By Carl Niehaus
Many years ago we were discussing our future National Anthem in the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC. On invitation from President Mandela, Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo’s proposed rendering of our new National Anthem had just been played to us.
For me, it became very personal and deeply emotional when we reached the part of including the Afrikaans and English parts of the old apartheid regime anthem ‘Die Stem van Suid-Afrika’. It took me straight back to when my first wife, Jansie, and I were in detention. Both of us were tortured, but as a young white Afrikaner woman subjected to the anger of the brutal white Afrikaner security police who were in a rage about our ‘betrayal’, Jansie was far more vulnerable. After many nights of sleep deprivation and abuse, they forced Jansie in a state of utter exhaustion to sing ‘Die Stem’ and recorded it.
This recording of Jansie’s crying voice stuttering through ‘Die Stem’, was played back to me in order to put more pressure on me to talk. It was this recording that finally pushed me to the breaking point when I tried to hang myself in my detention cell.
Fortunately, that suicide attempt was not successful, and I am alive today to write this. I have written about this many years ago in my autobiography ‘Om te Veg vir Hoop’ (Fighting for Hope) which was published in 1993, but writing now again about it is still as raw and as painful as then. The same night after I had tried to kill myself, but pulled away from that final brink, the notorious Craig Williamson – fat as the pig that he is and oozing with arrogance – came into my cell. He laughed at my desperation and pointed to an empty cell across the dark corridor telling me that it was the cell where Ernest Moapi Dipale died. Roughly a year earlier comrade Ernest, on the 8th of August 1982, was found hanging from a strip of prison blanket in that cell. Williamson was the handler of the student security policy spy, Robert Whitecross, who exposed Jansie and my ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe underground activities. I think in a strange way, him having told me that Comrade Ernest died just across the corridor from me, saved my life. After Williamson had left my cell, I fell into a restless sleep and dreamt that Ernest rolled an orange from underneath his cell door to mine. I woke up just as I was reaching out for the orange. I felt a sense of solidarity that helped to carry me through the rest of that hellish period of torture and solitary confinement.
I spoke about this in the NEC, explaining why I could not accept an Anthem that includes portions of ‘Die Stem’. It was an emotive argument, and while I was speaking, I could feel the impact it was having on other NEC members who could identify with what I was saying from their own detention and prison experiences. I was arguing that we should only go with Nkosi Sikekel’ iAfrika, and just as I thought those of us who felt like that were swaying the NEC to accept that, President Mandela suggested that we should have a tea break. As we were leaving the meeting room, Madiba called me aside. He told me that he understands my feelings, but that I of all people in the NEC should understand what he was trying to do (referring to me being of Afrikaans background), because he was trying to forge unifying national symbols that would reach out to the Afrikaners and include them as part of the new and united South African identity. He asked me when the meeting commences again not to continue opposing the inclusion of the portion of ‘Die Stem’. In my heart I was not convinced, because I was not confident that the majority of Afrikaners were actually prepared to change their ways and be part of a united and non-racial South Africa. However, I also understood what Madiba was trying to do, and out of my huge respect for him and the noble effort he was making for reconciliation, I remained quiet and did not oppose that version of our National Anthem that we sing now any further.
None the less I have to be perfectly honest, whenever I reach that last part of the National Anthem, I feel a lump in my throat, and the words can hardly come out. Images of detention, and Jansie’s crying voice singing those words, every time come back.
I have watched with irritation, and often anger, how mainly white crowds at rugby matches mumble and stumble their way through the Nkosi Sikekel’ iAfrica part of the National Anthem, only to belt out the last part of ‘Die Stem’ with full abandon. I could not help a bitter guffaw of recognition when Esethu Hasane recently tweeted: “Why do y’all sing the loudest when you reach the OUR land part in the national anthem when you stole it”
Yes, funny but also painfully true. The reality is that a very significant part of white South Africa do not have the foggiest idea about how deep the apartheid butcher’s knife had literally cut into the heart of every black South African. Not a single black South African has or can escape the terrible harm and continuing consequences of apartheid up to this very day. I always think that the term ‘born frees’ for young black people who have been born after 1994 is a misnomer because not even they have escaped the consequences of our post-colonial apartheid past that still continues to loom so inescapably large in every facet of their lives and in our society in general. Nor, can any white person – born before or after 1994 – claim that they have not benefitted from apartheid.
Black South Africans do not need to be convinced of this reality – they live and suffer it every day. Sadly, however, far too many white South Africans are not prepared to get their heads around this reality. They have somehow convinced themselves that, either having accepted one-person-one-vote, and our new Constitution, they have managed to get rid of all the vestiges and consequences of apartheid and that they are now free from any responsibility for it (the better version of their myopic white entitlement syndrome), or perversely that they are now the ‘victims of racism’, because of the mild forms of Black Economic Empowerment that our ANC government until now implemented so unevenly (the darker side of that same white entitlement).
The stark reality is: As long as the majority of white people in South Africa (not the exceptional few) behave like this, Madiba’s dream of a united non-racial South Africa, or the populist ‘Rainbow Nation’ derivative that Archbishop Desmond Tutu preached about, is a fast disappearing mirage on our South African landscape.
Seventeen years ago, on the 16th of December 2000, the Home for All Campaign was launched, which I co-chaired together with Mary Burton, the former President of the Black Sash. The message of that campaign was a watered down version of what I have just stated above. Bending over backwards in an effort to get as many white South Africans to recognise that they are the benefactors of apartheid, and to sign our Declaration, the rather mild Home for All Declaration simply acknowledged that all whites benefited from the discrimination against blacks in the apartheid system. “The damage caused by apartheid has not been overcome,” it says. “Our failure to accept responsibility for apartheid has inhibited reconciliation and transformation. We deeply regret all of this.” However, the reaction of most whites was not mild – no they were mostly outraged, and declared that they would do no such thing! An article in the Time Magazine edition of the 15th of January 2001 under the headline, ‘The trouble with Sorry’ (http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2048073,00.html) summarised their rejection: Both FW de Klerk and Tony Leon (then leader of the DA) tried to out-arrogant each other in their self-righteous white anger against any apology. The Afrikaner poet, Breyten Breytenbach even stated that he had to go to the toilet to have ‘a quiet puke’ at the thought of having to apologise for anything. ln the end a measly 900 whites signed the Home for All Declaration, and the campaign died a quiet death, only to be read about now in newspaper archives.
However, the reality of South Africa’s apartheid era and it’s undeniable consequences have not disappeared. In many ways it is now more evident than ever before since we as a nation had our first democratic elections on the 27th of April 1994. Sadly we are not a nation united in purpose or reality, we are a nation divided by race and an ever deepening chasm between the wealthy few and the vast majority of poor people. The folly of anyone thinking political power would suffice, without a fundamental change in the ownership patterns and power relations of our economy stands starkly exposed.
Those whites who think it can still be ‘business as usual’, with White Monopoly Capital continuing to call the shots, and keeping black people happy with only the ballot box while they continue to own the land and the means of production, better wake up and smell the coffee. South Africa has reached the critical tipping point where the fault lines of this unacceptable status quo have reached a breaking point and a shift of major proportions is now unstoppable and inevitable.
I do not think White Monopoly Capital, and its hangers-on are oblivious to this, and that is why they have responded with such venom against the ANC government’s plan for Radical Economic Transformation. Let us not fool ourselves the massive amounts of money that they have ploughed into the so-called Save South Africa campaign and mainstream media attacks on President Zuma, and more specifically Radical Economic Transformation is an all out effort to sustain their grip on the South African economy. In many ways, President Zuma is simply the coincidental target of the moment – and a figure against whom they believe they can mobilise a broad cross-section of South Africans – but their main aim is to avoid any significant change in the oppressive and exploitative economic power dynamics of South Africa.
If this was not the case would these people, who now present themselves as moral crusaders, not also have marched against:
⁃ Race-based pay in companies?
⁃ The currency manipulation scandal by major banks?
⁃ Collusion among white monopoly companies?
⁃ The construction, bank, bread and other cartels?
⁃ The return of stolen land to black people?
I am only mentioning a few major issues where whites were glaringly absent in any marches and displayed no moral outrage. However now that fundamental economic transformation is on the cards, and they fear that their own privileged existence is in danger, they protest and march with abandon. Even giving their workers paid leave to protest. The unions will tell us that this is unheard of, and never happened before!
I started this article by writing about a very personal and painful experience that I had with regards to the efforts that we as progressive South Africans, and especially the ANC, made to forge a united South Africa. My experiences are not unique there are a whole array of ANC Leaders, including President Zuma and many other comrades in the National Executive Committee of the ANC, who have been detained, tortured and imprisoned. These experiences do not simply go and sit in your clothes like dust that have been cleaned out as if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a dry-cleaner shop. For the sake of our Nation, I could still try to forgive Craig Williamson and Warrant Officer Nick Deetclefs who had beaten and tortured me to the point where both my eardrums were perforated, and I lost over 60% of my hearing. But the fact is that every day I am battling to hear I am reminded of that.
The reality is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission got some of us to recall these things but in a strange way — because it was primarily a political process with an end goal to put a decent full stop behind the past and to get the country to move on and face the future — it revealed and then repressed even more. “Now that you have stripped and showed us your wounds, put on your clothes and get moving; there is a lot to do” – that kind of thing…
On a national scale, this small personal experience of mine is magnified millions of times over-and-over by the pervasive poverty of people who have lost their land to white colonial thieves, and as a consequence have been doomed to an ever continuing cycle of poverty generation after generation.
Many of us have tried to take the pain, to find some accommodation, for the sake of unity and peace, but our sacrifices have been thrown back into our faces by a majority of whites who are unrepentant and arrogant and abuse our magnanimity.
The reality is that we have reached the end of that road. It is clear that only a concerted programme to radically change the oppressive economic power dynamics that we have inherited, and which too many whites see as their birthright and nothing wrong with, can now bring any hope for the majority of black (especially African) South Africans.
Our message is simple but clear: You can try to call us names, you can try to discredit the terminology that we use, and insult us by saying that the term ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ was coined by some British PR Agency to counter Thuli Madonsela’s poorly written and unsubstantiated ‘State Capture Report’, while we can actually trace it as far back as the Strategy and Tactics Document of the Morogoro Conference in 1969, and beyond.
Yes, you can try and do all of this, but the fact of the matter is that we have compromised and bent over backwards for too long. We have been abused, used and exploited far too often!
White South Africa, now you are either going to change your ways, and join us in the creation of a truly just society that is underpinned by economic justice, and that reflects the demography of our society, or we are going to proceed and do it despite you. This is not our first choice, but your intransigence made the choice for us.
Sekunjalo! The time is now, and regardless of whatever you try to do to derail and frustrate us, we will proceed.
*Carl Niehaus is a former member of the NEC of the ANC and MK veteran.
All Carl’s articles can also be found on his blog, Carl’s Corner: www.carlniehaus.co.za