There were random stops to make sure blacks were carrying their mandated ‘passes’ and any question of authenticity led to severe beatings and arrests.
As I lay awake at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, watching the memorial services for Nelson Mandela, a/k/a Madiba, my mind raced back involuntarily to the memories of my 19 years growing up in Johannesburg during apartheid. For the first time in 66 years I felt the weight of the guilt somewhat lift from my youthful past, having witnessed first hand the despicable, violent and oppressive policies of the white minority, outnumbered four to one, over their black “servants.”
I was just a young boy, growing up in an upper-middle-class white neighborhood. My parents were hardly sympathizers of the ruling Nationalist Party, but like many others they did very little to vocalize their opposition for genuine fear of the repercussions. They employed two wonderful black “servants,” Robert and Anna, with whom I developed a close relationship. They lived in the servant’s quarters behind our main residence, without heat or hot water. They waited on the family hand and foot, every day, with one day off a week, for very little compensation.
My environment was saturated with the laws of apartheid propaganda “European [White] Only” signage everywhere, including public transportation, bathrooms, park benches, etc. The visibility of the police was omnipresent. I don’t recall a day when I did not observe law enforcement (which, by the way, included blacks amongst its ranks) harass the black population, often with such violence that it is indelibly cast in my mind.
There were random stops to make sure blacks were carrying their mandated “passes” and any question of authenticity led to severe beatings and arrests. The police vehicles, called the “Black Maria,” carried those apprehended to places unknown. I can’t count the numerous times Robert was arrested because he had emigrated from his homeland in Malawi to South Africa to, ironically, find a better way of life. Fortunately, my father was a man of some influence who was always able to secure his release and, to my relief, his return “home.”
In 1948, the ruling Nationalist governments that succeeded World War II Prime Minister Jan Smuts were headed up by Prime Ministers Daniel Malan, Johannes Strijdom, Hendrik Verwoerd, Balthazar “John” Vorster and Pieter Botha. They were so paranoid of being overrun by the black majority that they caused laws to be enacted to assure complete white minority control. Anyone who opposed the Nationalist Party platform was branded as a “communist” by virtue of legislation beginning with the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. Anyone arrested under this legislation could he held in custody without any formal charges ever being brought. The extent to which these laws went can best be demonstrated by the passage of the “Immorality Act,” which carried the death penalty for any illicit romantic or sexual relationship between white and a black.
I vividly remember the 1964 Rivonia Trials, at which Mandela and many of his fellow African National Congress (ANC) members were tried for treason and ultimately sentenced to death, with the sentences eventually commuted to life in prison and banishment to desolate Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. (I was fortunate enough to visit it in 2010 with my two children and our silence said it all!). How Mandela and others survived there for over 20 years of imprisonment in the horrendous conditions and came out the leader and proponent of “Reconciliation” is beyond comprehension.
In high school, I affiliated myself with Helen Suzman and her Progressive Party. She was elected to Parliament from a primarily Jewish district, running on the platform that apartheid must end. This was the beginning of the end, though no one really quite saw it then. I was dating a girl who came from a family that was clearly supportive of the Nationalist Party. One evening I had the audacity to invite Anna and Robert to join me at the dining room table for dinner. The girl reported it to her parents and, while I was unable to confirm it, there was no doubt in my mind that my parent’s home phones were tapped and I was being “observed.” I honestly believed my detention was imminent. I was just about to graduate high school and decided I needed to get out of the country. Cowardly? Maybe! But in 1967, at the first chance I got, I left for Israel, convinced that a violent end to apartheid was inevitable, but for a miracle.
That miracle was Mandela! The white-only Nationalist government lasted almost another 25 years after my departure. To his credit, then-President F.W. de Klenk knew he only had one option to avoid massive bloodshed: the release of Mandela from prison.
Mandela’s tenure as elected president was brief (by his own choosing), but by his living presence his successors upheld his enlightened policy of peaceful reconciliation. His successor, current President Jacob Zuma is no Nelson Mandela and corruption is rampant. The cohesiveness that Mandela’s presence brought has slowly but unequivocally eroded. Will it last? I have some genuine doubts but when I watched the world’s eye on the memorial service as well as the genuine mourning of his passing by blacks and white, I am reservedly optimist.
I must keep in mind the divine spirit of Madiba during his “after-life” as a genuine flame of hope. Divisiveness within that highly technological society must be avoided at all costs. Civil liberties and the due process of law must remain sacrosanct for all. There is no choice. The consequences of failure are unacceptable and potentially catastrophic. •