As our country faces unprecedented civil action against our president, I thought I’d write up an article to demonstrate to my white countrymen that we do in fact have a history of resistance to draw inspiration from when others try to undermine or deny our right to civil action. Some events are worth repeating and others are warnings on how not to go about things. In everything we do, non-violence and maintaining the principled high-ground is paramount. I can already see Woke eyes rolling but this article isn’t for you.
White South Africans get a lot of flack in their country of birth; justifiably so as more of us enjoy a level of prosperity and comfort than our actual proportion of the South African population (8%) would imply. We enjoy this relative comfort and prosperity because we were able to amass wealth and safety nets during a period where the cards were artificially stacked in our favour, and this dynamic has persisted into the present, allowing ourselves and our children to similarly benefit from the unfair odds. Many of us know this though and we feel awful about it; so awful that we don’t feel like we have the right to speak up or take a stand in our own country. Indeed, one of the central tenets of allyship for those trying to do good from a position of privilege is to take a step back, shut up and let the marginalised drive the agenda, which is what many of us having being doing. As a result, white South Africans have been caricatured into a handful of stereotypes such as the paternal and gently patronising liberal that continually undermines real efforts for change, the apolitical hipster more worried about his craft beer than his neighours’ struggles, and the Sandton kugel distracted by the gossip on her phone as she dangerously weaves her Mini through town oblivious to the plight of the oppressed.
As white South Africans, we’ve bought into these stereotypes and many more without any attempts to reinvent nor truly understand ourselves in our changing country. While black South Africans struggle with the push-pull of increasing prosperity and the nagging baggage of the past that constantly works to undermine their ability to fully enjoy said prosperity, white South Africans have largely sat safe in their middle-class lives with no real need to change (beyond the immense existential weight of being white in South Africa, of course).
The recent anti-Zuma marches have changed that though. At least for me. Whenever you need a reminder of the size and non-racial nature of the marches (for example, when our President claims that they were racist), take a look at these EWN summary videos for Cape Town and Tshwane. Many commentaries did the rounds prior to and after the marches (e.g. here, here, here and here) that warned us that if we are sincere about changing things, then the marches need to be just the beginning. I happen to agree. Perhaps you’ll accuse me of cultural appropriation, but invoking and paraphrasing/butchering Steve Biko seems appropriate here: white South Africans, we need to focus on getting our own house in order if we are to take a seat at the table of change as equals.
“…invoking and paraphrasing Steven Biko seems appropriate here: white South Africans, we need to focus on getting our own house in order if we are to take a seat at the table of change as equals.”
We need to break down the stereotypes that have been thrust upon us in our complicit meekness and reinvent what it means to be a white South African. Many of us have just started to find our political and social voice surrounded by thousands of our countryfolk and that solidarity feels good. It also opens the door to new ways of thinking about ourselves and what we can accomplish for the good of our country. So, in an effort to breakdown our own harmful self-images in order to build the new, more progressive stance that South Africa needs right now, I’ve drawn up a list of times when white South Africans stood up to the system (I was inspired by this article). Draw inspiration from them but also learn lessons. When white South Africans have worked for social change, the results have been mixed. Learn from our past organised, non-violent actions but ensure that we consign violence in the form of assassinations and bombings to the annals of history.
I give you eighteen times that white South Africans stood up to the system starting around the time that the National Party took control (1948) and began the implementation of their grand apartheid vision:
1951: The Torch Commando sweeps across the country
Many white South Africans did not just passively accept Apartheid. Indeed, several anti-fascist, anti-racist movements sprung up to non-violently protest their opposition to the National Party’s vision, the most prominent of which was the Torch Commando which was in existence for about five years.
The Torch Commando was formed by WW2 veteran, Sailor Malan, in opposition to the National Party’s attempts to remove Coloured votes from the roll during the Coloured vote constitutional crisis. The then relatively newly-elected National Party worked to further dismantle the Cape’s liberal voting franchise which, in the 1800s, had been one of the most progressive in the world. However, by the 1950s, Cape voting rights for people of colour were in tatters due to the cumulative machinations of politicians and captains of industry like Cecil John Rhodes, who slowly stripped away rights in order to undermine competition in the economy from blacks and to ensure a steady labour supply.
Ironically, the Torch Commando was funded by that pinnacle of so-called ‘white monopoly capital’, Harry Oppenheimer, and was the original home of ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe stalwart, Joe Slovo. At it’s height, the Torch Commando claimed to have over 250,000 members, and this was at a time when South Africa’s population numbers were far lower than they are today. More reading here.
UPDATE: Since writing this article, I’ve subsequently come across these fantastic newsreel clips of Sailor Malan and the Torch Commando. The first one is here and the second one is below:
1955-current: The Black Sash acts as a tireless symbol of defiance
The Black Sash was an all-women league similarly founded in opposition to the National Party’s attempts to remove Cape Coloured voters from the roll. From then until now, they have shown solidarity by marching, providing legal assistance and lobbying parliamentary representatives on behalf of the oppressed. The Black Sash is still very much an active member of civil society today. You can find them here: Facebook, Twitter and website. Further reading here and here.
1953-1968: The Liberal Party fights ‘black spot removals’
The Liberal Party of South Africa was a non-racial organisation made up of many white members. It was also one of the few ‘white’ political parties to employ ‘extra-parliamentary” measures in their fight against Apartheid. Lead by stalwarts such as Peter Brown and author of Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton, the Liberal Party had close friendships with senior ANC and Indian Congress members. They often acted as a liaison between banned organisations and fully bought into the ideals espoused in the Freedom Charter. One of the party’s main focus areas was the fight against “black spot removals” where the Apartheid government uprooted black communities in order to shift them to new areas to create homogenous race blocks across the country. Peter Brown in particular fought tireless against these removals by helping communities organise, protest and receive access to legal advice.
The Liberal Party was sadly disbanded in 1968 when the government passed a law forbidding political parties from having mixed race memberships. Rather than capitulate to this law, the party decided to stick to its principles and disband instead. However, this did not stop the party’s influence from continuing under the surface as its former members continued to resist Apartheid in both good and bad ways (as we will see with ARM below).
For a history of Peter Brown and the Liberal Party in South Africa, take a look at Opening Men’s Eyes: Peter Brown and the Liberal Struggle for South Africa by Michael Cardo. Further reading here, here, here and here.
1960: Attempted assassination of apartheid architect, H.F. Verwoerd
In April 1960, Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd, architect of apartheid and he of the “good neighbourliness” speech, opened the Union Exposition in Johannesburg, which marked the 50th anniversary of the Union of South Africa (where the Cape Colony, Natal Colony, Transvaal Colony and Orange River Colony merged in 1910). It was just a few weeks after the Sharpeville Massacre had taken place and the country was still under a heightened state of emergency.
After Verwoerd gave his opening speech, he returned to his seat in the grandstand where he was shot at point-blank range by David Pratt, a wealthy English farmer from the Magaliesberg region outside of Pretoria. Pratt claimed that he shot Verwoerd because he represented “the epitome of Apartheid”. There is nothing positive to be learnt from such violence but it does illustrate the strength of the reactions that the Sharpeville Massacre engendered in all South Africans regardless of race.
Watch the BBC Pathe’s reporting of the incident at the time below and see some further reading here. For a more thorough breakdown of the attempt (and subsequent successful assassination), the 2007 documentary series, “Infamous Assassinations”, dedicates an episode to Verwoerd.
1964: ARM bombs the Johannesburg Park Station
Liberals receive a particularly bad rap from Black Consciousness activists and scholars who often accuse them of a bias towards patronising paternalism and for their supposed role in ‘watering down’ revolutions. However, it was from the non-racial Liberal Party mentioned above that the African Resistance Movement (ARM) grew. ARM was a small, radical, militant group made up of white liberals aimed at the complete dismantling of Apartheid. The group focused its attacks on government installations and infrastructure, blowing up powerlines, roads, bridges, railways and other such infrastructure.
Their undoing though was the planting of a bomb in a busy commuter train station. Members of ARM phoned ahead warning that the bomb was set to go off in the belief that the station would be cleared. However, authorities did not react and the bomb went off in the presence of commuters, killing a woman and injuring 23 others in the whites-only section of the station. ARM member, John Frederick Harris, was arrested for the bombing and hung. He sung “We Shall Overcome” on his way to the gallows. Further reading here, here, here and here (paywall).
1966: Verwoerd assassinated
Verwoerd faced two assassination attempts. The second was successful. Verwoerd was stabbed to death in the main Cape Town parliamentary chamber while it was in session by Dimirti Tsafendas who had a temporary job as a parliamentary messenger. Tsafendas was originally from Maputo (then called Lourenço Marques) and was the son of a Greek sailor and a Mozambican of mixed race. Tsafendas was imprisoned for life but avoided the death penalty for reasons of insanity. However, he did state at one point that he killed Verwoerd because he was “disgusted by his racial policies”.
British Pathé again covered the events (in a rather uncritical tone) below and, as already mentioned above, for a more thorough breakdown of the attempt and subsequent successful assassination, the 2007 documentary series, “Infamous Assassinations”, dedicates an episode to Verwoerd.
1968: UCT students occupy Bremner Building for nine days
Occupying the Bremner Building is a standard protest tactic at UCT these days (see here and here). It is a tactic first used by white students in 1968 when the UCT student body occupied the Bremner Building for nine days after black anthropology lecturer, Archie Mafeje’s, appointment as a lecturer was withdrawn by the university under pressure from the government. In a move reminiscent of the more recent Rhodes Must Fall and Shackville protests at UCT, students set up their own canteen to feed the protestors. Further reading here, here and here.
Many other significant Anti-Apartheid marches have sprang out of UCT. Have a look at this list for more examples over the decades.
1972: Hawk envisions the downfall of the Apartheid ‘elephant’
Not all resistance takes the form of protest on the streets. Cultural resistance in the form of music, literature, art and theatre is just as important for creating the zeitgeist necessary for change. Hawk (a.k.a. Jo’burg Hawk) is one of my favourite South African bands (see my profile of the band on SA Music Scene here). Their entire ethos was the antithesis of the Apartheid regime. Most white South Africans of my parents’ generation will be familiar with them. Their mix of psychedelic, progressive rock and uniquely South African themes makes them a thing of rare originality, even today. They were also unique for consisting of a mixed race band in the face of the challenges this brought for them. Despite these challenges, they were able to put out two studios albums and a live album in the early 1970s before trying to make it in the UK and eventually disbanding. Lead singer, David Ornellas, returned to South Africa where he dedicated his life as a pastor in Cape Town’s Mitchell’s Plain suburb. He passed away in 2010.
Aside from pushing the boundaries with a mixed race band, Hawk’s magnum opus, a 16 minute tale of an elephant terrorising a village, was a metaphor for the Apartheid beast. It stands today as one of the most singular pieces of music to have come out of this country. This is how I described it in the SA Music scene article above:
“Starting with the deep bass hum of African talking drums (themselves a lost art) that would not be out of place as the intro to a psychedelic trance song today, the multi-part medley washes over you in many stages. It tells the story of a village ravaged by a destructive elephant, the ensuing hunt to bring it down and the rejoice at its eventual killing. Needless to say, this was all an elaborate and skilfully hidden metaphor in which the Apartheid system was the elephant. In the oratorical words of Ornellas, “This elephant must die, must die. It is of great importance”.”
1977: Helen Zille reveals that Steve Biko was murdered
Embattled Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, currently cuts a deeply polarising figure in South African politics but before she went into politics, she was an investigative journalist for the Rand Daily Mail during the time of the Soweto Uprising and the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement.
Stephen Bantu Biko articulated the Black Consciousness ideology better than anyone who’d come before him and he struck a powerful chord that resonated with an unprecedented intensity amongst the oppressed black youth of the 1970s. For this reason he became one of the Apartheid regime’s chief enemies. He was eventually detained by the Security Police and died in custody. The government claimed that he died from a hunger strike but many thought that this was too convenient. A young reporter named Helen Zille wasn’t prepared to accept this version of events and so took it upon herself to delve deeper. What she found was explosive: one of the Apartheid regime’s prime enemies had in fact died in their custody after a month of prolonged beatings, often while naked and shackled. The outrage at Biko’s death was a galvanising moment in the struggle that revealed the true nature of the Apartheid beast.
1970-1974: Rick Turner helps inspire the Durban Moment
Philosopher, Rick Turner, held some radical ideas in the eyes of the Apartheid government. Much of Turner’s thinking was heavily influenced by French philosopher, Jean Paul Satre (who just so happened to write the preface to decolonisation scholar, Frantz Fanon‘s, Wretched of the Earth which gives you an idea of the intellectual milieu that Turner sprang from).
While at UCT, Turner gathered a group of followers around him who would meet at his parent’s Stellenbosch farm as a kind of radical study group. Many of the people at this time were influenced by Turner and went on to play active roles in the fight against Apartheid. Turner then moved to the University of Natal where he became friendly with Steve Biko and continued to draw acolytes to his way of thinking.
The Turner school of thinking heavily informed what became known as the Durban Moment where black South Africans discovered the power that they had to affect the economy. This realisation came about as the result of a series of organised strikes for a decent living minimum wage. The strikes set off a chain of protest action leading those involved to recognise that such mass mobilsation could became a central tool in the fight against Apartheid.
Turner was assassinated by the Apartheid government in 1978. He was shot through his kitchen window one evening just a few months after the murder of Steve Biko and died in the arms of his 13 year old daughter. Turner wrote a book entitled The Eye of the Needle: Toward Participatory Democracy in South Africa that spells out some of his ideas for what South Africa could look like. In addition, Billy Kenniston’s biography, Choosing to Be Free: The Life Story of Rick Turner makes for a fascinating read. Also, give My Father, Rick Turner a watch.
1979: National Wake makes music against the law
Can there be anything more punk than being a multi-racial punk band in 1970s South Africa, raging against the authoritarian Apartheid regime? Enter National Wake, whose mere existence was a crime due to the differing races of its band members. Named for the mourning of our country (‘wake’ as in funeral), they were staunchly anti-establishment. The band lived and rehearsed together in a house in Johannesburg that was constantly raided and permanently monitored by Security Police for subversive activities. In the time that the band was together, they put out scathing songs about the Apartheid regime, the most famous of which is “International News” below which deals with South Africa being in the international news for all the wrong reasons.
For more of National Wake’s story check out the crowd-funded documentary, This Is National Wake (more info here and here). For more on the history of South Africa’s punk scene, check out the fantastic documentary, Punk in Africa (Trailer | iTunes). Further reading here.
1979: The Security Police scupper protest singer, Roger Lucey’s, career
Roger Lucey is a national treasure. He has been chronicling the injustices of our country through music for decades, which is why he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at last year’s SAMAs. Lucey’s unique ability to mix pathos with storytelling in song has given us a broad catalogue of music to listen to. While my personal favourite is the haunting true story captured in “Thabane“, it is songs such as “Lungile Thabalaza” below, which tells the story of Thabalaza’s death in detention that likely brought him to the attention of the apartheid police. The song, released in 1979 (hence the date above), echoes the satire of Chris van Wyck’s famous “In Detention” poem about the excuses that the Apartheid government gave for how detainees died in custody.
For his efforts, the Security Police set about systematically and secretly dismantling Lucey’s career. They did things like release teargas into the ventilation system during a performance, lean on club owners to cancel gigs at short notice, and intercept correspondence with foreign record labels, all of which lead to Lucey’s career crashing in a drug-induced haze of self destruction. Only years later did he find out why his life fell apart before his eyes in such a precipitous way.
Lucey’s story is truly unique within the South African pantheon and worth delving into in more detail by picking up his auto-biography, “Back in from the Anger”, and watching this documentary about his career. While Lucey might have mellowed slightly in older age, he still can’t keep quiet when he sees injustice as evidenced by songs such as “Stay in the Light” off his 2015 album. You can buy Lucey’s music here and you can read more about the song and the man behind it, Lungile Thabalaza, here and here.
1982: Trade unionist, Neil Aggett, dies in detention
Many activists died while in the custody of the Apartheid police and the vast majority of them were people of colour. Dr. Neil Aggett was a tireless trade union organiser and was the 53rd person to die in detention. Here’s the full list of detainees who died:
Solwandle Ngudle, Bellington Mampe, James Tyita, Suliman Salojee, Ngeni Gaga, Pongolosha Hoye, James Hamakwayo, Hangula Shonyeka, Leong Pin, Ah Yan, Alpheus Madiba, Jundea Tubukwa, Unknown Person, Nicodemus Kgoathe, Solomon Modipane, James Lenkoe, Caleb Mayekiso, Michael Shivute, Jacob Monakgotla, Imam Abdullah Haroon, Mthayeni Cuthsela, Ahmed Timol, Joseph Mdluli, William Tshwane, Mapetla Mohapi, Luke Mazwembe, Dumisani Mbatha, Fenuel Mogatusi, Jacob Mashabane, Unknown man, Edward Mzolo, Ernest Mamashila, Tbalo Mosala, Wellington Tshazibane, George Botha, Lawrence Ndzanga, Dr Nanaotha Ntshuntsha, Elmon Malele, Mathews Mabelane, Twasifeni Joyi, Samuel Malinga, Aaron Khoza, Phakamile Mabija, Elijah Loza, Dr Hoosen Haffejee, Bayempin Mzizi, Steve Biko, Sipho Malaza, Lungile Tabalaza, Saul Ndzumo, Manana Mgqweto, Tshifhiwa Muofhe, Dr Neil Aggett, Ernest Dipale, Simon Mndawe, Paris Malatji, Samuel Tshikudo, Mxolisi Sipele, Ephraim Mthethwa, Andries Raditsela, Batandwa Ndondo, Makompe Kutumela, Peter Nchabaleng, Xoliso Jacobs, Simon Marule, Benedict Mashoke, Eric Mntonga, Nobandla Bani, Sithembele Zokwe, Alfred Makaleng, Sizwe Clayton Sithole, Lucas Tlhotlhomisang, Thabela Donald Madisha
Aggett was a tireless organiser of workers in line with the wheels set in motion by the likes of Turner, Biko, Ramaphosa and others. His efforts would ultimately lead to his death. After being held and tortured for over a month, it is thought that Aggett took his own life in his prison cell. Death of an Idealist: In Search of Neil Aggett by Beverly Naidoo gives a thorough account of Aggett’s life and death. You can read the Mail & Guardian’s review of the book here. Further reading here, here and here.
1986: David Kramer admonishes white apathy
David Kramer is a household name in South Africa, perhaps best known for the comedic, red veldskoen-wearing character that he played in a series of adverts for Volkswagen in the 1980s (take a look here, here and here for a hit of nostalgia). While much of his work makes you laugh, he is also not afraid to show a more serious side. One of my favourite Kramer songs is “On the Border” which captures the devastating effect that the Border War had on a generation of young South Africans. Perhaps best known of his ‘serious’ songs however is “Dry Wine” below. The song admonishes white South Africans for their political and social apathy. Give it a listen.
Interestingly, the song was originally written in the late 1970s and Roger Lucey covered it on his second album in 1980 before Kramer released it himself on his 1986 album, Baboondogs, which took a darker, more cynical tone during a period of great unrest in our country.
1988: Bright Blue sneaks ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ into the charts
Bright Blue‘s “Weeping” captured the mood of the country towards the end of Apartheid and is considered a classic by many South Africans. Unbeknownst to the censors of the time, the song incorporated several strands of the then-banned “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa), which at the time was associated with the ANC and African freedom movements around the content. The Wikipedia entry for the song describes the context well”
“”Weeping” is an anti-apartheid protest song written by Dan Heymann in the mid-1980s, and first recorded by Heymann and the South African group Bright Blue in 1987. The song was a pointed response to the 1985 State of Emergency declared by President P.W. Botha, which resulted in “large-scale killings of unarmed and peaceful demonstrators against racial discrimination and segregation in the Union of South Africa.” Defiantly, the song incorporated part of the melody to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the anthem of the anti-apartheid African National Congress. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” was banned at the time, and inclusion of even the melody violated the law. Today, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” is part of the national anthem of South Africa. The formerly illegal lyrics—”Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo”—are now often sung when “Weeping” is recorded or performed. In 1999, “Weeping” was voted “All-time favorite South African Song” by the readers of the South African Rock Encyclopedia.“
Further reading here.
1989: The Voëlvry Movement gives alternative Afrikaners a voice
Something magical happened in the world of Afrikaans alternative art in the early to mid 1980s. Serendipitous discoveries of James Phillip’s Wie Is Bernoldus Niemand album by struggling poet Andre le Toit (a.k.a Koos Kombuis) and journalist Ralph Rabie (a.k.a Johannes Kerkorrel) convinced them both that they could and should be singing in their mother tongue, Afrikaans. They then recruited Phillips and a merry band of pranksters, and the Voëlvry tour was born. At least that’s how the myth goes.
The Voëlvry artists were scathing of the Apartheid government in their songs and actions, and they gave a voice to an entire generation of disaffected Afrikaans youth. Give the two tracks below a listen to get a feel for just how vitriolic they were in their attacks on the ruling elite such as then-President PW Botha (in a wonderfully satirical take on Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go My Lovely“).
For more info, Voëlvry – The Movie goes into wonderful detail around the tour. You can check out the trailer and stream the film here.
1992: White South Africans vote to end Apartheid
The end of Apartheid came about when the ruling minority government realised that their position was no longer sustainable after the turbulent events of the 1980s. Thus began a process of negotiation towards a transition towards majority rule. The final round of these negotiations were held in the early 1990s in what became known as the CODESA talks.
During the period of the CODESA talks, the ruling National Party was attacked by the right wing Conservative Party for the Nats’ supposed capitulation towards the ANC and other formerly banned organisations. The Conservative Party made significant inroads in the National Party’s support base on the back of this criticism; to the point where the Nats risked losing their ability to represent white voters in the CODESA negotiations. In a risky political gambit, President FW de Klerk called for a ‘whites only’ referendum to decide whether or not the Nats should continue to be the main voice negotiating on behalf of white South Africans. If they lost this vote, the CODESA neogations would have stalled and there is no telling where our country would be today. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of white voters (69%) voted for the continuation of the negotiations under de Klerk’s team, paving the way towards the 1994 elections and majority rule.
There have been many documentaries made about this time period, some of them more biased than others. I suggest watching them all to get a glimpse of the bigger picture. Depending on who you believe, either the ANC or the Nats capitulated. Rather than buy into this false dichotomy though, I believe that tough negotiations occurred on both sides, allowing for the peaceful outcomes that occurred:
- Death of Apartheid: The Whites’ Last Stand (great summary of the events that took place around the CODESA talks)
- Apartheid Did Not Die (John Pilger’s 1998 documentary summarising many of the criticisms levelled at the ANC negotiators relating to the so-called ‘sunset clauses’)
- The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (Nick Broomfield’s classic profile of Eugene Terreblanche and the white right from around this period)
- Tainted Heroes (AfriForum’s documentary based heavily on Anthea Jeffrey’s book, People’s War:New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, spends a lot of time on the CODESA talks)
2015: White students show solidarity with #FeesMustFall
The original 2015 #FeesMustFall protests drew from a diverse group of students and supporters including many white students. Over time, the issue became highly racialised and white support was marginalised. It’s worth reminding ourselves though that white students were there in the beginning on the frontlines before formal groups coalesced around the events. As a side note, one of the first pieces of political research that I wrote up was an article for the Daily Maverick covering the 2015 protests.