Monday, June 14, 2010

Waking Up

Part III:

Growing up, I didn't realize that the world was watching South Africa and what was going on here. I didn't realize that. The only thing I knew of the world beyond South Africa was what I learned in geography class on a map. It was only when I hit high school in the early 80's that I learned what was going on beyond our borders. In high school we were told by our teachers that the countries bordering us were attempting to invade South Africa and take over. There was a 'Swart Gevaar', a 'Black Danger'. The danger was from the African National Congress (the ANC). We were told that they were communists being funded by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and that the communists were coming through the countries that bordered us like Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia. There was the whole Angolan Border War that a lot of my friends went to fight in and some of them didn't come back the same. I remember being scared, thinking this is real, this is happening, the communists are coming.

By the time I was 16, we were living in a state of tension. It was a crazy time because at that point, we had television and saw the news reports of bombings all over the place. It was scary actually. The South African Broadcast Corporation was owned by the government so we would hear a lot about the bombings in the news on TV, but there was never any message around free the black person or any of that. We learned that in other places. In Johannesburg, we had bomb threats at Benoni High School on a weekly basis. We would file out of the school and go down to the bottom of the field to wait for the all clear. The bomb threats just became a part of the routine. I suspect the Afrikaan schools had an even worse time because it was mostly the Afrikaners who ran the government.

When I was a little older, my dad got involved in politics on the local level and I remember him telling us that there was a different way than all this violence. He was involved with the New Republic Party which later became the Democratic Party, which, according to my sister's recollection, was "the most liberal of the 'white' parties" during the 90s. I remember having these discussions with my dad and he always seemed very solution oriented. It was pretty cool when I realized my dad was taking this path. But it made for some interesting Sunday dinners with my mother's more conservative family. I think my father's political activities caused a divide because my mother's family was very conservative and staunchly racist. This racism was part of the theology of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa, and my grandfather, as a minister, preached racism from the pulpit. My mother's family would say things like, "The kaffirs, they're going to take over and the end is near, and there was going to be civil war and..."

And we had sanctions against us too. Because of the Apartheid policies of the South African government, in 1962 the UN recommended to its members that they cut political, fiscal and transportation ties with South Africa. In 1964, the US and England stopped their arms trade with South Africa and South Africa was banned from the Olympic games. In 1968, the UN proposed ending all cultural, educational and sporting connections as well. Initially, since the economic sanctions were not mandatory and were debated for their effectiveness, the US and England did not impose any. However, by the 1980's many trade sanctions were in place and a divestment movement pressuring investors to disinvest from South African companies was gaining momentum.

By the mid 80's, we were cut off from the rest of the world.

We had no international sports, no artists came to our country to perform. When the South African rugby team went to New Zealand there were huge protests to kick the South African team out. But at the same time, the sanctions caused a South African movement of "Ok, we'll make our own music, we'll make our own tv shows, we'll create our own dramas or write our own books. We don't need the US or the rest of the world." I remember being quite proud of that.

The social unrest got so bad that in July 1985 the president, P.W. Botha, declared a state of emergency. The police were already allowed to hold someone for questioning for 90 days without charging them with a crime. At the end of the 90 days, you could be released or more commonly, re-arrested and held for another 90 days. This 're-arrest' process could conceivably go on, as the then justice minister Vorster put it, "...until eternity". By declaring a state of emergency, Botha was able to call in the national army to assist the all ready over burdened police. It also gave the government even more power to detain people suspected of encouraging violence. Within three months of its declaration, the police had more than 5,000 people in custody. This of course led to more international protest against us.

So there were sanctions and protests against South Africa, but I think the outside world had a somewhat unfair viewpoint, because by 1985, most of us South Africans wanted change, most of us were sick of it.