The rosy-cheeked young man with Aryan good looks, a winning smile and a thick South African accent straight out of a Tarzan movie looked up from his chair in front of the managing editor’s desk, then – clutching his old-fashioned leather briefcase and Indiana Jones fedora – stood and extended his hand in greeting.
This unexpected visitor in the newsroom had just met for 10 minutes behind closed doors with the Tulsa Daily World’s city editor, executive editor and managing editor. City Editor John Gold had waved me in, muttering uncomfortably, almost under his breath, “Just talk to him. See what he has to say. Write a little something.”
But who was this waiting kid? I’d interviewed Shriner clowns, Miss Teenage Americas, indicted presidential aides, retiring barbers, tornado survivors, five-year-old marathon champions and drunken country music stars. So, who was this blond young man in the expensive tweeds? Why were my bosses seemingly annoyed? I grabbed my voice recorder, sensing something was odd.
The young guest introduced himself glibly – obviously he’d done this before – and launched into his pitch that he represented the Republic of South Africa, which was tired with being barred from international athletic competitions, banned from economic trade worldwide and slandered in the global liberal media. He wanted to explain why South Africa should not be a pariah nation, portrayed as bigoted despots in Academy Award-winning movies and “biased” 60 Minutes segments about the world’s most famous political prisoner, the aging South African opposition leader Nelson Mandela.
The young man said world opinion was being unfair to South Africa and the country’s century of laws and policies denying any vote or voice to 80 percent of its population, the tribal blacks as well as “coloureds” who were racially impure, that is, not Caucasian.
His nation was the only stable democracy in Africa, he declared, and America’s only reliable friend, the only force keeping the entire continent from turning blood-red Communist. After all, one only had to look at the genocidal disaster after the Belgians turned their Congo colonies over to the native blacks or when Portugal had pulled out of Angola, leaving it in a decades-long civil war. The atrocities were horrendous, he recited: murders of nuns, destruction of oil company property and the rise to power of corrupt dictators. Look at Libya! When Italy gave up its oil-rich African colony, madman Muamar Khadafy had seized power and now was using the oil riches to finance terrorism worldwide.
South Africa, he pointed out, was a wealthy, stable nation wisely using its gold and diamond reserves to provide all its citizens with the highest standard living of any country in Africa. And, he asserted, it wasn’t a colony! Whites from Britain and the Netherlands had been there for centuries – settling in a relatively uninhabited land, turning it into the bread basket of Africa, feeding the entire continent.
I interrupted his well-practiced presentation, chuckling that his task of defending his nation’s institutionalized racism was not unlike the Ku Klux Klan sending a public relations flak to our newsroom trying to explain why American blacks really liked slavery and that lynching uppity Negroes had protected the United States from crime.
The young South African looked startled. No, he told me with a pained expression, it wasn’t like that at all. South Africa, he said calmly in the tones of a well-practiced college debate team captain, was completely different: South Africa was greatly blessed with an abundance of natural resources including vast gold reserves, fabulous diamond mines, fertile farmlands and such strategic metals as platinum – vital to the defense of the United States. The climate is wonderful – the envy of all Africa, much like Hawaii. Furthermore, South Africa’s strategic location controls the crossroads of the world – that narrow passage between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
He resumed his so-rudely interrupted presentation – that South Africa back in the 1600s had been colonized by English and Dutch settlers when they found almost no indigenous peoples there. The Dutch had established two incredibly prosperous colonies, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Meanwhile, the English thrived at their Cape Town colony. A result of their prosperity was a mass migration of invading black tribal Africans in search of jobs, which the Dutch and English graciously provided – paying well, providing good housing and offering ample benefits.
I asked him if he had ever seen the classic 1964 movie Zulu, which some have compared to Lawrence of Arabia, starring Michael Caine instead of Peter O’Toole. It’s an epic take of the 1897 Battle of Rorke's Drift where 100 or so British riflemen held off thousands of spear-wielding Zulus. The film is “an edge of your seat spectacular,” according to the internet movie database site www.IMDb.com. He said he loved the film and said much of it was based on another even more dramatic confrontation, 1838’s Battle of Blood River in which 470 Dutch defenders led by Andries Pretorius defeated an estimated 15,000–21,000 Zulus. Thousands of blacks had died, but no whites, who suffered only three wounded, including Pretorius himself. South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, is named after him.
“Wow,” I asked the kid – who actually was my own age: I thought the British and Dutch settled empty territory. Where did all these thousands of tribal warriors come from?
The young South African blinked, then repeated his previous line that the blacks had invaded after industrious whites’ prosperity provided jobs – which, of course, the whites created. And that was the crux of the problem, he asserted: The whites were there first. The blacks had no legitimate claim on South Africa.
None? What about Nelson Mandela’s repeated assertion that if a nation is 80 percent of one race, but only the 20 percent of another race are permitted to hold office or vote or own businesses or go to college, that something was seriously wrong?
At that point, Mandela had been in prison for two decades. First, he had been treated like a common criminal, then when his activist wife, Winnie, had led the international community in demanding his release, he had been moved to a medium-security prison, then a small cottage where he was permitted to stroll the grounds and even meet with the international press.
Mandela, explained the young man, was a notorious and dangerous criminal, an admitted Communist and anarchist who would throw the country into economic ruin, social upheaval and racial revenge. Plus, his ancestors weren’t even from South Africa – but had migrated hundreds of years earlier from Botswana or maybe Uganda.
What about the young man’s assertion that blacks hadn’t taken an interest in South Africa until whites turned it into a success story? Well, historians tell us that, indeed, South Africa was largely uninhabited until about 400 A.D. or so when migrating Bantu-speaking Zulus followed their herds and made war with the few Khoikhoi and San tribal blacks there – intermarrying with survivors. And yes, down on the southern coast, Xhosa hunter-farmers did the same around 1000 A.D., a good 400 years before Portuguese mariner Bartolomeu Dias in 1487 discovered the southern tip of Africa. Two hundred more years passed before the Dutch East India Company in 1652 founded Cape Town and imported slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar and India to do the hard labor.
The Xhosas tried to throw them out in the Cape Frontier Wars – which continued even after Great Britain took control of Cape Town in 1795. In the 1870s, the Zulus united, forming the powerful Mthethwa Empire under warrior leader Shaka. They lost and the British divided the Zulu Empire into 13 "kinglets" – basically an African version of Indian Reservations. Laws were enacted to control the movement of the Zulus, including the Native Location Act of 1879. “Pass laws” required blacks, but not whites, to have written permission to travel out of their kinglets.
The young man from the South African government was correct in asserting that South Africa was no longer a colony and its whites were not colonists. Indeed, in 1910, South Africa gained independence from Britain. However, political power was reserved for whites. The descendants of slaves brought in from India and Indonesia were bundled into a new class, “coloureds,” which also included anyone of mixed blood. Land ownership by blacks was permitted for only 7 percent of the country.
In 1948, complicated rules classified the rights of blacks, whites and coloureds – with severe limitations on the blacks and coloureds. A person was legally not white if any ancestor had been non-white. Department of Home Affairs ruled stated that a person could be classified “obviously white” based on officials’ reviewing “his habits, education, and speech and deportment and demeanor.” Well into the 1980s, race laws touched every aspect of life. Marriage between non-whites and whites was punishable by imprisonment. “White-only” restrictions kept blacks in non-professional and non-managerial positions. The Bantu Authorities Act assigned blacks to several “independent states” – basically the kinglets – revoking their South African citizenship. The Public Safety Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act empowered the white government to declare states of emergency and to punish protests against any law. Penalties included public whippings.
In 1970, the Bantu Homeland Citizenship Act made all Zulus citizens of “KwaZulu,” which consisted of a large number of disconnected homelands – the newest incarnation of the old kinglet reservations. Approximately 5.2 million Zulu were forced from their homes and involuntarily relocated. But the whites needed workers, so approximately 2 million blacks were allowed to remain – many living in squalid slums, forbidden to stay overnight in white-controlled territories.
As the world became increasingly aware of what was going on, South Africa was hit with international sanctions. European nations banned South African products. International sports groups barred South African athletes. The nation was denounced at the United Nations. Political pressure mounted. However, the white South Africans had enormous wealth – and the world needed their diamonds, platinum, chromium, titanium and gold.
And so, apartheid survived for years after it should have collapsed. Traveling to South Africa was like entering the Twilight Zone. If you were anything but Caucasian – such as half South African white and half Japanese, Cherokee, Guatemalan, Filipino, Egyptian, Vietnamese, Navajo, Nigerian, Hawaiian or Chinese – you would not be allowed to travel first-class. In a famous scene in the Academy Award-winning epic Gandhi, the architect of India’s independence is hurled off of a South African train for daring to try to do so.
Hotels and restaurants allowed only whites. Grocery stores served blacks only through the back door – Africans were not allowed inside. For citizens of uncertain racial heritage, it got even weirder. One regulation called for examining whether the moons of your fingernails were a bit more mauve than white, which would hint of possible African blood. Then there was “the pencil test” – would it stay in your hair, proving it must be of kinky African stock. But if the pencil slid through, you passed one test of whether you could be classified white.
The bizarre rules led to families being forcibly separated — even children from their parents — if a family member was ruled not to belonging to the same race. But many mixed-race South Africans tried hard to pass the tests allowing them to be termed “white,” since it meant you got good health care, your children could attend good schools and you could live wherever you wanted. Blacks on the other hand were corralled into slums if they could get jobs in the white cities. If not, they were forcibly herded to remote "homelands" where there were few jobs other than farming.
The system did allow a few black professionals, such as teachers. Black lawyers, nurses and doctors were allowed, but could only serve blacks. In another peculiar loophole, if a mixed-race person possessed a British passport, they could be treated as an "honorary white" — allowed in white hotels, theaters, museums, resorts and restaurants, but not the racially segregated beaches.
Those blacks allowed to work in the cities lived in dusty, treeless and completely segregated suburbs with makeshift houses crammed onto small plots often overlooking white garbage dumps. Caucasians, however, lived in neighborhoods with green grass, shrubbery, paved roads and sidewalks. Their homes had gardens, swimming pools, tennis courts and black servants, who were paid menial wages.
Black children were taught only in English and Afrikaans – a language that had evolved from Dutch. Speaking Bantu or any other native dialect at school was punishable. How could such a system be justified?
To the blond young man in the expensive tweeds, clutching his leather briefcase in my managing editor’s office, it made perfect sense. He had grown up in luxury, enjoying a prosperity created by exploiting blacks, giving them the lowest possible wages – for which the Africans were deeply grateful because it meant not starving after deportation to one of those “homelands.”
“You have to understand,” the kid explained, “blacks are not capable of learning, of managing their own affairs, of running something as complicated as a government. In South Africa, we have accepted what you in America choose to ignore – that we have a duty and obligation to take care of our blacks and Asians and mixed-races – to give them jobs and provide them with leadership.”
I remember staring at him in disbelief. I tried joking with him, seeing if I could get him to drop the act – to admit that he didn’t believe what he proclaimed so resolutely. He was unshakable, but did concede that he had a tough assignment, trying to talk to American newspapers – and attempt to win them over to South Africa’s point of view.
And so, I wrote the article about his tough task.
The next day, I got called up to the City Desk. My boss again looked uncomfortable. The South Africans had hated the article. They wanted something proclaiming their point of view as truth – not a piece about what a difficult task their young Aryan spokesman was facing, attempting to convince anybody of his impossible position. In fact, my boss said, the kid claimed I had misquoted him, put words in his mouth and outright fabricated some statements. His job was at stake.
Well, so was mine at that point. I pulled out my voice recorder – which had been running on my managing editor’s desk for the entire interview.
I kept my job. I don’t know whether the kid kept his. In 1989, ardent pro-apartheid Prime Minister P.W. Botha lost his.
He resigned after it became clear that international opinion was going to result in South Africa being increasingly isolated and boycotted. His successor, F. W. de Klerk, startled his supporters in February 1990 by announcing that he was lifting the ban on black political parties, was going to allow freedom of the press, and was lifting the ban on blacks voting. Furthermore, he would be releasing political prisoners. On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years – finally a free man, finally allowed to vote.
In April 1994, Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president. The country did not descend into chaos. Communists did not rush into power. Riots did not destroy Cape Town and Pretoria. Instead, Mandela called for nationwide reconciliation – for South Africa’s black majority to “forgive, but never forget.”
The transition was smooth. Today, South Africa remains a prosperous, remarkable country. What truly caused apartheid’s collapse? Was it the international community’s economic sanctions? The bans on South African athletic competition? The denunciations worldwide? The absurdity of sending spokesmen to newspapers to defend indefensible positions? No, apartheid passed into history because it was based on a terrible lie: that one race is too inferior to take care of itself and must be “cared for” by another.
Nobody really believed it. But like the Nazis in Hitler’s time and the Soviet party officials during Russia’s brutal years under Communism, or the Tutsis who murdered hundreds of thousands of their tribal Hutu neighbors in Rwanda or the Cambodians who carried out Pol Pot’s murder of millions on that country’s killing fields, South African whites were willing to pretend they believed if it kept them in power.
Secretly, they knew the truth.
And that the truth would set South Africa free.