South Africa in transition - Historical and social comment
South Africa is a country of extremes; never has the mere name of country awakened such diverse reactions when uttered; and never has a country undergone such rapid change, so peacefully and with such dignity. But then South Africans have always had an innate gift for the dramatic, if not the melodramatic – and this year’s election was too great an opportunity to pass up. Who ever heard of a government voluntarily negotiating its way out of power in order to allow an ex-convict, The Number One Enemy of the State, to take over the reins. It happened here on 27th April 1994.
I have lived in South Africa for 12 years, on and off, and have been privileged to be a part of this extraordinary transition from police state under the iron fist of the Nationalist government, voted into power in 1948 by 5% of the population and remaining there with that mandate for almost 50 years, to the world’s newest and most exciting democracy.
Through thick and thin, I have always loved this land of contrasts. From the rolling hills of Zululand – evoking the legends of the past, of Shaka Zulu, of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana – to the sprawling townships to the South-West of Johannesburg – Soweto, creation of apartheid and home to almost 4 million South Africans.
From the subtropical Indian Ocean Coast – sugarcane plantations and Durban, the Blackpool of the Southern Hemisphere – to Cape Town – South Africa’s Riviera, surrounded by vineyards and crowned by Table Mountain, surely rating with Sydney and Rio as one of the most beautiful cities on earth.
From the Karoo – the Great Thirst, as the Hottentots called it, parts of which only see rain every ten years – to the citrus plantations of the Eastern Transvaal, bordering on the famous Kruger National Park – an area larger than Wales or Israel, 19 485 sq. km., and home to 147 species of mammal, 507 birds, 144 reptiles, 33 amphibians and 49 freshwater fish. And not forgetting, the vast 10 000-acre farms in the wheat-growing belt of the Orange Free State – the bread-basket of Southern Africa.
“The World in One Country”, our tourism board calls it; “Cry, the Beloved Country”, Alan Paton called his haunting book, and then, as if to faintly reassure us, named the sequel “Ah, but your Land is Beautiful”; Rian Malan tried to understand his own guilt at leaving the country on moral grounds and returning because, despite himself, he loved it too much and called his book “My Traitor’s Heart”.
My aim is not to judge the system, or to make any political comment. That would be wrong and this is not the place. South Africa’s political system came about for purely South African reasons. I merely want to illustrate the absolute bemusement of a young English boy when confronted with it and how he fell under the South African spell. What is it that makes South Africa?
I arrived here on my 19th birthday, 1st February 1983, with no knowledge of the country, no foreboding; no real understanding of where I was. Nothing but the just-left-school glee of the year-off teenager, travelling the world as a colonist manqué. I had been planning to spend the year in Argentina but was persuaded, in the light of the ongoing Falklands Conflict, that Englishmen were not welcome there. But they were welcome in South Africa. Of course they were. Anyone with a white skin was welcome in those days.
So I arrived, in my naivety, knowing nothing of the history of the geography of the country – Charterhouse must have been applying sanctions – nothing of the people, the languages, the size of the country. Nothing.
For the first three hours I hated South Africa but from Hour Four I think I new that I would live here for the rest of my life. I have been back to England several times in the intervening years but I was there only bodily. I had left my heart, like so many before, in Africa.
Certain episodes stick in my mind, reinforcing the contrasts of the land whilst going some way to explaining its complexity. The first three hours were my first experience of the staggering bureaucracy required to work “apartheid”. It took an hour and a half to clear Immigration. Everyone had to be registered by colour and nationality, which meant knowing where and when all four of your grandparents were born. The thickset Afrikaans immigration officer was pawing away it his highly sophisticated computer, intent on building up my dossier for BOSS (the Bureau of State Security), when I asked him please not to stamp my passport, but to stamp the inserted piece of paper instead. He asked me why and I explained to him that a South African stamp would preclude my visiting half of the countries in the world and most notably the so-called black African countries. His reply was “Why on earth would you want to visit one of those?” I am not sure to this day whether he was being amusing, but I doubt it.
There had obviously been someone fairly high-powered on the plane because, up to this point, we had been escorted by members of the South African Defence Force, pointing their rifles as us and ushering us in the right direction. Before Immigration, all politically sensitive – those likely to undermine the state – had been filtered off for a more extensive grilling. Journalists, servicemen, diplomats and churchmen. We had already signed a clause to the effect that it was not our intention to “overthrow the legitimate government of the Republic by unconstitutional means, force or violence” but where, other than the country which had nurtured Bishop Trevor Huddlestone, could the local vicar be a political threat?
Finally a Customs Official waved me out into what passed for the real world and said “Welcome to South Africa”. I didn’t feel it. Moments after emerging unscathed from the formalities myself, I saw two hulking, blue-clad white police officers launching themselves at an aging black man in overalls and set about him with their sjamboks. I never did know what his crime was. Probably neither did he. Maybe he pushed his trolley down the wrong side of the corridor.
But first impressions can be deceiving and things improved, at least from my point of view. It is amazing (and shaming) how quickly one can get used to injustice when one is not the victim. Just as it is easy to shun the beggars on the London Underground, so one learns quickly not to notice the differences in the living standards of South Africans. One simply does not notice, after a while, the black people walking for miles along the roads between the towns, as one slips by in the BMW. One stops asking oneself where they are going and how far from home they are and whether home was a place they chose or a place they were dumped by the “system”.
And all the while ordinary white South Africans – the friendliest people one could ever hope to meet – subjected one to their own private, conscience-appeasing propaganda. “It was not out fault. It was the Afrikaners in Government”; “The British invented apartheid in Natal in 1873”; “They all had schools they could go to, but they burnt them down”; “The blacks here are better off than anywhere else in Africa”; “They had equal rights from 1652 to 1948 and they failed to capitalise on it”; “ The white man built this country and if it weren’t for us, none of them would have jobs”. And of course it is all true, after a fashion – but still the differences seem irreconcilable and every now and then one would be jolted back to reality by an event, a sight, a comment.
I remember a conversation in the bar of the hotel where I was working. We were asking a young white National Serviceman about his recent experiences on township duty in Soweto. I asked him whether he had killed anybody. He had not, but some of his friends had. Did that bother them? “Ag, no. We’re allowed to” was the reply.
I went into the non-white half of a bottle store – where the drinks were, interestingly, cheaper – and was threatened with a gun by the owner for using the wrong entrance. I became shamefully accustomed to being called to the front of the queue in the Post Office (“You’re in a hurry; they’ve got all day”) and to looking for a Whites Only lavatory or compartment on a train.
Once, when travelling to Cape Town by train, I asked the guard why the Whites Only carriages were in the middle of the train. He explained with faultless logic that the Coloureds (mixed race) and Indians had carriages between the Whites in the middle and the Blacks at the front and back. Thus, in the event of an accident at either end, the Whites would be cushioned from the impact, but also, as the train was being pulled by a steam engine, that when the train was going straight, the Blacks at the front would get the soot and when it was on a curve, the Blacks at the back would get it. And, in this strictly Calvinist society, not only were the different colours separated, but also the sexes. All women travelling alone had different carriages according to their race.
Everything was segregated – shops, living areas, lavatories in the workplace (and this was checked by “health” officers), swimming pools, park benches, beaches, buses, lay-bys. It was a staggering feat of social engineering. I was berated once, on the Cape Peninsula, by a traffic officer for turning my car around in an Indian lay-by, and I have never seen a policeman move as fast as the one who lumbered up to me on an empty beach on the West Coast to tell me to get off as this was a Coloured beach. But where were all the Coloureds? “They don’t like beaches”, he stated. And all I had wanted was a photograph of Table Mountain.
Despite the inhumanity of it all, I have never seen, in 12 years, significant racially-based aggression between individuals. I have never seen civilian South Africans of different races come to blows. On a personal level, all South Africans are bafflingly good to one another. Paternalism, serfdom, call it what you will, but the South Africans, all of them, are incredibly civil both to their compatriots and to visitors. Of course, on a political level, there have been many horrendous, bloody confrontations, but these were always with the system, not between individuals. In a strange way, we South Africans – and I call myself one now – understand one another. We understand one another’s hopes and fears. We have been cut off by the world in this beautiful country for too long not to have learned to get along.
So, eventually, change began to take root. I was staying in a little hotel in a very staunchly Afrikaans part of the Northern Transvaal, near Pietersburg, when PW Botha made his famous Rubicon Speech. The farmers were horrified. He was giving the country away, they thought, in August 1985, when the government conceded to the tricameral parliament. One house for Whites, one for Indians, one for Coloureds. Nothing for the Blacks. But little changed.
Afrikanerdom was up in arms. Out of interest, I attended a rally in Pretoria, held by Eugene Terreblanche – the famous ET and leader of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging – khaki-clad and waving his pseudo-swastika, my mouth firmly sealed to hide my British origins. He ranted for hours about the Volk, freedom from domination by the native hordes, the land of his fathers, and I went home convinced that he was right – a brilliant orator in the mould of General Franco and Adolf Hitler. I had previously experienced a similar emotion attending a talk by Wedgie Benn in the Godalming Town Hall. Dressed in Barbour and wellies, we had intended to heckle and lob tomatoes but returned to school convinced, instead, that elitist private education should be abolished. Convinced, in both cases, for a couple of hours are least…
Life continued unchanged for all of us ordinary people. We worked on, side by side, trying to respect one another’s customs and speak one another’s languages. Mutual respect, tinged with fear maybe, has always been a strength of relationships across the racial divide. Gradually the pillars of apartheid were chipped away. These changes made little difference to the man in the street but for a few individuals life change dramatically. The Immorality Act was repealed. It was no longer illegal to have a sexual relationship with a member of another race group. The Mixed Marriages Act was scrapped and a white could marry a black without being reclassified black and being forced to live in a black area. The Job Reservations Act went as well and a range jobs was no longer only open to white applicants. (Ironically this Act was originally instituted on the initiative of the Communist Party, who insisted that everyone had a right to a job; everyone white, that is.)
Then, finally, the changes became more than cosmetic. The Pass Laws or Group Areas Act – the very cornerstone of apartheid – disappeared, allowing anyone to live where they chose. By 1989, the system was in its dying throes. No more separate amenities, no more curfews, no more states of emergency.
Then PW Botha, in his homburg, was replaced by FW de Klerk, Gorbachev-lookalike and from the same mould as his predecessors. The accent was the same and the dogma essentially unchanged but gradually a new dynamism began to creep into politics. South Africa was horrified when he suggested that he might be the country’s last white president. What could he mean? Where had this idea come from?
Rumours began to circulate that the president had been meeting with Nelson Mandela – the world’s most famous political prisoner, serving a life sentence for his part in the treacherous Rivonia Plot – who by now had been moved from Robben Island to a “luxury” prison near Cape Town, and that negotiations were under way for his release. Bemused South Africans pondered the implications of this putative event and I thought back to my meeting five years previously with Judge Percy Yutar, who had been the prosecutor at the trial which had sentenced Mandela to prison 27 years earlier, and recalled that Yutar only had one arm. The other had been chopped off by a Mandela supporter with a meat cleaver.
The rumble in the townships and the Bantustan homelands became a roar. Freedom was within the grasp of the disenfranchised masses. All they needed now was the vote – and proper housing, electricity, clinics, water, schools…
The right wing became more active, demanding the right to self-determination. They began to buy up farms to establish all-white towns. Nobody tried to stop them and they failed. In Orania, in the Western Transvaal, white men ended up sweeping the streets and did not like it. So they let some Coloureds in – after all, as they justified it, they spoke Afrikaans – but they did not like it either. So they let some Blacks in. The experiment had failed.
Barend Strydom of the Wit Wolwe – the White Wolves, one of the many arch-conservative organisations to spring up – went berserk with an assault rifle in Pretoria and killed 27 people. A farmer in the Northern Transvaal was fined R50 (£10) for tying one of his labourers to a tree and setting his dogs on him before beating him to death. Apartheid was not dead yet.
Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. I was in Cape Town when it was announced that the ANC – that terrorist organisation, the freedom fighters, the “rooigevaar” or red peril – was unbanned. It was very frightening to walk around the Mother City that evening and to hear the shouts of “aMandla” (power) and the strains of Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika, the forbidden anthem, and to see the hitherto illegal green, black and gold flag unfurled from buildings, floats and jubilantly hooting motor cars. Frightening because the security of the white man, our safe little world, was imperilled. Yet somehow we knew it was right. Nobody slept that night.
Two short weeks later our bemused country was at the centre of the world stage again for a far more emotionally relevant event. Billions of viewers tuned into their television sets to watch an old man take is his first faltering steps of liberty from Victor Verster prison in Paarl. After 27 years of imprisonment, hard labour and rock-breaking, Nelson Mandela, the world’s most famous political prisoner, was free. It was February 1990.
It was then that the real work began behind the scenes. The aim was to prepare for the peaceful transformation of South Africa from White Dictatorship to multi-party democracy; to reconcile the people of South Africa to one another and to their joint fate. Such a mammoth task had never been faced by any government in the history of the world. To try to forge a kaleidoscope of peoples into a rainbow. Descendents of Dutch settlers since 1852, of French settlers since 1688, British since 1775, Irish settlers since the 1820s, Germans since the 1850s, 450 000 people of Jewish stock, Portuguese refugees from Angola and Mocambique, Rhodesians, Bushmen since time immemorial, Hottentots, Coloureds and Cape Malays (with their origins in the Dutch colonies of the East Indies), Indians, both Muslim and Hindu, Chinese descendents of indentured labour, and millions and millions of Bantu people – Zulus, Xhosas, North Sothos, South Sothos, Swazis, Pondos, Matabele, Tswanas, Tsongas, Vendas; and so the list went on. Over 40 million people, forming more than 45 ethnic groups and with more than 30 distinct languages, to be united into one people. It was the last phase of Pretoriastroika.
And we, in our multi-cultural, multi-coloured country towns, watched with nonchalant hope as one attempt at negotiation after another failed to reach any form of compromise. South Africa crept its way towards international respectability and the only time we noticed was when we discovered that we could buy Baileys Irish Cream and Suchard chocolates in the shops. Nothing else changed much, for us or for our black neighbours.
Then we began to see our sportsmen and women competing internationally. The whole world, it seemed, wanted to play the Springboks and everyone including, and especially, the hard-line Afrikaner watched with pride as the Boks took on the All Blacks, the Wallabies and the British Lions.
We had come back in from the cold and, at this carefully chosen moment, President de Klerk held a referendum. Did we want him to carry on with his reforms or did we want to return to the old ways? Whether we liked it or not, we have to concede that the sports boycott, the so-called Gleneagles Agreement, played a major part in the last all-white election. I was strongly against mixing politics with sport but it worked and I can cite an example.
Henkie Wessels, a thoroughbred Afrikaner, was building, with his team, a new room at the hotel. Henkie was a firm No-Voter. He didn’t want reform; he didn’t want his children educated with black children; he did not want blacks travelling on his bus. I asked Henkie one morning whether he was enjoying watching the sport on television and tears came to his eyes as he told of his pride at seeing the Springboks in action. I warned him that if the referendum went against the government he would never see a South African play international sport again. Henkie voted Yes for reform. So did South Africa.
Five anguished, tense and troubled years after Mandela’s release, a thoroughly tense South Africa prepared itself for its first ever multi-racial election. We had walked the tightrope together as the political forces juggled for position. The Far Right refused to take part – the Afrikaner Volk was split. The Zulus fought hard for well-thought-out concessions and, whilst Buthelezi held out, the rural Zulus, where I was working at Rorke’s Drift, said that they would put their cross next to General Constnd Viljoen of the Afrikaner Freedom Front to lodge the strongest possible anti-ANC vote. What a strange source of 6 million votes that would have been for the right-wing leader, had Inkatha not joined the election. But these were not new political parties, not news rivalries and not new alliances. They were all deep-rooted in the turbulent history of South Africa.
Everyone stocked up on their siege supplies. Rumours spread that the electricity was going to go off, that there would be a fuel crisis and shortages of food. Supermarkets ran out of candles. Panic seized us all. The day before the election I found a queue 150 yards long outside the Standard Bank in Dundee, Northern Natal. The Zulus had heard that, if they won the election, the ANC planned to siphon all the money out of the banks, so they withdrew all their savings, vowing that if the bank was still there on Friday, they would redeposit them.
The Independent Electoral Commission said they were ready. They were not, as it turned out, but South Africa was ready.
The day of the election, 27th April 2004, dawned clear and cool over Zululand. The first of the three days was dedicated to the old and infirm and I had the privilege of driving 94-year-old, almost blind Tshabalala to the voting station. He knew what to do; he had done it before more than 70 years previously. His hands shook with his returning dignity. He was not fazed by the police presence or by the bemused German, Canadian and Senegalese International Observers. He showed his ID book, had ultra-violet paint smudged onto his hand to prevent his voting twice and he put his mark next to his traditional leader. “Gatsha Buthelezi!” he cried, as he emerged from the booth. He did not need to vote twice. He’d done it once and that was enough for this old Zulu.
The next day the queues formed all over the land. Some queued for 10 hours in the heat – Blacks, Whites, Indians and Coloureds, standing side by side for the first time in their country’s history. A magnificent moment for all, as the black man shed the yoke of inequality and the white man dropped his burden of guilt.
I was one of only three white people to vote at Rorke’s Drift, but never for a moment did I feel threatened, as I ferried hundreds of Zulus in the back of my pick-up from their homes to the old Mission Station, scene of that great earlier struggle between Zulu and the colonial powers. On this different occasion, dignified jubilation was the order of the day.
I queued up with all the labourers from the farm and we waited our turn. Just as we get to the front of the queue, having had our ID books zealously checked four times, voted suddenly came to a halt. The Zulu three in front of us had pinched all the pencils from every booth and was hot-footing it down the road towards Dundee. Only when he was flattened by an unaccustomed Senegalese rugby tackle did the pencils return and voting continue. A glimpse, I thought, cynically, into the New South Africa?
There was no drunkenness, no jeering, no intimidation, no violence. Nowhere. Bemused Zulus tried to lick the ultra-violet paint off their fingers because it smelled of oranges. Old women were dragged 20 miles across the veld on skins to their nearest voting place. In another more remote part of Zululand a journalist friend of mine took a photograph, which he vowed not to publish to protect he subject, of a black policeman asleep outside a polling station with his assault rifle lying across his lap.
In Howick, near Pietermaritzburg, a friend of mine took his ageing (white) mother, on her zimmer frame, to vote. The grand old lady, relic of an upright colonial family, took one look at the monumentally long multi-coloured line and asked her son “Darling, where’s our queue?” Evidently the significance of the occasion was, after all, lost on some.
In Johannesburg, white madams, bedecked with jewels, drove their Mercedes into nearby squatter camps and townships to vote because the Blacks had, aspirationally, come to town to make their cross and the queues in the white suburbs were too long. Others waited and queued up with their maids and garden boys.
So, in one week, it was all over. The crime rate over the election was one fifth of its normal level and we sat and waited for the results. Banned people re-emerged from the shadows, exiles poured back in their droves and we all waited. And we waited and we waited and we waited. TV and radio pundits ran out of waffle and we waited, while they returned to normal programming.
Stories of irregularities began to emerge. Mystery boxes of ballot papers, never sent out, came in with returns from the Eastern Cape. A box of neatly stacked papers all with the cross in the same place came in from Kwa-Zulu. The numbers sent out and returned did not reconcile. And then, suddenly, almost too suddenly, the result was announced. It was the well-balanced result of which we had all dreamed.
Nelson Mandela waved his arms jubilantly at his victory rally, prompting commentators to quip that we could now hold our heads up high in Africa as we had a president who could boogie. The old impersonators took a step back to allow the new mimics to practise on the new leaders. Winnie Mandela became Deputy Minister for Science and Technology. Everybody laughed. Bantu Holomisa, former tyrannical leader of the now-defunct, barren and violent Transkei homeland, became Deputy Minister for Tourism and the Environment. Everybody laughed louder. And what other country can boast amongst its cabinet ministers a majority of ex-convicts with names such as Peter “Kill-the-Boer” Mokaba and Patrick “Terror” Lekota?
But we made it. Two weeks later, it would have been a hard-hearted man who did not shed a tear as President Nelson Mandela, accompanied by his mbongi or praise-singer, took his oath of allegiance to South Africa and became the country’s first and long-awaited black president. The armed forces, who had fought for hundreds of years to prevent this day’s happening, paid their respects to their new leader; the air was filled with helicopters trailing the colours of the new flag; with whoops and cheers, Nkosi sikilel’ iAfrika (God bless Africa) was on everybody’s lips.
The kaleidoscope, overnight, had turned us into what Archbishop Desmond Tutu, bopping in his pulpit, called the Rainbow People of God. And, as if to reinforce the unique viewpoint of this country, the crowd cheered only two of the hundreds of dignitaries from across the globe who came to pay their respects to our new leader – Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro. Where else in the world?
Ten months into the new dispensation, little has changed in South Africa with one major exception. There is hope in the air and, where previously people of different races might have avoided one another’s gaze, we now look one another in the eye. We have all, including white South Africans, regained our self-respect. We are a proud nation and, now that we are united, we have really achieved something of which to be proud.
The reminders are always there – signposts with no signs; four lavatories side-by-side in public buildings, we still, through force of habit, use different entrances to bottle stores and post offices. I found myself unwittingly standing at the “wrong” part of the counter in the Municipality offices this morning and received a very peculiar look from the new black clerk. But the rules have gone and the signs are down. A “Whites Only – Slegs Blankes” signboard is a collector’s item and receives hundreds of rands at auction.
We will never forget the past and where we have come from. It will take a long time to achieve the aims of the least successful of the 26 parties to contest the election – the Soccer party – whose aim was “to level the playing fields and not to shift the goalposts” (and who, tellingly, claimed that the African Moslem Party had used unfair advantage in being able to offer free samoosas at their rallies).
Time heals all wounds. Grants from overseas governments and institutions speed up that healing process. The country is united in its aim of reconciliation. No more “One Settler, One Bullet”. I know that I am as dependent on my Zulu staff as they are on me to constructively guide one another through this land of confusion.
Rayne Kruger in 1959, in his study of the Anglo-Boer War entitled “Goodbye Dolly Gray”, ended with the words “The real struggle still lies ahead, unless averted by great statesmanship”. That is exactly what we have just witnessed. Truly great statesmanship, not only by our two Nobel Prizewinners, Former-President de Klerk and State President Nelson Mandela, but also, in a small but impressive way, by each and every South African.
Long may it last. Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrica.
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