April 17, 2014


Saturday, December 7, 2013

South Africa and life during apartheid

People comfort each other outside the residence of former South African president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg yesterday.
By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald

The country was tense and obsessed with race, but then something intervened

Ironically, the best epitaph for Nelson Mandela may be derived from the words of someone who loathed everything Mandela stood for.

After Mandela had become president of South Africa, one of the most obdurate white supremacists went to see him. Eugene Terreblanche was a fire-breathing, violent former policeman (murdered in 2010) who scorned and fought the National Party — the one that had imposed apartheid in the country — as too soft. Even his name echoed his belief that the land had to be kept forever white. Anyway, a meeting in President Mandela’s office managed to take place. Terreblanche came out from it and had this to say:

“One has to admit he does his thing well.”

In a few minutes, Mandela had turned him into a lamb, at least for a while. Clearly there was something very unusual about the leader who is being mourned at this time.

So much has been written about Mandela. What I would like to contribute are some thoughts and anecdotes based on a little first-hand knowledge of South Africa under apartheid.

I went there for the Herald in 1973 on the occasion of the opening of a direct air link between Argentina and South Africa. The spanking-new Aerolíneas Argentinas office in Cape Town had two entrances. One was marked for whites, the other for non-whites. I asked Aerolíneas officials why they went along with such a debasing procedure.

“It was a condition for our exchange of routes with South African Airways. If we don’t put up separate doors, we can’t operate in this country.”

To say that the whole country was obsessed with the race issue doesn’t begin to describe it. From what I heard, people only talked about two things: race and rugby. Maybe in an 80-20 percent mix. There was no other subject of conversation. Every other matter was given some race-issue connection, however far-fetched.

The jokes that circulated on the subject of race were ferocious. One or two were even printable, but they bubbled with degrading racism — and fear.

“Why is the entire government of XXX (a newly black-ruled country nearby; I don’t feel I should spread the venom by giving the actual identity that was used) in hospital?

“They were having a Cabinet meeting, and the branch broke.”

Or this one, which employs the derogatory local term for a black, kaffir: “What do you call a kaffir with a gun?


Among the whites, the English-speakers also made nasty jokes about the Afrikaans-speaking Boers, who were the driving-force behind apartheid. The one I remember, however, is not among the printables ones. I’m sure the Boers made plenty of fun of the Anglos too.

On that trip, I rode on the first double-decker buses I had ever seen “in the flesh.” The bottom level was marked for whites, the top one for non-whites. On the first one I got on to, I naturally wanted to go upstairs, never having had the experience and also because doing so would have been like making a little statement. It was the black conductor who, waving his hands in a real panic, dissuaded me from doing it. If I went up with the blacks, he blurted, he would lose his job.

The cable-car going to the top of the scenic Table Mountain behind Cape Town lacked separate gondolas for whites and nons. But they had found a way around the problem. One trip was reserved for whites only, the next for the pigmented. To avoid having to rub flesh with non-whites, whites were willing to wait for their next turn.

To be fair, there were whites who never stopped publicly opposing apartheid. In politics, Helen Suzman (who died in 2009) comes to mind. This I witnessed on a humbler level: I was riding up on a whites-only hotel elevator when a black hotel employee got in. Maybe his huge load of towels hadn’t let him see it was the “wrong” lift. One of the whites in the elevator started saying in a loud voice the black should get out right away — whereupon another (and bigger) white announced in an even louder voice: “Oh, shut up or I’ll chuck YOU out.” Shut up he did.

The ugly tension was always there. I came back fully sharing the conventional wisdom of the day. Namely, that if there was one safe prediction that could be made in international politics, it was that South Africa was heading for a massive bloodbath.

But then something intervened: Nelson Mandela. Proof positive of the error of the Marxist view that history is only governed by inevitable collective trends, not by allegedly providential individuals who shape the turn of events on their own.

Nelson Mandela. He did his thing well.

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