Always looking for answers

2008-07-25 00:00

The name of Mary de Haas usually comes prefixed with “the KwaZulu-Natal violence monitor”, an ackowledgement of her involvement in the documentation of political violence in this province since the mid-eighties. Asked to describe herself, and after giving the matter some thought, she says: “I’m an anthropologist — it’s a discipline that is about the study of humanity.

“Ever since I was a child I have asked myself how humans can do such terrible things to each other,” says De Haas, who was born during World War 2 in the British city of Portsmouth, a key naval base which was heavily bombed. “The war informed my growing up. I grew up with the question in my mind about war: how does one stop war?”

The question was further provoked by childhood reading. “I loved Enid Blyton, but also read a lot of adult stuff from a fairly early age, including World War 2 books which were all the rage in the fifties. But being like an only child — my only brother is 10 years older than me — I spent a lot of time in adult company where there was a lot of discussion about subjects such as history and religion — my mother was very much into English history — and the bloodiness of it quite scared me, and reinforced my questioning about human behaviour.”

Her father was another influence. An instrumentation specialist by profession, he was also a first-aider with both the St John Ambulance Brigade and the Red Cross. “In Portsmouth he did first aid for the victims of the air raids. When the Durban ice rink opened he was on duty the first night and I got a free ticket.”

Her family came to Durban in 1946. “My dad got a job offer, they were looking for people with skills.

“Durban has always been my home in South Africa, although I once lived in Holland,” she says. “My late husband was in the merchant marine.” Which explains her surname and the fact she has four adult children. “And that’s as much as I’ll say about family.”

De Haas was educated at Convent High School, the St Andrew’s Street building that now houses the Diakonia Council of Churches, the ecumenical social justice organisation created by Archbishop Denis Hurley in 1976. “When I joined Diakonia I was the first non-church member,” says De Haas. “I really believed that the different churches and faiths should come together and become involved with the vision of social justice.”

That vision still lay ahead. De Haas admits to being unambitious when she left school with no set ideas about her future. “I did a secretarial diploma. My parents said at least do that and you’ll have something to fall back on. It was really useful, it taught me to type.”

Somewhere ambition must have kicked in as De Haas is a qualified social worker and has a masters in anthropology awarded for her research on African marriage and divorce. Her experience as a social worker includes marriage counselling with the Family and Marriage Association of South Africa (Famsa) and a position as part-time principal of a children’s home. “I didn’t want a full-time job until my youngest child was at primary school.”

When that time came De Haas obtained a post at the then University of Natal in the department of anthropology where she lectured for 20 years, retiring as programme director of anthropology at the end of 2002. De Haas also ran courses at the university’s medical school and remains a member of the university’s Biomedical Research Ethics Committee.

But, since 1979, research has been her main activity; research into marriage and divorce, informal sector activities relating to the sale of liquor, traditional leaders, the role of customs and culture in contemporary society and the meaning of ethnic identity, and policing. “I also served on the Research Committee on Farm Violence appointed by the national Minister of Safety and Security.”

De Haas’s main motivation is humanitarian. “I’m not a party political animal,” she says, “although I was a member of the PFP (Progressive Federal Party) in the eighties, when it seemed to be the only internal opposition.”

In that decade De Haas was one of the few white people who regularly spent time in the townships. “Anthropology is a really hands-on discipline, you are physically there. You spend hours of time with people and you develop close relationships with them, and it was these relationships that started it all off — I would get phoned and be told ‘warlords are coming to attack us’.”

The PFP set up an unrest monitoring group and De Haas and others familiar with the townships were asked to assist. “They wanted people to help deal with the violence, to gather affidavits.” A formidable amount of information was assembled and then it was suggested it be made accessible. “So I did a summary report in 1988 and from 1989 starting doing regular reports.” These reports have continued ever since and can be found on the website www.violencemonitor.com

In the days before the Internet, reports were sent to the media, to diplomats and to business people. “What was happening in the townships was totally different from what was being reported in the newspapers. The summaries were to say, ‘look, this is the other side of the story and it’s not getting told’.”

So what was happening? The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) was colluding with the state against the liberation movements. De Haas recalls the protests over Lamontville being incorporated into KwaZulu. “They were protesting against apartheid but the IFP opposed them. You could see police Casspirs going in with Inkatha warlords on board. It was a case of apartheid and its surrogates against the others. It wasn’t just the UDF versus the IFP. It was the UDF against the apartheid state, and the IFP was part of that.”

“No one believed me,” recalls De Haas. She was vindicated by the findings of the Goldstone Commission and, later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Since her retirement from teaching in 2002 De Haas has continued her research and interventionist work on violence and human rights abuses. “There is not as much violence as before but there is selected targeting and killing of councillors and activists, especially before elections.”

Land issues are an increasing feature of her reports. “The land issue is going to cause major destabilisation if not handled properly,” she says. “The Land Expropiation Bill is the most wrong piece of legislation I’ve seen. It opens the door to all sorts of disasters.”

She is also concerned at attempts to interfere with the Constitutional Court system. “It is imperative that this structure remains a pillar of integrity, including through the type of judges appointed to it.”

De Haas is not overly concerned about South Africa’s future. “I’m more worried about the short term — the lead-up to elections next year. There is too much emphasis on politics and politicians. There is this cult of the leader — but that’s not what modern politics is about. Everyone blames Thabo Mbeki but he doesn’t run the show single-handed.”

Given her full and undoubtedly stressful life, how does De Haas relax? “I garden,” she says. “Eight years ago I started planting indigenous. Cutting, digging, clearing, it’s very therapeutic. And the garden is an affirmation of life when I’m dealing with death and death threats and death all the time.”

She also walks her dogs. “I currently have a very obstreperous puppy.”

And, proof that the child is mother of the woman, she reads. “A lot of non-fiction. A lot of popular science. I missed out at school — there was no science for girls at school in those days — so I’m catching up. I also read fiction, but am quite choosy, mainly because there is so much non-fiction I want to read, and I don’t have all that much time for reading. I enjoy dipping into poetry regularly, and also have favourite Afrikaans poetry.”

She’s also fascinated by pre-history and ancient civilisations. “I had thought of being either an archaeologist or astronomer as a child and often dip into the many books I have on those subjects.”

Ancient worlds, other planets, but back on Earth De Haas is definitely in Durban. “I see my place as being here,” she says. “I feel a committment and that while I’m here I’ve got to help, because people are asking for help. I’ve been lucky in that I have a loving family, people around me who love me, a good education, my children went to good schools, I have a comfortable home. Sure I’ve had my share of bad times like everyone else — but in my position I have an obligation to help my fellow human beings.”

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