A different isolation

Forty years ago, on 1 June 1980, so I was reminded when reading Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa, the ANC’s military wing Umkonto Isizwe (MK) attacked the storage tanks at Sasolburg. This marked the start of attacks on other installations such as Koeberg nuclear power station and military bases.

I was too young to remember much about it other than the concern and anxiety this fostered but more significantly it marked the start of withdrawing from a life outdoors. Until then, together with neighbours and friends, we would ride the streets on our bicycles without a concern in the world, play football and catch across the road (thankfully outside of peak hours, the streets were quiet), walk a few blocks to visit each other and to catch the bus to school. All of a sudden, this was stopped, although as a group we could still walk to catch the bus and later, so long as we weren’t on our own, could work home from school – about 30 minutes. Now, we had to phone when leaving somewhere or arriving, parents would stand at the front door and watch us go across to the neighbour to play etc – to the extent that we gave up on this and rather scaled the 6 foot wall between our properties at the back. One didn’t question it, one just got on and did…unaware of the wider picture as young children tend. It was only on arrival in England in the mid-1990s that I realised how restricted our lives had become. A weight literally lifted off my shoulders. Today, when visiting home, I make a point of walking the streets despite the cautions – it’s an opportunity to engage with thought and reflection, to put myself in the shoes of others and to imagine what their lives were/are like. Had I not had the privilege of being able to do this in other African countries over the years being able to discover the commonality and humanity of man, I probably would not be so bold today.

But there’s another side to learning the start date of the attacks and one which, as an historian, raises questions about the validity of memory on the one hand, and the need to verify facts on the other. By 1980, I was in my third year of primary school (we start later in South Africa compared with Britain), and have clear recollections of sitting in a classroom, which would have been my first year – ie 1978 – of barricading ourselves under our desks in case of bomb attacks when a certain alarm rang, and evacuating in orderly fashion when another rang suggesting fire. Surely, we would not have started taking such precautions two years before any major attack… had there been smaller attacks that resulted in our school having started these actions. My slightly older husband who grew up in Pietermaritzburg doesn’t recall doing such things at school, but did raise the possibility of our school reaction being related to the Soweto riots of 1976, where the students objected to the education they were receiving.* Was the Broederbond controlled Boksburg that fearful of the future? or has my memory conflated different scenarios. I would go for the latter, had it not been for the specific visual of the classroom. In my later years at the school, 1984, we no longer barricaded ourselves but did evacuate for bomb and fire drills regularly and at least one teacher used to have a firearm close at hand – he was in charge of security. This evacuating practice which we continued at high school never made sense given the scenarios we had explained to us as justification for these actions. Logic told me we were being put in danger going out onto school fields along the perimeter rather than staying indoors, but who were we to question?

Looking back and watching life in England over the years, while I’ve been reclaiming the freedom of walking the streets, I see so many withdraw, concerned to allow their children play in the park and ride their bikes (this, before the restrictions placed on us in March 2020). We lived in a time of fear and some do now, but I wonder how much of that fear we created ourselves. My life in SA was easy compared with the woman who travelled in by taxi and train three days a week to clean our house and the man from Malawi who worked on the mine during the week and did our garden on a Saturday or Sunday depending on what day he had off, and our older males who had to ‘go to the border’ and do ‘call ups’. While I was aware that times were anxious in the 1980s and I knew instinctively not to ask any questions, my parents ensured a mental freedom and social liberation which later life experiences have built on – and when the going gets tough and I want to withdraw into my own secure world, my dad’s words haunt me – get on with life, when it’s your time to go, you’ll go, you can do nothing about it (but don’t be reckless) – and he was the worst at worrying when we didn’t phone in or get home when he thought we should have arrived.

It’s incredible what one sentence in a book can trigger – for those interested in reading about the development of South Africa’s military and its three amalgamations within 100 years, Ian’s book is a good place to start. Between the narratives of historical event which set the scene, his insightful analysis (of which I’d have liked more) demonstrate the commonality of man across time and culture. The players may have changed, but the issues and challenges remain the same.

* (A year earlier, in 1977, Steve Biko was killed in police custody – and Boksburg was the home of anti-apartheid activist and Communist Party leader Chris Hani – later assassinated in 1993).

Coloured – who am I?

One of the things I love about my work is discovery. I’m constantly discovering new things – even about things I know a little about. And there’s no better way to discover something than when you have to explain what you already know to someone who isn’t sure or seeks clarification.

One such enquiry derived from a contribution to Never Such Innocence on African involvement in World War 1. A teacher making use of the resource asked for clarifiction on the use of the word Coloured to describe African soldiers from South Africa.

I can just see many non-South African readers cringing at the word. Surely I should be using ‘Mixed Race’ or some other term. No, the term is Coloured and they are a people (micro-nation) who deserve recognition and respect.

I have fond memories of mixing with the Coloured community in Reiger Park, the Coloured township in Boksburg. They had a St John Ambulance Division which my mom and others supported and taught. As a youngster I would often be a ‘patient’ for them to practise on and later, when I had passed my first aid exams we went on duty together. All this during the heady years of Apartheid when races were meant to be separate.

During the First World War, Coloured men were best known for forming the Cape Corps and served admirably in East Africa (1 Cape Corps) as well as in Palestine holding the line at the Battle of Square Hill (18-19 September 1918). They also served as ‘Cape Boys’ driving oxen and cattle during the campaign in East Africa as well as in medical and other labour capacities including in South West Africa.

Here are some links I’ve found helpful for others to understand the contribution of Coloureds to South Africa’s rich and diverse heritage.
A Profile
A 2012 film: I’m not Black, I’m Coloured – I haven’t yet seen the film so can’t comment on that aspect but it shows the term is still alive and well…
There is a lovely but heart moving film I reviewed some time back called Katrina (1969) which is available on Youtube (IMDB); which puts the community into context in terms of Apartheid but also socially – then and unfortunately still today.
Coloureds have developed their own language which you can hear a snippet (this was done for the 2010 World Cup in SA so needs to be taken in context).
And finally a piece on one of their annual festivals, the Kaapse Klopse with one of their famous songs: Daar kom die Alibama (explained)

Respect to a people still struggling for the recognition they deserve in their own country, let alone elsewhere.

Review: Katrina – crossing the colour line

Katrina was released in 1969 in South Africa and is now available on DVD and Youtube. It was directed by Jans Rautenbach (interview in Afrikaans; Abraham) and starred Jill Kirkland who was also sang the theme song. The rest of the cast included Katinka Heyns, Don Leonard, Cobus Rossouw, Joe Stewardson and Carel Trichardt.

Looking back, it is incredible to think that this film was even made and shown in South Africa in 1969 given the storyline.  It tells of an Anglican priest, newly arrived, who falls in love with Catherine Winters. As their relationship develops so it becomes apparent that Catherine is also Katrina September, a Coloured woman who is light enough in skin colour to pass for white. This revelation has significant consequences for all involved, not least Catherine’s son Paul who returns to South Africa as a qualified doctor wanting to work in a deprived Coloured area.

This was a brave film to make given that Hendrik Verwoerd had only been assassinated three years previously and BJ Voster was Prime Minister. Although the latter was slightly more lenient in his approach to Apartheid, his notoriaty as Minister for Justice was well-known. One wonders what the establishment’s reaction would have been had they actually seen the film – would they have found a different way to classify people, in particular the Coloured community? What I also find incredible is that Jans originates from Boksburg, my home town, which was notorious for its ultra conservative approach to Apartheid. (There was clearly something in the water as a number of cultural activists hail from Boksburg.)

The implications of the colour line and how it was applied hit full-force in this movie. It’s one thing to read about it in books and to use one’s imagination, but to see it depicted on the screen is something else. All credit to the director and cast. What strikes home though, and is really sad, is how fickle human nature is, despite all intentions of doing otherwise. This is a film of real human emotion, getting to the core of identity and cultural cohesion. It’s not difficult to see how, on a wider scale, nationalism has an attraction causing division and heartache by forcing people apart and to conform especially in communities where people have started to break down the barriers.

What is striking is that in 2017 a film made in a specific context in a specific country in 1969 has so much resonance for the world we live in today. The colour divide issue was not (and is not) unique to South Africa as a recent Guardian article reminds us. Sad to say, colour and cultural divisions still impact on our lives despite all the progress we’ve supposedly made. Perhaps if enough people watch Katrina and work to overcome the fickleness of man(kind), we might create a better world for all. (Yes, I am an idealist at heart, but as a sociologist whose name I can’t remember used to say – strive for perfection even though you know you won’t achieve it fully).

Other films by Jans Rautenbach:

Jannie Totsiens (with English subtitles) (1971)

Pappa Lap (1971)

Ongewensde Vreemdelinge (with English subtitles) (1974)

Eendag op ‘n reendag (1975)

Blink Stefans (1981)

Broer Matie (1984)

 

 

 

Detained

On my last visit to Rwanda I discovered the book Detained: A writer’s prison diary by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Many years ago now, I think it was about 2011, I heard him speak on education in Dar es Salaam and have found him an attraction since.

Detained, written during his incaceration by Jomo Kenyatta’s government post independence was a fascinating and insightful read. Where the other books (more later) I’d read by detained people had been under colonial powers, this was the first by someone who had participated, in his own way, in the independence struggle of his country, Kenya. Now he was believed to be an ‘enemy of the state’. During his stay, Ngugi was able to write a novel and keep this record of his experiences and thoughts – all recorded on toilet paper. As a fellow author, my heart dropped along with his when we recounted how a search of his cubicle led to the removal and anticipated destruction of his creation. Similarly, on the return of the document, my heart soared. I’ve lost writing on my computer before and know the anxiety of wondering whether the back-up will work etc.

Other fascinating insights included how the prisoners communicated to each other, how they could pick up on news despite the black-out and how they dealt with bullies. What was also intriguing was Ngugi’s discussion on religion – how he became aware of Islam and the differences with Christianity. Perhaps society can learn something from this…

The other two books by detainees that stick in my mind are Ruth First’s 117 Days and Winnie Mandela’s Part of My Soul.

I recall 117 Days being an emotional read – how Ruth managed to survive all they did to her and her resiliance in not giving in to what she believed was right. I couldn’t put it better than this blogger.

It may seem a bit odd having a ghost-written autobiography by Winnie Mandela included but in her early days as an activist she was someone to be admired. Winnie’s detention was quite different to both Ngugi’s and Ruth’s. She was under house arrest in Brandfort in the Orange Free State during Nelson’s early days on Robben Island. Again, how Winnie coped with her situation and maintained her values was fascinating reading.

In essence, none of the three authors differed much in how they coped. It must be one of mankind’s inbuilt processes.

What made reading Ngugi’s book more poignant is the fact that a friend is currently being detained with few hearing of his well-being. I take hope from those who’ve gone before and survived that he will too. I know prior to his being detained he was working on a book of South African involvement in World War 1 – a project which helped him escape from the harsh realities around him. The day I was meant to get the complete manuscript was the day he was taken. That is now over four months ago.

I can’t help asking myself, what does detaining people in this way achieve? It didn’t change Ngugi, Ruth or Winnie’s outlook on life or what they believed and I don’t think, from the conversations I had with Will that his detention will change his views. And for those doing the detaining? What do they achieve? In the big scheme of things, not much! Apartheid still fell, Jomo Kenyatta died and Kenya continued struggling – we still wait to see what will happen in the Sudan and elsewhere where others are currently detained.

Winnie and Ngugi continued their struggle and still do, whilst Ruth continued hers until she was exterminated by a letter bomb. Will felt strongly about helping those who were being bullied, as did Winnie, Ngugi and Ruth – for me Will is a humanitarian. May he and all others standing up for what they believe be set free soon to help make the world a better place. And as Ngugi so aptly put it – not let the innocent family members and friends suffer simply for their association with the detained person.

 

 

 

Jan Smuts and the Chinese

On 24 May 2016, had he still been alive, Jan Smuts would be 146 years old. For those of you too lazy to do the maths, he was born in 1870.

At the age of 34, whilst out of a government role, Smuts was vexed by what was known in South Africa as the ‘Chinese Question‘ or ‘Problem’. Following the Anglo-Boer War (South African War) of 1899-1902, Lord Milner had arranged for Chinese labour to work on the South African gold mines as local black labour was not forthcoming and there was not enough white labour prepared to work at the unskilled labour rates of pay. Getting the mines operational after the war was vital for the economy and to cover the costs of the war. But, for the likes of Smuts, Botha and other South African politicians, the introduction of another racial group into the already volatile melting pot of Southern Africa was anathema.

Smuts felt strongly about this as noted in his letter to JX Merriman on 31 August 1905 (Hancock, vol 2):

You are quite right, the Chinese business is contaminating the very well-spring of our national and social life, and I feel sure that we shall not soon get another such opportunity for getting rid of it as now. Feeling in the Transvaal has been profoundly stirred; those people (along the Rand) who were for sordid reasons in favour of Chinese labour repent and suffer bitterly now … the question is great enough to found its own party, which will yet be the most powerful in South Africa – unless we are really going to be an annexe of China, a Hong Kong…

The last Chinese labourers were eventually sent back in 1910.

This was not the end of Smuts’ dealings wiht the Chinese, however. During World War 1, whilst he was commander in chief of the forces operating in East Africa, he would have encountered the Chinese Contingent. Unfortunately little is known of the work these men did in the theatre other than what Steve Lau has brought to light and which he shared at the 2016 Great War in Africa Conference.

South Africa, however, has retained a relationship with China in some form since these early days. Chinese restaurants provide a tangible link – interestingly during Apartheid Chinese people were classified as black, whilst Japanese were classified white. Yet dispensations were clearly given: there was a Chinese restuarant (Golden Lake) in the Boksburg Lake grounds for as long as I can remember.

Today, China itself is economically involved in developing infrastructure and providing loans to African governments.

Did Smuts forsee this development way back in 1905?

It might be worth a mention that Smuts’ World War 1 nemesis, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck fought the Chinese during the Boxer Rebellion.