Christ Episcopal Church, Reading
With all that’s happening in the United States presently, I’m reminded of very similar circumstances during the time I spent in South Africa preceding that country’s first free and truly democratic election in 1994.
When I went to South Africa with my ex-wife and two children in December of 1989, I was unprepared for how successfully the apartheid government had manipulated the fears of their citizenry. With few exceptions, the National Party (NP) controlled the media as well as the courts, government, military, police, commerce, etc. For those in the NP, the white supremacist Conservative Party (CP) and the even more radical Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), black lives mattered little or not at all making South Africa an international pariah. And yet, in the context of South Africa’s total population, these unapologetic racists were relatively few in number. So how did they do it? How did so few control so many? By nurturing racial bigotry, controlling information and keeping people separated. In this manner, they created a country run on fear and constantly on the edge of violence.
It must be understood that following the release of political prisoners, the unbanning of political parties and culminating with the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, expectations and hopes of a bright future for South Africa were exuberantly alive in the heart of nearly every native born South African I met. Though I spent the majority of my time in Soweto, this was apparent regardless of race. Most black, so-called colored, asian, indian, and – yes, indeed – even most white South Africans were excited with anticipation of a new inclusive dispensation. I was witness to this outpouring of hope, joy and forgiveness joining the very racially diverse crowd of people celebrating Madiba’s release at his humble home in Orlando West, Soweto on Feb. 13, 1990.
But the years between 1990 and 1994 were not filled with those happy feelings of hope within South Africa. In fact, apartheid’s bloodiest years occurred in ’91 and ’92 during the political negotiations eventually leading to the formation of the Government of National Unity. The NP – fearing that it would not only lose political control of the country but also face a deadly racial uprising - formulated one final, despicable but effective lie. Black-on-black violence. How could the people of South Africa and global leaders support a new government with these people in charge?!
On nearly a daily basis, South African news media was filled with stories of one group of blacks killing and maiming another group of blacks. Often reports described Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters attacking African National Congress (ANC) supporters or vice versa. At that time, the IFP was a political party predominately black and Zulu speaking while the ANC was a political party predominately black and Xhosa speaking. Though the violence, sadly, was all too real, the reasons behind the violence as described by the media were completely false. The truth is that the military and police were supplying weapons and training to groups of black men for the purpose of mercilessly attacking (usually) unarmed groups of black men, women, children and elderly folk. And it wasn’t politically motivated – at least not by any of the black political parties.
How could the military and police really achieve such a thing?! Why would any black man take up a weapon and kill someone of his own race? It was very common for black South African men to travel great distances from their homes in order to earn a living in the mines around Johannesburg. They would generally find accommodation in one of the hostels owned by the mining company. The majority of this labor force came from Zululand. A bonus for the NP was the fact that in the early history of South Africa, Zulus and Xhosas had difficulty getting along.
Equipped with easy-to-come-by information – names, addresses, ages, etc. - the military and police would intimidate these displaced men in the hostels with threats to the lives of their wives, children and other family members back in Zululand. They would also try to stir up the old animosities by playing on tribal intolerance. The reliable recipe of capitalizing on fear and keeping people apart continued to work well for the NP.
It was a heart breaking time to be in South Africa. So many dead. And the truth, known by most everyone living in the black townships, deliberately being hidden by those controlling the media. Strangely though - perhaps due to the sheer shamelessness of the SA military and police - no attempt was made to disguise the delivery of weapons to the men in the hostels. I saw this for myself in broad daylight. I suppose there’s no need to be covert when you dictate the news.
Without a doubt the tragic loss of so many innocent lives, the unceasing, relentless fear of attack and the hopelessness of ever realizing a just outcome brought the country to the very brink of a violent civil war. And, I’m convinced - without the leadership of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Thambo, Walter Sisulu, Desmond Tutu and many others - South Africa would have become ensnared in such a war.
But they escaped.
They didn’t escape by loading up the guns and firing back and it’s not because there weren’t any guns around. It’s a safe bet that there’s at least as many or more guns per capita in South Africa as there are here in the USA.
They didn’t escape because they were too afraid or ill-equipped to fight back. I attended rallies where people cried out to ANC leaders for permission to get their weapons out of hiding and strike back.
They didn’t escape because the NP, military, police and media suddenly had a huge change of heart and repented. No apologies were offered. No reasonable act of atonement was made.
They escaped because when their leaders told them to hold on, to not strike back, to throw their guns away – the people listened and, in the midst of their own heartache and loss, they obeyed. Eventually, a bright, new future came to South Africa. The election in 1994 and the difficult but vital work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission begun 20 years ago helped to restore the basic human need for justice and respect. In so doing, the ‘rainbow nation’ as coined by Bishop Desmond Tutu once again begins to hope.
I wonder if we’ll find a way out of all this fear and intolerance together. Certainly there’s a real need for each of us to examine ourselves and weigh our own motives as there is the need for honest answers regarding the proper use of force by those in authority. No police agency should be motivated by any type of bigotry – but then neither should any one of us! And if each of us arrives at the conclusion that the only way we can protect ourselves and our families is by buying a weapon and being constantly suspicious of one another than I doubt we will succeed.
As Americans we don’t much care for the connotation of words like heed, submission, and obedience. Who knows better than ourselves what’s best for us? And if my opinion happens to conflict with yours why should either of us seek common ground? Why not just arm ourselves, let our fears and prejudice overwhelm us and then one day, explode! Why not stoke our fears and prejudice by believing in the banal rantings of those who say, “Look there! Those people are the real problem! Let’s build a wall!” Let’s justify our intolerance and separate ourselves from one another and let the fear take over. But if that’s the way you want to go, please realize - it’s all been done before. And it ends badly.
If we really want a way out of all this fear and intolerance, maybe we ought to – at least for a moment - look within ourselves before doing anything else.
[A member of Christ Church, Reading, Cliff Buckwalter, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a carpenter and serves as property manager at the church. During the early 1990s he successfully developed a skills-based curriculum for young black people (teens and early 20's) with learning disabilities in Soweto, South Africa.]