Reflections on South Africa
Watching BBC World’s excellent coverage of Nelson Mandela’s life, I remember calling my children to the TV in 1990 to witness his release from prison, truly history in the making. (The only other time I did that was for the overthrow of Ceausescu.) It’s interesting to see world leaders united in their well-deserved tributes to Mandela. It wasn’t always that way. His arrest in 1962 leading to the sentence of life imprisonment and hard labor is said by some, whom I’m inclined to believe, to be due to a tip supplied to the U.S. govt by an informant in Mandela’s inner circle. The U.S. then notified the South African police, who set up a roadblock to arrest him, disguised as a chauffeur. Ironically, JFK was in the White House at that time. The Cold War was raging, and the U.S. was very concerned about Soviet inroads in Africa. Mandela was labeled a terrorist with communist connections. (The latter was certainly true. ) Stability in South Africa was im portant to the U.S. for many reasons, including the U.S. Navy’s right to use the base at Simonstown.
In 1968, as a Junior Foreign Service Officer, my wife and I had been taught Swahili and were slated to go to Tanzania for my training year. Due to an administrative glitch, we had to wait a year before going to Tanzania. We were given two alternatives: Congo Kinshasa or South Africa. I chose South Africa not only because of the horrible things I had heard about Kinshasa, but because I felt that anyone intending to spend part of his or her career in sub-Saharan Africa at that time should have some first-hand knowledge of South Africa. I arrived there as an idealistic junior officer and former Peace Corps Volunteer with all the answers to that country’s problems. By the time we left, I had more questions than answers.
What we found was a spectacularly beautiful country with some wonderful people from all racial communities, but they did not have much chance to interact as equals. We learned that “Asians” (people of Indian or Pakistani descent) and mixed-race “Coloureds” did not want equal rights for all. They wanted the same rights as White citizens, at the top of the totem pole alongside the Afrikaaners. We discovered that the younger generation of Afrikaaners seemed at times more hard-line racialist than their elders. We found English-speaking Whites who criticized the Afrikaaners while enjoying their privileged life, and probably voted for the National Party in the secrecy of the voting booth. We learned that among the most pathetic people were Afrikaaner white trash since if they couldn’t succeed in that country based on their skin color, they really were in bad shape.
My wife came up against the harsh realities of apartheid even more than I. She was the one who went out shopping and managed the servants. A maid who stepped off our property without her passbook could be arrested and held at the police station until vouched for by her employer. For me, office work was similar in many ways to that in most others around the world.
But I’ll never forget when I was temporarily in charge of our USIS Center in Johannesburg, I became friendly with the head of our film section, Basil. Eventually, I suggested we go out to lunch together. He said, “Chris, I’l love to have lunch with you, but, you see, I can’t because I’m coloured. (He would risk arrest.) We’ll have to have food delivered to the office” I was stunned. Basil’s hair was curly, and his skin was lighter than mine. Dumb me! I had neglected to check the racial classifications of our employees. Basil and I often had lunch together in the office after that. Eventually he emigrated to the U.S. and got a job at the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.
As diplomats, we were allowed to host multiracial swimming parties and social events at our homes in Pretoria and Johannesburg, but we had to be sensitive to the potential difficulties faced by our guests entering or leaving white residential areas.
The Afrikaaners cherished the myth that when their ancestors, the Boers, trekked northward from the Cape, there were no Bantu people occupying the land they homesteaded, with the possible exception of a few scattered Bushmen. They liked to compare their northward expansion to our American westward expansion, pointing out how we killed Indians in the process. “And look at the trouble you have with your ‘niggers,’ and they’re a minority.”
1. From the Johannesburg Star found in my scrapbook: An Afrikaaner was fined because he was making his Bantu laborers carry a telephone pole from Pretoria to Johannesburg (about 35 miles) rather than hiring a truck. Perhaps the worst aspect of his behavior was that he didn’t see anything wrong with it.
2. We were unable to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing on TV because for political reasons South Africa did not have television at that time. Too many programs would have to be imported from the U.K. and the U.S., and there was too great a risk of showing blacks and whites as equals.
Even back then, we knew change had to come to South Africa, whether it took 25 years or 100 years. What we didn’t know was how, or if it would be a bloodbath.
When we got back on track and arrived in Tanzania (actually the opposite side of the track since almost all African liberation groups were present there), we had the feeling some Tanzanians, and even my boss at the embassy, considered us tainted for having lived in South Africa. Over time we dispelled that sentiment, and the latter became a lifelong friend.
Fast forward to the early 1990s: I happened to be in the lobby of the Crillon Hotel in Paris on other official business when F. W. de Klerk entered. I had to restrain myself from applauding him because he had demonstrated a lot of courage himself in freeing Mandela and negotiating an end to apartheid.
Chris Henze CdeP 1959