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Learning From Experience

It was a Saturday night in January, a beautiful warm evening after a hot summer's day. I sat with eighteen students and staff from the Pacific Lutheran University, Washington State, in the leafy courtyard of the historic Josephine watermill. They were enjoying the opening days of a three-week educational tour I had prepared for them, exploring the contrasts and experiences South Africa offers. Tonight we would share a meal and hear Gordon Oliver, a former Mayor of Cape Town, speak about his political life.
Gordon Oliver speaking to the students
What a contrast this shady courtyard was to the oppressive heat of the day! The brightness of the sun reflecting on the concrete quay of Robben Island, the cramped bus, the bleak, harsh, flat island and its lifeless prison. Stories of injustice, oppression and violence. A small cell and just a mat for a bed - no dignity for the wise man who would one day become father of the new South Africa and lead her to peace. The tour had impressed upon the students the struggle of the poor majority, led by Nelson Mandela and others, against a brutal racist regime.

It is too easy to characterise the struggle for democracy in South Africa as a simple racial battle. Most people conformed, whether the prevailing mood in their community was to uphold or resist apartheid. On Robben Island the students had seen the moral courage of men like Sisulu, Mandela and Kathrada who spoke out and suffered decades imprisoned on the oppressive island for their commitment to freedom. Tonight I wanted them to meet a white South African who, from a very different background, also had the courage to fight apartheid.

When Gordon was a young man the apartheid government deprived the 'coloured community' (people of mixed racial descent) of the vote. Coloured people are the largest group in Cape Town, and their roots stretch back to the mixing of the first white settlers, their slaves and the indigenous KhoeSan people, for whom the Cape had been home for perhaps 100,000 years. Coloureds had lived shoulder to shoulder with whites for three hundred years and Gordon felt angered at the arrogance of the government seeking to separate and exclude them. This motivated him to join a liberal political party and support the many demonstrations that were held in the 1950s against disenfranchisement. As apartheid deepened, so did his political activity and in time he was elected a City Councillor.
'Coloured' flower seller in front of the Cape Town City Hall
In the early 1970s the government extended their policy and banned coloured people from the City Council. In response, the Council vowed to do everything they could to end apartheid in the city. Many laws were beyond their control: the Group Areas Act, the control of migrant labour, pass laws and job reservation. Nevertheless they defiantly declared Cape Town an 'open city' and did what they could: removing the 'Whites Only' signs of 'petty apartheid' that segregated the city beaches, buses, public parks and amenities. In so doing they directly opposed government policy and Cape Town became recognised as a liberal bastion. As tension increased in the country after 1976, the City leaders called on the government to allow Cape Town to pioneer a non-racist dispensation, to prove that it could work. But to no avail.

In the late 1980s political violence reached fever pitch. Many leading opposition leaders and organisations were based in Cape Town and the city saw angry confrontations between protestors and the security forces. It was during these hectic, desperate years that Gordon was elected Deputy Mayor and, in 1989, the Mayor of Cape Town. He made it clear that he opposed apartheid and upheld the rights of protestors. For this he was widely seen as a 'radical', lambasted in the press and treated with suspicion.

A few days before his Mayoral inauguration seven 'terrorists' were shot by the police in Guguletu township near Cape Town. Senior police have since confessed that they set-up and killed these young men for the sake of government propaganda. Desmond Tutu, then portrayed by the government as a dangerous communist, held a memorial service for the seven at St. George's Cathedral. It was the same day as Gordon's inauguration and he left quickly to join the service. The press were quick to pick up on this and his presence at the memorial caused an outcry.

At the service Tutu called on the people to join a march on Parliament scheduled a few days later. Gordon came under great pressure to distance himself from Tutu and the government administrator of the province called him in to warn him against 'misusing' his position. Nevertheless, Gordon marched arm in arm with the Archbishop and other leaders at the head of a march of 30,000 people.
Gordon holds up a letter from Nelson Mandela written to him from jail
In 1989 Gordon wrote to Nelson Mandela in prison, expressing his commitment to advancing the idea of Cape Town as an 'open city'. He asked if it would be possible to meet Mandela to discuss the idea. Gordon received a gracious, hand written response from Mandela, which he showed to us, but events were soon to move faster than anyone anticipated.

In February 1990 President F W de Klerk announced that Mandela would be released unconditionally. There was shock and great excitement. A 'reception committee' was quickly formed and Gordon anticipated that a crowd would gather in the city and made arrangements for Mandela to speak to the crowds. Sure enough a jubilant throng of 70,000 filled the Grand Parade in front of the City Hall on Sunday 11th February. Mandela's car could not get near the hall and eventually Gordon welcomed him at the back door and ushered him through the colonial building to the balcony where, in the fading light, Mandela raised his arm and in a low but strong voice spoke into the microphone. 'Amandla' (power), said the grey haired icon who had not been seen in 27 years, and the crowd jubilantly responded 'Awethu!' ('…to the people!'). Mandela then delivered a balanced, measured speech of the type that would help lead South Africa through the difficult, dangerous years to come.

We had listened rapt to Gordon's recollection of his political journey and of that momentous day in Cape Town's history when Nelson Mandela was set free. There was little time for more of Gordon's story, how he had become head of Cape Town Tourism and then co-ordinated the Parliament of World Religions in 1999 and his work today as a minister in the liberal-minded Unitarian Church. But after Gordon had sat down and we ate together under lanterns and stars, the students took their chance to quiz him about his experiences as a white person who fought the system, and his thoughts on the emerging 'new South Africa'.

Driving home I asked what had struck them most about the evening. Perhaps I expected them to say they had learned more about South African politics, or gained some insight into the intensity of the apartheid system, how it overwhelmed most people, or the excitement of revolution when it finally ended. But their response was all about Gordon himself, the humility and gentleness in his manner, and his courage to question his world and to live for what he believed, to speak out against injustice, in spite of pressure to keep quiet, and stand with those that fought oppression.

 


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