50 years ago?

2014-01-31 00:00

FIFTY is apparently no more noteworthy than any other number with a zero. There is, however, an allure to the idea of a century, although almost all of us fail to achieve such longevity. So half a century takes on added meaning and the passage of 50 years has undoubted significance in our lives. What was South Africa like in 1964?

It was in the process of descending into the very depths of apartheid. Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was at the height of his powers, pushing an aggressive policy of limited self-government for what he and his government regarded as the country’s black African nations. Effective opponents were treated with extreme hostility, and as the Institute of Race Relations put it: “There has been a growing demand for conformity and blind loyalty to the State”.

Mass-based opposition to the government, the Congress movement and the Pan Africanist Congress, had been banned four years earlier and now existed well underground or in exile.

Apart from the conclusion to the Rivonia Trial on June 13, when Nelson Mandela and ANC comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage, several other trials effectively rolled up the resistance movement inside the country for the next 10 years. There were, however, sporadic, symbolic attacks on infrastructure especially after the Rivonia verdict and seizures of radio transmitters and explosives. On July 24, the Johannesburg Station bomb, intended as propaganda, tragically resulted in a fatality. Further trials resulted in the imprisonment of members of MK (Wilton Mkwayi and Billy Nair), the National Liberation Front (Neville Alexander), African Resistance Movement (Baruch Hirson) and the Communist Party (Paul Trewhela and Costas Gazides).

More fortunate opposition figures, such as the Bernsteins and Slovos, illegally crossed the border to the High Commission Territories, the beginning of the escape route to East Africa. Falling into the hands of the security police was no light matter. Ninety-day detention, in its first fully operational year, was legally designed for interrogation but used for a variety of intimidatory purposes. Detainees were put beyond the effective reach of the courts, at the mercy of the police, and in 1964, Suliman Saloojee was one of those who died as a consequence. Even at this stage, leading psychologists were protesting that solitary confinement amounted to torture. For the while, Defence and Aid still functioned inside the country supporting political prisoners.

South Africa was by now a fully functioning police state for all communities. The latest General Law Amendment Act introduced recurrent prison terms for recalcitrant witnesses. The Publications Act ensured that 10 000 titles were by now banned, notoriously the cases of Wilbur Smith’s When the Lion Feeds and Lionel Attwell’s multiracial playNothing but the Truth. All imported paperbacks were examined by customs officials, while hardbacks were embargoed selectively. The exhaustive Press Commission ended after 13 years. Its massive report of over 4 000 pages dealt with outgoing press coverage on racial and political matters, and it came to the staggering conclusion that 93% was faulty or bad. In the face of improved readership of opposition newspapers, the commission recommended a statutory press council and the registration of those journalists with access to cable facilities. The increasingly propagandist South African Broadcasting Corporation ran a series menacingly called Know Your Enemy.

Four hundred people were listed as communists and another 300 banned and subjected to a range of up to 24 restrictions, including house arrest and exclusion from places of employment. For other government opponents, especially leaders of rural resistance to apartheid, there was banishment. In 1964, Saleem Badat has calculated, 78 people were banished, mostly to remote and arid parts of the country, where work was scarce and amenities generally non-existent.

Those trying to reach across the widening racial divide in politics, such as members of the Liberal Party, were subject to banning orders and denial of passports. Other channels, such as the churches, were used to counter the heightened segregation demanded by the government. The newly formed Christian Institute was bizarrely attacked as a front for communism and Beyers Naudé was just beginning his long struggle with the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk.

Transkei already had a chief minister and very limited self-government, and elsewhere the continued removal of so-called black spots was a signal of intent to consolidate the bantustans. Some of the major examples in 1964 were around Ladysmith and Newcastle, while Hammarsdale was being promoted as a site for border industry. The passing of the Bantu Laws Amendment Act, the growing power of labour bureaux and a tightening of regulations in urban areas reflected the fact that to the National Party government, Africans were primarily a commodity, temporary sojourners in South Africa in the words of Helen Suzman — effectively the only opposition member of Parliament. Business and industry, alarmed by the economic if not the sociopolitical consequences, urged the relaxation of influx control.

The Rivonia sentences put South Africa on a collision course with the United Nations and other international organisations. A number, such as the International Labour Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, made moves towards expelling South Africa, which voluntarily withdrew. There were early signs of trade and arms embargoes and the sports boycott. The Tokyo Olympics took place in October, but South Africa, although still a member of the IOC, had its invitation withdrawn. South African Airways started flying round the bulge of West Africa to Europe as airspace was closed, while the threat to oil imports persuaded South African Railways to stick to steam engines for the time being.

Elsewhere, the world was ploughing a diametrically opposed furrow. Africa was rapidly being politically decolonised, with Kenya the latest nation to achieve independence, while the state of Tanzania was created. As French forces finally left Algeria, anti-Portuguese insurgency picked up in Mozambique. Rhodesia was, of course, the exception and Ian Smith was elected prime minister on a ticket that included the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence. In the United States, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, prohibiting racial discrimination in public places and workplaces, and in labour unions. It was the crucial breakthrough in the struggle for racial equality, symbolised by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King jnr. In the same year, Sidney Poitier became the first black American to win an Oscar.

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of white South Africa in the mid-sixties was its defiant sense of difference. The rest of the world was perpetually out of step. Some diehards genuinely believed that it would eventually be persuaded to see things South Africa’s way. There is a puzzling shortage of writing on South Africa during this decade, but the novelist Christopher Hope has provided a number of memorable insights. In his autobiography he wrote that “we knew that anything that looked even remotely interesting, or lively, or original was likely to be either unobtainable, illegal or would shortly be banned”. It was a society dominated by a dour white patriarchy that (in Hope’s words again) subscribed to a philosophy “so compelled by its own nightmares that it presides over every activity from bowel movements to burials”. In his poem Somehow We Survive, Dennis Brutus wrote: “All our land is scarred with terror, rendered unlovely and unlovable …”. Such was apartheid South Africa 50 years ago.

• letters@witness.co.za

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