| 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
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
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
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!' ('
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.