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.

As the wave of boycotts and strikes intensified, the questions got tougher. Petrol bombs began to be thrown quite routinely as a means of enforcing such actions. By October 1984 one UDF leader was openly warning children who sat their matriculation papers that however much police protection they might have during the exam they would be defenceless when they went home. More and more children had their hands and feet burned as a punishment for attending school. Anyone who lived or worked in South Africa in the Eighties became wearily familiar with the pattern. Leaders representing ‘the mass democratic movement’ would call for a stayaway. Everyone knew that no one had elected them, that the claim to democracy was hollow, and that rival movements on their left or right would be brutally put down, but in the cause of anti-apartheid these things were never allowed to count. In everyday life you met township residents who were scared stiff, who told stories of leaders organising school boycotts but sending their own children to private schools, of being forced to pay twice the normal price for food in accordance with this or that consumer boycott, of children forced out of school because of their parents’ membership of the ‘wrong’ trade union.

Liberals often turned themselves inside out rather than see what was in front of their noses. Teaching in a South African university in the Eighties. I was often faced with calls for lecture boycotts: earnest delegations would arrive to announce that there had been ‘a call’ for a boycott. Exactly who had issued the call? Well, no one could tell you that, but it was ‘the Movement’. No good asking whether there had been any free discussion of a boycott. What had really happened was that someone had anonymously phoned the local student activists from Johannesburg and told them there should be a boycott. If I put the matter to a vote the activists would insist that to allow such a vote was reactionary. Then, in a lecture theatre of 180, you’d find only ten or fifteen students willing to vote, with black students the most scared of all.

The politicisation of the townships, and the glib way it was reported, were more sobering than anything in a university lecture theatre. Wentzel describes how township funerals might be ‘taken over’ by the Movement, which would make attendance obligatory for many who would rather have stayed at home. Wentzel describes one funeral where this occurred, and where she had intimate knowledge of the dead man, the bereaved and the local situation. ‘Foreign journalists, most of them standing in the shade of a large tree at some distance from ... where the funeral service was held, barely noticed the tensions in the crowd. When I told an American journalist what was happening he told me I was mistaken, and insisted most of the crowd were pleased with the proceedings.’ For ages journalists looked hard the other way while Winnie Mandela and her ill-famed ‘football club’ wrought havoc. When at last that spell was broken, many journalists who took the Movement line on all else went bald-headed for Winnie as a safe way of ‘proving’ their independence. Local newsmen, often awed by their more sophisticated and better paid foreign colleagues, tended to ape this behaviour. No wonder Winnie was bemused.

The truth was never so simple. There were real heroes as well as dramatic frauds. Even F.W. de Klerk, for long an irredeemable apartheid politician, turned out to have a real integrity too. There were some good policemen. The Movement could call on enormous reserves of enthusiasm and passion: many went to funerals or marches because they were scared not to, but many more attended, and also endured prison, torture and death out of pure, unintimidated belief. If the UDF was to blame for its violence against Inkatha, Inkatha were not goodies either. The work of Richard Cobb should have made us expect all revolutions to be shot through with villainy, banality and irony. For every saintly Mandela or heroic Steve Biko there were always likely to be several murderous Harry Gwalas, fraudulent Allan Boesaks and others who were merely time-servers or buffoons. Because of colonial guilt, because of false parallels with the US civil rights struggle, because of a bad conscience over race relations in general, many saw the South African struggle as different, as a unique confrontation between good and evil, but of course it wasn’t.

What is already difficult to believe, looking back, was the sheer madness of the thing. Well-meaning liberal-minded people were repeatedly worked up into states of moral absolutism over issues and events that were later on very difficult to credit or even straightforwardly contradictory of positions they would later defend. For example, a local branch of PEN, the writers’ club, was started up as a way of breaking the apartheid rules and bringing black and white writers together. Risks were taken, bans flouted, defiance spat and solidarity expressed. Then the Movement decided that PEN might give a false picture of multiracial co-operation and even impede ‘the cultural struggle’, so pressure was suddenly exerted to disband PEN, with Nadine Gordimer, among others, arguing that it was ‘the wrong historical moment’ for intraracial collaboration. About turn, salute, redirect moral passion at 180 degrees. The same thing happened with sport: first, a mighty campaign for multiracial sport, tear up pitches, disrupt games, shout and boo. Then the regime gave way and encouraged multiracial sport, so the Movement did an about-turn and adopted the slogan ‘no normal sport in an abnormal society.’ Sportsmen who now participated in intraracial events were accused of providing ‘a smokescreen behind which to hide increasingly severe socioeconomic repression’.

When Conor Cruise O’Brien was prevented by radical students from lecturing at the University of Cape Town in 1986, the University solemnly proclaimed that, by virtue of apartheid, academic freedom did not exist at UCT in any case, which meant that the cause of academic freedom could not be invoked on O’Brien’s behalf. Some argued that O’Brien had no right to free speech because Hitler had enjoyed free speech and as a result millions had died. The University’s commission of enquiry into the affair (headed by the two men who today head South Africa’s Constitutional Court) laid most of the blame on O’Brien himself, ‘a colourful and volatile personality not easily able to maintain academic detachment under conditions of emotional stress’. Yet all O’Brien had done was to say that while he supported economic sanctions and even military blockade to bring apartheid down, he thought that the academic boycott was ‘Mickey Mouse stuff’.

As one radical academic cited by Wentzel put it, ‘one day in the future, perhaps, there can again be talk of freedom of speech. But at a time of transition it is necessary to silence those who are trying to block the forces of change.’ (The key word here is ‘perhaps’.) This was interpreted on liberal campuses to mean that it was necessary to forbid audience not only to the forces of apartheid but to those who were opposing it in the wrong way – e.g. Buthelezi or anti-sanctions liberals such as Helen Suzman. Arriving on the Natal University campus in 1988, I was quizzed suspiciously by the Student Representative Council: what was my position on the issue of freedom of speech? I pointed out that, as a member of the same SRC myself twenty-five years earlier, I had spent a lot of time campaigning against the use of banning orders, house arrest and detention to prevent freedom of speech, and that I was hardly likely to change my view on that now. As I had feared, this provoked a hostile reaction, for the ‘right’ position was to be against freedom of speech.

During the struggle of the Eighties anyone who lent credence to the idea that the UDF was largely an internal wing of the ANC or that Communist influence was strong in the movement, especially in the Cosatu unions, was automatically termed a McCarthyite reactionary. Come 1990 the UDF was disbanded in favour of the ANC, the identity between the two movements loudly proclaimed, the leading role of the SACP in the struggles of the previous decade proudly trumpeted, and the whole senior leadership of Cosatu emerged as SACP members. Similarly, it was a matter of Movement theology throughout the Eighties to insist that all the Government’s attempts at reform were wholly bogus while after 1990 it was quietly acknowledged that they had not been bogus at all. Naturally, it was impermissible to remark that the last decades of white rule saw a large redistribution of income towards blacks and it was an article of faith that apartheid could never be overthrown while capitalism survived; today the fact of redistribution is recognised and capitalism flourishes on the ruins of apartheid.

The liberal universities were a privileged ground from which to observe the madness. One colleague told me of a marks session in which she was questioned about failing a Mr Bengu. Had she applied the usual ‘affirmative marking’ convention? Yes, indeed. But had she taken account of the fact that he was a detainee in solitary and that such candidates were customarily marked up by a further margin? Yes, she had taken that into account too. But what about his ill-treatment in detention and what about the comparable case of Mr Khumalo? But Khumalo had been tortured with electrodes, she pointed out: it was only fair to pass him. Bengu had merely been hit around the head by the police, which was not enough in itself to guarantee a pass. I can remember discussions with students in 1990 who were simultaneously demanding the release of all political prisoners, including ‘terrorists’, and the continuation of the armed struggle. I pointed out that this meant that people in jail for putting bombs in supermarkets ought both to be let out and immediately put more bombs in more supermarkets. Both propositions were unsmilingly assented to.

Liberals were led a merry dance through this morass of unreason, partly because their guilt made them vulnerable, partly because it was so easy to exploit the fact that they judged everything in moral terms and even, by the end, because some of them were scenting promotion and reward with the approach of the new order. The choice they were presented with over and over again was whether to go along with whatever, at any given moment, the Movement wanted, or to be cast as a friend of apartheid. Wentzel chose something far more difficult: to talk frankly about these impossible alternatives and stand up against violence and intimidation, whichever quarter it came from. This did not provide a way out (there wasn’t one) and it won her no friends on either side, no Nobel Prizes, no dinner-jacketed accolades. In her Preface Judith Mason talks of Wentzel having ‘the sort of honesty that borders on anarchy’. One hears this sort of perverse attachment to truth described as rabbinical.

One result of the ‘liberal slideaway’, as Wentzel calls it, was to entrench an iron-clad political orthodoxy of a highly partisan sort. The many liberals who slid away rather than face the accusation of siding with apartheid have got right out of the habit of standing up for anything at all now that apartheid has gone. Since liberation, not a few have quietly emigrated, as if appalled by their own handiwork. A handful – a fraction of those who hoped to – have gained preferment under the new regime. Many more simply fall into line with whatever the ANC wants. Some do so, perhaps, out of relief to be on the same side as government at last and a determination never to stray into dissidence again. Quite a lot more still – the groups overlap – are actually pretty scared, for anyone who has spent much time close to the Movement has seen all too vividly how unpleasant the consequences can be for those who are out of step. But it is heresy to admit that one is scared, in the miracle nation, among the rainbow people of God.

This rhetoric of euphoria is not wholly baseless – violence is less, race relations better, the economy grows, the sun shines. And the bad old days of bannings, house arrest and detention without trial show no sign of returning. But it is quite clear that the new rulers have little regard for liberal constitutionalism. The Government legislates with almost no regard at all for what the Constitution says – its new Education Act simply assumes that the central government will take back from the provinces all their powers in that field. The Government is now allowed to vet the details of any university course in the country. The Speaker makes highly partisan speeches and sits on her party’s executive with no pretence of neutrality. When the Government’s legislation to take away Buthelezi’s power to pay the Zulu chiefs turned out to be unconstitutional the Government amended the Constitution with retrospective effect. University vice-chancellors are now chosen in a process where students and campus trade unions often outweigh the faculty. The Government threatens to take away all official advertising from newspapers that fail to employ enough black journalists. Since it also makes it clear that it expects black journalists to support the ANC, there is strong pressure not to criticise. A Bill is before Parliament which will allow a government-appointed commission the power to sack the trustees of any voluntary organisation and replace them with its own nominees – a notion clearly born of one-party-state thinking. The Government’s preference for a style of ultra-centralised authority is worryingly evident.

Since the days of the early missionaries liberalism has provided South Africa with much of its moral backbone and it is no small moment for a political culture when such a key tradition buckles under the strain. The phenomenon of the slideaway has certainly not earned that tradition much respect. The African nationalist élite which manipulated liberal sensibilities with such effect, and which has relied enormously on liberal support, treats it with open contempt – the liberal press is vilified, the liberal universities are under tremendous pressure and the very word ‘liberal’ is a term of abuse for many Movement spokesmen. More damaging still is the fact that the weakening of the liberal tradition has entailed a pervasive loss of individual responsibility. In South Africa it often seems that almost everyone who can, steals; that those who are found with their hand in the till are quickly excused; that those who can’t or won’t do their jobs will blame ‘the system’; and that anyone who talks about maintaining standards will quickly be accused of racism.

Happily, this picture is incomplete: there is still a core of tough-minded, fearless and virtually undefeatable liberals like Wentzel, who love South Africa far too much to leave it and will fight for as long as they can. Their current importance is out of all proportion to their numbers, for the possibility now exists – possibly for the first time in South Africa’s history – that the liberal tradition will be snuffed out altogether under the new nationalist hegemony. But there is nothing inevitable about this: there has for two hundred years been space within the country’s culture for a current of liberal dissent and awkward truth-telling and this will not die easily. The conventional wisdom is that everything depends on the new generation of black liberals – on whom the pressures are very fierce indeed. But Wentzel’s book is proof that the hour of the white liberal is not quite over.