understood them. On the one hand we could see that Africans didn't behave or live as we did. They were different, they lived in their own villages and travelled on their own buses, trains and so on. The first major upheaval came, in my memory, with the violent murder, and some reports stated the 'muti' consumption of parts of the bodies, of two white nuns on a visit to Duncan Village on the West Bank of the Buffalo River. We heard people discussing these events, and we were aware that our fathers were possibly to be recalled to uniform as it was expected that the violence would spread and become a general uprising. Some of my school friends, whose parents farmed in what was then the Transkei, were frightened that their parents might be murdered and their homes destroyed, but, as children, we noticed only the absence of Africans in the city centre and in other areas of our daily lives where we normally encountered them and interacted with them.

What is very obvious with the benefit of hindsight and now distance, is that it is very difficult when growing up in that sort of society, to develop a balanced and unbiased view of the country, or of the rights and wrongs of the society you live in. For me that awareness really didn't begin to develop until the mid-1970s. By then I could see the impact of the policies on my 'non-European' friends in the Indian, Chinese and Coloured communities. I had long been aware of the manner in which the apartheid system impacted Africans, but, as I didn't have many acquaintances in that group, and those I did know tended to be better educated and wealthier, it seemed more a question of social and cultural difference. I must also admit that the campaigns of bombings, shootings and ambushes, to murder 'whites', coupled with the daily murders in the 'townships' motivated by rival political ambitions, definitely coloured my view. As they say, when you stand to close to the trees, you can't always see the forest.

The real campaigns of violence began in the 1960s, possibly with Sharpville. Horrible as that was, it pales into insignificance against similar events against demonstrators in recent years, but Sharpville is supposedly 'unique' in that it was a 'white' oppressor acting against 'Blacks'. The violence escalated year on year from there, and was certainly not one sided, nor was it simply Black/White. Different factions fought one another for ascendancy, and the big players in the Cold War all had a finger and sometimes a whole hand in it. The ANC wasn't the only player. They're still not, though one now seldom hears of the Pan African Congress (Marxist) or the Azania Peoples Party (Maoist) and one or two others. The USSR, China and North Korea all supplied arms, explosives and training to their particular favourites of the moment. The west tacitly propped up the Nationalist government in return for military intelligence and sometimes Russian and Chinese hardware captured in battle.

As a fire fighter I was one among many caught in the middle. We were shot at, petrol bombed, acid bombed and occasionally stabbed when were not being subjected to stone throwing. The stone throwing became something we expected, but it was always interesting to note that it usually was absent if there were no foreign TV crews present. No TV, no stone throwing, no other forms of assault on us. As I have said there were factions involved as well, and there were, in my personal experience, many more 'black on black' murders and terror attacks, then there were on whites. The 'Winnie Necklace' was a particularly hideous form of execution practised by ANC cadres on anyone accused of 'informing' and, as a fire fighter I saw far too many of these.

As in Germany under the Nazis, not everyone was supportive of the apartheid regime or the ideology. Indeed, Connie Mulder, as Minister for the Interior (Home Secretary) actually regarded English speaking South Africans as untrustworthy (as in we wouldn't vote for the Nats and their policies) and proposed stripping us of our vote, or making us 'second class citizens' with a limited version of the vote. By the 1970s the National Party had managed to gain complete control of the civil service, the television and radio services, the military and the police. Even the Fire Service was, in some Provinces, subject to the oversight of political committees they operated in every facet of the nation's life. Again, this is something one only really appreciated once you stood back and stepped outside of it. Now I can see how we were told what to think, how to act, what was considered 'correct'. It was subtle, you might have reservations, you might even on occasion refuse, but somehow, when you did, you were bypassed and someone else took over. It came as a shock to me when, after I'd left SA, to learn that I had twice been 'investigated' by the Security Police because I'd made proposals that did not meet the approval of members of the political committee 'interested' in our service on one, and because I was a member of my Bishop's Committee for Reconciliation on the other.

What the media have covered in great detail is the 'wrongs' and confessions of the key players from the police and government against the Black population. What is never mentioned are the camps maintained by the ANC for 're-education' of people they had abducted, or the multiple murders of their own people who dared to disagree with their campaigns. I have never heard a word of apology or sympathy for the many innocent victims of bombings perpetrated on stations, in restaurants or bus stops in the name of 'the cause' from the many who praised those, but condemned any arrest, any application of justice for murder. They have never had to deal with the shattered lives, torn and dismembered bodies of the victims - but can pontificate and justify any assault on a 'white' person as long as it is in some country a long way away. What they seem to be unable to connect is the link between all terrorist activities in every country. These same people have no trouble it seems labelling one group "freedom fighters" and another "terrorist" because they happen to be on a different side, or in a different situation.

I have mixed feelings on Nelson Mandela. He was, after all, the Head of the ANC's military wing and instrumental in the planning, supplying and organising of much of the terrorism of the 1960s. The evidence against him at his trial was overwhelming and he knew it, even making a statement to the court that the organisation intended the violent overthrow of the regime. Desmond Tutu wrote what is probably the best obituary we will see for "The Madiba". In it he wrote that the 27 years Mandela spent in prison are probably what made him what he became - a man of great understanding, vision and compassion. I think the Archbishop is right, and perhaps that is what we should all learn from the events that produced him.

It was not easy living in the apartheid South Africa, even for a 'white' person. There was always an element of threat; there was always the vilification from outside the country, and, if one could travel abroad, one soon discovered what it felt like to be a pariah as soon as it was revealed that you were from South Africa. At home, if one dared question anything 'official' there was always the threat to your job, or of a visit from the Security police. It was not a nice place to be, especially as there was little most of us could do to change any of it.

The Madiba is dead. He was a remarkable man, even a great man, though that was probably thrust upon him. South Africa will miss him. Sadly I very much doubt there is anyone in South Africa now with the same degree of integrity or compassion. It is my fear that his legacy will be squandered in the coming years to the detriment of all the peoples of that land.    


  1. I was waiting for your epistle on the subject - made no comment myself on other media as I wanted to be informed by your true experience beforehand. I think your blog would be worthy of global publication. I was instinctively drawn to admire Mandela in the 90's and when I visited south Africa (SA) a few years ago one of the highlights was a 'pilgrimage' to Robben island where he spent much of his incarceration. Some of my extended family are originally from SA and have less than rose coloured views on Mandela and the ANC - so I know it is an emotive subject for the indigenous population of any colour. On a personal note I will never return to that beautiful country because I firmly believe it is cursed for the future - now that Mandela's temporary spell has departed. Didymus

  2. Nelson Mandela will be remembered as one of the iconic statesmen of our time. His remarkable achievement of avoiding a bloodbath post-apartheid is truly amazing. With the peace and reconciliation process (and thanks to Archbishop Desmond Tutu) he demonstrated love, forgiveness and healing, surely the most Christian act. I don't know what his belief was, but he was indeed a great man. We just need to compare him to Mugabe, or Blair and even Brown; pygmies all who weren't fit to lick his boots. He put his country before party politics. May he rest in peace as we pray for the future of South Africa now he's gone.

    Slim Jim

  3. It is an immensely complicated history, and though the focus is mostly on the 'Boers' post 1948 these days, the history of white settlement is a long one, and even the current African population are 'settlers' from Central and East Africa. A popular modern idea is that the White settlers drove Africans from towns and villages and supplanted a 'settled' society. They didn't, all the modern infrastructure, roads, railways, towns, cities harbours and so on is the work of the White settlers in origin. In a sense having the fruits of the labour of their forebears 'ripped from their control' certainly fueled some support for "Separate Development" which was the English language title for "Apartheid." As I said, it is very, very complicated history.

  4. Slim Jim despairs: I don't know what happened to my original comment I sent at the weekend, but my computer was playing up! I can only add that Nelson Mandela was an iconic statesman, and if you compare him to the likes of Mugabe, Bush or Blair, those pygmies aren't fit to lock his boots. His masterful achievement was avoiding a bloodbath via the peace and reconciliation committee (also down to Archbishop Tutu); he put his country before party politics, something quite rare these days. His love, forgiveness and healing are in fact a most Christian and inspiring legacy. We need to now pray for the future of South Africa her people. I will remember him most for his smile and charisma - may he rest in peace.