What I Saw In Apartheid’s Sunset Years
By James Peron
Nelson Mandela was everything people have said about him—and yet nothing like the man they claimed he was. He was saint and sinner, a miracle for the nation, and just a man, flaws and all.
I was in line at McDonalds in Cresta, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, when suddenly the order clerk glazed over and stopped paying any attention to my order or me. I kept trying to finish the order with no response. My partner whispered in my ear: “Mandela just walked in.”
I turned to my left and, sure enough, there was Madiba, shuffling toward the back where his grandchild was celebrating a birthday. We got our food and sat down, watching Mandela and the children in the back of the restaurant. People stopped eating to stare. The mostly white crowd had cell phones out telling everyone they knew that they were in the presence of Mandela.
On another occasion he walked in during a Diana Ross concert. Thousands of Ross fans jumped to their feet and started applauding and pointing. Ross herself didn’t seem to realize what was going on until she looked over her shoulder and saw him on the second level of the auditorium. She beckoned him to the stage and the audience was ecstatic. They loved him.
In both cases these were primarily white audiences. Whatever you may have heard, most white South Africans had come to love Mandela rather quickly. His personality was the kind that won over his staunchest critics and made him such a powerful influence in South Africa.
Apartheid South Africa
The South Africa in which Mandela grew to manhood was a violent, racist dictatorship. One man, one vote was a myth—even for white voters. Election districts were drawn to ensure that rural Afrikaners determined the government, the purpose being to transfer wealth and power from both the black majority, and English minority businessmen.
The vision of South Africa promoted by conservatives in the West was propaganda. Conservatives pretended the apartheid regime was some sort of Western island of freedom in a sea of “black dictatorships.”
This is a lie, a legacy of Cold War propaganda, where “anti-communist” was falsely equated with being pro-freedom, and where the West turned a blind eye to tyrannical governments, no matter how vile they might be, provided they were “on our side.” Among the worst was South Africa.
While South Africa was no North Korea, it wasn’t free either. Even “free enterprise” didn’t exist there. The apartheid era economy was one tightly controlled by the state to prevent markets from working—because markets didn’t produce racist results desired by the architects of apartheid.
It was a country where the government assassinated critics.
I ran a libertarian-oriented newspaper for the LGBT community—two reasons to be disliked by the government. Police sat outside my home, watching it. They admitted to being police when I challenged them and told them I had called the police to report burglars (them) in the neighborhood.
One day, I had police show up to investigate the mysterious slashing of all my car tires. When I refused to let them into my house, one went to the police car and radioed in an “anonymous” tip that I had drugs. That was the pretense for searching my home without a warrant. Of course, there were no drugs, but they didn’t expect any.
I was a member of the Freedom of Expression Institute—and served one year on their Board—when the police went after a conference we organized on censorship. The apartheid regime loved censorship—of all kinds.
Police showed up to “protect us” from extremists in the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging. But who would protect us from the police? They “evacuated” the auditorium, claiming a bomb threat and marched us through lines of police officers with cameras recording our identities. Outside a black staff member from the organization asked a police officer why he was doing this. The officer attacked him and said he was under arrest. Five of us pulled the man away from the officer and stood in-between, arguing with him and telling him he had no such right. The officer was a terrified farm boy, barely out of his teens, who had been conscripted into the force.
Inside, the same boy tried a second time to assert authority. A woman threw a drink at him in response and he started punching her in the face. I and another man, jumped the officer and held his arms while he cursed and threatened to kill us. Thankfully, a wiser senior officer pulled him away. They were only there to gather intelligence. This sort of violence was best used without witnesses.
I was on the streets of Hillbrow, when some young white thug started harassing a black man. The police arrived and arrested the victim. I went to Hillbrow station to defend the man and to attest that the white man had attacked him, not the other way around. While I was there police questioned another suspect they had arrested and started beating him to force him to give them the answers they wanted. I started yelling and the police made it clear that I was to leave the police station immediately or I would face similar treatment.
This is just what I saw in apartheid’s sunset years, and I never came close to seeing the worst of it, when the system was its height.
This was no free country. To abolish that violent, hateful regime Mandela made alliances that compromised his position. He made political decisions I would not have made, but there is no doubt that the country he left behind is freer than the one he lived in for most of his life. Yes, some South Africans are worse off, but most are better off, all things considered. Arbitrary arrests, such as under apartheid, are a thing of the past. Government murdering of critics is over — though they may try other measures to silence opposition.
I am mostly positive on Mandela, but negative on the African National Congress. The man was better than his party. Mandela was a good man who married badly. He did too little in regards to his former wife Winnie Madikizela Mandela‘s murderous rampage, including her child killing. He was also someone who thought that the “greater good” of the “cause” meant he had to allow Winnie’s crimes to go unpunished. I disagree with that judgment call and regret that Winnie got away with murder—literally.
Mandela accepted alliances with questionable allies, but was his crime worse than the West seeking an alliance with the apartheid regime? He worked with Communists—not just communists, but capital C Communists. His goal was to end apartheid. For the black community everything came down to opposing apartheid or supporting apartheid—nothing else mattered. That was the natural legacy of authoritarianism. South African blacks saw few other options because the regime left them none.
Even classical liberals of the day had to work with Communists. One libertarian (liberal) friend, Jill Wentzel, was active in Black Sash, and worked with people known to be communists. Jill showed up at the ruling party’s national congress to protest the killing of Steve Biko and walked down the aisle of the convention to lay a wreath in Biko’s honor at the feet of the astonished leaders of the apartheid regime.
Helen Suzman, a staunch opponent of communism, was also an opponent of apartheid—for years the lone voice of opposition in parliament. Yet, given political realities of day, she allied herself with communists as well. Suzman didn’t join the armed struggle, but Nelson Mandela didn’t have the options she had, due to race.
In office, Mandela didn’t seek revenge against advocates of apartheid. Men, I thought should have faced a court of law, were left alone to preserve the peace. Crimes committed by both sides were ignored, and, whether they liked it or not, the Communist Party didn’t see the “commanding heights” of the economy nationalized.
Mandela sought to unify a nation wrecked by tribalism. This wasn’t just black vs. white tribalism, but tribalism within races. The Zulu didn’t like the Xhosa, and Afrikaner nationalism was directed as much against English and Jewish capitalists, as it was against blacks.
Two incidents bring this home. One was a simple rugby game—not just any rugby game, but the World Cup. Even I sat in front of the television to watch. South African sport was also tribal. Cricket was the sport of the English, soccer was what the black population followed, and rugby was the obsession of the Afrikaners — those whites who were the architects and beneficiaries of apartheid, or so they believed.
Mandela supported the Springboks in their quest to win the world cup. He went to the game and appeared on the field, when they won, wearing the distinctive green Springbok shirt. That gesture sent a message to all South Africans. It was a day when black and white, English and Afrikaner were, for the first time, united in one celebration. It was just a game, but on that day, they created a nation.
Video of the victory parade
The second incident was the day Communist leader Chris Hani was murdered by a far Right extremist. As the news came out that Hani was executed, I was mentally preparing for the worst. In the simplified world of extremist politics — which had dominated South Africa for decades— everyone was either an enemy or a friend, and black South Africans saw Hani as a prominent friend and an opponent of their enemies.
Mandela went on television and soothed the pain of the nation. He said: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. … Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”
The feared riots never took place. When Hani’s funeral was aired on the SABC, there were white and black mourners together. The “brink of disaster” had been averted, because of the sheer force of the personality of one man.
I do not believe Nelson Mandela’s legacy is all sweetness and light, but his contribution to the world, especially South Africa, was mostly positive.
How many people overall are there of whom that can honestly be said?
Author Bio: James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, which operates the libertarian discount book service, fr33minds.com.