Odd one out
Over the years many people have asked me how it came about that I, amongst all the Afrikaners that I grew up with or knew, as a young man in the 1960s and early 1970s, came to an alternative view about racism and Apartheid and took an active role in opposing the South African government of the time.
More recently Robert Kaplan, a psychiatrist in Wollongong, Australia, who went to the same school in the Western Cape as I, encouraged me to tell my “story”. So did a young Black man, Pule Khobo, who befriended me during a visit to Cape Town in July 2003.
This is my attempt to explain how I came to be an odd one out in the Afrikaner society during the Apartheid era.
I was born into a middle class Afrikaner family whose original South African ancestor, Estienne Bruére, a French Huguenot refugee, had arrived in Cape Town from Rotterdam in April 1688.
My father, a high school principal, grew up in the north-western Karoo as the son of a well-to-do sheep farmer. Instead of claiming his birthright and taking over the farm as the eldest son when his father suddenly died, he opted for a university education instead and attended the University of Cape Town.
My mother was the only daughter of the national Superintendent General of Education. Her four brothers were high profile professionals in medicine, law, journalism and commerce. Neither my mother nor my father's family were ever outspoken about politics. I cannot recall any conversations on the subject of politics occurring in either of my extended families as I was growing up, except for a single occasion in my teens when my mother referred to Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister at the time and known as “the architect of Apartheid", as "Dr Verwoes" ("Dr Destroy").
One thing that was indicative of the person I was to become, was that I had always had a soft spot for the underdog, even as a child. During the occasional fisticuffs amongst boys at school I would inevitably sympathise with the weaker participant.
With the exception of the ancient, wall-eyed Isaac, who lived in the servant’s quarters at my grandmother’s house in Cape Town, and who was retained for gardening and general duties despite shuffling along at a snail's pace with a walking stick, I did not come into contact with any Black or Coloured people during my years of growing up. It did not appear to me as unusual in the least, as a child or teenager, that Black and Coloured people lived “elsewhere” and that we did not mix socially with any of them at all, as I had never experienced anything different. I recall, however, on occasion thinking that my father was a bit mean when giving a Black or Coloured casual gardener a cup of coffee or tea in a battered old tin cup at the back door of our house, which he then had to drink outside instead of in our kitchen.
The only conversation that I had with a Black or Coloured person during my years of growing up, as far as I can remember, was when I was about nine years old and a gang of Black convicts was working in the school grounds at my dad’s school in Port Elizabeth on a Saturday morning. I wandered over and struck up a conversation with one of them, asking him what he was in prison for. He was quite friendly and told me that he was there because of a theft. My father noticed me chatting to the convict and hurried over to call me away, impressing on me that I was not allowed to speak to the convicts. This signalled an early, and, in terms of Afrikaner culture, uncommon and unhealthy interest in the lives of others, regardless of their colour or station in life.
I was conscripted to undergo military training at the beginning of 1964, along with the majority of White boys who had completed school at the end of the previous year, and found myself as a trainee infantryman in the 6th South African Infantry Division. I had turned 17 years old a mere three months earlier and I found the strict regime of military life and the constant aggression, malice and abuse by the military staff, whose duty it was to train us to be soldiers, wholly unpalatable. Very early on I developed a hatred for all things military and I decided that I would never participate in any war if I could possibly help it. I returned home at the end of that year a different person, “with dead eyes”, as my mother described it to me years later. Strange as it seems to me now, at this point in time politics or the “race issue” had not even entered my consciousness yet.
Developing an independent viewpoint
The following year I enrolled at the University of Stellenbosch, a highly conservative Afrikaner university with the then Prime Minister, John Vorster, as its ceremonial head. I resided in a university hostel and became close friends with three fellow students whom I only realised on hindsight, some years later, had all been to some degree unstable and possibly suffering from borderline mental illnesses.
It was one of them, Louis, who was responsible for the first germination of an opposing political view in my mind. He was a tortured soul, very witty, often highly charming, and highly intelligent, but with a pertinent dark and self-destructive streak.
The students in our hostel often informally debated various topics at mealtimes and in the lounge area. Quite often the topic was politics, and the debate in such cases was without exception between various factions of students who all shared the Apartheid ideology. I followed these debates with interest, but never participated in them myself because I knew virtually nothing about any of the issues. After a while I had developed a reasonably clear understanding of the various rationales for Apartheid, “separate development” and the "homeland policy". I instinctively disliked these conservative and smug Afrikaner would-be politicians and their political theories did not appeal to me, but I still did not possess any alternative views and no genuine alternative viewpoint ever came close to being raised in these debates.
One day, while some of the senior students were debating political issues, I quietly dared my friend Louis to enter into the debate with a completely contrary viewpoint, just to annoy them. Louis, who was a law student and an impressive debater, started debating with the pro-Apartheid conservatives that Black people should be treated as full citizens and be allowed to vote in government elections. I was amazed at the ease with which he countered all their arguments and, in my view, successfully questioned the very basis of their ideology. After a short while, when they became outraged and murderously angry with him, he admitted, laughingly, that he was merely poking fun at them and that he was just talking nonsense.Afterwards, he said to me: “Damn it, I almost convinced myself there for a while!”
The real turning point in me came when I attended first year Philosophy classes taught by Professor Hans Degenaar. I still do not know what Prof Degenaar’s own views were on politics, religion, or anything else, but he changed my life irrevocably by encouraging his students to think independently for themselves, to question everything and never to be swept along blindly by someone else’s arguments or views, to collect all the facts and to come to their own conclusions, regardless of what others may think. This had a profound effect on me. I started questioning the accepted political ideology and the institutionalised racism in the South Africa of the time and, not surprisingly, the whole edifice came tumbling down in dust around my feet. What I still do not begin to understand is why none of my fellow students, or any of the multitude of other students taught by Prof Degenaar at that time, ever reacted in the same way as myself by questioning the fundamental tenets of racism and Apartheid.
I was still awkward in mounting an argument, but I was very excited about my newfound insights. At the same time, however, I was utterly naive about the consequences of harbouring any view contrary to that of the Afrikaner mainstream.
I discussed my newfound opinions with my mother, explaining how insupportable and unjust it was to base government policy on the colour of a person’s skin. I told her of my disgust with the pass system, which in effect represented the treatment of Black people as foreigners in their own country. I explained to her the gross injustice of Coloured people and Black people not being able to vote, even in municipal elections, in their own country. I had always enjoyed discussing all manner of things with her and I was sure that she would agree with my viewpoint on these issues. To my surprise, however, there was a look of escalating horror on her face. Normally the gentlest of people, she became extremely animated.
“ No! No! You must never talk about these things to anyone. Do you know that the Security Police finds out everything about everybody? If you talk like this they will lock you up. They will keep you locked up even if they do not have a case against you, and no-one will be able to help you. Sometimes people are never even heard of again. Just leave these politics alone and stay right out of it. There is nothing that can be done to change it and you will get into terrible trouble if anyone hears you talking like this”.
I was taken aback by her reaction and was horrified in the realisation that my "discovery" of the injustices occurring under the Apartheid regime was not news to my parents, but that they had merely buried their heads in the sand about the outrageously unjust state of affairs in the country. From my mother's reaction I had no doubt, however, that she was right in that I would land in serious trouble if “they” found out what I was thinking. At the same time I also knew with certainty that there was no possibility of me dealing with the status quo in South Africa in the same way as my parents did, by ignoring the state of affairs and carrying on with my own life as if there was nothing wrong.
Flirting with trouble
Late in 1966 I began suffering from depression. They were not fits of depression that came and went, but I fell into a black hole from which I was unable to extract myself. In April the following year I was in such a bad state that I was no longer able to continue with my university studies. My agitation at the gross injustices occurring on a daily basis in my country, my loss of faith in religion after a lifetime of religious fundamentalism, and the bigotry of the church in which I was brought up as a devout Christian, were too much for me to bear. The church counselled us to “love our neighbours” like ourselves, but now it was patently clear to me that these “neighbours” were strictly limited to those with a White skin colour, whilst the Afrikaner Christians treated all others with a singular lack of humanity or compassion. I was only twenty years old and quite immature for my age, and I was totally on my own. As I had no one with whom I could safely discuss any of these burning issues, I had become increasingly secretive and uncommunicative, with a particularly bleak view of the world.
Our local doctor prescribed an early type of tranquillizer to cure me of my condition and I spent the next four months in a zombie-like state, sleeping around sixteen hours a day whilst the depression did not show any signs of abating. My mother arranged for me to visit a psychiatrist in Cape Town. This was a very uncommon step to take at that time and I now realise, on hindsight, how desperate she must have been about my mental state to resort to psychiatric counselling as a possible solution for my condition.
I went for counselling sessions twice a week and talked to the Afrikaner psychiatrist about my depression and my despair at the state of the world in general. I was careful never to mention my loss of faith, as a confession to atheism in that milieu would have been disastrous, but I did talk about poverty, the sad state of the world, and the fact that most Christians prayed a lot but did very little to actually change the world for the better. Naturally I did not dare refer to politics or to racial issues. After about three months of these sessions I managed to overcome my depression, realising as a result of the counselling sessions that I could not individually change the country for the better, but that I could, as an individual, treat all people without discrimination and do what was in my own power to contribute to change, even if it were only in a minor way.
After months of unemployment I eventually managed to secure a position as a junior clerk in the Department of Coloured Affairs, where I was assigned to a section that dealt with misconduct by Coloured teachers. Under the Apartheid government, “Coloured affairs” were dealt with separately from “White affairs”. I resumed my university studies the following year, on leave of absence from the Department, and completed an arts degree two years later. I had to return to work for the Department during some of the university holidays and for a further two years after the completion of my degree, until the end of 1971.
During my final year at university I had a more personal experience of the realities of living under Apartheid laws from a Black perspective. A friend had to appear in the Magistrate's Court in Stellenbosch in relation to a minor traffic offence and I accompanied him. While we were waiting in the courtroom for his case to be heard, a group of a dozen Black men appeared before the court to face charges of having been in town without a valid entry in their "pass books" authorising them to be there. As they did not understand Afrikaans or English, a translator told them what the magistrate and prosecutor had to say. They were found guilty en masse and sentenced. I cannot recall the nature of their sentence, except that it was quite harsh and that I was outraged at how they were treated by a White court in their own land.
A number of things occurred during my time as a clerk at the Department of Coloured Affairs that reinforced my views on racism and on Apartheid. A report by one of the White school inspectors about a Coloured teacher in rural Natal who had allegedly gone for a swim on a White beach, resulted in the teacher being transferred to the city, Durban, so that the Security Police could keep this “ulcer” – in the words of the Security Police report – under better observation.
Worse was to come. Another teacher was transferred from a Cape Town school to one in a small rural town in the barren Karoo on the request of the Security Police, who suspected him of inciting students to write anti-Republic Day slogans on a school wall. Not long after he took up his new post, the Department received a copy of a printed flyer which had been put in letterboxes in the Coloured township, accusing him of being a communist and of teaching the children not to believe in God. The teacher, in the meantime, had engaged a private investigator to find out who had distributed these libellous leaflets. He sent a letter to a liberal English language newspaper, along with the private investigator’s report in which it had been concluded that the leaflets had been distributed from a car belonging to a White policeman.
Within days the teacher was placed under “house arrest” by the government for a period of 180 days. Under the terms of his “arrest” he could not attend any meetings with more than two other people being present at a time and he was not allowed to attend an educational facility. He applied to the Department for leave without pay, explaining that he was not allowed to attend school whilst under house arrest. The Department turned down his application and sixty days later he was dismissed under the provisions of the Coloured Persons Education Act for deserting his teaching post.
Around this time I went on a trip to South West Africa (now Namibia) with my university friends Louis and Quentin. One night, as we were drinking beer in a bar in a small country town, a young farmer of our own age asked us where we were from. When we said that we were from the University of Stellenbosch, he proceeded telling us that he had once given a student from that university a lift and that this person had turned out to be "a real communist" who had shown sympathy with the "kaffirs" (a derogatory name for Black South Africans). I expressed my surprise, saying that I had never heard of any communists attending the University of Stellenbosch. He immediately became aggressive, accusing me of being a “kafferboetie” (sympathiser or “brother” to Black people) for defending the other student against his accusations.
For years I had had to cope with my strong convictions on issues relating to racism on my own, without ever having an opportunity to give expression to my feelings and views. On this single occasion my hackles rose so much that I became quite reckless and abandoned my usual caution entirely.
“ So what is wrong with Black people anyway?” I challenged him."They are human beings, the same as us."
This would have been an outrageously provocative statement anywhere in the country, but in ultra-conservative rural South West Africa expressing such an opinion was bordering on the suicidal. However, I was so angry that, for the moment, I was beyond caring about the consequences of my behaviour.
“ Oh, if you had a daughter you would let her marry a Black man, would you?” he snarled at me.
“ That would depend entirely on what sort of person he was", I retorted angrily, "and exactly the same would apply if my daughter wanted to marry a White man”.
Louis and Quentin quickly intervened and marched me out of the pub for the sake of my own safety. I told them afterwards that I had only been talking nonsense because the fellow had made me so angry at his dumb statement about the “communist” student to whom he had given a lift.
Back at the Department of Coloured Affairs shortly afterwards, while doing one of my stints there during university holidays, I was summoned by my boss, Mr. Van Deventer, to see him in his office. He proceeded to warn me “as a friend” that I had to be careful what I said, because a farmer had reported me to the Security Police for being a communist. He told me that he knew that I was a good Afrikaner boy and a hard worker, and that he had assured everyone that I was just a harmless kid who had probably poked fun at a backwoods farmer. Mr. Van Deventer also cautioned me about my long hair, which could give the wrong impression, and warned that the Security Police sometimes jumped to conclusions about people. I managed to maintain an air of unconcern, whilst inwardly being beside myself with terror at having been "found out". After this episode I strictly kept my views to myself until close to the time when I was departing South Africa for good.
Having returned in 1968 to the University of Stellenbosch as a full-time student, I heard that there was to be a student demonstration at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in protest against the government's intervention in the university's appointment of a Black lecturer, Archie Mafeje. Although there was no law as such prohibiting Blacks from teaching at White universities, the UCT Council, under threat from the government, quickly rescinded the university's decision to appoint Mafeje. The students occupied the University's administration building for nine days with a "sit-in".
I decided to visit my brother's girlfriend, Marlien, who was studying at UCT, and then I joined the sit-in for a day. When I mentioned this to my parents afterwards they were horrified at the possible consequences of my open participation in an anti-government protest. They counselled me gravely about the much-feared Security Police, whom they told me knew everything about everybody. They gave me examples of people of whom they knew, who had fallen foul of the Security Police, and begged me to refrain from political actions which would surely have dire consequences if I persisted.
In 1971 the Department of Coloured Affairs appointed a young Coloured man, Cyril Vraagom, as a junior clerk. He was the first Coloured person to be appointed in a clerical role by the Department. The appointment was intended to demonstrate to its critics that the government was fair to Coloured people in the pursuit of its policy of "separate development". Cyril was assigned to me to be trained in routine administrative tasks, such as preparing letters acknowledging incoming correspondence.
Cyril and I had much in common and we soon became friends. His father, like mine, was a secondary school principal. In our discussions it soon became apparent that his dad, being Coloured, earned only a fraction of what mine did in a similar position, on the basis of his colour. Soon we were sharing political opinions. We were always very careful not to discuss any personal or political issues in front of other people and Cyril occasionally joked that we would both end up as political prisoners if we were not careful. This relationship allowed me to explore the injustices suffered by Coloured people in some detail and strengthened my hatred of the endemic racism amongst White South Africans and of the government's policy of Apartheid.
One day Mr. Van Deventer called me into his office again. He told me that some of my colleagues had complained that I was on too friendly a footing with the Coloured clerk that I was training. I was overwhelmed with trepidation, but did my utmost to outwardly keep my composure.
“What do you mean by ‘too friendly’?” I asked with a puzzled expression.
“They say that you greet him in a cheerful and friendly manner in the mornings, in the same way as you would greet a White colleague, and, as you well know, that kind of thing will not be tolerated”.
“OK”, I agreed, shrugging, “I won’t greet himin a friendly way any more.”
After that, by mutual agreement, Cyril and I exchanged only the shortest and most impersonal of greetings whenever others were around.
Planning to depart
In 1971 I married my girlfriend of three years, Johanna, and the following year I went back to the University of Stellenbosch to complete a post-graduate course in Librarianship. I also planned to leave the country at the end of that year and booked our ship fares to Sydney in Australia. Towards the end of the academic year, however, I was "head hunted" through a friend for a job at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) near Cape Town. As the salary was quite attractive and I believed that I would be better placed to find a job in a new country if I had some work experience, I put my plans to leave the Apartheid state on hold, and accepted the position.
The UWC was a small university for Coloured students and all of the library staff except for three, including the University Librarian and myself, were Coloured. I headed a small department with five Coloured staff members, with whom I got on very well. During lunchtimes four of us had our lunch in a separate staff room upstairs - the University Librarian and Serials Librarian, both of whom were White, Russell, a Coloured librarian who had risen to the rank of Deputy University Librarian, and myself. Russell was one of those people who did well for himself by going along with the status quo and by not creating any waves. I never heard him say a word against the government or against Apartheid. Down on the ground floor, however, my Coloured colleagues were clearly opposed to the system even though none of them was an activist.
I resolved to ignore the Apartheid laws and to make friends of my own choosing across the colour line. Clive Norman, a Coloured colleague, and his wife, Maureen, came to our house in Somerset West for dinner occasionally and we sometimes went to the town of Huguenot to socialise with some of my Coloured colleagues who lived there. This type of socialising was illegal under the Apartheid laws and I knew that we would be in serious trouble if any of us were reported to the Security Police. With hindsight, this state of affairs was quite laughable, but in that unnatural place at that time, it was the situation in which we found ourselves.
It frustrated me, however, that natural friendships between myself and my Coloured friends were almost impossible to achieve. Whenever we went to Huguenot to visit my friends we would be treated as special people, and their neighbours and friends would be invited over to meet us. I detested the fact that we were not simply treated like normal visitors, but that our skin colour elevated us to a "higher" status in their eyes and that we were shown off to neighbours and friends whenever we visited there.
At home we illegally employed a young Black woman, Martha, as our housekeeper. Under the Apartheid laws she required a "pass" to be present anywhere other than the place where she had grown up, but there was no work on the rural farm where her family lived as farm workers and she had turned up at our doorstep looking for work. As she was light brown in colour we passed her off as a Coloured person, even though she had no official documents to this effect.
The injustices that I observed on a daily basis weighed increasingly heavy on my mind. The realisation dawned on me that, even if it was against my will, I was still benefiting on a daily basis as a White person under the Apartheid system. This situation became intolerable to me and I knew that I could not look myself in the mirror if I allowed this to continue. I was offered a job in Melbourne, Australia, which was kept open for me while I obtained a visa. This eventually took nine months.
In 1974, three months before I left the country, a small group of liberal English-speaking librarians plotted to try and get the South African Library Association (SALA) to reverse a resolution adopted in 1966 to expel Coloured librarians from the association. Peter Lor, of Dutch parentage and a young junior lecturer at the Library School at Stellenbosch University, where I had undertaken post-graduate librarianship studies in 1972, had liberal views and he invited me to join this group. We planned to propose a motion at the SALA Conference in Pietermaritzburg in September 1974 to readmit Coloured librarians as members of the SALA.
Our strategy was to catch the conservative SALA executive, dominated by Afrikaner librarians, unawares and to propose a secret ballot on this issue on the basis of its sensitivity. We knew that the motion would be soundly defeated if it were to be voted on by a show of hands. Our group also felt that the motion would have a far greater chance of success if an Afrikaner librarian spoke in support of it, so that it could not be easily dismissed as a push by English-speaking liberals. As I was the only Afrikaner in the group, I was asked to play this role.
At the conference the motion was put and was immediately angrily opposed by a professor of librarianship from an Afrikaans University in the Afrikaner heartland of Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. With a fair degree of trepidation I went to the podium and supported the motion in a well-prepared speech and using the voice of reason as best I could. I justified my interest in the matter from my perspective as a librarian at the University of the Western Cape, which is a small university for Coloured people. There are only a handful of Coloured librarians, and my Coloured colleagues are totally isolated as professional librarians, I explained. "Is it not our duty as professional librarians in this country", I asked, "to provide professional development and support to these people who are, after all, employed by the government at one of its own institutions?"
The debate continued for a while and then the secret ballot was held. To my amazement the motion was won by a handful of votes. Not so surprisingly, however, the other conference delegates steered clear of me for the remainder of the conference, as no one wanted to be associated with a person who had publicly stated support for Coloured people, even on such a politically harmless issue.
On 4 December 1974 a letter arrived for me at home which instructed me to board a military train in Cape Town for the northern border of the country a month later to play my part as a reserve soldier in the war against insurgent Black guerilla fighters. Eleven days later I boarded the migrant ship "Australis" for Melbourne with a one way ticket, having asked my father to wait for a few days and then to hand my rifle and uniform in at the South African Defence Force office in Stellenbosch and to tell them that I had emigrated.
It was with a sense of relief and freedom that I watched Table Mountain, under the shadow of which I had been born, disappear over the horizon. I intended never to return, in the firm conviction that freedom and justice for the oppressed people in South Africa would not be achieved in my lifetime.Australia: the early years
Whilst it was difficult to settle and to work in a country where I had to speak English, a second language in which I was far from fluent, I felt at home in Australia from the outset. Having spent my entire life in an ultra-conservative and racist society, I was exhilarated to find myself in a place where even class distinctions were hardly noticeable and freedom of speech was a fact of daily life. I found the multicultural make-up of Melbourne exciting and I revelled in the opportunity to meet with and to talk to people from a great variety of countries and cultures. The opportunity to live in a multicultural society, where everyone had the same basic human rights, reinforced my opposition to racial discrimination.
For the first time in my life I was able to read books on South African politics that were critical of the South African government and its ideology, as all such books were banned in South Africa. My opposition to Apartheid hardened even further as a consequence. I was particularly impressed to learn about the sacrifices made by people such as Bram Fischer, a lone Afrikaner opponent of Apartheid and, from my perspective, an unimaginably brave and principled person. A former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, a Queen's Council and son of a Judge President of the Orange Free State, Fischer believed that there was a special duty on him that at least one Afrikaner should be seen to actively oppose Apartheid, regardless of the personal sacrifices which such a role required. Fischer was eventually arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. After his death from cancer in 1975 the authorities refused to release his ashes to his family. It became clear to me that the Afrikaners were merciless in dealing with anyone from their own ranks who turned against them.
Although I harboured no illusion that I possessed the personal courage to take part in an armed struggle or in a sabotage campaign against the White regime, or to openly risk imprisonment or torture in South Africa, I became more determined as time went by to play a role within my own capabilities in opposing the Apartheid government.
In my early years in Australia I was not actively involved in anti-Apartheid activities. My marriage, which had already been shaky before we left South Africa, ended in 1978. I went to live for three months with friends from Monash University, where I had enrolled in a part-time Masters degree course. Radha Rasmussen, a university lecturer who came to Australia from Singapore, and her Danish husband, Henning, had both been through divorces earlier in their lives. They took me under their roof and helped me through this traumatic period.
Active opposition against Apartheid
Around this time I was introduced to an ex-South Africanwoman, Jeanne Daly, by a mutual acquaintance and for the first time I became acquainted with South Africans who were as repulsed by Apartheid as I was. Jeanne was an activist who was instrumental in starting an anti-Apartheid group in Melbourne in 1978.
On Jeanne's request I began corresponding with Denis Goldberg, an engineer who had been given a life sentence at the Rivonia trial along with Nelson Mandela and others for planning to overthrow the White government by force. Jeanne asked me to take over the role of correspondent with Denis after a previous correspondent had been banned by the South African authorities from writing to him. It was a task that I greatly enjoyed over the next few years until Denis was eventually freed from prison and exiled in 1985.
The rules governing our correspondence were strict. The frequency of exchanges of letters and the maximum number of words which could be included in each letter were regulated and any discussion of political or racial issues was taboo. Denis was one of those courageous and indomitable people who, despite being married with two small children, were willing to sacrifice his own life in the struggle against the Apartheid regime.
Like so many opponents of Apartheid I was strongly influenced by Donald Woods' book about the life and death of the Black South African activist, Steve Biko. Woods' book strengthened my resolve to play a more active role in opposing the Apartheid regime. I joined Jeanne Daly's recently established anti-Apartheid group in Melbourne, helped to raise funds for the families of political detainees in South Africa, and wrote letters to the press in support of sports and trade boycotts of South Africa, often stressing that I was an Afrikaner myself, with an intimate knowledge of the injustices and racism of the Afrikaner nationalists.
In 1979 I married a long-time English friend, Gill Mountjoy. In that year we went to South Africa briefly so that I could introduce her to my family. During this visit I was constantly on edge, fearing that the Security Police may arrest me. I was immensely relieved when we departed from the airport in Johannesburg on a British Airways flight to London.
In Marlow, Gill's home town in England, I was introduced to her various relatives and to friends of her family. Amongst these was a World War two veteran, a former Wing Commander, who confided to me that he had a great fondness for South Africans because of their support to Britain during the war. When he learnt, however, that I had left the country because of my opposition to the White South African government, he looked at me with his blue eyes, which had once scanned the sky for enemy warplanes, and told me that he could never trust a man who had betrayed his own people. I explained to him that, in my view, it was not so much that I had betrayed my own people, but rather that my own people had betrayed me, as well as all people with a basic sense of justice and humanity.
A year later we left Australia to work for three years in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. During our stay in Port Moresby I offered my support to the South African Council of Churches and was asked by Sophie Mazibuko, one of their staff based in Johannesburg, if I would contact Dr Mamphele Ramphele, a former associate of Steve Biko's, who had been banned by the government to the rural Lenyenye Township in the vicinity of Tzaneen in the Transvaal.
I wrote to Dr Ramphele and subsequently organised a number of fund-raising activities in Port Moresby to provide financial assistance for the Ithuseng Community Health Centre, which Dr Ramphele had started in her place of banishment.
A visit to South Africa
In 1982 I went back to South Africa with an Australian friend, Brian. I sought permission from the South African authorities to visit Denis Goldberg in prison, but permission was flatly denied. I was upset but not surprised at the outcome of my request. Fortunately I was able to meet with Denis and with his wife, Esmé, in England three years later, shortly after he was released from prison.
During our time in South Africa, Brian and I dropped in on the South African Council of Churches' offices in Johannesburg to see Sophie Mazibuko. We had hardly sat down in Sophie's office when the phone rang.
" Now be careful, please", Sophie admonished the caller matter-of-factly, "you know that all our phones are being tapped by the Security Police".
Brian, who had never experienced life in a police state, was visibly shocked and horrified. The visit was particularly memorable for us both because Sophie introduced us to Bishop Desmond Tutu, a person for whom I have the greatest respect.
While in South Africa, Brian and I decided to travel by train to the independent kingdom of Lesotho. At the border posta South African customs official made me unpack my luggage and found some photos of my Black colleagues in Port Moresby. He was very suspicious and questioned me at length about the photos.
" Where were these photos taken, and who are these people?” he demanded to know.
I had great difficulty convincing him that the Black people in the photos were not Africans and that they posed no threat to White South Africa's national security, particularly as he had never heard of Papua New Guinea, the country in which I was a temporary resident according to the visa in my passport.
Two weeks later Brian and I drove east along the coast from Cape Town to the picturesque coastal town of Knysna, where we stayed for a few days. One evening, while we were fishing ona jetty, a young White man came along and fished alongside us. He introduced himself to me in Afrikaans as a military pilot and asked me where I was from.
"I work on an island on the other side of the world", I replied, being deliberately vague.
"What island is that?” he wanted to know.
"I don't think you would have heard of it. It's called Papua New Guinea".
"And what do you do there?” he asked.
"I train people in government jobs".
"These people that you train, are they Black?” heasked. A familiar feeling of trepidation rose in me.
"Yep", I said, in an offhand manner.
There was a longish silence. Then he nudged me and said, conspiratorially, "Doesn't matter where they come from, these Blacks are all rockheads, eh?"
On my return from Papua New Guinea to Melbourne in 1983 I continued to participate in various anti-Apartheid activities. In the main these consisted of more fundraising efforts to assist political victims of Apartheid and their families, as well as participation in publicity campaigns against the South African government. I also joined a group of anti-Apartheid protestors who regularly met during lunchtimes on Fridays outside the South African Airways (SAA) offices in the centre of Melbourne. Although a shy person by nature, I regularly took my turn with the microphone, telling passersby about the evils of Apartheid in a voice that had lost little of its distinctive Afrikaans accent. Our pressure eventually resulted in the SAA offices being closed down.
My anti-Apartheid activities, which were quite minor in comparison with those of so many others, nevertheless attracted enough attention to prevent me from obtaining a visa to travel to South Africa late in 1984. My 64 year old mother, who had developed a virulent and terminal form of cancer, came to visit us in Melbourne in August 1984. She explained to me that she wished to say farewell to us in Australia, rather than to see me later when her cancer was further advanced. I nevertheless decided to apply for a visa, in case she changed her mind.
I received a phone call at work from a woman at the South African Embassy in Canberra. She spoke to me in Afrikaans and persisted in that language, despite the fact that I responded in English. She referred to my visa application and asked why I wanted to visit South Africa. I explained about my mother's illness. She responded that I was not welcome in South Africa because of my "history", and added somewhat apologetically that she was "only doing her duty". I replied that each of us certainly had to do our duty as we saw fit, and that I fully intended to continue to do mine.
The end of Apartheid
The sudden demise of minority White rule in South Africais well documented. I had never expected this turning point in the history of the land of my birth to occur during my lifetimeand I was overjoyed at the turn of events.
My father had died suddenly in 1990 and I did not attendhis funeral. However, once the end of the Apartheid State was an irretrievable fact, I decided to return to South Africa for avisit and was given a visa in mid-1992. The White official at the airport in Johannesburg who checked my Australian passport, with its Afrikaner surname and with the birthplace stated as "Cape Town", said to me, warmly: "Welcome back to South Africa, sir."
When I visited Lesotho later during the same trip, however, I discovered that the concept of a "new South Africa" had not yet permeated to the remoter border posts of the country. As I left Lesotho to re-enter South Africa at the border post near Maseru, I waited in a long line of coughing Black workers on an icy cold winter's morning to have my passport stamped. When it came to my turn, the White South African customs official greeted me in a friendly manner, unlike the gruff and officious voice that he had used in dealing with the Black men. As soon ashe opened my Australian passport and saw that I was a former South African, and an Afrikaner to boot, however, he scowled and asked me why I was entering South Africa.
" I'm just visiting family and friends", I replied.
" And when is your flight out of the country?” he snapped, aggressively.
Regardless of the impending political changes in the country, I soon realised that I was not going to be easily forgiven by other Afrikaners for siding with the "enemy". It was clearto all of them that an Afrikaner, who had left the country before the 1976 riots, at a time when the country was still viewedas "secure" for White people, was almost certainly a traitor to the Afrikaner cause.
I talked to an Afrikaner female magistrate at a social gathering at my brother's house one evening. She asked me where I lived, and then asked when I had left the country. When I told her, she immediately became hostile.
" You people must be very pleased with how things have turned out", she said in an angry and accusatory voice.
Pretending not to notice her anger, I replied enthusiastically:"Oh, yes, and I never really thought that it would happen in mylifetime!"
Burying the hatchet
During all my long years of living in Australia, until quite recently, I was ambivalent about other White South Africans and I mostly steered clear of them. This was partly related to my experiences with White South Africans in Australia during the Apartheid era. Typically they would categorise me as a "normal" Afrikaner as soon as they heard my Afrikaans accent, and would then proceed to share their racist views with me.
The influx of White economic migrants from South Africa into Australia during recent years has caused me considerable unease. My intense dislike of the South African national rugby and cricket teams had lessened only marginally after the end of Apartheid, as these teams somehow still represented the old South Africa to me.
In 2003, however, I at long last achieved my own personal reconciliation with South Africa, its White people, and even with its sporting teams. Our daughter, Laura, went to Cape Town for the year to attend a boarding school. We knew that my late father would have loved it if his Aussie grand-daughter spent time in a South African school and got to know his country.
Laura's school has a strong contingent of Black students, from within South Africa as well as from other African countries. We have never discussed South African politics in any detail with our kids, although my wife and I have both encouraged tolerance of diversity and compassion with others as basic values in our family. I was therefore very pleased to learn that her close friends included Black and Coloured girls.
In July 2003 we travelled to South Africa to visit Laura. I rediscovered the enormous hospitality and the particular sense of humour of South Africans of all backgrounds and, seeing at long last with my own eyes that the hated system of legalised discrimination and racism has truly ended, I felt at home in the country of my birth for the first time since I was a teenager. I even enjoyed speaking Afrikaans, which was no longer the "language of the oppressor", as I had thought of it fordecades.
During our stay in Cape Town we visited the old Dutch fort, or the "Castle" as it is known. Nearly forty years earlier I had stood guard on occasion at its entrance during a posting to Cape Town whilst conscripted to the 6th South African Infantry Battalion. I laughed at the irony of it all when I saw that nearly all the soldiers at the Castle were Black or Coloured people.
I came upon three Black soldiers who were replacing a row of worn flags on a wall of the Castle. They were wearing the very same design of beret that I had worn as a conscripted infantryman as a teenager, a dark green beret with a brass badge in the shape of a springbok's head. I asked whether any of them spoke English. One replied that he did. When I asked him, he confirmed that they were infantrymen in the South African Defence Force.
To my astonishment I noticed that one of the flags that they were replacing was the orange, White and blue former national flag during the Apartheid era.
" Why are you raising that flag?” I joked. "Why don't you put afew bullets through it instead?"
The one who spoke English translated my comments into Xhosa forhis companions. They all laughed merrily while continuing to raise the flag.
In the late 1960s and until I departed from South Africain 1974 I had sometimes pulled over from the road which runs along the slope of Table Mountain above Cape Town. On those occasions I had looked down across the city and the ocean to Robben Island, where the people whom I admired most were incarcerated as political prisoners at that very moment - Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Wilton Mkwayi, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and many others. I had clenched my teeth then in powerless frustration and anger.
In July 2003 I at long last stood on Robben Island and looked back across the sea towards Cape Town in the distance, to Table Mountain, and to a land from which institutionalised racism had now been eradicated.
I experienced many things in 2003 that changed my attitude towards White South Africans. The captain of the national rugby team, a White Afrikaner, said during a television interview that they were determined to put in their best effort in a forthcoming rugby test because it was Mr. Mandela’s birthday. How could I not bury the hatchet?
After all this time an unanswered question remains for me. The question is not the one that I have been asked so many times over the years, namely why I, as a young Afrikaner in the 1960s and 1970s, perceived and responded to the injustice and brutality of the Apartheid system and the official policy of racism and discrimination. The question that puzzles me instead is why there were not a multitude of other Afrikaners at the time, instead of a miniscule number, who had come to the same glaringly obvious conclusions as I did.
There are still many things about South Africa today that concern me greatly. There is a massive Aids epidemic in the country, a shockingly high rate of road fatalities and a highly visible chasm between the well-off and the desperately poor. The sight of homeless children sleeping overnight in parks and other public places in the middle of winter just breaks one’s heart. There is no end of challenges. Nevertheless, the end of legalised racial discrimination and the resilient spirit of so many of the people in the new South Africa offer much hope for better years ahead.
Copyright Tim Bruwer, 2003
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