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Three Lives In A Fraught Century

The history of 'Great Men' is rightly frowned upon. Intelligent adults know that behind every 'great man' is more than (even) a great woman, rather they are the products of vast, diverse and complex movements. Individuals, no matter how impressive, can play only in their context. On the other hand, individuals that stand out on the page allow us to personalise history. As the 21st century breaks, I wanted to offer you a concise look back at South Africa's twentieth century. For the sake of simplicity I have thus chosen the lives of three people that, in my mind, characterise South Africa's twentieth century.

As one looks for 'great twentieth century South Africans' across the disciplines of society (but, for a moment, excluding politics and music) there are so many well-known names to choose from: JM Cotzee, Nadine Gordimer, Laurens van der Post, Raymond Dart, William Kentridge, Ernest Oppenheimer, Gary Player, Sir Basil Scholand, Chris Barnard.. and many more. But all of these people listed have one thing in common.. they were/are 'white'. Reviewing the century one is drawn irresistibly to one overriding and obvious dominant issue - the politics of race relations. In this regard three men structure this century in my mind - Jan Smuts, who reconciled whites but neglected blacks, Hendrik Verwoerd, the icon of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela the harbinger of South African democracy. Here goes…

Our story begins in 1900, South Africa is at war. Britain tries to subdue her former subjects, living in independence across the Orange River, and annex the mighty Witwatersrand gold reef. The separatists are whites of continental descent, known as Afrikaners. A Cambridge educated Afrikaner lawyer called Jan Smuts, 31 years old and a tough-minded pragmatist with a vision for grand strategy, raises the Afrikaners within the British Cape Colony in rebellion. His daring expeditions rub salt into the painful wounds of the closing war, which Britain wins, but without honour.

As so often in history, Britain won the war but lost the peace. Smuts, with his elder General Louis Botha, pursue détente with the British after the war. They negotiate self-government and, in 1910, the Union of South Africa (the modern South African state). Britain's acquiescence leaves a national political system dominated by the majority Afrikaners, with the old Afrikaner states maintaining a 'whites only' franchise, and pays war reparation of £3 million. Pleased by the peace, Smuts and Botha promote the idea of 'the British Federation of African states' and lead South Africa into the First World War on the side of the allies. South African troops seize German South-West Africa (now Namibia - which remained under South African control until 1988) and fight in East Africa and Europe. Smuts became SA Prime Minister in 1917.

Smuts' faithfulness to Britain, particularly in the first and second world wars (where he was an Allied Field Marshall) help to reconcile the English and Afrikaner communities in South Africa after the horrors of their war. He established South Africa as an honourable member of the British Commonwealth, and he played a substantial role in the formation of the League of Nations and the United Nations, helping to draft its charter.

Significantly, however, Afrikaner 'poor whites' never embraced Smuts' pro-British policy. The former Afrikaner General JBM Hertzog, among others, formed the National Party in 1914 to give leadership to these disgruntled Afrikaners. They supported Germany in both world wars, leading a failed pro-German rebellion in 1914. Smuts was prone to use violence. He harshly put down strikes by white artisans and miners who were expressing their sense of insecurity, particularly in 1922. All of this helped the National Party promote a radical Afrikaner nationalism among 'poor whites', and it grew in popularity, especially as blacks competed for jobs and the Great Depression set in.

Smuts also did not implement the high liberal ideals he promoted abroad. In 1913 the Native's Land Act reserved 93% of land for white ownership. A system of Pass laws restricted black's freedom of movement. The African National Congress, formed in 1912 was not given a political platform and blacks remained dis-enfranchised.

Unable to counter the growing popularity of Hertzog's National Party during the Great Depression, Smuts lost power during the 1930s and only returned as wartime leader in 1939. The National Party implemented sweeping laws to restrict black migration to urban areas. They nationalised industries to create jobs for poor Afrikaners. These changes ever more discriminated against blacks in favour of Afrikaners and young leaders in the ANC, among them Nelson Mandela, formed the ANC Youth League to radicalise the organisation.

After the war, in 1948, the National Party swept back to power under the leadership of a Dutch Reformed Minister DF Malan. Smuts died two years later. Malan articulated a systematic policy of Afrikaner nationalism called 'apartheid'. There would be 'separate development' for the races. Whites would be the ruling class. In 1949 mixed race marriage was outlawed. The suburbs and land of the country was divided into (unequal) 'group areas'. Race was defined by the Population Registration Act, by which all South Africans were classified and identified. Homelands were established for blacks, according to old ethnic divisions, under 'white guardianship'. Pass laws were tightened and harshly enforced to restrict black access outside the homelands.

The minister of Native Affairs, and from 1958, Prime Minister, was Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd. Dutch by birth, he was educated in Freiburg, Germany, in the 1930s. During the war he promoted Nazi propaganda in South Africa. Unusually intelligent and imperious, he believed in apartheid not merely as a policy for Afrikaner upliftment, but as an ideology. He drove through apartheid policies and presided over their relentless implementation on the black population. His Bantu Education Act made it very plain blacks should not be educated 'above the level of certain forms of labour'.

Most disconcertingly, Verwoerd's passion for apartheid - and his lasting impact - was not to promote or defend it as a self-serving policy, but as a positive ideology. With religious overtones and fervour, he communicated this and inspired a too-willing white population to embrace apartheid as a logical and moral solution to race relations. Verwoerd inculcated in South Africans a belief that those who opposed apartheid or criticised it either misunderstood the policy or were dangerous communists.

Verwoerd's grand plan was simple. Under white leadership the homelands would be lead towards 'self-determination' and enjoy 'separate freedoms'. The separated tribes would become nations and ultimately, there would be no such thing as a 'black South African', instead white South Africa would give leadership to various small black states south of the Limpopo River. This he proposed would be for the good of all and promote black development.

Thus, with zeal, Verwoerd pursued systematic apartheid. Every bench, beach, park, toilet, sports team was categorised by race group. Areas like Sophiatown - reclassified white - were destroyed and their residents hauled off in trucks. Protestors were met with violence. In march 1960, in Sharpeville, an anti pass-law demonstration was shot at by police. 69 were killed (mostly from behind) and 180 wounded. The ANC and other organisations were banned. Detention without trial was introduced - first of 90 days and then 180 days. Verwoerd pressed on, ultimately 317 statutory restrictions were introduced based on pigmentation. He also broke links with Britain and declared South Africa a Republic in 1961.

Donald Woods, the South African editor, described Verwoerd as 'courteous, friendly, smiling' but beneath 'there was a chilling madness in his demeanour'. Harold Macmillan - whose speech 'the Winds of Change' in the Cape parliament fell on deaf ears - stayed several days with Verwoerd prior to the great speech. 'I have seldom met a couple with greater charm than Dr Verwoerd and his wife' he wrote, but he also discovered that under Verwoerd's 'calm and measured tone' and 'his charming smile, his courtesy, his willingness to expound his views' he found 'nothing one could say.. would have the smallest effect upon the views of this determined man.. here it was a blank wall.' Macmillan continued 'I began to realise to the fullest extent the degree of obstinacy, amounting really to fanaticism.. apartheid to him was more than a political philosophy, it was a religion; a religion based on the Old Testament rather than the New.. he was convinced {that} he alone could be right, and that there was no question of argument but merely a statement of his will.'

Verwoerd survived as assassination attempt in 1960 (which helped to deify him further) but was killed by a Greek immigrant in 1966. His spirit, however, lived on for twenty years, inspiring his successors, the devious John Vorster, and the crude rule of PW Botha. More than that, it lived on in the hearts of many white South Africans until FW de Klerk undid their faith in the 1990s. This obstinate spirit was characterised by a sense of self-righteousness, being misunderstood by the outside world and anger against black resistance to their 'guardianship'. All of this translated into violence under the guise of civilised law enforcement, which drove black leaders into exile and the ruthless quenching of any internal opposition. Protestors were bludgeoned and many activists died mysterious deaths in 'detention' supposedly 'slipping on soap'. Only recently have the true stories begun to emerge.


Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in the rural Eastern Cape. His book 'long walk to freedom' documents his life admirably. His role in our story begins in 1963, as 'accused No. 1' in the great Rivonia Trial. He faced the death penalty for plotting sabotage. Having evaded arrest for many months (he was called 'the black pimpernel') he had already had a high profile. His stirring statement from the dock wrote him into ANC folklore 'I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die'. The judge would not rise to the bait, and sentenced Mandela to life in prison.

During the long years, many with hard labour, on Robben Island and elsewhere, Mandela's fame grew inexorably. He became a symbol. The fact that even his picture was banned in South Africa and he was locked up, incommunicado, on a prison island, inflated the fascination with this eloquent, tall and dignified member of the ANC. By the 1980s 'Free Mandela' was the stuff of huge Wembley benefit concerts and a slogan synonymous with the end of apartheid.

Mandela himself worked hard on Robben Island to improve the unity and thinking of his fellow inmates. The self-styled 'University of Robben Island' challenged them all to think soberly about the best outcome for South Africa. Finally in 1987, unknown to his fellow inmates (whom he knew would object) Mandela requested private talks with the government. It was a bold move. By this time the situation in the country was that of a vicious military state and 'low-intensity civil war'. The riots of 1976 in Soweto led on to the mass activism of the 1980s, where the angry youth aimed to make the townships 'ungovernable'. Mandela, now 70, sought a negotiated settlement before the country spun into full-blown civil war. Mandela's aim was national reconciliation, and he knew he had to take the ANC and the government along with him. Over the course of three years Mandela held twelve secret meetings in prison with the justice minister Kobie Coetzee. Mandela was separated from the other inmates and given a private prison-cottage.

When the hard-line president, PW Botha had a stroke in 1989 the formerly conservative FW de Klerk stepped into power. A lawyer by training and a shrewd politician, de Klerk's aim appears to have been to seize the moral high ground, pursue long-drawn negotiations, and try to split the ANC and win a democratic election. At the very least he aimed to safeguard white interests. Thus, at the opening of Parliament, February 1990he dramatically announced an end to apartheid, unbanned political parties and released political prisoners. His actions took the world by storm, de Klerk was regarded as a peacemaker and a still dignified but much older Mandela walked to freedom a few days later.

For four years negotiations faltered. The government presided over (orchestrated??) a terrible descent into inter-fractional township violence. But, chiefly under Mandela's influence the ANC held together and black opposition remained moderate. Even after the assassination of youth leader Chris Hani, Mandela managed to sooth passions and maintain the focus upon a negotiated non-racial, democratic South Africa. Conciliatory and forceful, as the situation demanded, he manoeuvers the government into keeping their promises and finally, April 27 1994, South Africans of all colours and creeds joined long queues to vote. Not a single crime was reported in the country on that day.

President Mandela led a government of national unity and popularised Tutu's phrase 'the rainbow nation'. He signed into effect a new constitution guaranteeing the freedoms of all, irrespective of race, gender or creed. He reached out to Afrikaners, famously flying to a rural town to have tea with an elderly widow, Mrs Verwoerd.

He became the first African leader to relinquish power after one term in office, and although in his 80s he is now involved in international peace talks, particularly in Burundi. He has brought honour, unity and dignity to South Africa in the place of callousness, division and shame.

 


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