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The Architecture of Apartheid South Africa, 1837-1987   Leave a comment

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Above: South Africa in 1939

Re-writing History:

The debate about the statues of figures from South Africa’s past rumbles on in advance of the commencement of the new term at Oriel College, Oxford, where the memorial erected to Cecil Rhodes in 1911 is under threat from a group of students calling themselves “Rhodes Must Fall” after the group which succeeded in having his statue removed from the campus of Capetown University.

What continues to amaze me as a historian is that, however Rhodes’s role in the development of Southern Africa is assessed according to the historical record, these campaigners continue to repeat the banal distortion of this record in linking his name to the Apartheid state established by the National Party in 1948, forty-six years after his death. He was certainly an imperialist, and within that context a racist, but the idea that he was ‘an architect of apartheid’ is arrant and puerile anti-historical nonsense. Indeed, the Chancellor of Oxford University, Chris Patten, the last Governor of post-Imperial Hong Kong, has recently responded to the anti-Rhodes campaigners by accusing them of re-writing history, and has asserted that, therefore, the statues and plaques commemorating the ‘great’ man will not be coming down.

Imperial ‘Heroes’ and South African Exiles:

Almost thirty years ago, in 1987, I was asked to take part in a Theatre-in-Education Project in Birmingham, working with the Development Education Centre in the Selly Oak Colleges, which explored themes in the History of South Africa from the time of the Boer War to the 1980s, when we were campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela and against the appeasers of the apartheid regime in Britain, including Mrs Thatcher. Certainly, Birmingham ‘hero’ Joseph Chamberlain featured in the play scripted by ‘the Big Brum Company’, and there may have been a passing reference to Cecil Rhodes, but the main focus was the treatment of black Africans by the Afrikaner supremacists from 1837 to the 1987. My role was to support the performance with preparatory materials in secondary schools throughout Birmingham. As an Anti-Apartheid campaigner for more than a decade, working with Peter Hain and Donald Woods, among many other South African exiles of all colours, I was keen to get involved in this project.

A pack was developed with the DEC in response to the needs of teachers of the 14-16 age range who wanted material which would help them to cover areas of history, geography, social studies and integrated humanities syllabuses relating to South Africa. The materials had previously been pioneered by teachers in West Yorkshire in the early eighties, who felt that this need could best be met by examining how the situation in South Africa had evolved by then to a point at which a clear, more dispassionate background was needed to the political, economic and social circumstances prevailing in the country at that time. They, and we, aimed to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding apartheid, while also stimulating pupils by providing possibilities for studies in depth on particular issues.

Broadly, the aims of the project were:

  • To encourage pupils to examine their attitudes to South Africa, not as somewhere ‘out there’ but in terms of a place which is very closely linked with their own experience of Britain.

  • To present information about South Africa which would allow pupils to decide for themselves what they feel about some of the issues relating to apartheid.

  • To challenge the many misconceptions regarding apartheid which we are presented with by the media, South African government etc.

  • To help pupils to understand what apartheid means to the people involved.

It was very important to these aims that pupils were encouraged to discuss how they felt about the issues being raised and that they are encouraged to develop a critical approach to the information which they received. We felt that the use of ‘evidence’ in this context was very helpful, as it allowed pupils to examine an issue from many different perspectives and also to realise that much of the information which they commonly encountered was heavily weighted according to the purpose for which it was designed.

White and Black Perspectives:

The history of South Africa had always been presented as a white person’s history up to this point, recorded by white people for white people, so that it gave a very one-sided view of events. It was our intention to present this view, alongside the other view, that of black people’s history, in an attempt to allow pupils to reach ‘informed’ conclusions. Unfortunately, because black history had not often been recorded, we had to reconstruct events through the eyes of fictitious characters and in the emotions portrayed by actors. These perspectives were, however, based on extensive and meticulous research. It also remained important to examine the attitudes of Afrikaners and other white groups in historical and contemporary contexts, in order that pupils might recognise the part which these groups had played in determining where South Africa was in the 1980s and how these were linked to many of the attitudes held by some white people in Britain at that time. Although the pack itself did not explore these links in detail, we found that pupils in multi-ethnic schools drew these links for themselves, while those in all-white schools needed support to tackle these issues, as indicated in the Swann Committee Report (1985). Above all, we guarded against labelling all white South Africans as bad and all black South Africans as good by focussing on the spectrum of opinions of all people as individuals rather than purely in terms of whether they were black and white. The pack began…

  • …in 1837, twenty-three years after the British took control of the Cape of South Africa, in order to hinder the French fleet in the area and to protect their own shipping routes to India and the Pacific. Dutch people had occupied the Cape from 1652 and now called themselves ‘Boers’. In 1833, the British had passed laws to end slavery throughout the British Empire, including South Africa. Some of the Boers, known as ‘Voortrekkers’ did not want to obey these laws, so they began a northward migration – ‘the Great Trek’ – to avoid them.

 

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  • The trekkers attacked the southern tribes, killing many of them and taking their children as slaves. They also took cattle and built homesteads on the land. One of the leaders of the trekkers, Piet Retief, came into Natal to ask the Zulu chief, Dingaan for land, having already tricked Sekonyela out of his guns and horses. He moved his party of trekkers onto Dingaan’s land before he had agreed to lease it. Dingaan fought the trekkers, killing Retief and driving the trekkers away.

 

  • The Voortrekkers decided to take revenge against Dingaan. On 16 December 1837, a commando of five hundred of them set up an ambush for the Zulus on the banks of a river. They were led by Andries Pretorius, who gave his name to the later capital of South Africa, Pretoria. He was an experienced leader who had recently arrived in Natal from Cape Colony.

 

  • They grouped their wagons into a circle, known as a ‘laager’, surrounding their cattle and themselves. This provided them with protection so that they could fire their weapons from the spaces between the wagons. The Zulus were armed with short spears called ‘assegai’ and had only their shields to protect them.

 

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  • The Voortrekkers were victorious, with only three of them wounded. Three thousand Zulus were killed. The Battle of Blood River, as it became known, was commemorated by the Boers in an annual service of thanksgiving known as the Day of the Covenant.

 

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From this perspective, we can see that the first massacres of the indigenous black peoples of South Africa were not the work of the British, but of the Afrikaners. When the Great Trek finished, the Boers who had settled in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were given some independence by the British. In the 1860s sugar cane plantations were set up in Natal and Indians were treated in the same way as the blacks, working for low wages in poor conditions. Since the Boers had been involved in a lot of hardship on the Great Trek and had worked hard to make a living in their new areas, they had developed a strong sense of togetherness. Due to their religious beliefs, which were Dutch Calvinist in origin, they thought that black people could never be Christian and so could never be regarded as equals. On the other hand, British missionaries taught that those black people who converted to Christianity deserved to be treated fairly, if not equally before God, and should certainly not be enslaved. The Afrikaners, however, saw themselves as a race apart and were starting to develop their own language, Afrikaans.

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The Development of Afrikanerdom, 1868-1948:

For these reasons, when in 1868, gold and diamonds were found in the Transvaal and Orange Free State by black people, the Afrikaners tried to stop the British taking over these areas again. They fought the British in the Boer War of 1899-1902, which the British eventually won, though the Afrikaners retained a large amount of self-government. They made the blacks pay taxes and rents so that they would have to work for white bosses in order to earn money. Many went to work in the new gold and diamond mines. White landowners began to evict the blacks who rented ‘their’ land, thinking that they could make more money by farming it for themselves. In 1909 the Afrikaner government passed the Squatter Act, which meant that the blacks who rented land were forced to become labourers or leave. Those evicted were forced to live on reserves where poor land and diseases made it difficult to make a living.

 

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In 1910 the British government brought the four states together in the Union of South Africa, but black people still had no say, so in 1912 they set up their own African National Congress (ANC) to fight for their rights. Despite this, the Land Act was passed in 1913, giving blacks the worst 7% of the land, even though they were three times the size of the white population. The black areas were called ‘Bantu’ areas and became even more overcrowded than before. There was little land for planting crops or grazing livestock, so it was impossible to make a living. As there was no work in the Bantu areas, the men had to travel hundreds of miles to work in the mines and factories, leaving their families on the reserves.

 

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In 1918 black mine-workers went on strike for better pay, but the white mine owners called in the police to force them  back to work. Meanwhile, Afrikaner workers had become worried that more jobs and better pay for the blacks would mean fewer jobs for them. They formed trade unions to prevent this. In 1927 the Black Administration Act was passed, providing for a separate system of administration for the black areas from the white areas. Blacks were not allowed to vote or join trade unions, and the men had to carry passes saying where they could and could not live and work. In compensation, the black areas were increased in proportion from 7% to 13%.

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This was how South Africa continued to be run until 1939, as a country run by whites for whites. Both the Afrikaners and the British agreed that black people were there to work for them and were not to be involved in any decisions. So when Great Britain asked its ‘Dominions’, including South Africa, to help out in the Second World War, the blacks had no say in this. The United Party was split, with Prime Minister Hertzog arguing against becoming involved in the war against fascism. However, he was outvoted and forced to resign. The ANC gave its full support to Jan Smuts, the new Prime Minister, in his determination to involve South Africa in the war. For the time being, at least, the Afrikaner Nationalists had lost.

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Both before and during the war, many blacks moved into the cities  to find work, as it was impossible to make a living in the Bantu areas. The whites living in the cities didn’t want the blacks there, so they strengthened the pass laws. As a result of the poor wages and conditions which the blacks were forced to accept, there were numerous strikes in the 1940s. In 1946, fifty thousand black mine-workers were went on strike for better pay, but many were killed and injured when police came and used violence to break up the strike.

 

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Then, in 1948, the Afrikaner National Party were voted into power, led by Dr Daniel Malan, with their policy of ‘apartheid’, a new word, but an old idea for Afrikaners. This meant separate development for blacks and whites. Only white people could vote in the election. The National Party did not want black people to enjoy the wealth of the country or have a part in its political life. Many whites supported this because they wanted to keep all the jobs, lands and wealth for themselves.

 

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The National Apartheid State, 1948-61:

Almost immediately, the National Party set about building up apartheid by introducing strict laws. There were laws to separate white and black people in all areas of life: schools, work, hospitals, housing areas, and even marriage. From 1948, ‘Whites Only’ signs began to appear in many places: taxis, ambulances, buses, restaurants, hotels, parks and even beaches. In sport as well, white and black people could not play together. In 1950, the government classified everyone as ‘Black’, ‘Coloured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘White’ and restricted all black people to the small Bantu areas. Any black person who owned land in a white area could be forced off it and moved to a Bantu area. The government wanted to make sure that they had control over these remote areas, so they appointed ‘chiefs’ by offering high wages in return for making sure that people did not attempt to oppose apartheid.

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However, whites still needed blacks to work for them in the cities, even though they didn’t want them to live there, so two years later they passed a law to set up ‘townships’ near cities where black people who worked in the cities had to live. These were run by white administration boards who had control over all the facilities and services in the townships.

 

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Sophiatown  was a pre-existing township only six kilometres west of the centre of Johannesburg. It was one of the few places where Africans had been able to buy homes and many had lived there for more than fifty years by 1953. Because it was close to the centre of the city, several families lived in each home, with as many as forty people getting their water from a single tap. It was surrounded by towns where white workers lived, and the government wanted to move these workers into Sophiatown. So, in 1953, the government started to force Africans out of their homes in Sophiatown to a new township twenty kilometres away, as part of their plan to control where Africans could live and work.

 

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The ANC organised meetings in the town over many months, trying to prevent its destruction. Among those who spoke at these meetings was a young Nelson Mandela, until he was banned in September 1953 under one of the laws introduced in 1950. This law allowed any person from going to meetings, leaving town, belonging to political organisations, or meeting friends. Although Mandela was not accused of any crime, for two years he was forbidden to go to meetings or to leave Johannesburg. He was even prevented from going to his son’s birthday party. He was also forced to leave the ANC. He was therefore unable to go to the national meeting of the ANC in September 1953, so that another ANC member read his words for him. He told them:

There is no easy walk to freedom. Many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.

The pass laws were made even stricter so that women had to carry passes as well. A few years later, they passed laws which gave separate and unequal facilities to whites and blacks. Blacks were given the worst of everything in education, housing, health, jobs, transport etc. In 1953, the government had passed a law which separated the African school system from the white system in order to force African children to go to poorer schools.

 

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Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, Minister of Native Affairs, said that the only place for Africans in South Africa was in some types of work. By this, he meant that Africans would only do mundane, badly paid work, so that they did not need to be educated in expensive schools. In 1954, Verwoerd made a speech in which he promised that:

When I have control of Native Education I will reform it so that the Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them… People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives… When my department controls Native education it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge… What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice. That is quite absurd.

In the 1950s, the government spent 44 pounds every year for each white student, 19 pounds for every Coloured and Asian student, and less than eight pounds for each African student.

At the beginning of 1955, four thousand police and soldiers arrived at Sophiatown and began to move people out and to destroy their homes. The ANC had failed to save the town, and it became obvious that the Afrikaner government would not be moved by the ANC’s non-violent protests. In 1956 twenty thousand women held a peaceful protest against the pass laws, but once again the police used violence to break up the demonstration. In 1958, Verwoerd became Prime Minister. He wanted greater racial segregation than ever before, and one of the first things he declared as Prime Minister was that all black Africans would be known as ‘Bantus’. In 1959, the Bantu areas were divided into ten groups called the ‘Bantustans’ or ‘Homelands’. People were told that they were citizens of a ‘homeland’ which often they had never seen before and which might be hundreds of miles from their real home. Millions of people were moved by force to these remote areas where they had no jobs, houses or land. There they had to live with their appointed ‘chiefs’. Using the passes, the government now had complete control over where every black person lived and worked.

 

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In 1960, there was another peaceful protest against the pass laws, this time at Sharpeville, a small townships, about 55 kilometres south of Johannesburg. The Pan-African Congress (PAC), a new African organisation, had organised the protest. As part of this, a crowd of several thousand marched to the police station in Sharpeville, without their passes. The crowd waited quietly, but as the crowd grew larger, the police became more worried. Suddenly, they began to shoot at the crowd. People turned and tried to run away, but the police continued to shoot, killing 69 people and injuring many more. Protests came from all over the world, including the United Nations, the first time the UN had spoken out about what was happening in South Africa. The government declared a state of emergency and arrested 22,000 people. They banned the African National Congress (ANC) and several other anti-apartheid organisations.  Mandela was taken to Pretoria Prison, with the other thirty already accused in the ‘Treason Trial’. At the trial, Mandela told the court that the ANC would continue to organise protests until the government said, “Let’s talk”. Then they would agree to talk. In March 1961, more than four years after the first arrests, the trial ended. ‘You are found not guilty,’ said the judge, ‘you may go.’ Outside the court the crowd danced and sang the national song of the ANC, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, ‘God bless Africa’, composed in 1897 in Xhosa, by a teacher in Johannesburg.

 

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Education remained at the forefront of the fight against apartheid, and in 1976 another protest erupted in another township, Soweto, when a government circular sent to black schools sought to change the medium of instruction from English to Afrikaans for all subjects except General Science and practical subjects such as woodwork, needlework and art. The attack by the Afrikaner apartheid state on the English language turned the ‘imperial’ language into the symbolic language of liberation and equality.  What followed also served as proof to the world of the immorality of the apartheid state, though it took another fifteen years for it to be brought to an end by a combination of internal and external pressure. Just three years later, we were stood on a picket line outside the headquarters of the Welsh Rugby Union in Cardiff, protesting against the visit of the so-called ‘multi-racial’ South African Barbarians. It was difficult to believe that two years after the beating to death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko (Donald Woods had just published his smuggled biography), there was this widespread pretence that it was possible to play normal sporting matches with a country whose whole society was abnormal. If south Wales could welcome such a flagrant flouting of UN sanctions, Mrs Thatcher would have no difficulty in propping up the apartheid regime. Neither did she.

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In Conclusion: Imperialism and Apartheid

Whatever our view of British imperialism in southern Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and although it was far from innocent in its treatment of the Africans and Afrikaners under its rule, there is clearly only a very tangential ideological link, if any, to the state which was brought into being in 1948. Though the descendants of British settlers may have acquiesced in the creation of a racist state for their own selfish reasons, it is also impossible to ignore the role of British missionaries, over generations, in helping to establish schools for native Africans and providing the English language education which eventually enabled them to find their voices as well as their feet. Throughout the period from 1837 to 1960, it was the determination of the Afrikaners to assert their racial predominance, supported by a heretical version of Calvinism, which established the ideology of apartheid at the centre of South African government, and kept it as the controlling concept of that state for over four decades.

 

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Sources:

Margaret Holmes (1986), A History of South Africa. Leeds: Development Education Centre.

Rowena Akinyemi (2008), Nelson Mandela. Oxford English: Oxford University Press. Read the rest of this entry »

Mandela and The Movement: Apartheid and Reconciliation   1 comment

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The BBC’s ‘veteran’ international correspondent, John Simpson, turns seventy next year. He is one of only two people on earth who were on hand to witness each of the following events of 1989-90: the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the quiet revolutions in Poland and Hungary, the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the violent overthrow of Ceaucescu in Romania and the release of Nelson Mandela. Between them, and the transition of power in the Soviet Union which took place in the following year, resulting in its final disintegration, these events have changed the individual lives of a majority of the human race. After Gorbachev came to power in the Kremlin, The African National Congress was warned by the senior Soviet diplomat in Lusaka in 1988 that it could no longer Moscow’s unconditional support. The Soviet agenda had switched from the expensive policies of confrontation to the cheaper ones of reconciliation. If it took the ANC leadership some time to come to terms with this change, it took the Pretoria government much longer. For years it had justified its internal policies on the basis of super-power rivalry, and used the language of a free market capitalist country surrounded by Communist enemies. For internal consumption, it emphasised the threat posed by the alliance between the ANC and the South African Communist Party. ‘Communism’ had been an illegal creed in South Africa since 1950 under an Act which defined it as any doctrine which aims at the bringing about of any political, industrial, social or economic change by the promotion of disturbance or disorder or by unlawful acts or omissions. The genuine fears of White South Africans about the threat of Communism were fed by extensive reporting of discoveries of arms originating from Eastern bloc countries. It was only when F.W. de Klerk took over the Presidency in 1989 that change became possible. The revolutions in Poland and Hungary seemed to the liberal-minded Foreign Secretary, Pik Botha, to be clear evidence that the USSR was no longer a global power and that the ideological ties between the ANC and the SACP  would be severely weakened now that Soviet-style Communism had failed. He persuaded de Klerk that it was now safe to proceed with fundamental reform of South Africa’s state ideology of apartheid, or separate development. At the beginning of 1990, De Klerk legalised both the ANC and the SACP, and offered negotiations to do away with the last elements of the ideology. Thus, the changes brought about by the Hungarian and Polish revolutions and by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union had led directly to a revolution in South Africa which was to prove just as profound, if not more so.  

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I have been trying to recall when I first learnt of the evil of apartheid, and I think it must have been at about the same time as I joined Peter Hain’s Young Liberals in 1974/5, during my final year in secondary school. We didn’t study the history of South Africa, or indeed that of the Twentieth Century World in school. I also did ‘A’ level General Studies, and I remember buying a briefing paper from the Council for Education in World Citizenship, whose New Year conference I attended. I also joined CND in 1975, and the Christian Pacifist organisation, The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), with whom I’ve recently reconnected via the fortieth Greenbelt Festival held at Cheltenham Race Course last summer (I attended the first of these in 1974). I still have a transcript of a lecture given for them at Hinde Street Methodist Church in London in February of that year. It was given by the West Indian Methodist Minister, Philip Potter, then serving as the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. He had been associated with the ecumenical movement for twenty-five years, working with the Student Christian Movement and the Methodist Missionary Society. At that time, the doctrine of the separate development of races was widely held among Protestant Christians in Britain, especially in the Powellite Black Country where I grew up, so for me the position of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa was nothing remarkable. After all, wasn’t that what the Old Testament was all about? Many people in the West Birmingham Baptist churches believed that God intended the races to live separate lives in different countries and continents. However, there was only one flaw in this pseudo-theological argument. In reality, colonialism and slavery had mixed everyone up, so a policy of repatriation seemed a non-starter, even if it were thought desirable and could be achieved voluntarily, with agreement about where people would be repatriated to. However, support for the policy was based on irrational prejudice, of course, since many working-class and middle-class whites felt threatened by the influx of large numbers of Caribbean people moving into the area, especially in Smethwick, where my father was a pastor, and where, to its infamy, openly racist councillors were elected. There was a good deal of unofficial segregation, even in the churches, with only a handful of black Christians attending our church, but dominating others. Even in the 1980’s, although black and white Baptists shared the same building, they held their services at different times, partly because the worship took differing forms. However, through gospel choirs, rock bands, sporting competitions and festivals of arts, integration slowly took hold and, though racist remarks were still regularly heard in both formal and informal gatherings, by the mid-eighties there were no longer signs in shop windows saying ‘no blacks’ or ‘blacks need not apply’. Younger people went to school with Greek Orthodox Cypriots, liberal and orthodox Jews, Polish Catholics, Punjabi Sikhs and Pakistani Muslims, as well as Caribbean Christians. We therefore couldn’t really understand what the fuss and fears were all about.   For me, against this backdrop, Philip Potter defined Apartheid South Africa very clearly and theologically, but in the context of the institutionalized colonial and racial oppression which also continued to exist at that time in Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia, and Namibia:

The whole legal, economic political and even religious structure is directed to one aim – the separation of whites from blacks, in a manner which deprives the blacks of any meaningful existence.  And yet South Africa, to name one of these countries, is rich in gold, diamonds, the purest and most coveted uranium in the world, and in industries. I do not need to inform you that the system is maintained by foreign investment (58% of which comes from the United Kingdom), by the sale of arms from European countries under the guise of the defense of the Indian Ocean, and by white immigration. There is no shortage of evidence pointing, without a shadow of a doubt, to the ways in which we are all involved in maintaining the institutionalised violence of the system. In fact, this country carries a very heavy responsibility for creating the situation in South Africa as well as Rhodesia. We Christians have no difficulty in speaking out against racism, in making protests and in encouraging people, especially privileged whites, to work for change and for overcoming the separation, apartheid, which has become intolerable. But have we fully recognised our responsibility for what has happened and is happening, and imaginatively and wholeheartedly entered the struggle, alongside those who are oppressed, for their liberation and for the reunion of the separated? Here again, a fearful judgement awaits us all as the holocaust looms steadily larger.

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The holocaust which many expected, both inside South Africa and in the international community, did not happen, at least not on the scale anticipated by Oliver Tambo and other ANC leaders, exiled in Zambia. Nevertheless, there were trickles of blood, if not rivers, and these flowed regularly over the next fifteen years until Nelson Mandela’s release. As student leaders, we were horrified by the events which hit Soweto in 1976, not least because in Wales we were fighting our own non-violent campaign over the medium of education in our schools and colleges. We were horrified and further radicalized by the thought that students could be shot simply for demanding the right to be educated in the language of their choice rather than being forced to learn the language of their oppressors. This stirred up bitter collective memories of the legendary ‘Welsh Not’.  Ours was a civil rights campaign, but we understood the concept of linguistic apartheid only too well and the need to have the Welsh language recognised and promoted throughout the country, not just confined to certain ‘homelands’.

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We based our struggle on the non-violence practised by the Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the USA. It’s perhaps worth remembering that these civil rights for blacks in the US, including voting rights and an end to segregation in schooling and other walks of life, were only achieved after a decade-long struggle, from 1954 to 1964. When Mandela went to prison in 1963, King had not yet marched on Washington and proclaimed his ‘dream’ and only 6% of blacks in the Southern states were registered to vote. By the late sixties, blacks in the North could go to the same schools as whites, but many of them did not finish their education. Those who did could not find a job. They were segregated from whites by poverty, living in housing which was old and dirty, often with only one parent. King took his crusade against poverty to the great Northern city of Chicago, but was met by the violence of the police and from the poor whites he was trying to recruit through the slogan, Black and White Unite and Fight! Some black leaders did not agree with this, suggesting that he should only speak for black people, but he went on with his plan to lead a Poor People’s March on Washington. Segregation may have been ended, but integration of whites and blacks in a common cause was a long way from being achieved. When King made his speech in Memphis on 3rd April 1968, the Promised Land he was referring to was not simply a land for blacks, but for all the poor people of America, all the workers of the city who had gone on strike because they were badly paid. Most of these street-cleaners were black, but not all of them. On the evening following his speech, King was shot outside his hotel. Jesse Jackson, one of his young supporters, was the first to reach him and held him in his arms. He died in hospital an hour later, aged 39, eleven years younger than Nelson Mandela. Twenty-two years later, Jackson was, fittingly, one of the first to greet Mandela in Cape Town on his release from prison.

The British Secretary of State for Wales and S...

The former British Secretary of State for Wales and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Peter Hain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was privileged to have been active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement for fifteen years, from 1974 to 1989, and to meet Donald Woods and Peter Hain, as well hearing to hear Bishop Trevor Huddleston and Bishop Desmond Tutu speak in 1989. I also toured schools teaching about the history of South Africa, in conjunction with a Theatre-in-Education Project by the Big Brum Theatre Company in the late 1980s. Nelson Mandela was released three days before I flew to Hungary, to begin a new chapter in my peace and reconciliation work here, which is still unfinished. When I wasn’t packing, I was watching and recording the dramatic scenes from the TV, thinking that I might need them to teach with one day. This prophetic thought came true yesterday, with teenage students here who mostly had no idea who he was. In 1990, his release was, for me, another exciting chapter in the seismic events which had suddenly, finally swept Soviet-style Communism out of Central-Eastern Europe, no doubt enabling the scene of change to shift to Apartheid South Africa itself, as hardline in its anti-communist stance since 1947/8 as many of the Stalinist states had been in defending the line from Moscow.

Undoubtedly, it should be now freely admitted, many of Mandela’s former colleagues in the African National Congress, though never he himself (according to his statement in court), had also followed the line from Moscow until, after the events in Poland of the mid-eighties, not to mention elsewhere in Africa, it had become impossible to do so any longer. It is a mark of the power of Marxist ideology in southern Africa that many in the ruling Afrikaner National Party clung onto a creed of racial hatred and segregation long after it had been abandoned in the US and elsewhere, because they feared South Africa going falling prey to that ideology as Zimbabwe had done. But for Mandela, and controversially at that, it might well have done so. Certainly, in the seventies and eighties there were many ANC supporters in the UK, as well as in South Africa itself, who looked forward to a violent revolution leading to black majority rule and a Marxist state in which land and industry controlled by whites would be taken over and redistributed. The very fact that the ANC was engaged, however legitimately, in an armed struggle, meant that such views remained dominant until Mandela’s release in 1990, a major factor in his refusal to abandon the armed struggle immediately. To do so would have led to a dramatic split in the ANC, and the destruction of any prospect of a negotiated settlement with the régime. In the three decades of Mandela’s imprisonment, the ANC, banned in South Africa, also had to meet clandestinely in Britain, in trade union offices, under constant surveillance from BOSS, the South African Secret Service and Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. In the euphoria of Mandela’s release it was easy to forget, and in the current atmosphere of adulation even more so, that he was almost certainly arrested and put on trial on information supplied by the CIA, and that Mrs Thatcher regarded him and the ANC as terrorists akin to those she banned and gagged in Northern Ireland for twenty years. History may remind us all of these uncomfortable facts in due course.

It may also remind us of the fact that many others in the political and cultural establishments actually fought against the Anti-Apartheid Movement, to their shame. These included politicians of all parties in south Wales and the Welsh Rugby Union, who broke the sanctions called for by both the ANC, the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee and the Commonwealth Secretariat. I can well remember standing on picket lines watching in horror as comrade socialists I had known for years crossed picket lines I was on to attend official receptions for the unofficial South African Barbarians Team, touring south Wales in 1979/80. Their excuse, presumably to this day, was that sport should not be made to pay for political systems, and that, in any case, there were a couple of black players in the touring team. Some of those who crossed the line were fellow historians, and to me their actions were worse than the England Football team who saluted Nazism in Germany in 1938. Hitler had not been there at the time, and they were acting under orders from a British government bent on appeasement. Kristallnacht had not yet happened. Just forty years later, Mrs Thatcher’s government was also bent on appeasing a government which had already committed atrocities against its own people, the defenceless school students of Soweto in 1976. However, the decision to become pawns in this new policy of appeasement was made by the Welsh Rugby Union and those for whom Rugby was more important than opposing Racism. Nevertheless, as the Press Secretary of the South Wales Campaign Against Racism in Sport, a broad organisation which included both communists and conservatives, ANC exiles and Welsh students and sportsmen, I condemned the spilling of carpet tacks on the Newport pitch where the tourists were due to play their first game. In the face of opposition from the WRU, we couldn’t afford to alienate both the Wales TUC and its Rugby-loving officials and members, and we had no idea who had been responsible for this action. When I picked up Peter Hain from Cardiff Central Station for what I think was his first visit to south Wales (I had previously known him as leader of the Young Liberals in England), he was quickly aware that any tampering with the Fields of Praise would go down even less well in the valleys than digging up the hallowed Cricket pitches of Yorkshire, even if we felt that this were justified in stopping such tours. To paraphrase Bill Shankly, Rugby wasn’t a matter of life and death in Wales at that time: It was far more important! Peter understood that. No doubt this sensitivity to local ‘territory’ later helped him to impress the Wales TUC and become Labour MP for Neath and Secretary of State for Wales. Looking back on these events with such wry smiles, I feel proud that my actions in support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement while a student President earned NUS Wales (UCMC) the unofficial title ‘NUS South Africa’ among the Young Tories of Aberystwyth and Bangor, as well as among some more parochially-minded Welsh Nationalists. Of course, like the Welsh Labour Establishment and the London Tory Hierarchy of that time, they are all now busily re-writing their roles in freeing Mandela and ending Apartheid. All but a handful of Tory MPs and ministers were happy for Mandela to rot in gaol for twenty-seven years; now they’re all trying to jump on the freedom train as it leaves the station, push their way to the engine and sit in the driving seat, pretending have always been in control and to know exactly where it was heading. Real History, written in thirty years time, will not absolve them I’m afraid.

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Reel’ History was made out of another event of that year of 1979/80, when Donald Woods came to Swansea, at the invitation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Woods was the white editor of an important’ liberal newspaper who had been banned by the government in Pretoria. At that stage, he was a journalist, little-known in Britain, who had managed to get out of South African house arrest to publish a book, a year earlier, on the life, and death in custody of the black political leader, Steve Biko. Of course, everyone now knows their story through the film, Cry Freedom, starring Kevin Kline and Denzil Washington. The second time I met him, in Birmingham, ten years later, the film had been widely screened, and he quipped that his wife had asked if she could swap the real Donald Woods for the Hollywood actor! Apart from the difference in appearances, Woods said that the film gave a truthful account of what really happened. It was based on his biography of Biko (1978) and Asking for Trouble: The Autobiography of a Banned Journalist (1980), which he was working on when he visited Swansea. After living in London for many years, Woods was able to return to South Africa in the nineties, training black journalists as part of a project called the Steve Biko Memorial Bursary. In the late seventies and early eighties, it was Biko who, partly through Woods’ book, was the best-known figure in the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, and the film Cry Freedom helped to raise the demands for the release of Mandela and the other ANC prisoners. In 1988 there were Free Nelson Mandela concerts and meetings at which Donald Woods, Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu spoke.

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In 1997, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa questioned five security policemen who were involved in Biko’s death. They admitted hitting him and chaining him to the security bars of his cell for twenty-four hours. Peter Jones, who was arrested with Biko in 1977 and who survived eighteen months in prison, spoke on behalf of Biko’s family. On the 12th September 1997, there was a national commemoration of Biko’s death on its twentieth anniversary. Thousands attended the unveiling of a statue at the East London City Hall by President Nelson Mandela. The main bridge over the Buffalo river nearby was renamed the Steve Biko bridge, so Biko will probably remain the best-remembered victim of the apartheid régime. The Soweto Uprising and Biko’s murder marked a clear turning point for apartheid South Africa. Before 1976/77, the leaders of Afrikanerdom had never doubted that the country could continue along the same lines as the founders of the Republic had laid down, given a degree of flexibility. After this period, only the most extreme conservatives would stand by the system of apartheid. Everyone else would look for ways of ditching it. The fall of Communism in central-Eastern Europe in 1989 provided that opportunity.

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Nevertheless, like Biko, Nelson Mandela would never allow his name to be separated from the movement for black liberation, which he believed could only be achieved through the armed struggle of the ANC. That was why he had been imprisoned in 1963, and even on his release he was unequivocal about this, to the consternation of  many white politicians, who put pressure on President De Klerk for his re-internment. He had given his comrades a promise in a message to the United Democratic Front five years previously:

Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts… I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.

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Nelson Mandela had spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years as a prisoner on Robben Island, a few miles from the shoreline of Cape Town, in Table Bay. His prison number was 0221141011, and he was held in Cell 7 in Section B of the high security block, where the leaders of the various black political organisations were held. The cell was nine feet square. The warders were often harsh and brutal, though they never used physical violence against Mandela himself. Conditions were hard, but Mandela had been a boxer in his youth, and knew how to keep fit. He would rise at 4 a.m. and meditate deeply. Then he would do a series of exercises and, when the doors were opened at 7 a.m, he would sprint around the courtyard, skip and shadow-box for an hour. For many prisoners who did time on the island it was an essential part of their political education and development, a kind of university. Mandela was known to his fellow prisoners by his tribal name, Madhiba, and was the central figure in Section B. As a lawyer, he would be visited by many prisoners with various personal and familial problems, but the most important work he did was political. He worked to defuse the conflicts which frequently exploded into violence between the leaders of the various black nationalist groupings housed in his section. One of the leaders of the Pan Africanist Congress, Japhta Masemola, was a strong antagonist of the ANC, but he established a strong friendship with Mandela, of whom he said:

Mandela is a gentleman in the true sense of the word. It doesn’t matter if you differ, he is always polite. He never gets angry. All he will do is try to have the discussion as amicable as possible.

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Mandela studied hard, reading newspapers carefully, including those in Afrikaans, a language he learnt well in order to understand his captors, then his enemies, by asking them about their families and conversing with them on everyday subjects. He had access to the prison library and read every book he could find on political economy. At the same time he studied for a law degree. He also cultivated a garden around the edges of the prison courtyard, growing melons, tomatoes and cucumbers, making fertiliser from bones given to him by the prison kitchen.

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By the time he was sent to Pollsmoor prison on the mainland in 1982 he had won the respect of the various factions of African Nationalism which he might not have reached if he had merely been in exile, like his comrade Oliver Tambo, isolated from other opinions other than those in the mainstream ANC. For the world outside South African politics he had become a symbol of the refusal of Pretoria’s refusal to treat with the majority community. Even Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, although viewing the ANC as essentially a terrorist organisation, committed to armed struggle, had to admit that Pretoria could not be a normal partner in the political process until Mandela was freed. His imprisonment became a powerful symbol for the imprisonment of non-whites generally in South Africa. While he remained locked away, it would be impossible to achieve the normalisation of any form of relations with what clearly remained an abnormal society. Nevertheless, for many years he himself did not expect to be released, and he had long come to terms with the apparent reality that he would die in gaol.

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BBC correspondent, John Simpson, was in South Africa at the time of Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison, near Paarl, and reported on how his tall figure and impassive face rode serenely on the surface of all the excitement and noise and turbulence around him. By now he was thin and fragile, mostly white-haired, looking nothing like the photos of twenty-five years earlier which the world’s press had continued to use in the absence of more recent ones. Despite this, his face was relatively unlined, as if the years in prison had sheltered him from the worries of the world outside. Nevertheless, it was hard not to think that he had been released ten years too late to become an effective, energetic leader. Like Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, at seventy-one he could only hope to play a transitional, symbolic role, working to heal the anger and violence created by the lingering apartheid years.

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Meanwhile, these years of acting as a political figure in her own right had damaged Winnie Mandela’s reputation. When she had returned from her period of banning to Soweto in the mid-eighties, she had gathered around her a group of young thugs, who played together as ‘Mandela United’ and acted as her personal bodyguard. They became involved in the vicious factionalism of the time, kidnapping a group of activists, including a fourteen-year-old boy, Stompie, holding them prisoner and torturing them at her Soweto home. Stompie was murdered after the police were informed of the beatings in which it was claimed she herself had participated. The team coach was tried for Stompie’s murder, and eight members of the team were charged with kidnapping and assault. In 1986 she had alienated many of her supporters by giving public approval to the ‘necklace’ killing of those suspected of collaborating with the police. Tyres filled with petrol were hung around the victims’ necks and set alight. She also tried to sell a ‘franchise’ on the Mandela name to an American publicist, a move which was blocked by the ANC and Nelson Mandela himself. She seemed to have become a liability to their cause and, now her husband was now back home, she had lost her role as his mouthpiece to the world. She told a journalist soon after his release, that she would have to get used to cooking again!

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John Simpson wrote that what he saw in the Soccer City stadium in Soweto in the hot February sun of 1990 was the third of three changes of fortune that he had never expected to be able to see: people dancing on the Berlin Wall, Alexander Dubcek speaking again in Wenceslas Square, and now Nelson Mandela singing Nkosi sikilelel’ iAfrika as a free man. In his speech, Mandela called for the children to go back to school, for an end to crime and an end to violence in Natal and Cape Town:

The hijacking and setting alight of vehicles are criminal acts that have no part in our struggle. Our victories must be celebrated in peace and joy…  The fears of whites about their place in a South Africa they do not control must be addressed. As I said in 1964 I say again now: We are opposed to black domination. We must show our goodwill, show that a South Africa without apartheid will be a better home for all… We appeal to all those who out of ignorance joined in the call for apartheid. No one who abandons apartheid will be excluded from our movement… Let not a single hair be hurt, not a single window be broken when you leave this place…

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Nevertheless, these appeals for moderation went largely unnoticed by the white press, even that of liberal persuasion. It had been too shocked by the call he made in Cape Town for the ‘armed struggle’ and international sanctions to continue. In London, Mrs Thatcher had cancelled a press conference in a fit of pique at this. It had been assumed that Mandela had already conceded these policies in exchange for his release. The liberal whites felt a sense of betrayal and a sudden diminution in their earlier somewhat euphoric sense that here was the man who could lead them into a new, non-racial country. On the right, there were exaggerated fears of impending violence and a renewed belief that, in the ANC, they were still dealing with a Revolutionary Marxist organisation intent on seizing power and establishing a one-party dictatorship. Four days later, at a huge Conservative Party rally, the swastika flags and SS symbols of the AWB appeared in the crowd, though those carrying them were politely asked to leave by the organisers. However, they did not do so, but politely listened to the leader of the Conservatives, Dr Andries Treurnicht, before beginning the chant ‘kill de Klerk!’ and ‘kill Mandela!’

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The Conservative Party had become the authentic voice of white fears of a black take-over of power. Although a minority party in Parliament, they were starting to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the Afrikaner population in the wake of Mandela’s release. Out of five million white voters, three million were Afrikaners: the traditionally more liberal English-speakers were about two million. The National Party had maintained its power since 1948 because of this imbalance, but now it was moving towards racial equality itself, it would have to depend on the votes of liberal Afrikaners and English-speaking whites in order to survive. President de Klerk was also in danger of losing the support of the police forces, 80% of whom were reported to be switching their allegiance to the Conservatives. Seven blacks had died in custody in the month leading up to and following Mandela’s release, revealing that the SAP had lost none of its instinct for brutality since the death of Steve Biko. They continued to use beatings, water torture and electric shock ‘treatment’ against dissident blacks.

011Even so, as John Simpson reported, blacks were slowly winning back cities like Johannesburg. He concluded his visit by returning to Rosebank, the white shopping area of twelve years earlier. Advertisements aimed at the new black middle classes, particularly women, were everywhere. When the whites started heading home at five o’ clock, black people started converging on the centre. They were now looking at the Yves Saint Laurent clothes and sitting down at the tables outside the Oxford Milk Bar. By five-thirty, there wasn’t a white face to be seen. Black Africa, at last, had come to Rosebank shopping centre.  

Philip Potter’s conclusion to his 1974 lecture points out that we cannot become instruments of reconciliation without first experiencing the full force of separation, just as Jesus experienced it in crucifixion, and as Mandela did among the separated of Robben Island. It is only in the weakness of self-giving that the power of love can release the healing, reconciling love of God. Forgiving is the most searching test of the power of love. Power as the capacity to release something new, unexpected, creative, as part of our inescapable relations with others, and love as self-giving for others, are manifested in forgiving. In old English, the prefix ‘for’ implied intensive force, pressure applied in excess, all over, extremely, overwhelmingly. To forgive therefore means to give overpoweringly, through and through. To fallen human nature, vengeance is the natural course of action to take in matching injury to injury, of violence by violence, of oppression by oppression, of hatred by hatred. However, it is not an action, it is a reaction. It is not creative, life-affirming or life-promoting, but destructive, life-denying and life-discouraging. Forgiveness is therefore the clearest evidence of the power of love. It gives us the possibility of starting afresh and beginning something new. The apostle Paul puts it like this:

When anyone is united in Christ, there is a new world, a new act of creation; the old order is gone, the old life is over; and a new order, a new life has already begun. (2 Cor. 5:17).

Paul’s reference to the oikoumenethe Greek word meaning ‘the whole inhabited earth’, has the sense not just of human beings of every ethnic group, nation, tribe, religion and culture, but also of ‘the whole created order’ of plants and animals. So we are called to overcome separation and segregation, or the apartheid of the old world with the overwhelming power of love which can reconcile all things in a new natural order. In this new order there are no longer any dividing walls, and only the cowardly, the faithless, the murderers, the abusers and the liars will be excluded from the new polis, or city (Rev. 21-22). Therefore, those who do nothing in the ongoing struggle against apartheid  in the world, and those who willingly and ruthlessly distort, exploit, torture and destroy human beings will be excluded from the new political order.

So, we must continue to make a choice between the love of power which produces, reproduces and maintains separation, leading ultimately to death; or the power of love, which endeavours and endures for the breaking down of walls, whether in Berlin or Belfast, Judea or Johannesburg. The power of love is hope in action, for the reunion of the oikoumene, for the shared life of the open city. Love and politics are two words which do not fit easily together in this world, except perhaps in the lives of exceptional leaders like Nelson Mandela. They will in the next. Is it time we raised them on our banners, the standards of an endless movement against all forms of apartheid and for global reconciliation? Perhaps because we use an Afrikaans word, it is too easy for us to associate it with the past of one country, or one corner of one continent on earth, rather than with the almost permanent segregation which some still find themselves, like the Roma peoples of a another country and  another corner of another continent. Owning this once-hated word might be a means by which we own up as people and peoples to the ways we separate and segregate ourselves from our fellow humans and, in sinful disobedience, from God’s oikoumene.

Sources and Resources (for teachers):

John Briley (1989, 2008), Cry Freedom. Oxford: OUP, Oxford Bookworms (simplified edition).

Rowena Akinyemi (2008), Nelson Mandela. Oxford: OUP, Oxford Bookworms (Factfiles).

Philip Potter (1974), The Love of Power or The Power of Love. New Malden: Fellowship of Reconciliation.

John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades: An Eye-Witness Account of the Revolutions that Shook the World, 1989-90. London: Hutchinson.

Margaret Holmes & Nigel West (1986), A History of South Africa. Leeds: Development Education Centre (extract below).

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