I didn’t spend very long in South Africa and never lived there. At the time, now more than 40 years ago, I was resident on the other side of the Limpopo River in the then rebel colony of Rhodesia, another ratty faux-jewel in the tatty imperial crown.
Neither did I meet Nelson Mandela. When I was in South Africa in 1969 he had been in jail for seven years. That had become eight years when I was again there in late 1970. He was really only just beginning the long stretch that would eventually see him incarcerated for 27 of his 95 years of life.
It was an abomination then. It remains so to this day. And while it is true that setting bombs is irretrievably a terrorist act, and that it is not possible to have any truck with terrorists, it is also sensible to examine the circumstances that created that terrorism.
It is wrong to kill people, especially innocent people by means of cowardly terrorism. But it is equally wrong to create, or acquiesce in the creation of, conditions that considered appraisal, to say nothing of common sense, would show might spark a desperate terroristic response.
This was always the view of Helen Suzman, the courageous Progressive Party MP for Hillbrow in Johannesburg that was arguably the most liberal constituency in the then effectively whites-only South African parliament. Suzman was also an inspiration to many. And she was right. Unless you have a racist cast to your mind, you cannot deny rights to others that you demand for yourself, and you cannot argue with demography.
This was the view too of many liberal Afrikaners I met (and was impressed by) over that time. The words liberal and Afrikaner are not mutually exclusive. It is sad, though perhaps it was politically and socially unavoidable, that in the fractious years to follow, liberal Afrikaner voices were not heard to full effect beyond the Republic’s borders.
No doubt had I instead been party to conversations on farms deeply remote in the veldt of middle South Africa, or attended a brai (barbecue) in Bloemfontein, I would have heard a different nuance. The urban Afrikaners I met – and with whom I most certainly connected – would perhaps have felt as misplaced as I in Eugene Terre’Blanche territory.
It is irredeemably sad that the 20 years between my leaving southern Africa and the long overdue delight of Nelson Mandela’s eventual release from prison in 1990, were years in which the situation sharply polarized. It certainly got worse before it got better.
Yet what Mandela was able to do by moral force – first from his cell on bleak Robben Island and later from the summit of power as South Africa’s first black president – was an inspiration. It inspired not only me (someone who was in no way an active part of South Africa’s internal debate) but those, some of them still known to me, who stayed in their country and argued for justice and human rights.
Among them were many who if they saw you in the morning would say “goeie dag” and if at the end of the day “goeie nag” and not “good day” and “good night”. Unlike many English-speaking South Africans who had British passports or access to one in a funk, they had nowhere else to go. They had to take it on trust. They had to listen to their instincts and their conscience.
They are not heroes in the Mandela sense. No one is. But they were courageous and far-seeing people, willing to make essential life-changing compromises and who, like Mandela, no one should ever forget. Ek salueer julle!
*A Voice for All South Africa