ARTICLES

A South African’s farewell to the land he loved but couldn’t live in

Arthur Keppel-Jones October 8 1960
ARTICLES

A South African’s farewell to the land he loved but couldn’t live in

Arthur Keppel-Jones October 8 1960

A South African’s farewell to the land he loved but couldn’t live in

Arthur Keppel-Jones

ARTICLES

A FEW DAYS BEFORE I left South Africa a friend asked me to answer a question that had been on his mind: When I looked back from the other side of the world, what would 1 miss most? What would the nostalgic memories fasten upon? He thought of this as he drove home from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, past the edge of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, their wintry yellow lit up by the setting sun. Could anyone hear to leave this? It was a hard question; I cannot recall that picture without getting a lump in my throat. But if I were to choose one scene that tops all others in nostalgic power it would be somewhere along the coast of False Bay. Cape Town's maritime back garden. And this comes to my mind now in all its moods, changing with the hour and the season. For me it is a memory reaching back to childhood, when the pink light on the opposite mountains, the freshness of the southeaster and the salty air in the nostrils were compounded with sunburn, sandy feet, the tingle of the water and the prospect of supper in a grandmother’s house. A recent immigrant to South Africa, who cannot have had these memories, was so enthralled by this coast that she felt as if it had always been, as it had become, an inseparable part of her. This was pointedly told me by an aunt in Cape Town, who was too kind to make any direct criticism of our emigration.

At two o'clock one morning last March my friend in Pietermaritzburg, a Liberal, was rudely aroused by the police, forbidden to speak to his lawyer, torn from his family and hustled off to prison. My aunt sent me a newspaper with news of the crisis: at the foot of one page she had scribbled: "How wise you were to go." Across the golf course that one of my childhood homes overlooked, and where in winter I had often sailed boats and caught frogs in the pools, thirty thousand Africans now tramped on their protest march into the city.

T hese contrasts reveal something of the paradox, the paralyzing dilemma in which South Africans are involved. In a country blighted by fears and hatreds the people of all races have at least this in common, a deep emotional love of the land. Yet this no more binds them together than two men are hound together by loving the same woman. At the height of this year's crisis. Parliament heard the Nationalist view' of the problem summed up in four words: "They want our country!” Reporters and officials braving the crowds in the African townships were greeted by a cry that welled up from other depths — "lzwe lethu (our country).”

What then makes a South African shake the dust of his country oil his feet forever? In my own case, at least, it was none of the obvious things. 1 have often been asked whether, for instance, my freedom of speech was ever restricted. It wasn't: I lectured to students as freely as 1 do in Canada, and denounced the government in speech and writing without let or hindrance. Did I see some African of my acquaintance being beaten up by the police? No. Even the imprisonment of

my Liberal friends was not a factor, since that happened after 1 left. The estrangement was more subtle, gradual and indirect.

There w'crc few white South Africans of my generation who didn’t absorb racial consciousness and prejudice in the air they breathed from infancy. Looking recently at a childish diary ot mine. I was horrified to find it sprinkled with contemptuous references to “niggers.” If my school friends w'rote diaries, they would have struck the same note. Yet they and I were hardly grown up before w'e were publicly protesting against J. B. M. Hcrtzog's curtailment of the native franchise. Our view's had radically changed.

What had changed them was a university education. In the University of Cape Town our crude notions had withered under the fire of rational argument, directed by young lecturers whose own minds had been formed at Oxford, Cambridge, or the London School of Economics.

In my case there was another influence, one of those chance remarks that strike home and are never forgotten. It was the comment of one of my elders when Prime Minister Hertzog first mooted his plan to secure white supremacy for all time: "What I say is that all these schemes are merely putting off the evil day.” Whether the day was evil or not, I now had my yardstick. And every scheme, from Hcrtzog's to Verwoerd’s, has proved to be an elaborate piece of self-deception by people determined not to face the inevitable.

The withering of prejudice under the academic glare has been going on ever since. Sometimes the result is achieved by shock therapy. An Afrikaner girl, more deeply imbued with the traditional attitudes than 1 had ever been, was studying English at the University of the Witwatersrand soon after the last war. in difficulties with an essay on King Lear, she went round to the house of one of my colleagues for help. On entering the house she saw something incredible — a tea party at which black and white people w'ere amicably chatting together. Her mouth dropped open, she tried to mumble an excuse and turned to go. But the host was insistent. "1 am rather rusty on Lear,” he said, "but you should ask Dr. Vilakazi. It’s more in" his line.” Dr. Vilakazi. the Zulu poet, had indeed been re-reading Lear quite recently, and solved the student’s problem for her. Willy-nilly, she stayed to tea. The treatment worked; before long she was an ardent liberal.

No student at an Afrikaans university is exposed to such influences. There is little room in it for any deviation from Afrikaner nationalism and white supremacy, and none for nonEuropean students. But the English-speaking universities have long been the spearheads of the attack on racial discrimination. This was especially true of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand, where segregation was reduced to a minimum. In one year at the University of the Witwatersrand 1 had a postgraduate class that included almost the whole racial spectrum: Afrikaner, English. Jewish, African, Indian.

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They all got along well together. The African student came near to being the best in the class. But he was an exceptional African; afterwards, as Dr. Mofokeng, he was a member of the university staff. He died young, his health broken by the incredible privations he had suffered in his struggle for education.

Close contact with people of other races was one of the reasons for the liberalism in the English-speaking universities; the other was the sharp impact of mind on mind in an atmosphere of free discussion and enquiry. Nowhere, among white citizens, has the present régime been more fundamentally detested than in these centres of enlightenment. t hey not only produce the liberal ideas and liberal minds, but also give the lie to the theory that when black and white mix on terms of equality the result is friction.

Police spies were planted

Nationalist propaganda has been forced in this context to change its line: the danger in the mixed universities arises from the absence of friction. Young minds are seduced away from “the love of their own.” So the Nationalists have come to regard these institutions as centres of disaffection, to be punished and disarmed when the time is ripe. Students in the Afrikaans universities began in 1933 to break away from the National Union of South African Students and to form a national-minded organization of their own. After trying unsuccessfully for twelve years to heal this breach, NUSAS healed another by admitting non-Europeans to its membership; now its Nationalist critics claim that NUSAS, because of this, is responsible for the “tragic division” among white students. A professor who moved from the University of Stellenbosch, an Afrikaans institution, to the mixed University of the Witwatersrand was sent off by his colleagues with much head-shaking and expression of pity. One of them said, “You will be unhappy there. Indeed I hope you will be unhappy there.”

The government moved more slowly and cautiously in this field than in some others. But it planted police spies to report on staff and students; as a result of these reports, in some cases false, several people have spent a few months in prison. An act to exclude non-Europeans from “white” universities was pushed through in spite of the forceful, continuous and unanimous opposition of the institutions concerned.

But these are the experiences of a small minority of white South Africans. The great majority has never been liberalized by such influences, though some have been by other influences, such as the churches. The few who have felt and

thought their way to values that make no distinction of race are a small minority of the white population, out on a limb, without political influence or serious hope of acquiring it.

This fact is easier to understand when you realize how effectively segregated the South Africans arc. The girl who stood aghast at the mixed tea party had not known that such a thing was possible. My wife and I knew it was possible, and were anxious to develop such contacts. But how? No non-European family could live within many miles of us. There were occasional contacts with African students. One of our sons, returning from a mission station in Zululand, could bring an African schoolmaster to lunch. But such meetings were difficult to follow up.

Then a public-spirited citizen tried to solve the problem by founding an International (meaning inter-racial) Club. This could not exist as a public institution, owned by its members; the segregation laws saw to that. But it took the form of a private property, owned by a white man. and the laws had not yet got round to controlling private hospitality. The club was opened with great éclat

and the blessing of distinguished citizens. We sat at a table with four Indian couples (all called Naidoo, but not related) and a solitary African. The conversation, which began self-consciously, soon warmed up. This might be the beginning of something important.

The government thought so too. The club badly needed money, but cautious well-wishers would not invest any as there was no chance of their getting it back. Even before the laws had been amended to make such institutions impossible, the club had to close because its funds were exhausted. We never did see the Naidoos again.

There was no obstacle to inter-racial contact of another kind. We, like all other white families, were in close and continuous contact with Africans — but they were servants. Most of them spoke broken and picturesque English and had strange habits and ways of thinking. Some were fine people for whom we felt a strong affection. But their relationship to Madam and Master, to the young masters or the “piccanin missus,” was no substitute for the mingling at the International Club: on the contrary, it is the very stuff of which white supremacy is made. And some servants were not very good. We had anxious moments dismissing a houseboy who had threatened (and he meant it) to murder a neighbor’s servant.

While we did our best not to have potential murderers in the house, there were lots of them in the streets. On one weekend in Johannesburg there were at least three violent deaths within a few blocks of where we were living: two Africans murdered by Africans and one

armed African intruder killed in a fight with the white occupants. Every window in Johannesburg is protected with burglar-proof bars or mesh; many houses keep outside lights on all night, and have fierce dogs strategically placed. During all the years we lived in that city, I never slept without an automatic pistol, loaded and cocked, under my pillow. It was as ordinary as a handkerchief or an alarm clock. I was once reproved by the police, when a gang had tried to break into the house in the small hours, for being too slow on the draw. There are few streets in Johannesburg, outside the central area, where a woman can walk alone at any time; at night it is dangerous for man or woman.

Hatred fills the air

Before the war I used to drive alone in the evening into one of Johannesburg’s native townships — Western Native Township, Orlando or Alexandra — to give a lecture. After the war I was asked to do this again. But there was now no question of my driving in alone. The Public Library lent a closed van, which took a team of us to the hall in Orlando. After the lecture those of the audience who lived in the more distant parts of the township were packed into the van and taken home, each one being escorted to the door and seen safely in. There are far more black than white victims of the criminal gangs.

More ominous than the crime arc the intangible evidences of racial tension. A European passing through, or near, an African crowd in Johannesburg senses the hatred in the air. This sensation used to be conspicuously absent in most other parts of the country, but it has been steadily spreading to them. To the majority of white people, this and the crime and the waywardness of servants constitute the picture of the African. The mix-

ed tea party and club, the Mofokengs and the Vilakazis, are outside their experience.

So are the Naidoos. In Natal, where the Indians are concentrated, they suffer from an irrational but rationalized prejudice among Europeans (and most of these, in Natal, are English-speaking). Some whites and Indians are competitors in trade. In the small town of Port Shepstone I went into a white shop to make a purchase. As they hadn’t what 1 wanted, I asked the assistant if he could suggest where I should go. His answer— “No, not unless you want to go to one of the coolie shops and take the bread out of our mouths”—was given with raised voice and flushed face. In another Natal town I stayed in a boarding house where the radio was kept going from the early morning exercises till the final goodnight. But when it was time for the Indian program, and a quavering voice began to sing a Tamil song, there was a wild and ostentatious rush to turn the instrument off.

This is prejudice; but the white man’s fears are not based only on prejudice. Many South Africans have relatives or friends in Kenya who experienced the Mau Man revolt. At that time the talk among Africans in the Union—not intended for European ears, but reported by those who overheard and could understand—commonly turned to pandas and throat-cutting. And now the Union is receiving refugees from the Congo, who have their own tale to tell. To some of us it seemed urgent to assuage this hatred by removing its cause. But most could see no other course than that of meeting it head on with firm and ruthless measures.

Many little experiences like the few I have quoted, with the thinking they provoke, add up to some strong convictions: First, that there are distinctions far more important than race, that white

“When I was young there was little antipathy to Afrikaners; things have deteriorated since then”

supremacy and racial discrimination are unjust and vicious, and that one of their principal bastions is ignorance. Second, that the white South African community will not of its own accord allow the structure of white supremacy to be breached at any significant point. Third, that when power passes into the hands of the African majority, as some day it must, the while minority will pay dearly for its obstinacy. When these conclusions are reached and harden into convictions, they make a weak basis for South African patriotism and citizenship. I reached them—at least the last two of them— slowly and reluctantly. But they are not the whole story.

When I was young the idea of treating non-Europeans as human beings and fellow citizens was novel and startling, and few entertained it. But there was another kind of barrier, the old barrier between Boer and Briton, that it was quite fashionable to demolish. My youthful diary contained no hint of antipathy to Afrikaners. A remark about a young Englishman on a Karoo farm who frequently went to the village for his English mail —that what he really went for was his Dutch female—is revealing evidence of the rapprochement. On my journey to that farm my train had been delayed twelve hours by washaways. My host had given me up and was not at the station when I arrived late at night. But an older boy I had met on the train, an Afrikaner called De Wet. as a matter of course took me to his home, w'herc 1 was very hospitably treated. This is a virtue almost all Afrikaners share. Many times, driving old cars, I have broken down on the road, and in almost every case (apart from the Indians in Natal) it has been an Afrikaner who has stopped to help me. At school and university 1 made many friends among Afrikaners.

It isn’t quite the same now. A former student of mine w'as chosen last year as one of a party, half English and half Afrikaners, taken on a trip to Europe. It was financed by a foundation whose purpose is to promote understanding between the two white communities. My friend reported the tour a great success in every respect except the purpose it was primarily intended to serve.

The deterioration has been caused by nationalism. Not all Afrikaners are Nationalists, but the proportion of Nationalists among them is so high, especially in the younger generation, that other people assume that an Afrikaner is of that persuasion until the contrary is proved.

Afrikaner nationalism is exclusive and ( whatever its apologists may say for the record) based on a deep antipathy to everything English as well as everything black. Gestures such as English speeches at Afrikaner historical festivals have not

been w'ell received. One woman wrote to the Nationalist press that at one of these gatherings some people near her in the crowd had spoken English, thereby spoiling the whole day for her.

The Nationalist party is not a school of thought that tries to convince anyone by argument. It is rather a close-knit family, sheltering its members from the dangers and pollutions that threaten

them from outside. To reduce the bloodand-soil mystique to the level of argument would be to dissipate it and risk the breakup of the family. That is w'hy, when 1 was on a farm in the Free State and made arrangements to be taken to the local Dingaan’s Day (December 16) commemoration on a neighboring hilltop. I was told at the last moment that the road was too bad. That is why a

brain-trust session on race relations, of which 1 was chairman, got a secondhand message, just as it was about to begin. that the Nationalist member of the team was indisposed. And when we organized a regional conference of history teachers to discuss certain controversial points, inviting everybody in that category. most of the Afrikaners didn’t reply. Others declined, and of the few who

PROGRESS REPORT

In weather-making, seems to me,

We've made great strides and traveled far.

The red man used to dance for rain.

Now paleface merely washes car.

FRANCIS O WALSH

carne, almost all left at the tea break. It is different when they can organize a meeting in their own fashion. I was a university representative at a youth conference in Pretoria, under government auspices. Organizations such as the Boy Scouts were very thinly, their Afrikaner counterparts very heavily, represented. Proposals unacceptable to the dominant section were stopped short by roars of dissent, heretical speakers frozen into silence or sidetracked. When I was introduced to one of the local professors, his comment, “Maar dis ’n berugte

naam (But that’s a notorious name),” hardly seemed odd.

The Nationalist party is now firmly in the saddle, but it (in one form or another) has been manoeuvring in that direction since the beginning of the century. It has been a juggernaut moving relentlessly forward, crushing everything in its way. Those who are alien to it, and are not willing to deceive themselves with pipe-dreams, have gradually come to realize that their citizenship itself is a mere mockery.

My last illusions were dispelled by the

election of 1953, when I worked for the United party. There was no Progressive or Liberal party then, and the UP seen at close quarters was not impressive; it hardly mattered that the candidate for whom I worked soon deserted to the Nationalists. On election day, however, hopes were high. Sitting all day in a polling station as a scrutineer, I received encouraging messages from time to time: the party looked like winning Alberton, our man at Langlaagte was well ahead. In the upshot these hopes proved unfounded. But the Nationalist candidates

had prophesied the size of their majorities, and they were seldom more than a couple of dozen out. Their machine worked. They knew how everyone would vote, and they had known this when the constituencies were delimited. They did not, and would not, expose their tenure of power to chance or gamble.

For most of us I suppose it was the little things that wore down our patriotism by their cumulative effect. Englishspeaking people are affected by the fact that almost all the agents of the state with whom they have dealings — civil servants, police, railway clerks, telephone operators — are Afrikaners. They are often courteous and they are not all Nationalists, but collectively they cannot help making “the enemy” feel that he doesn’t quite belong. I spent two hours in the offices of the Union Buildings in Pretoria without hearing English spoken once, except when officials answered me in my own language. But there were also positive irritations: no accommodation in the Kruger National Park for the man who tried to make a telephone booking in English, while a subsequent phone call in Afrikaans elio ited a choice of vacancies; English-speaking members of the bar deprived (unless they were renegades) of the hope of promotion to the bench, and compelled to plead before their professional inferiors who were elevated for their politics—in a country where the bench has long been above reproach; thç schools of Natal committed, prospectively, to the charge of a Nationalist nominated by the central government and appointed by order of a court in face of the absolute refusal of the provincia} executive to appoint him; salary increases at the University of the Witwatersranç} delayed for many months because thq minister was too busy to attend to th® matter, though there was no delay for less obstreperous institutions.

My friends who teach in Transvaal schools have had to censor their owq bookshelves, since no book may be oq the school premises, even in the principal’s study, unless it is on a list published by the Education Department, and the list is curiously selective. (It was hard to discover a political reason for including Pride and Prejudice and The Mill on the Floss but omitting Mansfield Park and Adam Bede; perhaps it was just that the censors had never majored in English.) My colleagues in Natal hac| to be careful what company they kept; some of them were arrested for being} at a racially mixed party, though acquitT ted because there had been no offence} Policemen often act on the principle 1 ) undesirable activities, even if 11 ' !

should be discouraged. They, c&fu o .q normal times, prevent Líber’ál¿:!‘ Torq holding a meeting. But something caq be achieved by taking down pames of car numbers in their notebooks. One of my Afrikaner friends, in a professional post in the civil service, attended a rer spectable and non-political but racially mixed gathering in a private home. Thç next day he was summoned before his official superior, cross-examined on thi$ grave dereliction of duty and given a solemn and final warning. He resigned from the service.

But why go on? The rest of the tale is equally dreary, a tale of fading hopes, disillusionment, a god that failed. But not of bitterness or self-pity. I am old enough to remember Old Bill in his shellhole, muttering “If you know of a better ’ole, go to it.” We think ourselves lucky to have exchanged the Valley of a Thousand Hills for the Lake of the Thousand Islands, if