What were we thinking?

2009-11-05 00:00

THE End Conscription Campaign (ECC) has just celebrated, in rather grand style, its 25th anniversary. It was never a large organisation, but it sure as hell was a brave one. It was not an easy thing to stand up against virtually all of one’s cohorts and face the real wrath of the state.

For myself, I took a different path. I left the country and went to live with my then spouse in Lesotho. For the record, if there is one, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some of the impulses which made me do that.

I did not come from any kind of activist background. I grew up in a white neighbourhood, with standard middle-class values and perspectives on life. Among some of these values was the firm belief that white people were better than black people. That was just a fact of human existence. No one, in our neighbourhood apparently, ever questioned that.

My parents, good people (not very educated, underexposed and both having run away from being classified “coloured” in Cape Town), were not going to explore the possibility that blacks might be anything other than second-rate citizens. Neither their world, nor their upbringing, nor their personal condition would allow them to do that. They were willing captives of apartheid. They knew very well that it was to their benefit to keep it going and to protect it. So when the time came for their sons to get conscripted, they had no qualms about it.

My brother, 10 years older than me, and not one for any form of conflict, did his duty. I went as a child to his passing-out parade. There was lots of marching and guns and cannon firing. He had “done his duty”.

But I was always rather different from him. I have always been told that I am a natural rebel — a charge I do not accept, but it does allow for some easy explanation of my actions. It was not that I had come into contact with Communists, or African National Congress people or even the white left. My ex-wife, Jane, and I decided to leave the country when all other options ended because we were young and because, being young, we could take risks that would not have been possible if we were not.

That was fundamental. We were young. We were rebellious, but not in the extreme. And both of us shared the highly extraordinary idea that the South African Defence Force (SADF) was not fighting a just or necessary war. And that, fundamentally, apartheid was wrong. I can’t even remember how we arrived at that position, because neither of us were particularly active in politics at university.

What did have a fairly profound impact on my life was the church, both in terms of the liturgy and in terms of the kinds of people I met in it at that time, really great teachers, such as John Suggit and New Testament Professor Douglas Bax, who taught me systematic theology, together with Felicity Edwards. These were not radicals, theologically or otherwise, but they had a moral integrity which inevitably led to a sense of and a desire for justice.

And when we took the decision to leave the country, we knew, for ourselves, that we were crossing a Rubicon, because there would be no going back. I wish, so very much, that more white people could have had that experience. Because I know for myself that had I stayed behind and gone into the army and just put up with it, I would know a great deal less now than had I not had that exile experience. It is something for which I am eternally grateful. And I think it was so meaningful and important precisely because I was not politically involved enough prior to leaving. I simply could not have begun to understand anything of what the consequences were going to be on my life and how I would be remoulded because of it.

This is one of the big problems about our so-called “miracle” revolution. There was no re-education of people. So what happened, by and large, is that we all just carried on, basically unchanged. Whites, breathed a sigh of relief and realised that if they just shifted over slightly from their hard-fought position of extraordinary privilege, they could carry on fairly undisturbed. At the same time they started the petulance and insistent moaning which has characterised the group since then.

Blacks, on the other hand, started heading for the trough and their snouts have been firmly buried there ever since. We all erected a smiling, dancing figure of Nelson Mandela in the business hub of the country and Desmond Tutu called us the Rainbow Nation; everything was just hunky dory.

Certain topics became untouchable — like culture and socialism, and intellectual debate got dumbed down so completely that we have lost any inkling of what it means. American culture and Chinese goods swept through the country. And high levels of crime, even in the highest places, became the accepted norm. Twenty-five years later, that is where we find ourselves. I suppose it could be a lot worse, but it certainly could be a whole lot better.

What were we thinking back then? I know this much. We wanted a country we could all be proud to belong to. We wanted a nonracial and nonsexist country. We wanted a country where we could live without fear and where the poor, especially, were given houses, education, access to health care, jobs, decent living conditions and security. We wanted peace.

And have we got these things now? Not enough. And the clock ticks on. And I can only ask: what if we reach 20 years of democracy and there are still people with no houses, no jobs, no education and no sense of self-worth, because of the terrible toll that corruption, greed and government inefficiency exact? Do we honestly think they will just keep quiet?

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