Sunday, October 25, 2009
What were we thinking?
The End Conscription Campaign (ECC) is about to celebrate, in rather grand style, its 25th anniversary. For those too young to remember, the ECC was formed as a platform for white (male, as they all were at the time) conscripts to resist conscription into, what was then, the South African Defence Force (SADF). It was never a large organisation, but it sure as hell was a brave one! Names such as Ivan Toms, David Bruce, Saul Batzofin, Charles Bester, Mike Evans, Billy Paddock, Richard Steele, Peter Hathorn and Brett Myrdal immediately come to mind.
It was not an easy thing to stand up against virtually all of one’s cohorts and face the real wrath of the state. These, amongst others, did just that. And their contribution is certainly worth saluting and reflecting upon. For myself, I took a different path. I left the country and went to live with my then spouse, in Lesotho. For the record, if there is one, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some of the impulses which made me do that.
I did not come from any kind of activist background. I grew up in a white neighbourhood, with standard middle class values and perspectives on life. Amongst some of these “values” was the firm belief that white people were better than black people. That was just a fact of human existence. No one, in our neighbourhood apparently, ever questioned that. (Except perhaps Helen Suzman. And the Harmels, who also lived close by. And Helen Joseph, who was always under house arrest, but lived up the road. And Eli and Violet Weinberg, who lived a few houses away, and who worried my mother, because they sent us Christmas cards, even though they were Jewish.) Generally speaking though – no-one questioned the basic presupposition, that Black people were inferior to white people and that whatever it took, we need to keep them off our patch.
So, what I remember is, that although there was never any question about this belief, dotted around us were these strange people, who for some strange reason, did not appear to agree with that idea. We lived in parallel universes. My parents, good people, not very educated, under exposed, and both of them having run away from being classified “coloured” in Cape Town, were not going to explore the possibility that blacks might be anything other than second-rate citizens. Neither their world, nor their upbringing would allow them to do that. They were captives of apartheid. They knew very well that it was to their benefit to keep it going and to protect it. So when the time came for their sons to get conscripted, they had no qualms about it at all.
My brother, 10 years old than me, and not one for any form of conflict, did his duty. I went as a child to his passing out parade. There was lots of marching and lots of guns and lots of canon-firing. He had “done his duty”. After that he went to work as a Charted Accountant and was annually “called up” for camps thereafter, to keep the military machinery turning and his mind focussed on the fight against Communism.
But I was always rather different from him. I have always been told that I am a natural rebel – a charge I do not accept, but it does allow some easy explanation of my actions. It was not that I had come into contact with Communists, or ANC people, or even the white left. My ex-wife, Jane, and I decided to leave the country, when all other options ended, because we were young and because, being young, we could take risks that would not have been possible if we were not.
That was fundamental. We were young. We were rebellious – but not in the extreme. And both of us shared the highly extraordinary idea, that the SADF was not fighting a just, nor a necessary war. And that, fundamentally, apartheid was wrong. I can’t even remember how we arrived at that position, because neither of us were particularly active in politics at university.
I remember being extremely irritated by Guy Burger – now professor of Journalism at Rhodes University – (which is where we were) – because of his grim and unyielding political perspective. I remember fasting for 8 days in a little group, led by my Philosophy lecturer, James Mulder – as a demonstration to Jimmy Kruger (then minister of Police) that Steve Biko could easily have fasted for 8 days and not died – as was being claimed. But that was about it. One or two skirmishes with the police, demonstrating about something or other – but it was all playful, rather than anything in any way serious.
What did have a fairly profound impact on my life was the Church – both in terms of the liturgy and in terms of the kinds of people I met in it at that time. John Suggit, New Testament Professor. Douglas Bax, who taught me Systematic Theology, together with Felicity Edwards. These were not radicals, theologically or otherwise, but they had a mortal integrity which inevitably led to a sense of and a desire for justice. Alongside them, of course, in the higher political realm, were voices like Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak, both of whom had profound influences on me.
And when we took the decision to leave the country, we knew, for ourselves, that we were crossing a Rubicon, because there would be no going back. I wish, so very much, that more white people could have had that experience. Because I know for myself, that had I stayed behind and gone into the army, and just put up with it, I would know a great deal less now than had I not had that exile experience. It is something for which I am eternally grateful. And I think it was so meaningful and important precisely because I was not enough politically involved prior to leaving. I simply could not have begun to understand anything of what the consequences were going to be on my life and how I would be remoulded because of it.
When I listen to many white people talking today – new and “born again” democrats – who have so much to criticise the present government about, and so many opinions on so many things – I just feel extremely grateful that I had the experience I did have. I do not feel superior. I am, really, anything but self-satisfied. But I can say this without any shadow of a doubt - I feel immensely privileged to have experienced what I did. And sad for those that did not have the same kind of experience.
This is one of the big problems about our so-called “miracle” revolution. There was no re-education of people. So what happened, by and large, is that we all just carried on, basically unchanged. Whites, breathed a sigh of relief and realised that if they just shifted over slightly from their hard fought position of extraordinary privilege, they could carry on fairly undisturbed. At the same time they started the petulance and insistent moaning which has characterised the group, since liberation perched, as they are, on the summit of Mount Integrity.
Blacks, on the other hand, started heading for the trough and their snouts have been firmly buried there ever since. We all erected a smiling, dancing figure of Mandela in the business hub of the country; Desmond Tutu called us the rainbow nation; everything was just hunky dory.
Certain topics became untouchable – like “culture” and “socialism” and intellectual debate got dumbed down so completely, that we have lost any inkling of what it means. American culture and Chinese goods swept through the country. And high levels of crime, even in the highest places, became the accepted norm. Twenty-five years later, that is where we find ourselves. I suppose it could be a lot worse, but it certainly could be a whole lot better.
What were we thinking back then? I know this much. We wanted a country we could all be proud to belong to. We wanted a non-racial and non-sexist country. We wanted a country where we could live without fear and where the poor, especially, were given houses, education, access to health care, jobs, decent living conditions and security. We wanted peace. That is what we wanted.
And have we got these things now? Not enough, is my view. Not enough. And the clock ticks on. And I can only but ask - what if we reach 20 years of democracy and there are still people with no houses, no jobs, no education, no sense of self-worth, because of the terrible toll that corruption, greed and government inefficiency exact? Do we honestly think they will just keep quiet?