I begin today’s column with an apology. In my speech paying tribute to Helen Zille at the Democratic Alliance (DA) congress in Port Elizabeth last weekend, I included the name of Hendrik Verwoerd among a list of “smart politicians” I said I had encountered in the course of my long career in journalism.
Unfortunately those words have given offence to some people, who saw them as indicating a degree of moral approval of the man and his policies.
For that I apologise unreservedly to those people.
In truth Verwoerd and his policies appalled me. Those policies inflicted great pain and hardship on millions of black people, and I spent most of my journalistic life, as a political correspondent, analyst and editor, attacking him for that.
But even as I did so, I recognised that Verwoerd was a formidable figure.
His dominance of his own party was total, to the extent that Nationalist MPs would hiss with outrage if any opposition parliamentarian ventured even a mild interjection. They hung on to his every word as he spelled out the details of his grand scheme of separating the races into “separate countries” with the conviction of a prophet.
And he was clever, which is what I meant when I called him “smart” – but I guess that wasn’t the smartest choice of word, because some felt it as carried a connotation of praise.
But Verwoerd was certainly clever, as is Robert Mugabe, whose destructive policies I also abhor. Verwoerd was clever in the way he sought to give the crude Nationalist policy of white baasskap (domination) a veneer of respectability by portraying it as a policy of “separate freedoms” for what he called the different “peoples” of South Africa, each in their own areas.
All this would then eventually culminate in a multiracial “commonwealth of states” with a conference of premiers at the hub of the system.
It was all an unattainable fantasy, of course, as we on the Rand Daily Mail pointed out day after day, but Verwoerd’s party bought into it en masse – especially, as historian Hermann Giliomee has noted, “the reform-minded Afrikaner intelligentsia”.
The only alternative, he told them, was full integration, which he said would mean the swamping, and thus the extinction, of the Afrikaner volk, or nation. Which was a sure-fire vote-winner.
As even the redoubtable Helen Suzman observed in an interview a decade after Verwoerd’s death: “He convinced the Nationalists that the policy of apartheid was ethical and not based on naked racism.
“The breakthrough for him was being able to convince the Afrikaner academics of this. Without them the policy would not have been able to survive.”
That was not praise. That was intelligent political analysis.
Indeed, so powerful was Verwoerd’s influence on the country that we are still struggling with his legacy. One quote that is locked away forever in my memory bank was a statement he once made in Parliament that “we must take the implementation of separate development (he seldom used the word apartheid) so far that no future government will ever be able to reverse it.”
When I look at Soweto and Alexandra, Langa, Khayelitsha, Crossroads, Orange Farm, Sharpeville, Diepsloot, and then at Sandton, Houghton and Rondebosch, I shudder at that awful prediction. How long will it be, dear Lord? How long before we have a normal society?
But then I take my daily walk up to the cafes and coffee shops of Rivonia, where I live, and I comfort myself again at the sight of young black and white office workers, men and women, sharing tables and chatting naturally with one another, and I swell with joy.
“Yes,” I say to myself, “we are getting there.” Despite Jacob Zuma and his corruption and inefficiency and economic stagnation, we are getting there. Our people, especially our young people, are way ahead of our government. There before our eyes, up the road from where I live and across the country, the birthing of the Rainbow Nation is taking place among ordinary people.
Which brings me to my second apology. In an ad lib part of my five-minute tribute to Helen Zille, I mentioned a few names of other smart politicians I had encountered in my long career to highlight the point I wanted to make that Zille’s real strength had been in her strategic smartness in her decision as leader of the DA to leave Parliament and fight to win control of the Cape Town metro council.
I called it a strategic masterstroke. But the list of smart politicians I rattled out to shape that point, happened (oops!) to be all white. “Racist!” screamed the twitterati. I have to plead guilty and apologise, for it is an impossible charge against which to try to defend oneself.
Some kinder folk on the twittersphere put my lapse down to senility. I guess they are right. In that moment my mind went back to the days when I was a young reporter in the parliamentary Press Gallery, impressed by the oratorical skills of “the few” and bored to death by the many. Days when there were no black people in Parliament.
No excuses. Just an apology for a serious blaps! Not to have mentioned Nelson Mandela, and certainly Thabo Mbeki’s masterful “I am an African” speech, easily the finest piece of oratory ever uttered in our legislature, was inexcusable. And regrettably I never got to meet the exceptional Steve Biko, although with Helen Zille’s help I did manage to break the true story of his terrible death and expose Justice Minister Jimmy Kruger’s lie that he had died of a hunger strike.
Another memorable oratorical contribution worthy of note came from the loquacious Kader Asmal. He delivered the first speech at the first sitting of the first Parliament of the new South Africa. “Madam Speaker,” he began, “today is unique. All of us in this House are going to be undergoing a sex change. We shall all be making maiden speeches.”
Article by Allister Sparks