I feel utterly compelled to put this on paper, because of another blog I saw this morning and also because I am seeing a fair bit of “if Mandela was so good, how come he spent an early part of his life blowing things up?” conversation.
Fair comment, if you have no idea what it was like to live in the “old” South Africa. So here is what it was like. This blog post may take 2 or 3 days to write and may be posted over several posts.
I’m going to add a rider here: I, as a “white” South African, do not presume or imagine that I can speak for a “black” person’s experience. Any experiences I relate here can only really be through my eyes. If anyone wants to know more about how it was to live under an oppressive regime as a a “black person”, please do google the truth and reconciliation witness accounts.
A good start is here:
My apologies in advance if the deaths, the mutiliations, the electrics applied to male genitalia, nipples slammed in drawers, the rapes of women in custody and rampant abuse give you nightmares.
And do bear in mind that this represents a tiny, tiny snapshot of what went on. A snapshot so small it breaks my heart and will do so for the rest of my life.
I spent just under two years working as a receptionist for the then Democratic Party offices. I think I have mentioned before that my poor boss wanted a receptionist and got 17 year old Me, just out of school having spent a year in the Cape with political activists who nowadays would be judged in the same way as Mandela is being judged, instead.
I had spent a year eating, drinking, mourning, going to churches and standing in front of police vans, ratels, holding hands, writing witness accounts down, typing them up, all in Xhosa (but described to me first kindly in English so that I could understand what they were investigating) with political activists of the type that made “white” South Africans go even more pale skinned with fright and the state president shit his pants with anger and fear.
And then I ended up working at the DP offices, the official “white” opposition in parliament.
I’m not sure Roy has ever recovered from the experience (poor bloke, he really did look after me, as well as hundreds of other people) but that is not my story to tell.
So there I was – 16 when we moved to the Cape, my parents and I already politically active. My mother discovered that a community of “black” people were being forcibly evicted, after 100 years of living in a squatter settlement. It was a good settlement, their houses not much different to ours. Smaller, made of wood and scrap metal and newspaper and lined with bin bags, but clean, tidy, some with gardens.
Their biggest sin wasn’t being squatters. Their biggest sin was being black and living on the edge of a town that the State President, PW Botha, considered his home town. He actually lived in Wildernis, about 20 minutes down the drag.
There was by-laws in place to prevent black people from being employed in the town, by anyone. Just read that again. If you were black, you were not allowed to be employed. You were forced by law to seek employment away from the district of George. All because the evil fucker didn’t like to see “black” faces in his town, he blighted the lives of everyone who lived in and around it who happened to be a fair few shades darker.
So you travelled hours and hours to a job several towns away, just to earn a living. And then the home you were living in, that your parents had made from refuse and junk discarded alongside the road by affluent whites who lived in (comparative) mansions half an hour away, the other side of the industrial estate (no, you were not allowed to work there either), that you were most likely born in, was being taken away from you.
The government gave you a new home, in Sandkraal. Exposed to the elements, poised on red sand that gave way and engulfed foundations, they had built little boxes for you to live in. No shade, no trees, no power, sanitation at best dodgy as fuck. And they made you move. There was also no transportation. So any job you did have was impossible to get to.
Here is a fairly balanced article about the forced removals:
By the way, I met Carel du Plessis, the town clerk. Not only was he a lying cunt (see later paragraphs) but he was an exceptionally horrid, racist little man, scuttling away from the residents’ committee when they went to see him to try and negotiate with him, a meeting arranged by my Mum. He would not shake hands with them.
So, in order to prevent greater sanctions on the country, the Nationalist Government decided to go a bit easier and declare the end of “forced removals”.
What that meant was that instead of burning down houses and horsewhipping people into trucks with what possessions they may or may not have been allowed to take with them (normally in the early hours of the morning) and then driving them miles and miles to dump them in the middle of nowhere, they did it by arresting anyone who openly opposed them, getting the police to raid houses one by one and once the inhabitants had been frightened out of their lives (or paid with their lives for such cheek as to want to stay on their own home), put great big concrete blocks over the remains of their bulldozed house. They can’t deny it, I have the photos we took.
They scaled back on this a little after one horrible night when a bulldozer came, the shaking knocked over several candles and set fire to the house, the inhabitants and a pair of twin girls, toddlers, whose mother could not reach them as her house fell down around her ears and her children died in agony, screaming for their mother as she screamed for them.
No, it didn’t make the papers. No-one knew except the residents and us. There was a ban on reporting anything the government didn’t want people to know. And the political left weren’t too keen to report on it either in case it was “communist propaganda”.
Night after night, I sat with those men, typing everything down. They were a bunch of pretty brave blokes. Not only were they investigating the murder of three other brave men (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pebco_Three) but they were doing it on a shoestring (some worked, some were supported by the community), in defiance of banning orders, police orders, that lovely little bylaw that meant they were in danger if they showed their black faces in town and all whilst their homes were being bulldozed one by one, in the mean hours of the morning.
Here is a very good book written by the man who defended my father in court when he lost his job. It amply demonstrates the degree to which the government, the police and security forces were prepared to go, to silence opposition http://www.amazon.com/Permanent-Removal-Killed-Cradock-Four/dp/1868144011.
As an aside, I once described the scene at my parents to a colleague in London (who was UK born and bred and really had no fucking excuse), me on a typewriter, a 5l box of wine on the table, surrounded by 4, sometimes 5, sometimes 10 black men, all trying to get the story out in the hope that one day, someone, would read it.
She said “oh god, weren’t you scared?” “Of what, the police? Yes of course, petrified, in fact, most of the time”. “No” she said, “of being alone with all those black guys, they could have raped you”. I think you can imagine my expression. I managed to say “no, black guys don’t routinely rape white women, any more than white men routinely rape black women, why?”
Anyway, so there we were, me and Maxwell and Satchmo and the rest (sometimes a guy who would pitch up in full Umkhonte we Sizwe uniform, which would have ensured our turn in a very small prison cell for years if he had ever been caught at ours but we soon got used to it, he was a total sweetheart), burning the midnight oil, quite literally and I got to hear more and more about what went on.
The black man walking along the road to work, picked up by some white policeman, forced into a van and found dead a few days later, his body covered his cigarette burns, dog bites and urine.
The black woman in Port Elizabeth who was arrested when she protested at the police taking her son away for allegedly passing on banned literature to his school friends, who was raped, tortured (her breasts cut open) and had her vagina burned in order to get her to admit that her son was a “communist”. She didn’t. She withheld all attempts and they threw her out of a police van a few days later. She survived but would never have a sex life again. Her son wasn’t so lucky.
Let me just for a minute, put you in that woman’s position. She’s in a dirty, dark cell. She’s been gang-raped, beaten up, had her breasts cut and then her genitals burned. Her son may be alive or he may be already dead. But she won’t give in. She won’t tell a lie or shop her son just to stop the torture. “Brave” and “noble” don’t even describe it.
I would probably have been singing like a canary, telling them anything they wanted to know around about the time they started burning my cunt.
Oh it may be interesting to know that she took a week off work to recover and when she went back, her white employers decided her burns would frighten the kids and sacked her. No sick pay, no holiday pay, just the bus fare back home.
It is worth noting that her son had done nothing of the sort, the family stayed out of trouble, were never political.
I could go on, I really could. But again, this is just a snapshot … and you might be forgiven for thinking this type of thing only happened to people who stood up to the government. It didn’t, it happened to ordinary people who kept their heads down, tried to earn a living and get by as best they could.
It was against this backdrop that I landed at the DP offices, my wardrobe by now fully stocked with tshirts depicting banned people (any of which could have got me a few years in jail, along with my parents and left my brother and sister virtual orphans), my anger simmering constantly below the surface.
We moved back to Durban after my Dad’s court case win and reinstatement was followed by trying to prosecute him for sharing state secrets (ie telling my Mum something) which failed, again thanks to Chris Nicholson. My attempts to start a degree in journalism at Rhodes University had been thwarted – things kept on getting “lost” in the post – my Dad joked that the government couldn’t stand the thought of producing yet another left wing activist – and I was jobless.
I was going in to help Mum each day, the receptionist had left and Omi, one of the regional organisers, suggest that Roy offer me the job.
Looking back, I imagine it was little like trying to put a child who had grown up with wolves into a school. There were rules I didn’t even think to realise where in place in an office. My dress sense could have been generously described as “interesting”, my language was pretty foul (okay, not a lot has changed), my politics were way too left to be able to have prim, whitey conversations with the helpers and volunteers.
Along with running a regional constituency office (a full time job in itself), running and answering a helpline through the switchboard for victims of state violence, being a one man affidavit taking band, keeping at least one witness I know of (and I suspect there were several more) out of police hands by getting him around the country into various safehouses, dealing with the press, foreign dignitaries, representatives from various embassies, Roy then had to watch my back, tell me to shut it often and try and keep me on the straight and narrow when it came to talking to people. He did a stonkingly good job of it but I look back now and want to cringe.
And then, oh boy, then, I found out the real scale of the shit I had been living and breathing second-hand for the past year.