A little about us I guess may be relevant at this point. Dad was English born. He came over to Africa, landing first in Zimbabwe where he became an actor, a photo-magazine editor (if you remember those, you grew up in the 50s, 60s or early 70s), a policeman and a dog handler.
After his first, very young marriage broke up, he came back to the UK, realised there was not a lot going for him here (post-war, late 50s Britain was not great) and through a few journeys (if I remember correctly, he went back to Zimbabwe first, then back to the UK) made his way to South Africa). He was a libertarian at heart, taking people at face value and race never played a part in his judgement.
It showed an awful lot when he contacted a group of ex-BSAP (British South African Police) reunion bods, met them a few times and realised that he had very little in common with them. He had wonderful memories of Zim, but he felt very ill at ease with the way in which his compatriots’ racism had come to the fore in later years.
In South Africa, now in his 30s, he took a job as an operator in an old refinery, making his way up the corporate ladder fairly quickly and ended up as the manager of the oil installation. Such installations were a key target for the ANC’s armed wing.
So he had to have the appropriate security clearance, at the highest level. The problem of his Englishness was sorted by him giving up his citizenship to be solely South African, a dour little ceremony where he had to metaphorically spit on his birthplace and kiss the state president’s hairy arse.
The problem was that however much they tried, they couldn’t remove his compassion and fairness gene. It came through every pore. People scoffed when he let dog handlers and their dogs come to ours on the weekends, they shook their heads and called him the “Engelseman” when he refused to fire people for being a little wayward politically, they loathed his friendship with Titus Tuze, the black union representative who should have been a state sellout and was anything but.
They must have been alarmed beyond measure when my parents broke the Group Areas Act not one, twice or three times but numerous times when kids from Saint Monica’s home came to stay for weekends and holidays.
So I guess when the State President madly decreed that no people of British descent could hold government jobs, he might well have had people like my Dad in mind.
Now don’t get me wrong – my Dad was proud of his job. Despite liberal leanings, he still believed the ANC was a terrorist organisation. Because news was censored, because the government only let you read what it wanted you to, the scale of atrocities were hidden from view, whispered only amongst people who could trust each other and occasionally, making it out of South Africa.
Dad did something else that could have got him into big trouble. After Esther, our domestic retired, he converted her iKhaya to a study. And in there. night after night, on medium wave, he would listen to the BBC, Radio Moscow and pirate radio stations from across the world. They told him more about what was happening in his own country than he would have ever heard from the South African press.
But early on, very early on I guess there were signs he was not to be trifled with and would not toe the line … one example my mother mentioned in her book (and one I was too young to know) was the employee who came to South Africa as a late teenager and who had an encounter with a prostitute who was mixed race. He got caught and was fined (luckily for him he was “white”) but this stayed on his record somewhere (having sex with someone outside your racial group was illegal) and when Dad had to employ a man against his will and that man (who turned out to be a security policeman) started blackmailing Dad’s employee (who by then was happily married), Dad found out and put a stop to it.
I do know this – most of his staff (the ones who were not arrogant white racists and even a few that were) loved him. The loss of his job hit him where it hurt – his self esteeem and his inability to get another (it took 15 months before he started as a foreman at a paint factory) and therefore provide for his family was a blow from which he never quite recovered.
I was absolutely a product of my upbringing. I recall quite clearly as a young school child the day on which my Headmistress, who was a wonderful, wonderful woman, told the school at assembly that when Shinga came into a classroom, she expected us all to stand and greet him, in the same way as we would a teacher.
The gasps and outrage amongst the schoolchildren, as young as we were, was apparent. But she stuck to her guns and within a few months everyone was “Morning, Shinga”-ing like they had been doing it for years. I failed to understand what the problem was. I had been standing up to greet black visitors at home since I was a toddler.
So I guess when PW Botha made his declaration and they revoked my Dad’s security classification but would not tell him why, put him on early pension but then penalised him for that early pension and paid him a pittance, it should not have been a surprise.
For my parents, who had been doing nothing out of the ordinary except treating everyone with respect and ignoring the colour of their skin was a massive shock and when the only people who would help were people who were openly left wing and political, and they became aware of the atrocities and the sheer, scale of them, it turned my family from a progressive, middle-class family into something very, very different.
As my mother said, “How can I sit here with my children and live my life, knowing that other women’s children are being abducted, tortured and murdered?”
The road leading to the tank farm that my father worked (it’s still there, now part of CEF, a private company) was, at that time, long, singular and regularly cleared of bushveldt. This was a security feature – it was a private road and only staff and visitors to the place would use it.
My father, one night, after a rocket attack by ANC operatives in the early hours, who tried to set fire to the oil tanks, drove down that road, ahead of the police, who were too scared to go in first. Another time, he spent 14 hours with one of his team, plugging a leak, their arms up to their shoulders in crude oil which could have ignited at any time.
Well before Dad lost his job, we became aware that the security police were spying on us. My parents chose to ignore it. Dad had been involved in sanctions-busting (oil pipelines) as part of his job and we were used to answering the phone to hear “uncle Joe will be visiting tomorrow with a sackful of carrots” which generally meant a ship was going to dock on the qt and pick up some South African oil to sell overseas, despite sanctions.
After Dad lost his job, the monitoring became fierce – phone, home, photocells in the streetlight opposite, taking photos constantly and catching all of those visiting.
I could go on and on here but in short, my parents were leftists who refused to submit to the status quo. And the more they found out, the more they discovered, the worse their ability to submit became.
The government had only themselves to blame really – if you oppress people, you will get a response. It may not be the one you want. And if you fuck up people who were brave on your account, for a whole lot of complex reasons that have sod all to do with your policies, don’t be surprised when their bravery continues to shine, in defence of the people you have fucked over for years …
So there we were, ex-middle class people thrown from the safety of our liberal, middle-class lives into the shitstorm. Along with a growing understanding of what truly was going on (what illicitly listened to-foreign radio started, my father’s visits to the Legal Resources Centre (home to all sorts of anti-apartheid, equal rights organisations, link here http://www.lrc.org.za/our-vision-a-mission) to see his lawyer and advisor finished.
My mum started work as a Democratic Party organiser, with an office in the next suburb. I finished school and would walk 20 minutes to the office, working as a volunteer.
Mum continued to work as a nighttime phone operator, selling newspaper subscriptions and Dad was by then working in the paint factory, 12 hours a day, 7 days on 2 days off, across the week. I went to school, Mom brought us home, started dinner and then left me to finish cooking, feed the kids and get their homework done. She effectively worked a 13 hour day, starting at 7.30, finishing at 9, with a brief stop off at home in between.
Between them, working stupid hours and with donations of food and clothes from relatives and friends, there was just enough money to keep a roof over our heads. I started babysitting at weekends for pocket money.
All the while, they also fought a legal case against the government for unfair dismissal. Two years later, they won, my father was “reinstated” and we moved to George in the Cape province, where my real education began.