by Tom Wooten, Harvard WorldTeach volunteer
Gordon Oliver still vividly remembers the night in 1948
when the National Party swept into power. He and his bunkmates at the Catholic
boarding school that he attended were awoken by a priest, who flipped the
lights on and exclaimed "the Nats have won the elections!" The priest
was distraught, but news seemed positive enough to nine-year-old Gordon. After
all, the National Party had promised to bring back white bread to South Africa.
This was certainly welcome news, because nothing but coarse brown bread had
been available for years due to war rationing.
At the time, Gordon didn't realize that the promise of "white bread"
implied a great deal more than giving South Africans tastier food for lunch.
The full meaning of the National Party's promise didn't become apparent to him
until three years later, when the nationalist government took away the right of
colored (mixed race) South Africans to vote in national elections. "I was
horrified that the government would declare people voteless," Gordon
recalls, "and from then on I read the newspapers avidly and took a very
young interest in politics."
Gordon would drift away from the Catholic Church during his teenage years, but
his devotion to politics would stand the test of time. In 1961, the nationalist
government floated a referendum asking voters to dissolve South Africa's ties
with the British Commonwealth. The referendum's passage would mark an even
greater shift away from moderate British politics and towards racist Afrikaner
nationalism, and for Gordon, such a shift would push South Africa across an
unacceptable racist threshold. The referendum spurred Gordon to join the
left-wing Progressive Party and devote himself wholeheartedly to political
pursuits. He didn't shy away from political grunt work, walking door-to-door in
Cape Town to mobilize voters against the referendum. Ultimately, the referendum
passed, but Gordon hadn't wasted his time; he had laid down a firm foundation
for a life devoted to fighting for justice and racial equality in South Africa.
| For years, the City Council representative from Gordon
Oliver's ward had been an old-guard United Party member. Gordon recalls that
"he was a good man," but that he "didn't have a lot between the
ears." The representative had become increasingly nationalistic over the
course of the early 1970's, and when he went up for reelection in 1976, Gordon
and his Progressive Party colleagues searched in vain for a candidate to oppose
him. This experience was quite frustrating for Gordon, so much so that he
decided to run for the seat himself in the next election cycle. Gordon's
affinity for hard work and his passionate devotion to his political beliefs
paid off; he canvassed his ward for ten months before the next election, and
won the vote easily.
Once on the council, Gordon immediately set to work on his anti-apartheid
agenda. Luckily for him, the council was already one of the most progressive
political bodies in South Africa. During the 1970's, for example, the City
Council vowed to openly oppose the national government's decision to strip
coloreds of their right to vote in municipal elections. Naturally, Gordon felt
right at home among his progressive peers. While the council's day-to-day
proceedings were focused on administering the city, this administrative
business frequently presented the council with opportunities to make political
statements. For example, the council's approval was required whenever the
national government attempted to reclassify the racial designation of a
residential area within Cape Town. Every time such a reclassification attempt
occurred, the council would not simply vote it down quietly. Instead, they
would drag out proceedings on the issue for hours, engaging in speech making
and inviting in the press, before ceremoniously defeating the measure.
The council's liberal tendencies did not win it universal favor among Cape
Town's black and colored populations. Many of Cape Town's disenfranchised
residents pointed out the hypocrisy of anti-apartheid politicians sitting on a
white-elected body. Gordon acknowledges that he and his fellow progressive
party members faced a "difficult dilemma" in this regard. His
decision to continue to participate in the unjust system reflects his firmly
pragmatic personality. "We would have had the option of resigning en mass
as a council," he recalls, "but [nationalist politicians] would have
taken our place." Indeed, the importance of maintaining a progressive City
Council becomes thoroughly apparent upon considering the groundbreaking reforms
that the council undertook.
Up until 1984, the Cape Town City Council did everything it could to resist
South Africa's apartheid system within the framework of national law. Then, at
the beginning of Gordon's second term, the council made an unprecedented
decision to actually defy the law. Specifically, the council took issue with
South Africa's Separate Amenities Act, which required municipalities to
maintain separate facilities for whites and "non-whites." The council
unilaterally declared Cape Town to be an open city, stating that all municipal
libraries, public transportation, beaches, and swimming pools were to be open
and available to every race group.
Gordon still wonders why the national government didn't intervene to counter
the council's action, but even without federal interference, the council still
had its hands full. In spite of its liberal tendencies, for example, the city's
white population was furious. Black children from Khayelitsha and other Cape
Flats townships came to the city's beaches in droves, and many of the city's
white "liberals" vehemently objected to being forced to share
"their" waterfront with blacks. The council weathered two years of
heavy criticism from city residents, but acceptance of Cape Town's "open
city" status finally took hold among its white population.
|The Road to
| During the 1980's, the Mayor of Cape Town had very little tangible power.
"The Mayor's role was purely ceremonial," recalls Gordon with a
chuckle. "It was a life of attending cocktail parties, receiving
and patting babies on the head." Because the Mayor's role
was merely that of a "First Citizen," not that of a chief executive,
the City Council elected the mayor from among its own ranks. Tradition dictated
that councilors would run against each other for Deputy Mayor, and once
elected, would run unopposed for Mayor two years later.
Gordon was elected Deputy Mayor in 1987, after promising several of the
council's more conservative members that he would not use the post for
political ends. During his two year term as Deputy Mayor, clashes between
government police and black demonstrators intensified, becoming an almost daily
occurrence. Cape Town's vast townships were the sites of much of this violence.
As his term as Mayor drew closer, Gordon felt an increasing desire to
"make [his] mayoralty relevant to the times." Gordon's promise to
stay out of national politics fell by the wayside, and he began to meet with
leaders of Cape Town's black community. At the beginning of each meeting, he
posed a simple question: what things could he do as mayor in order to assist
the black and colored communities in their struggle for racial equality?
"To a person," Gordon recalls, each one of them asked him to simply
"be with us in our struggle." Thus, during one of the most tumultuous
periods in South Africa's history, the up-and-coming mayor of Cape Town made up
his mind to openly defy the national government.
| Several days before Gordon's inauguration, seven
"terrorists" were shot by government police in the Cape Flats
township of Guguletu. An outpouring of grief and anger from the black community
ensued, which culminated in a massive memorial service held in downtown Cape
Town at St. George's Cathedral. Gordon had been inaugurated that morning, and
left his own reception luncheon early in order to to attend the service. He sat
down quietly in the back of the packed Cathedral, but was soon recognized and
brought to a seat of honor at the front of the congregation. As the service
concluded, Archbishop Desmond Tutu encouraged the mourners to join an illegal
protest march that was to occur the following week. Gordon didn't give this
request much thought until he was approached by a reporter, who asked him if he
planned to join the protest. Gordon quickly and confidently made up his mind,
replying that he would indeed join the march. "It wasn't an issue of
'should I' or 'shouldn't I,'" he remembers, "it was just the right
thing to do."
The next day, the Cape Times newspaper ran
a huge front-page headline reading "Defiant Mayor to March." Gordon's
phone rang nonstop all day. Even some of his fellow progressive City Council
members were appalled that he planned to openly break the law. Nonetheless,
Gordon held his ground. "I'm merely upholding council policy," he
told his fellow councilors, adding that council members "must stop being
armchair politicians." He confidently assured the council that the march
would be peaceful, although truthfully, he had no basis on which to give this
assurance When the phone calls subsided, Gordon set to work ensuring that the
march would be as peaceful as possible.
First, he met with Cape Town's Chief of Police, a gruff no-nonsense Afrikaner
whose orders came directly from the national government. Gordon pleaded with
him not to break up the march, insisting that the demonstrators would remain
peaceful if left unprovoked. The chief listened to Gordon, but made no
promises. Then, Gordon met with the ANC's march organizers, and ensured that
they would deploy uniformed marshals to keep the crowds under control. Gordon
had done his best, but the march's outcome remained far from certain.
Gordon was overwhelmed with joy when tens of thousands of demonstrators poured
peacefully fourth from St. George's Cathedral and for once, the government riot
police merely stood by and watched. Gordon walked among the marchers, and the
crowd parted ways for him as he made his way to City Hall. When he arrived,
Gordon addressed the crowd with a megaphone from his office balcony.
"Today," he exclaimed, "you all have the freedom of this
city!" From the crowd, Gordon heard overjoyed cries. "He's our
Mayor!" someone shouted. Another one called out "This is our
The importance of these sentiments cannot be underestimated. Blacks and
coloreds had been completely disenfranchised during apartheid, and as a result,
most had lost any sense that anything in the country was theirs. Many Cape
Townians, for example, never appreciated Table Mountain's beauty because of a
strong feeling that the beauty somehow belonged only to the whites. It was thus
truly momentous for black and colored Cape Townie's to feel as though they once
again enjoyed collective ownership of their city.
|The Winds of
| As his term progressed, Gordon frequently found himself
working as a liaison between the ANC and the national government. Marches and
confrontations continued unabated, and change was clearly afloat. No one,
however, expected reforms to come so quickly. On February 11th, 1990, Nelson
Mandela was released from prison after 27 years in detention. During the days
leading up to his release, the ANC had wavered over where Mandela should make
his first speech. Some argued that he should make the speech from his home in
Soweto, Johannesburg's giant black township. Ultimately, though, Cape Town was
chosen, in part because of its progressive stance as South Africa's "open
Gordon listened intently to reports from traffic police as Mandela's motorcade
made its way towards City Hall. The crowd surrounding the building was swelling
to enormous proportions, and it would be critical for Mandela to move quickly
into the hall in order to avoid being overwhelmed by swarms of enthusiastic
supporters. When his procession finally
arrived, Mandela was pushed from the vehicle by his aids, and Gordon greeted
him with a big hug before rushing him into the hall. The two men had never met,
but had written to one another during Mandela's years in prison.
Mandela made his way immediately to the same balcony from which Gordon had
addressed the rally months earlier. He began his speech by sending greetings
and thanks to many groups and individuals who had participated in the struggle
against apartheid. Among those he mentioned were the residents of Cape Town.
"I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has
been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle
have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners."
His speech went on set the reconciliatory tone that would ultimately save South
Africa. "The need to unite the people of our country is as important a
task now as it always has been," he declared. "The overwhelming
demand of our people for a democratic, non-racial and unitary South
Thus, in the twilight of his political career, Gordon Oliver was able to
witness the beginning of a new chapter in South Africa's history. His decades
of hard work had directly contributed to the miracle that was now unfolding
before his country's eyes.
| The Unitarian Church in downtown Cape Town is a friendly,
welcoming place at 9:30 on Sunday mornings. Service doesn't begin for another
half hour, but on this particular sunny late-August morning, parishioners are
already filling the small sanctuary. The churchgoers chat happily, greeting one
another and catching up on the previous week's events. Their minister, Gordon
Oliver, moves among them. He inquires about family members, laughs at his
congregants' jokes, and recruits people to read the passages that he's prepared
for the day's service. When the pipe organ begins to play, he gently chastises
his talkative congregation for not fully appreciating the music.
Gordon, who is now well into his seventh decade, is clearly happy and at peace
with his new life. The bulk of his congregation is aging, but new members are
trickling in. "We can't change everything right now, but we're on the
threshold of big opportunity," says Gordon. "Unitarianism is so right
for this country
there are millions out there seeking something other than
orthodoxy." Indeed, new black and colored faces have begun to appear among
this traditionally white congregation, testimony perhaps to the faith's
Gordon says that he became a Unitarian "for the wrong reasons, I
suppose." As Mayor, Gordon needed to appoint a chaplain. He was friends
with the Reverend Robert Steyn, Cape Town's Unitarian minister, but he had
never been to Steyn's church. Only after Gordon appointed Steyn as chaplain did
he begin to attend Unitarian services. "I found it was where I really
belong," recalls Gordon. When Steyn
passed away in 1997, Gordon
took it upon himself to fill his shoes. He volunteered for three years as the
congregation's unofficial minister, before beginning official schooling in
England. Today, Gordon is a full fledged minister. By his count, it's at least
his fifth full-time career. He shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
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