Coping in South Africa: The Capetown to Swaziland Blues – Rolling Stone
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Coping in South Africa: The Capetown to Swaziland Blues

The Capetown to Swaziland Blues: Afrikaner politics and principles in apartheid South Africa

Rural landscape, Eucalyptus tree, Paarl, South Africa, Mountain

Rural landscape with a Eucalyptus tree, near Paarl, South Africa on January 1st, 1971

Independent Picture Service/UIG via Getty

CAPE TOWN—Here they come now. Bobby’s friends. Boys and girls in bell-bottoms, hair moderately long, laughing and smoking cigarettes, chatting, taking seats on the parlor floor. It’s Illegal Movie Night in South Africa and Bobby is setting the scene for me.

“Every film that comes to South Africa has to go to the Publications Control Board, and they decide whether or not it might lead to moral, political or racial aberrations if shown to the faithful citizenry. Not very many make it to the downtown theaters. Two years ago Cape Town supported seven theaters and now there are four, and one of those is running films that are 20 years old.”

Fellini’s Satyricon and A Clockwork Orange were banned outright, Bobby says. So were In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Sunday Bloody Sunday and Cabaret were edited and restricted to people over 23. They cut 45 minutes from Woodstock: now somebody introduces Arlo Guthrie and Santana comes on. All nudity is always cut, leaving about half of Hollywood’s current product hanging in well-clothed shreds. In the newspaper ads it said Britt Ekland was in Get Carter, but after the censors got finished she wasn’t. They cut the final scene from The Graduate because Dustin Hoffman was swinging a cross. They cut the scene of Janis drinking in Monterey Pop. Taking Off and The Liberation of LB Jones were banned outright. So was Zappa’s 200 Motels. The Unforgiven has just been released after 13 years, because there was an Indian in it—and that’s a John Wayne flick.

“You think that’s far out,” says the guy who’s plugging in the 16mm projector, “wait’ll you hear about The King and I. The posters showed Yul Brynner, barechested, holding Deborah Kerr. Since Siamese are Asians and Asians are non-whites, this wasn’t allowed, so the posters were altered to show Deborah Kerr in the arms of a … raceless shadow.”

Bobby introduces his friend, saying he gets the films from a friend of a friend of a friend who has access to the mailroom of a legitimate distributor, who makes copies before they’re sent to the Publications Board. His name is Warren and he smokes thick, smelly cigars.

Warren says business is great. Not just here in Bobby’s parlor but all over Cape Town, every Sunday night, people are watching banned movies, because either you can’t see the good movies at all or they’ve been cut so badly you can’t follow what’s happening.

So, Warren says, the people pay seven rand (about $9) to rent a projector, another ten rand for a piece of cinematic crap, R 15 or R 20 for a decent flick, and invite their friends over to help cover the costs.

“You want to know how great business is? We send somebody along with the film and as soon as the first reel is shown in Home A, it’s rushed to Home B, then to Home C and so on, so that by the time the evening’s over, that one print has been shown in seven homes.”

People only ask over their closest friends, Bobby says. Others you can never trust, because there are too many government spies.

It begins to sound like the plot to a bad movie.

Bobby Hurst was 17 in March. He finished school in June and went to work selling sporting goods in a downtown department store, where he earns $55 a week. Some of that buys the latest styles available, last year’s London mod. Occasionally he buys a new poster for his bedroom wall. The rest is for dates and records and dope. He lives, for now, at home, where on Sunday nights banned movies are shown.

Bobby’s brother is a bookish 24 and a promising pianist, enamored of Chopin. He says he’ll be leaving South Africa within two years to study in Boston and probably won’t return. Their mother is an ardent ecologist who uses water three times, first to bathe in, then for the laundry, finally to water the garden plants. Mr. Hurst is a charming, graying solicitor who’s proud he doesn’t segregate clients in his office waiting room. The Hursts, too, were born in South Africa and they have been talking about departure since they met 26 years ago. The Hursts are Liberals, which is an odd thing to be in South Africa today.

“All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” is the way George Orwell splashed it across the barn in Animal Farm. In South Africa the Christian Nationalists—the “Nats” as they’re known colloquially—have shortened it to one word, “apartheid,” which is a highly complicated social structure supported by 198 separate laws designed to keep the black African a separate animal. This is the party of the Afrikaner, the descendant of the Dutch Boer who settled South Africa 300 years ago, was conquered by British imperialists and only in the last 25 years has regained his political superiority. Ask an Afrikaner what apartheid means and he’ll tell you how with God’s and the Afrikaner’s guidance the black man will achieve self-government. In a moment of effusive euphemism, one Nationalist described this system proudly as “programmed socioeconomic development applied on a differentiated basis.”

Of 166 seats in Parliament, 126 hold the buttocks of Nationalists. The Nats also have the state president, the prime minister, nearly all the cabinet positions, and total control of the police and military.

The second political “force” in South Africa is the United Party, and although this one claims to strike a balance between the Nats and the Progressives—the “Progs”—it’s difficult to see how it differs much from the ruling party, current reform fulminations notwithstanding.

That leaves the Progressives, who are called “limousine liberals” by student activists. The way it’s written up in all the English-language papers (the “opposition” press), you’d think the Progs were fairly fierce opponents. Especially that Helen Suzman, who’s always being photographed with blacks and quoted to the effect that the Afrikaans-speaking Nationalist government is narrow and repressive.

The sister of the girl Bobby dates works for the Progressive Party as a secretary. Shirley Hillier is a pretty blonde who’s 22 and says she’s paid R 140 a month ($175). She says an Indian (non-white) girl who’s been working as a secretary for the party for eight years is paid R 100. If the Progressive Party acts like that, she says, if that’s where the so-called South African Left is at, just how far right do you think the others are?

Besides, says Shirley, Helen Suzman is the only Progressive Party member in Parliament. “She’s our ‘house nigger,’ the one dissenter the government allows so’s the government won’t seem so dictatorial. ‘Look,’ the Afrikaners say, ‘we allow open protest–there’s Helen Suzman….'”

Shirley says she’ll be leaving the employ of the Progressive Party within a week’s time, that she’ll be taking a more relaxing position with a library. She also says she is saving her money to leave South Africa.

* * *

Flying along one of Cape Town’s new landscaped motorways, past the Greek-style monument to Cecil Rhodes and the huge white hospital where hearts are transplanted. On the way to Bobby’s older cousin’s house.

“We have our highs here in Cape Town,” says Bobby, puffing on one of the little cigarillos he so rarely smokes. “There’s so much grass and acid. I don’t take acid too much any more. Mostly it’s just grass for the weekends. Usually we get the stuff that’s grown in the mountains of Natal. That’s where Durban Poison comes from. We also get Swazi Gold, from Swaziland, and from Malawi we get Malawi Laughing Grass. It’s about $2.50 a kilo.”

We arrive at the cousin’s house, everybody’s introduced and moments later we’re all huddled together in a dark bedroom by an open window, exhaling marijuana smoke into the cold night air.

“Be sure you blow the smoke out the window,” the cousin says.

Bobby’s cousin is about 30 and a psychologist. Because dope is so available in South Africa and many of the youngsters who come to Anton are drug users, he has made a personal study.

He takes another careful toke from the filter cigarette he’s emptied and refilled with pot. “Three years ago,” he says, “if you were busted for dagga you were fined R10 and that was it. Then the Daily Mail in Johannesburg ran a series of exposé articles on how attainable drugs were. Their reporters took one of the Jo’burg councilmen out one night to the discotheques, bought pills and dagga and acid and everything else from the people they met inside, then showed the stuff to the politician—who was wearing a wig to avoid being recognized.

“You can imagine what happened. When the stories started running in the paper, all hell broke loose, because now it was clear that drugs had moved from the black working class into the white middle class. New laws were proposed. And the headlines—my god. THE LIFE OF A DRUG-CRAZED YOUTH. DRUG PUSHING: A RED PLOT.

“The way the law was written up, you could get ten years for a first offense possession. By the third offense, it was 15 years with no option of paying a fine. Plus—and this is the heavy part—the establishment of what they called ‘rehabilitation centers for problem drug users.’ What they meant was detention camps.

“Naturally the civil libertarians pointed out the dangers of this law to liberal lawyers, but by now the Nationalists were screaming for a commie witch hunt and the rigid disciplinarians of Afrikaner Calvinism were bellowing about declining morality.

“The law passed.”

Anton Hurst passes the roach and apologizes for the awkward smoking position. He says he has to be cautious, so his six- and eight-year-old children—who are still awake—won’t find out he smokes the stuff. They’ve been visited in school by the police and shown dagga, and it’s been burned in all the classrooms so schoolchildren will recognize the smell. They’re supposed to report anyone they see using it, Anton says gloomily, and there’ve been some cases of kids turning their parents in.

* * *

Bobby’s father enters my bedroom, drops the morning paper on the foot of the bed as if he were glad to be rid of it.

“Here’s the news,” he said, emphasizing the word “news.” “You can get to page 14 today before you hit a foreign dateline. That’s two pages better than yesterday.”

It’s a game we’ve been playing all week. We count the number of stories about the outside world printed in the local press. Usually there aren’t very many and practically never will you see so much as a single London or Washington dateline on the front page. Here in South Africa, things are pretty isolated.

Bobby’s father is a kindly Jewish man with a wink of light in his eye that tempers the melancholy he seems to feel for his country. Before he goes to his office each day he comes in to talk. There is an abundant love of the benign countryside, the spectacular scenery, and much of his talk is of this. It provides a stark backdrop to his other favorite subject, what some people hereabouts call “South Africa’s Nuremburg Laws,” the Afrikaner legislation of apartheid.

Everything’s color-coded in South Africa, he says. Everything from liquor stores to toilets to telephones to scenic views are designated:

BLANKES—WHITES or NIE-BLANKES—NON-WHITES. And just as Duke Ellington noted in the title of his composition, “Black, Tan and Beige,” among non-whites there are further divisions: the Bantu, or native black (the Xhosa and Zulu tribes are the largest of several), and the Coloured, a category which includes the mixed bloods, the Arabs, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Chinese and all other Asians except the Japanese, who have been officially designated by Parliament as “honorary whites” because of their trade value.

The Racial Registration Act was passed in 1950, he says, and 16 years later they were still trying to determine who was what; there still were 150,000 “borderline” cases to be decided, most of which were settled arbitrarily: stick a pencil into the hair of the person under interrogation—if it falls out he’s Coloured; if it sticks he’s Bantu, because the hair is kinkier.

Everything imaginable is done, David says, to keep the races apart. Black medical students are not even permitted to learn on white cadavers. Nor are blacks allowed to travel from their Bantustan homelands (which make U.S. Indian reservations look like paradise) and Township ghettoes without a legal pass.

David Hurst’s, and nearly every other liberal South African’s, favorite horror story is one that takes the complicated Pass Laws as its subject and begins in 1959, when the (black) National African Congress (NAC) announced a massive campaign to protest and ignore the restrictions. The first step was a “potato boycott,” directed against the practice of sending people convicted under the Pass Laws to farms as forced labor, a practice which continues only slightly abated today.

The campaign limped along and in the following year the NAC was joined by another native group, the Pan-Africanist Congress, whose leaders urged Africans to gather outside police stations in protest. White police here in Cape Town and in the village of Sharpeville reacted by scattering the demonstrators with volleys of rifle fire. This, in turn, provoked other public protests and more shooting. Within two week’s time there were 83 non-white civilians killed and 365 injured by police bullets. While the police counted three dead and 59 injured.

Reaction was immediate. In Cape Town the entire population of the black townships went on strike for three weeks (nearly starving in the process, for the black is never paid enough to save anything or keep his kitchen larder stocked). Meanwhile, the government declared a state of emergency and arrested more than 20,000, many of whom disappeared following secret trials held in the jails. Black newspapers were banned and special legislation passed making both the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress illegal. It also was now illegal for black workers to form unions and to go on strike.

But, says David Hurst in one of our morning talks, wiretapping and mail confiscation are legal, and search warrants unnecessary. Information gathered by such means often is what leads to someone’s becoming an “officially banned person.” That means he can never be quoted in South African print, he may have to report to his local police station weekly, and his passport and all rights and privileges are taken away. And for any outspoken black man who shows leadership potential, there is escape-proof Robben Island in Table Bay, eight miles out from the Cape Town docks.

State witnesses in political and some criminal trials can be detained for repeated periods of 180 days and the accused can be refused bail. And, says David, sighing, the most impressive law of all is the Suppression of Communism Act, which means someone—anyone—can be held (in solitary) without charge for an indefinite period if he’s considered a “security threat.” Some have been held for years. Robben Island is full of them.

* * *

Bobby’s brother is visiting friends at the University of Cape Town, one of South Africa’s five English-language universities. (There are five Afrikaans-speaking universities and five non-white universities as well.) The UCT is generally regarded as the country’s center of student radicalism. Which is to say that after umpteen years of complaining about the Bloody Fascists in Power, English-speaking students this year finally staged a public demonstration, hereinafter called The Seven Days in June.

The fun started on Thursday, June 1st, when UCT students marched along Cape Town’s downtown Parliament Street, carrying anti-apartheid placards. Fifty-one were arrested and charged with demonstrating without the required judicial permit.

Friday, more students gathered outside St. George’s Cathedral, again distributing anti-government literature. This time the Afrikaner cops moved in, swinging rubber truncheons, dragging students down the cathedral steps by their hair, bashing those who ran inside, stomping them behind the pews and christening font. Sixty-eight were taken in and no one counted the injured.

By American standards, it wasn’t much of an incident. But for South Africa it was unprecedented. The blacks had been protesting sporadically for years, and each time they were beaten, arrested and shot—with only a few white souls raising their voices in anger. But now, for the first time, police were coming down and coming down hard on white skulls. And the British liberal was pissed.

By Saturday the cause of anti-apartheid was virtually forgotten, as shocked Cape Town liberals began bellowing about the principle of peaceful dissent. The debate began. A reporter for the Cape Times who was there said Friday’s rioting reminded her of the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and she called the local minister of police “Cape Town’s answer to Mayor Daley.” He, in turn, said his people had “showed great tolerance.”

On Sunday, 1,500 concerned liberals attended a special service at St. George’s to hear the Rev. Theo Kotze say the government was “completely out of touch with the mood of the country … resorting to hate tactics, intimidation and violence….” Because Kotze—one of several churchmen giving the government hell—was an Afrikaner, he was generally thought to be a traitor or, more kindly, demented.

On Monday the town’s top cop started railing about outside agitators and communist infiltrators and the Rev. Mr. Kotze was one of four religious leaders who were arrested during the largest protest so far. Of the 4,000 who gathered in the streets, nearly everyone suffered from a highly concentrated tear gas attack. At the same time, protest was sweeping the English academic community. In Durban, a policeman was burned in effigy as 2,000 marched at the University of Natal. On Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand campus there were 1,500 protestors. In all cities, arrested totaled about 100. And in rejecting a demand for a judicial inquiry into police brutality, Prime Minister John Vorster said, “If the police did not act the way they did, I would personally have been disappointed because it would have shown me that we are slipping away from law and order.”

On the sixth day, the minister of justice levied a month-long ban on all open-air political gatherings, protests and processions in South Africa’s 17 major population centers. So an indoor protest was held, attracting 2,500. Total arrests for the day on university campuses: 365.

The week ended with students at UCT and Witwatersrand being charged by baton-wielding cops and their dogs. More than 100 were arrested. Five were bitten seriously. While thousands more jammed the streets around St. George’s for a final public yelp.

The same day there appeared in the Cape Times a letter from a citizen who said he was packing his bags to leave South Africa for good. Everywhere in South Africa the tongues were flapping tirelessly.

Most of them were still flapping six weeks later at the UCT as Bobby’s brother joined his friends for morning tea in the Education Block. Bruce Terrance, a professor, was telling a few stories about agents provocateurs and assorted classroom spies, but the conversation soon focused on Famous Afrikaner Fuck-Ups.

Terrance told how 21 guided missiles were required to sink an oil tanker in a military exercise and afterward the air force claimed it was unfair to have towed the boat at seven knots. One of the grad students remembered the cops who threw their tear gas into the wind. Terrance said the government kept trying to confuse the opposition by counterfeiting opposition publications, but always blew it by slipping from English back into Afrikaans. (Many of the words are similar.) Finally, Bobby’s brother recalled how three air force jets swooped over the University in tight formation, clearing the tops of the buildings by 100 feet, then slammed straight into the massive cliff face of Table Mountain; they’d simply forgotten to go up and over it.

Morning tea in the Education Block. With liberals and cookies and South Africa’s version of the Polish Joke.

* * *

Mrs. Helen Joseph is one of the 274 “officially banned persons.” She is British-born, a widow, 66 years old, and the first to be placed under house arrest. Although she was never convicted of any offense other than failing to report to the police under the terms of her banning order, that internment lasted nine years, ending only last year when she needed treatment for breast cancer.

Masingayi Xhakalengusha is a 31-year-old black laborer who was found guilty on a charge of refusing to report to his job on a poultry farm. Mr. Xhakalengusha told the court that he had been unable to work when ordered to do so because he had washed his only pair of trousers the day before and they were still wet. A feeble excuse, certainly, but when it was learned that he worked an 11-hour day, seven days a week, for which he earned $9.75 weekly, he got the sympathy of the world press.

Stories like these are commonplace. In 1969-70, the last year for which official figures are available, there were nearly half a million prisoners in South African jails. Of that number, fewer than 8,500 were white. And today it is estimated there are nearly a million prisoners, giving South Africa proportionately the highest prison population in the world: The total population of the country is about 20 million.

Not quite so common—but not so rare, either—are the stories of mysterious deaths. In the past 12 months, 17 black prisoners have died while in police detention, most from unexplained “falls.” (According to police, one prisoner actually tripped over a chair and fell out a window.)

There are laws in South Africa which give police the legal right to kill someone suspected of committing an offense and who is said to be fleeing or resisting arrest. No one has counted those bodies.

In less than a year, Bobby will be drafted into the South African military. He seems resigned.

“It was for nine months,” he says, “but now it’s a year. They take you if you’ve got one leg, there’s no getting out of it.

“You apply for the navy because you might get to go out after submarines and you definitely get a trip to Europe some time during the year. Everybody applies for the navy. You have to be so shrewd to get the navy.

“The army you go to a camp near Jo’burg for base training and then usually you get assigned to your home town.

“In the air force you can train to be a pilot and maybe end up washing the plane’s wings. And you can be a dog handler. I don’t know why they have the dogs in the air force, but I wouldn’t mind doing that.

“The best deal is being a military policeman. You go after marijuana smokers around the docks and you have the time to take a smoke yourself.”

Bobby seems casual, almost remote, about his military service. But there is nothing casual about the way the South African Defense Force is run. Tales of jets flying into Table Mountain notwithstanding, the military organization here is a highly competent one … and one which is cleverly and massively linked with the uniformed civilian police and a huge network of federal security police and perhaps tens of thousands of freelance finks and spies.

In the last ten years, defense spending has gone from $55 million to $320 million. (The police budget has more than tripled.) Where once South Africa was dependent upon foreign sources for her supersonic interceptor fighter-planes, fast low-level strike aircraft, bombers, helicopters and flying troop carriers, now she is approaching self-sufficiency. There is universal conscription for whites and at all times there are 100,000 men in uniform—which represents a whopping four percent of the country’s total white population.

Ask the government why the need for such a force and you get a lot of talk about arming and training to combat communism, and service as a Valued Western Ally, et cetera. But the present State President, J.J. Fouche, let the truth slip a few years ago when as the minister of defense he said, “Do not think we are arming to fight a foreign enemy—we are not. We are arming to shoot down the black masses.”

In support of this incredibly candid statement, army officers have at times visited Algeria and Angola for special briefings on methods of suppressing popular freedom struggles. Since 1966, soldiers have been fighting black guerrillas, many of them operating in South Africa’s neighbor and fellow-racist state, Rhodesia.

Bobby may think he’s destined to sniff out pot-smokers on the Cape Town docks, but that may not be his future at all.

“I want to leave the country and I will,” he says, “as soon as I can, but I have to do my military first. The government won’t clear you to leave the country unless you do. When I went to England for two weeks when I was 15, my passport was stamped VALID FOR SIX MONTHS ONLY.”

It’s never occurred to Bobby to challenge conscription. Conscientious Objectors are not recognized. In South Africa, they’ve heard about dodging the draft, but they don’t do it.

* * *

One of Bobby’s brother’s friends, a student, leans forward intently. I’ve asked her what she thinks the Liberal’s chances are.

“One gets the feeling,” she says, picking her words carefully, “one gets the feeling that the time for liberal white involvement is past, that it’s now between black and white extremists, neither of whom have any use or like or need for white liberals.”

She stops to let her evaluation sink in. She’s just pronounced herself and her friends obsolete. “Black consciousness is fairly new here—only two years old. There’s no violence yet, but there’s a great deal of outspokenness, which has surprised many whites. The black South African Students Organization split off from the National Union of South African Students five years ago and is becoming more and more extreme, rejecting all white involvement. The blacks are not becoming urbanized in a Western way. Black identity is developing rapidly.

“As for the white extremists … there was a joint conference of Afrikaans- and English-language university students last week in Stellenbosch. I guess it was an historic meeting, because it was the first of its kind in 38 years. Afterward, all the papers—even the so-called liberal opposition papers—said the gap was being bridged.

“It didn’t strike me that way at all. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to agree on basic issues. Our cultures are too far apart. The Afrikaner, no matter what his age, is into short haircuts, uniforms, Calvinism and discipline.”

She looked at her own wardrobe: faded jeans, patched sweater and desert boots. “The young English liberal is somewhat the opposite—long-haired, mismatched, irreligious and somewhat directionless. We still have our rituals, like High Tea, but next to the well-scrubbed Afrikaner, we’re sloppy.

“Your Jim Morrison had a line in one of his songs: ‘You got the guns, but we got the numbers.’ Here in South Africa, they have the guns and the numbers. Not only is the Afrikaner birth rate a full third higher than the English, the average Afrikaner is 23 compared with our 30. Being white and liberal is being a part of a very, very small minority.

“I think the demonstrations of June were a salutary exercise which in the long run may mean nothing. Carrying a placard is one of the easiest ways to assuage guilt. Too many of us, I’m afraid, may want to do something prominent rather than something effective.”

Other English-speaking students agree. “When it comes to the crunch,” says one, “the English traditionally have copped out. Our parents may resent Afrikaner attempts at domination, but many of them go along with the discrimination. The businessmen especially. Harry Oppenheimer is the chairman of the biggest company in South Africa and is described as a liberal British businessman, but who do you think works in his diamond mines for $250 a year and then has white fingers poked up his black ass each night at quitting time in what they call ‘security measures’?

“And when they announced they were leveling one of the local black ghettoes, District Six, to build a new white neighborhood, and moving the blacks out of town onto barren land a two-hour bus ride from their daytime jobs, who do you think gets the contract to design the new development? Sam Abrams, that’s who—another liberal British businessman.

“Of course, students are more radical, but that doesn’t mean they’re effective, because anything that’s effective takes planning and nothing that’s planned will work because all levels are so thoroughly infiltrated. One of my professors had three students go to him separately last week to say they’d been approached by the government to provide their notes of his lectures; he doesn’t know how many others were asked, or how many agreed. That’s just one tiny example.

“Some say our hope is in NUSAS [the National Union of South African Students]. They met here at UCT last week and passed the expected resolutions—in favor of getting conscientious objectors recognized, condemning police violence, applauding the South African Institute of Race Relations and the Rand Daily Mail for deciding to use the term ‘black’ instead of ‘non-white,’ saying the drug problem should be taken from police and given to social workers and sociologists. I’m afraid it doesn’t mean much. Resolutions never do. And now NUSAS is being investigated by the government and that means next it’ll be banned.”

“I’d been asleep,” says the girl who works as a secretary for the Progressive Party. “The student demonstrations unnerved me, made me look around. But after so short a time as six weeks on the party payroll, I think it’s clear that it’s too late.

“It’s too easy to rationalize your way of life here. You tell yourself you’re treating your maid fairly and you give her clothing and you take the maid’s children in to play with your children and you canvass for the Progressives, who say they want real equality for the African, one-man, one-vote, all of that, but nothing ever changes really.”

* * *

The past week, Bobby’s brother decided to change piano teachers. Their mother decided to learn another language, while Mr. Hurst decided to plant another paw-paw tree at the end of the driveway. And Bobby decided to take another acid trip.

Life goes on in South Africa.

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