A friend who stayed on in South Africa

Allan Fotheringham May 23 1994

A friend who stayed on in South Africa

Allan Fotheringham May 23 1994

A friend who stayed on in South Africa


One day, some aeons ago, your agent was noodling around Berlin on a mini-motorcycle, looking for trouble but, being broke, in little hope of finding it. At a youth hostel, I chanced upon another chap on a mini-motorcycle. His name was Tony and he was a young South African architect.

We hit it off, being two freaks on wheels looking for an accident. After some frolicsome days and a few anonymous nights in East Berlin, I headed east for Warsaw and he headed west, we resolving to meet in southern Europe some months hence. Oh, carefree days.

We did, we caught up on all the ensuing lies and gossip, and roared around the Riviera, two carefree kids from opposite ends of the world from two societies that could not be more different. If you stick a pin in your circular globe from Vancouver the farthest spot it will emerge is Cape Town.

One afternoon, in Monaco, at a red light Tony zoomed left and I lost him, circling for blocks in search with no result. Too bad, I thought, he was a nice guy. A year later, I walked into a flat in London to pick up a lady and there was Tony, picking up another lady. My link with South Africa has never ended.

The tragedy of the country now at the centre of world attention has always been that it has been so gifted. It has the climate of southern California. It has the beauty of southern California. It has wines as good as California, beaches as good, food even more sumptuous. It has had, in fact, a higher standard of living than southern California in that even a garage mechanic had a maid (to iron his shirts and his jockey shorts) and she had a husband who lived in an iron shack at the bottom of the garden who cut the lawn and washed the car and did the chores.

That is, if you were white. The only downside was that it was going to come to an end—if you did not have your throat slit first.

Tony and I kept in touch. When it seemed the doomed apartheid system was leading the country to disaster, he like so many of the discouraged young whites thought of leaving. Since at the time I had an architect in the family, I advised him as to relative salaries, whether a life in semi-cold Canada could compensate for leaving a country he loved but despaired of.

He stayed, but he worried, wondering whether his government’s reluctant evolvement into reality could keep pace with world opinion. On a visit there, I wrote about my friend and on reflection at the typewriter pondered whether I should use his name. Considering the political climate, and what damage his views might do to his professional career, I decided not to. That’s how bad things were.

The heavy thinkers have decided that the economic sanctions—and international boycotts initiated first of all by John Diefenbaker—forced the only prosperous nation in Africa to abandon apartheid and give rule to

the blacks. It wasn’t that, it was experience of such as Tony.

On another visit, he told of a recent trip to Boston with his wife. Confused in a strange city, he asked a pedestrian for directions. The kindly man not only obliged but guided the foreigners for several blocks to get them to their destination. Recognizing unfamiliar accents, he idly asked them where they were from. When told “South Africa,” he turned on his heel and marched away, hostility rampant.

Such signals as being social lepers burned into the South African (white) soul. The nation is sports-crazy—sort of southern Californian you could say. Before being cast out of the international forum, its national Springboks rugby squad was the best in the world. Its cricket eleven was of the same standard. Being denied testing its standards against New Zealand and France in rugby, England and the West Indies in cricket, being boycotted by the best tennis players and track athletes and rock artists—it all convinced the supporters of F. W. de Klerk’s ruling party that the game was over.

Tony knew it, as he had always known it. On a visit, he now being the head man in a prosperous architect firm, he had to worry about the elaborate security alarm system being installed on his beautiful home and gardens, too many neighbors having been savaged by resentful intruders who couldn’t wait for the martyr Nelson Mandela to be released after 27 years in prison.

On the day he was released, your foolish reporter, trying to recreate his 0 youth perhaps, came as 1 close to death as one wishg es, being trapped in a Cape “ Town square between bot-

tle-tossing rioters and police replying with buckshot. This was no longer sport. Veteran reporters watching from a safe perch above the battle recounted later that they had shaken their heads—there’s a goof from abroad, he obviously doesn’t understand the system.

They were right. No one but those raised there can comprehend the miraculous events of recent weeks. Considering the carnage that went before, the dignified and civilized passage of power from white to black has been mesmerizing on the world’s television screens—marred only by the inadvertent fact that the new South African flag looks exactly like the logo for the British Rail system.

Mandela, like Gandhi before him, simply outwaited those who imprisoned him, knowing right was on his side. He had the patience ofJob.

And so did Tony. He made the right decision. He stayed.