On not becoming a useful idiot

2010-05-17 00:00

IT is probably the worst thing you can say about anyone’s political views or actions: hey, you’re a useful idiot. The term was originally used to describe the Soviet government’s views of its sympathisers in the West: these poor sods thought they were in progressive solidarity with the enemies of capitalism and aggression, but they were actually held in contempt by the communists and used as instruments of their own demise. It is one thing to be labelled a traitor, a reactionary, a racist or a radical. But “useful idiot” means you’re a naive, lily-livered, well-meaning buffoon being used against all you stand for without you knowing.

So could Frederik van Zyl Slabbert possibly have been a useful idiot? When he dramatically resigned from the white Parliament to devote his energies to what was then called “extra-parliamentary politics” — meaning the kind of political activities the majority of the citizens were engaged in — PW Botha and his regime called him one, as did some liberals in his own Progressive Federal Party. Leaving “the system” would only further the cause of the radicals and the communists they said. When Slabbert, Breyten Breytenbach and Alex Boraine took a number of pale-faced opinion- formers from inside the country to meet with the exiled ANC leadership in Senegal in 1987, he was again called a useful idiot, again not only by the Botha government but even by white newspaper editors.

And now former president Thabo Mbeki’s biographer, Mark Gevisser, has also used the term. In Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, Gevisser takes obvious pleasure in painting a picture of Mbeki as the great political seducer of white men during the eighties. Gevisser likens to jilted lovers all those white men who liked Mbeki then and came to dislike him intensely after he became first deputy president and then president of the country. I was supposed to be one of those naive dom boere, as, Gevisser believes, was Slabbert.

Gevisser writes that Slabbert and author Andre Brink had a conversation about the Dakar trip many years after the event, when Mbeki was president. They were apparently talking about Mbeki’s attitude to race when Brink “ruefully” said to Slabbert: “We were ‘useful idiots’, weren’t we?” Gevisser reports Slabbert’s response as being that he didn’t feel that way. But Gevisser then quotes from Slabbert’s 1999 memoir in which Slabbert remarked that the ANC had never viewed him as part of the struggle and felt it should neutralise him. And then Gevisser says: “Put simply: he was a useful idiot, wasn’t he?”

I think the only white man properly secured here was Gevisser. He gleefully reports that Mbeki “freely admits to the instrumentalist nature of his affections” during the eighties. He simply wanted to put nervous whiteys at ease about the ANC. When he later “departed from the ‘national reconciliation of Mandela’ to pursue transformation, these white dopes started shouting that this was a ‘different Mbeki’ who ‘never said these things to us’.” Here is Gevisser’s last sentence on the topic: “And, concedes Mbeki, admitting to his complicity in the seduction and its bitter morning after, ‘we probably never did’.”

What silly nonsense. Let me tell Gevisser — and Mbeki — about the Van Zyl I got to know over the past three decades or so.

I first saw Van in 1971. I was a confused, screwed-up kaalvoet boerseun from the Free State trying to learn something about the great world out there by studying at the University of Stellenbosch (with hindsight, it almost sounds like a contradiction). Van and Rocky Gagiano, young lecturers then, were having a political discussion with Piet Vorster, the son of the prime minister (and a student at the time), and a few of his friends in Tollies, the student pub. It was an uneven contest, even though Piet was quite a bright guy. Van was just in another league. I was fascinated by this rugged, goodlooking boer, with his quick mind and wry sense of humour. Back in my home town of Kroonstad, I had been told that lefty whites had dirty long hair, earrings and limp wrists, so this was confusing. If you had told me then that, 16 years later, I would stand with Van and others in the kitchen of the president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, singing Sarie Marais, I would have seriously doubted your sanity.

At the end of 1973, I started working as a journalist at Die Burger, then still the official mouthpiece of the National Party, and the year after I became a member of the first editorial team of Die Burger’s northern sister, Beeld. That was the year Van won the Rondebosch seat for the then Progressive Party and went to Parliament.

I remember as if it was yesterday how my father, a staunch Free State Nat, told me then that he thought Van had wasted his entire future by joining the Progs. “He could have been the prime minister of South Africa within a few years if he stayed with his own people,” my father said. “Hy is die slimste man in die politiek en ’n gebore leier.” (He is the cleverest man in our politics and a born leader.)

I was now working for a newspaper group that saw Van as an enemy of the Afrikaner people, and as someone who was soft on the reds and the blacks. To young Afrikaners like me, and young journalists like me, staying inside the mainstream of Afrikaner nationalism to carve out a good career was a very seductive prospect. But at the same time, most of us were always uncomfortably aware that there was once a promising young Afrikaner like us who had decided to abandon the comfort of the inner circle and had chosen rather to campaign for democracy and human rights.

I next saw Van when I became part of the Naspers newspapers’ parliamentary team in 1978 and he was a driving force behind the opposition to the National Party. But by the end of that parliamentary session, having witnessed the moral bankruptcy and dangerous politics of John Vorster and his henchmen, I had lost my stomach for National Party propaganda. I was duly “banished to the colonies” by my editors and sent to cover Namibia, where the independence process had just started.

My designs of rapid progress through the ranks of the Afrikaans newspapers were now falling apart very quickly as I was confronted by the realities of apartheid and of the apartheid state’s destabilising military policies in neighbouring states. It was my turn to abandon the comfort of the bosom of the volk, and in 1984, I walked over to the other side and became the political correspondent of the Sunday Times and Business Day, which meant my path again crossed Van’s in Parliament. (As it turned out, it wasn’t the other side at all, just the other side of the same side.)

This time, my employers and colleagues didn’t think it inappropriate for me to be seen talking to the leader of the official opposition and my friendship with Van started. For many years, there was always an undertone of resentment in my relationship with him. I knew I wasn’t stupid, I knew I was a good journalist and I was working hard, yet I never had Van’s uncanny ability to see through the clutter, to grasp the bigger picture of the political developments around us. In the three decades I have spent reporting on the politics of our region, I have never met anyone who could analyse trends as quickly and as clearly as Van. He had a bullshit detector like few others.

In later years, my political views and analysis often differed from Van’s, but I never doubted the wisdom of his dramatic decision in 1986 to resign from the white Parliament. In fact, I think most political analysts, including Van himself, have underestimated the impact of that decision on the thinking of both the ruling Nats at the time and the political leadership of black South Africans. The damage to the legitimacy and credibility of the white-dominated Parliament was fatal. And that was a good thing.

Van told me of his decision to quit several days before the event. It was a hot story, a significant story. I was the political correspondent of the biggest newspaper in the country, and yet I could not even tell my girlfriend what I knew before it actually happened.

Van’s resignation speech was one of his best. I still remember clearly seeing the utter shock in the eyes of Botha and his men when, at the end of the speech, Van declared he was leaving Parliament.

When Van asked me to be part of the Dakar initiative of 1987, I did not hesitate, although I knew very well that taking part in such a high-profile political event would make my job as a political correspondent for a mainstream newspaper completely untenable.

Van explained to me that he believed such a symbolic act, establishment Afrikaners travelling to West Africa and meeting the leadership of the banned liberation movement, would help break the impasse in the deadly politics of repression and resistance of the late eighties. It would be risky, he said, but unless something went badly wrong it would probably have the effect of telling both sides of the conflict that a negotiated settlement would not only be desirable, but would not be so hard to achieve.

Of course he was right. And despite everything said afterwards by the ANC, the white establishment or the government and its security apparatus, this was all Van had in mind, all he wanted to achieve.

Within months of our return from Dakar, despite the hysterical reaction, the dominant white attitude had shifted towards negotiation politics, and students, business leaders, academics and writers started having meetings with the ANC in neighbouring states. Less than eight months after Dakar, the head of the National Intelligence Service, Niel Barnard, had his first meeting with Nelson Mandela in jail, and shortly afterwards he and other senior spooks had a series of clandestine meetings with Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and others in Europe.

The Dakar safari was a brave and visionary thing to do. It also changed the views of the ANC leadership, despite the statements later made by Mbeki and others that the whole thing was a controlled exercise from their side. I was there, I know that was not true. The one ANC delegate who did admit to a change of heart about white South Africans and Afrikaners after Dakar was Kader Asmal. In August 2003, he told a meeting of the National Business Initiative that before Dakar the only Afrikaners he had met were security policemen and immigration officials.

After the Dakar meeting, most of us went on to visit Ghana and Burkina Faso as guests of their presidents. That was when we sang Sarie Marais to Thomas Sankara and his cabinet, who had just treated us to a rendition of some of their folk and liberation songs. It was while we were in Ouagadougou that we received the first faxes of South African newspaper coverage and comment on our trip. It was truly depressing. We were sitting around the hotel pool talking about this when Van and Beyers Naude challenged me. If you are so disillusioned about South Africa, and especially Afrikaans journalism, why don’t you do something about it?

The result of that conversation was the founding, a year later, of Vrye Weekblad, the first anti-apartheid newspaper in Afrikaans. Chairperson of the board: Van Zyl Slabbert. We were a wild, hard-living bunch of media terrorists and we must have embarrassed Van many times with our antics. And yet Van remained the one figure we could count on for support and advice (and occasionally money) right to the end.

Helen Suzman was wrong about him: when it really counted, Van did have staying power.

Van and many of us who went to Dakar came back with the message to everyone who wanted to listen: the ANC is made up of pragmatic, reasonable people the white establishment could do business with. And all of us added — take Mbeki, for instance, an intelligent, insightful, urbane man largely untouched by the paranoia and Stalinism associated with a Marxist movement in exile engaged in an armed struggle.

Van’s falling out with Mbeki has been documented elsewhere. Let me just say that I found objectionable the suggestion that Mbeki had seduced a gullible Van for his own purposes. The simple truth is that as much as Mbeki was the ANC’s Dr Jekyll before 1994, he became its Mr Hyde after 1999. From the man who walked onto the Dakar stage declaring “I am an Afrikaner” he became a mean, narrow Africanist, calling white South Africans “settlers” and Afrikaners “colonials of a special kind”. When he was running around Western capitals playing the suave, pipe-smoking, whisky-drinking super-diplomat, Mbeki was a confident and charismatic man. When he was thrown in the deep end of South African politics, he became paranoid and insecure, and tended to surround himself with sycophants. He didn’t seduce Van and dump him when Van had served his purpose.

Mbeki felt deeply threatened by Van’s intellect, personality and charisma, and needed to ice him out of the political system, as he did with several other political figures. In the end, Mbeki’s own party couldn’t stand his manipulative behaviour any longer and dumped him.

There are very few South African politicians in history who could retire with their credibility and self-respect intact. Van Zyl Slabbert is one of them.


• This article appeared in The Passion for Reason: Essays in Honour of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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