Thirty-three out of one hundred

2012-01-11 00:00

I JOINED the African National Congress in 1979. It was in Lesotho. I had left South Africa as a war resister. That was all I had done. Soweto 1976 came and went. I read the headlines with rising alarm. I was a student at a very right-wing university, at the time — Rhodes University. We were all white students. There were a couple among us mad enough (or brave enough) to join the National Union of South African Students (Nusas). But not me.

Steve Biko was killed. The news was told to me by a black stranger on the streets of Grahamstown. He was in shock — that was clear. He said what I thought was “Steve Peacock is dead!” I tried to look sympathetic, but had no idea what he might be talking about. I only later found out that it was Biko as all the headlines screamed at me — and still I was none the wiser. Who was Biko? I had never heard of him.

I remember that some of us were captured by Biko’s death. It was horrific — that was clear. We were students. Students protest. So we protested. The Minister of Police at the time tried to tell everyone that Biko had killed himself by not eating for eight days. So we fasted. We would meet once a day at lunch time in the office of the philosophy professor, an enigmatic ex-Methodist minister by the name of James Moulder. We fasted for eight days. And that was it. There was the occasional student protest about stuff I knew nothing about. But that was it. That was my entire experience of the struggle.

Well, not entirely. Up the road from me had lived Eli and Violet Weinberg — communists under house arrest. The Security Police would sit all night long in a car across from our house, watching the Weinberg house. My mother used to chat sometimes with Eli, over the garden fence. She found it odd that a communist would, on a yearly basis, send us a Christmas card.

Just up the road from us in Fanny Avenue, lived a woman called Helen Joseph. My mother had a strange fear of and fascination with her. She was clearly bad news, because she consorted with the natives, but at the same time, my mother admired her principles and the fact that she stood up for them.

It was only when I was a student at Cambridge that I read some of the speeches from the Treason Trial. I read the Freedom Charter. They were a revelation. They determined for me that, no matter what, I would not allow myself to be conscripted. I was lucky enough to have a wife then, who agreed with me and supported me. Together, we decided to leave the country. It was a big thing for us. But that is all it was.

So we encountered a very suspicious ANC in Lesotho. Our first contact was with someone whose name we had been given while inside the country. The reception was chilly. We decided not to push the issue. And so we were watched. Background checks, presumably, were done on us. And, eventually, it became clear that we were to be regarded as comrades, rather than spies. That realisation does not give any sense of the dramatic and dynamic change that was happening inside us.

For the first time in our lives we were living among black people as equals. For the first time in our lives we were interacting with black people at an eyeball-to-eyeball level. For the first time in our lives we were not the baas. Lesotho provided all of us with a foretaste of what liberation might be like. What it might be like to live side by equal side. Cheek by equal jowl.

For many of us, when we found ourselves elsewhere in the world down the years, it was Lesotho that we pined for. Because it was there that we experienced what we could never experience inside South Africa itself. We experienced a unity of purpose. We experienced and we started to live a progressive, revolutionary and life-changing ideal. And once you have crossed over that bridge, you can never go back.

It was black ANC members and the people of Lesotho who gave us back the humanity that apartheid had robbed us of. And this is something I, for one, cannot ever forget. Jacob Zuma held underground meetings in our back bedroom. Tito Mboweni learnt to drive in our Volkswagen Beetle. Ngoako Ramatlhodi ironed his shirts in our living room. Others, with equally big names, bathed in our bath, made tea from our kettle and spent the night on the lounge sofa. And then there were those people, whose real names one never knew until they were killed in one of the two raids which the boers (and I use that term knowingly) executed with such extraordinary cruelty in Lesotho.

I wish, passionately, I wish with every fibre of my being, that every white person in the country could have experienced what we experienced. I wish they could have learnt, as we did, that white people could not lead the struggle. I wish they could have eaten from that same pot. I wish they could have drunk from that same river. Alas, it is impossible.

But you ask me today why I am still a member of the ANC and I will say that it is the ANC that has led this country to a peaceful and successful democratic reality. It has done so with the utmost generosity and grace to the former oppressors. It has done so in a way which has ensured that, against all odds, the country still functions and the economy continues to grow. It has done so without violence. It has done so in a way which has been respectful of culture and heritage and origin. It has never faltered from its commitment to non-racism and non-sexism.

You and I may criticise the ANC. That, in itself, is an amazing achievement. You and I may stare in disbelief at some of the antics of some of its members, but you cannot suggest, if you are in any way honest, that the ANC has failed. That would be not only churlish, it would be fantastically ill-informed.

The ANC has gone through some difficult times of late, but when I compare policy with policy, position with position, principle with principle, I have no doubt where my loyalties lie. And I would suggest that everyone who has come to love and honour that former “terrorist”, who made the difficult decision to opt for armed struggle — Nelson Mandela — should look beyond him to the movement that gave him life and breath and to which he still owes allegiance. Look to the principles of the Freedom Charter. And once you have done that, take courage in the Constitution of the country, which is our joint crowning achievement.

I have been a member of the ANC for 33 of its 100 years. I have had my doubts. I have had my worries. I have had my moments of anger and even rage. But I look back on the 100 years of struggle which this movement has led and I know, beyond any doubt, that I made the right decision way back then. I look at where we are now, and where we could have been, and I know it. I look at the tremendous achievements we have made, and I know it. I look at the peace we enjoy, and I know it. I look at the greed and the gluttony and the shenanigans and the unsupportable nonsense, and I know, beyond any moment of doubt, that the spirit of the Charter and the will of the people will survive it all. We just need to make it so. A luta continua!

 

• Michael Worsnip is Chief Director: Restitution Support for the Western Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

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