Fear in the Miracle Nation

R.W. Johnson

  • The Liberal Slideaway by Jill Wentzel
    South African Institute of Race Relations, 430 pp, R 59.99, October 1995, ISBN 0 86982 445 7

This is one of the bravest and most important books to come out of South Africa in several years: as an exercise in truth-telling it bears comparison with Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart but whereas Malan derived many of his insights from his long exile, Jill Wentzel is one of the very few who have made the long march through the institutions. She was a founder member of the Black Sash, the women’s organisation which, from its inception, fought apartheid with exemplary passion and courage. As a student in 1962 I remember how a ‘flame of freedom’ was lit in Durban, where we mounted a vigil, scheduled to end with the passage of the Bill providing for detention without trial. The affair was treated as a provocation by the Government and every night huge Afrikaner rugby types came to beat up anyone who kept the vigil. They were, frankly, terrifying. I also remember the shame I felt at seeing a lone middle-aged white woman from the Sash remain impassively by the flame while the rest of us scattered at their onslaught. They knocked her down and stamped on her stomach time and again and yet she made no sound. The Black Sash were the real thing.

Jill Wentzel has fought the good fight in South Africa for forty years, most of them alongside her late husband, once described by President Vorster as South Africa’s second most dangerous man after Bram Fischer. When others took to violent methods, the Wentzels declined; when so many left (including many of the saboteurs) they refused that too. There are very few South Africans who have seen the struggle all the way through: Wentzel properly belongs to a small group with Mandela, Sisulu and a handful of others. As a female fighter against apartheid she has a longer record than Helen Suzman or Winnie Mandela. In a South Africa where that sort of record counts terribly, she has to bow a knee to almost nobody. Yet today her book is drawing awkward, discomfited reviews in South Africa – which currently enjoys world champion status in only two fields, rugby and political correctness. The reason for this is that Wentzel has had the courage to be anti-apartheid when that was distinctly unfashionable and now to tell the truth about the struggle when that is less fashionable still. What concerns her is the way South African liberals, who had bravely opposed apartheid, simply slid away when confronted with the quasi-revolutionary violence of anti-apartheid activists.

A classic example given by Wentzel is a school stayaway called by the UDF, the United Democratic Front. There was no difficulty in condemning the police and army for their intervention, nor in declaring that apartheid was the root cause of the whole business. But what to do about the fact that many parents and many children clearly wanted school to continue, and what to do about the violence mounted against the children by township activists determined to ensure that the stayaway remained solid? Finally, Wentzel relates, a colleague asked the question everyone else was skirting: did the majority of children want to go to school or not? This was so embarrassing that it was immediately swept aside and all mention of it omitted from the minutes. The Church leaders present carefully tip-toed around the problem of ‘liberatory violence’ and if it became too glaring – large-scale necklacing would be an example – there was further anguished talk about how apartheid had created the conditions which made such atrocities likely, even inevitable, and how ‘unruly elements’ were taking advantage. Occasionally the question of such ‘unruly elements’ would be taken up with the UDF and UDF leaders would sometimes even promise to report back on the matter, but they never did.

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