Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The Daylight or the Ghosts?


I’m now middle-aged, divorced, childless. My hair has
grown out again, shoulder-length, and I have a full beard.
It is 1.00 am and all I can hear outside the windows of
my backpackers’ is the sound of the surf pummelling
the shore. I am exhausted – having driven nine hours to
Graaff-Reinet and back – but wired. PW Botha died five
days ago, on Halloween, and I’m in his old neck of the
woods researching his obituary for the weekend press. The
road from Graaff-Reinet passes through some spectacular
countryside, and I’m delighted to have seen a black eagle
riding the thermals, and a pair of bat-eared foxes hunting
in the veld. The road goes through the town of Uniondale
which lies at the top of the Langkloof, the long valley at
the bottom of which rests the town of Kareedouw, then
on to the pass through the Outeniqua Mountains before
descending to the regional hub of George. As I approach
the mountains, the full moon seems to conjure from the
long and lonely road spooky tendrils of mist which spiral
off the wet tarmac. I shiver: if I am ever going to see South
Africa’s most famous ghost, the Uniondale hitchhiker,
who reputedly disappears from the passenger seat after
being given a ride, tonight will be the night. But I arrive at
the backpackers’, near the coastal settlement of Wilderness
beyond George, without incident. Letting myself in, I
power up my laptop and write the best opening lines of
my career:
‘Pieter Willem Botha lies as cold and dead on the
mortuary slab as Stephen Bantu Biko did in the back of a
police van almost 30 years ago. The Groot Krokodil, whose
vice-like bite struck fear into so many hearts, evaporated
into the night on Halloween like a wraith of mist on the
Outeniqua Pass. The nation is now at loggerheads over how
his legacy should be assessed.’
My obituary then goes on to list Botha’s predecessors
at the helm of apartheid South Africa. Breaking with
the Afrikaans convention of contracting their Christian
names to their initials, I spell the names out in full to give
the piece a serious, measured pace. First there was Daniel
François Malan, who once told parliament that National
Socialism was the wave of the future, and whose regime
rapidly outlawed communism and formalised race
classification and the geography of separate development.
Malan was followed by Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom,
whose regime removed coloureds from the voters’ roll and
unsuccessfully prosecuted liberation movement leaders
who had signed the 1955 Freedom Charter. Hendrik
Frensch Verwoerd, the acknowledged architect of grand
apartheid – its petty versions having been introduced by
the British from the time of their invasion in 1806, and
by the Dutch before them – succeeded Strijdom. Having
banned the liberation movements after the Sharpeville
massacre, Verwoerd was, in a dénouement worthy of
Shakespeare, assassinated by the ultimately sane Dimitri
Tsafendas, a quintessential South African ‘person of
mixed race’, the true common denominator that links us
across all races, in the year of my birth. Verwoerd was
followed by the descent into darkness that was Balthazar
Johannes Vorster. Also pro-Nazi, Vorster lies buried
under a large black marble slab in the remote Eastern
Cape town of Kareedouw.
In weighing up Botha against other world figures, I
decide that he was our Pinochet. Given that they were
contemporaries, and given the anti-communist position
of both regimes on the frontline of the Cold War and the
roughly equivalent death toll of their wars against their
own people, Pinochetist Chile seems the best equivalent
to apartheid South Africa that I can think of. An early
supporter of the pro-Nazi Ossewa Brandwag who later
turned to the uniquely South African fascism of Christian
Nationalism, Botha forged an already anti-democratic South
Africa into a military autocracy along Francoist lines. Botha
not only inherited apartheid’s Manichean world view but
transformed it into a Death-Star, militarising not just the
state but all of society, and giving it a baptism of fire that
arguably even Malan had not foreseen. Botha, for much
of the world, embodies the final phase of white resistance
to the ‘total onslaught’ of democracy more than any other
white Nationalist leader.
I recall that even right-wing American writer PJ
O’Rourke, in his Holidays in Hell, described the country
as ‘a place of evil and perdition’, sustaining whites who
found it normal to throw their cigarettes on the lawn
– because there would always be someone darker to
pick them up. It is hard these days to remember how
strangely grey apartheid was: how reading material was
heavily proscribed and television only introduced in
1976, when the state was certain its propaganda benefits
outweighed the risks of giving people a window on the
world; how the dead right hand of the military reached
into our schools, with proto-military cadet training being
de rigeur for many whites, while facing the assault rifles
of the cadets’ older brothers outside their schools was a
rite of passage for many blacks; and how the dead left
hand of religion rested heavily on society, with sport and
commerce outlawed on Sundays, turning the day into
a featureless wasteland between church in the morning
and listening to Squad Cars, a drama series broadcast
on state radio that lionised the police, in the evening. I
remember how to me, Botha standing stiffly at military
parades in his black Homburg hat with a red carnation
at his breast looked identical to his ideological opposite,
Erich Honecker of East Germany.
And yet Botha was also the harbinger and initiator of
the end of grand apartheid – and was deeply embittered
that the world ignored his efforts, granting the Nobel
Peace Prize and the glory to his successor, Frederik Willem
de Klerk, instead. True, Botha’s hand had been forced by
several broad socio-political changes into adapting what he
once called a mere corollary of ‘good neighbourliness’ to the
new reality. Yes, the nationwide insurgency and sanctions
had put South Africa in an untenable situation, but the
collapse of the bipolar Cold War order presented him with a
fantastic opportunity to both break out of isolation and take
the fire out of the resistance. And the least recognised factor
driving the reforms that he initiated was that the colour
bar had to come to an end for purely economic reasons: the
deliberate underskilling of black labour, a policy that lay at
the heart of apartheid, meant that the country would never
advance beyond the primary extractive industrial sector to
modernise and build secondary manufacturing and tertiary
services sectors; the economy would languish, bypassed by,
and forever merely a provider of raw materials to, a more
sophisticated world. The black workforce, once deliberately
kept dumb as mere ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood’
would have to be dramatically educated and upskilled, or
the entire economy would remain at that primitive level.
And if blacks were to become skilled, then they would have
to be paid well enough to buy their own products in order
to create a domestic market; apartheid was always as much
a capitalist scheme as a racist one.
In my article I note that a cynic would say the white
nationalists only surrendered power to the black
nationalists once the physical barriers that ensured
that privilege would remain secure in its laager were
unassailable. The continuity of separate development
in towns such as Kareedouw under ANC rule points to
validity of this claim. Is the same true of George, Botha’s
former stamping ground, the place where he built his
reputation as a thug who broke up United Party meetings
– in much the same way as a young Nelson Mandela
engaged in punch-ups with the Communist Party? His
former constituency, where he represented the National
Party as a belligerent young MP, is a weird mixture of
retired old-school English-speaking CEOs, backpacking
neo-hippies, bulky young Afrikaans-speaking aluminium
siding salesmen, and inbred backwoods folk straight out of
Dalene Matthee’s Kringe in ’n Bos (Circles in a Forest). Here
you will encounter both cheerful and helpful coloured
municipal staff and will o’ the wisp rumours of shadowy
groups in nearby Sedgefield who continue to celebrate
Adolf Hitler’s birthday each April 20. Despite the new
roads and new licks of paint evident in the black township
of Thembelihle and the coloured township of Pacaltsdorp
– from whence a former girlfriend of mine hailed – they
remain racially distinct ‘locations’, separated from each
other by a deep ravine and from mostly white George by
the N2 highway.
These divisions are an entrenched feature of the South
African landscape, despite all the hubris about national
unity. The journalist and writer Rian Malan, in his seminal
book My Traitor’s Heart dealing with his own family’s
tangled interaction with apartheid – the Malans were key
figures in the Afrikaner saga, from the Great Trek to the
total onslaught – tellingly explains how the ultra-austere
Nederduitse Gereformeerde (Dutch Reformed) Dopper
sect took its name from the dop, the tin cap that in
Voortrekker times was used to put out a candle, a
deliberate metaphor for the Doppers’ reflex to extinguish
the illumination of the Enlightenment, plunging the world
into darkness again.
If former law and order minister Adriaan Vlok’s
statements to the Mail & Guardian this year are true, Botha
issued personal, private orders to chosen individuals
from within the State Security Council. This suggests
that beyond his obvious responsibility for the nuclear
weapons programme and numerous cross-border raids into
neighbouring countries, Botha was personally responsible,
like his Chilean counterpart, for the ‘disappearance’ of
perhaps hundreds of anti-apartheid activists in South
Africa and abroad, among them the estimated 200 Swapo
detainees dumped, Chilean fashion, from an aircraft into
the cold ocean.
The man nicknamed Pieter Wapen (Pieter Weapon)
remained, like Pinochet, beyond the reach of the law he so
regularly flouted. Gerald L’Ange, in his continental study
The White Africans, describes Botha as someone who did
not see himself as others did, ‘a vain bully whose sense
of self-importance ballooned in the thin air of the highest
office’. Yet L’Ange concedes that for all his steeliness, Botha
had a capacity for seeing immediate issues realistically, and
he attempted – though seldom with much finesse – to deal
with them pragmatically. Despite his rearguard initiation of
limited reforms like the scrapping of petty apartheid, driven,
it seems, as much by a strangely sentimental attachment to
the coloured people as by his kragdadigheid, his readiness to
use force, it is for his single-mindedness and aggression that
he will probably be best remembered.
Yet Botha was unceremoniously unseated by FW de
Klerk in 1989 after having suffered a stroke. Until the end,
he was deeply bitter that his vision of ending apartheid – on
his terms and with a permanent sunset clause for whites –
lay in tatters. Botha in retirement seemed toothless, less of a
crocodile and more like the vanishing Knysna elephant he
apparently once saw, looming large over the landscape for
a moment, then disappearing into the scenery as if never
It is now 2.00 am and I type up the concluding lines to
my obit:
‘With national flags flying at half-mast, it is hard to
guess whether this week, Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki will
come to George to bury Botha or to praise him. With race
classification still legal and the geographical bulwarks of
apartheid barely eroded, as mourners sing Botha to his
rest amid the reek of polished piety in the Nederduitse
Gereformeerde mother-church, it will be far from clear
which will prevail: the daylight or the ghosts.’