The Paradox of South Africa: A Reporter’s Notebook

Driving the forty minutes from Pretoria to Johannesburg on National Route 1 in late fall is much like driving the Santa Monica Freeway between Pomona and Riverside. The hills are parched golden brown, inasmuch as the rains of winter have yet to arrive. Middle class residential communities line the highway alongside the corporate headquarters of BMW, Toyota, and Johnson and Johnson. Riding in our Mazda, my three American friends and I have to remind ourselves that this is Africa. Moreover, the stately old mansions on the immediate outskirts of Johannesburg, and the vitality of the ultra-modern inner city, seem to mock the notion that this African country is a troubled land.

Khotso House, the home of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and a variety of other anti-apartheid organizations, is an aging stone building located just off the central business district of Johannesburg. Walking through the hallways cluttered with political posters, I sense a mood reminiscent of American university campuses in the late 1960s and early 1970s: a mood of anxiety and anticipation, a feeling that South Africa stands at the precipice of a new dawn.

As we are escorted into the office of Byers Naude, the Executive Director of SACC, I feel the kind of excitement that I used to experience many years ago when I got the chance to meet one of my sports idols. I am certain that my present excitement is induced by the fact that Byers Naude’s life has assumed a legendary quality. An Afrikaner of well-connected and well-respected stock, Byers has renounced not only his personal past, but his people, the Afrikaner volk. Listening to Byers Naude, I am moved by the pain of his life. In soft tones, Naude speaks as one who is ashamed of his people. His face is etched with the loneliness of a man who has been cut off from his roots. Byers Naude is a man living in exile in his own country.

After leaving Byers Naude we take the elevator down to the ground floor of Khotso House and enter the office of Sydney Mufamadi. A young black man in his early thirties, Sydney is the Assistant Director of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Once again, the atmosphere on this floor is one of anticipation, a feeling that something important is happening and the people who work here are a part of it. Dressed in a jogging suit and chain-smoking, Sydney tells us of his vision of South Africa’s future. There is no uncertainty in his diagnoses or prescriptions; Sydney Mufamadi is a young man who knows what is needed to usher in South Africa’s new dawn. Speaking confidently, and even with a tinge of arrogance, Sydney tells us that tomorrow is too late; change must take place today. What kind of change, we ask. Sydney responds that it is all very simple: the white regime in Pretoria must hand over power to the black majority. How is this to be done, we ask. “The people will decide,” Sydney tells us. Well, then, what kind of institutional arrangements will be put into place to govern the country?

Again, Sydney informs us, “The people will decide.” When we raise the possibility that the present white government is not likely to relinquish its power, Sydney makes it clear that if it does not, the people will take matters into their own hands.

Sydney’s vision of the future of South Africa is that of a nation that bears little resemblance to today’s South Africa. Sydney informs us that the creation of a new South Africa must begin with the total destruction of the old. This means, first and foremost, the destruction of South African capitalism. At this point we interrupt Sydney and suggest that South Africa’s remarkable economy—the only first-world economy in Africa—might be a good foundation upon which to build a democratic future. Sydney is visibly uncomfortable with this suggestion. I suggest to Sydney that recent history has something to teach us about the relationship between democratic capitalism and the amelioration of human misery. Quickly, Sydney dismisses my point. Okay, what kinds of economic and social arrangements will replace those which you want to destroy? Again, “the people will decide.”

As the sun began to set, we said good-bye to Sydney and walked out of Khotso House onto de Villiers Street and negotiated our way through the thousands of black workers who were boarding mini-vans for the ride back to Soweto. As I looked at the people on the streets, I wondered to myself if these were the people of which Sydney Mufamadi spoke.

Jan Smuts Airport on the outskirts of Johannesburg is one of South Africa’s few links with the rest of the world. The cafeteria at the airport is like that at any American airport. It is here that Michael Cassidy has agreed to meet us. I have seen his picture before so I recognize him immediately. Tall, thin, and dressed in a tweed sportcoat, Michael Cassidy has the kind of rugged good looks that one usually associates with a big game hunter, not a Cambridge-educated evangelist. I am delighted to find out that Cassidy’s roommate in Seminary is a good friend of mine back in the States. For some reason, knowing this makes me more relaxed.

Michael runs an evangelistic organization in Durban known as Africa Enterprise. In this capacity, he travels all over Africa preaching the good news of Christ’s gospel. In recent years, however, Michael has become widely known throughout South Africa as the initiator and sponsor of the National Initiative for Reconciliation (NIR). The idea behind the NIR reflects Michael Cassidy’s profound commitment to peaceful change. With the erudition of a keen analytical mind, Michael described for us his hopes for the future. He has no illusions about the success of violent revolution as the engine of change; nor does he have illusions about maintaining the system of inequalities which have relegated the majority of South Africans to second-class citizenship.

We drink our juice in the cramped bench seats around the table. Michael talks of the frustrations he has experienced in trying to bring people together in this divided nation. He makes it clear that he believes that there are still enough people of good will to forge a peaceful future. Yet, he is visibly discouraged.

As he speaks of these things he reaches into his inside coat pocket and pulls out a thin strip of white paper; he gives it to me to read. In crudely typed words, the message promises to do something awful to Michael’s closest associate. Michael explains that his associate has been harassed and threatened for several months. It has been the psychological effects of this terror which have been most difficult. I asked Michael who this note came from and what he had done about it. He said that he didn’t know, but had strong reason to believe that it came from a renegade police faction which he believes has been very upset by Michael’s activities on behalf of the National Initiative for Reconciliation. After receiving the notice—just that morning—Michael called the police chief and threatened to call in an outside investigator if anything happened to his friend. Michael told us that the last time he did this the threats stopped for a while.

Michael spent most of our two hours together before he caught his plane explaining the work of the NIR and sharing his experiences. If some of Michael’s stories were of frustration and discouragement, they were not told by a man who has given up, but by a man who is determined to bring reconciliation to his broken country.

The Rosebank Bible College is situated in a posh section of Johannesburg. The meager physical resources of the college stand in stark contrast to the wealth of the surrounding neighborhood. In the United States we would call the Rosebank Bible College a fundamentalist institution. The fifty full-time students come here to study an inerrant Bible; most do so as preparation for mission work. The principal of the Rosebank Bible College is Reg Codrington. A tall, lanky English-speaking South African who wears eyeglasses with dark lenses, Reg looks like any number of his fundamentalist counterparts in the United States. After greeting us in his small office, Reg explains that he has arranged for us to meet with three of the Bible College’s students and two of the faculty. After descending a narrow staircase into a musty basement that serves as the College’s library, we enter a small lounge with chairs situated around the room. After coffee is served we begin to talk about this little bible college and South Africa.

Two of the students to whom we talk are black. We begin a casual conversation; we ask them why they have come here. The young black woman’s eyes come alive; she tells us that she is at the college in order to prepare herself for missionary service within South Africa. I am impressed with her manner; she is confident, articulate, and vivacious. She exudes a contagious optimism. She shares with us her love for Christ and her all-consuming desire to share that love with others. During this conversation, Reg interrupts to point out that this young woman has been elected president of the student body; I can understand why. By mentioning this, Reg means to tell us something not only about this young woman, but also about this bible college where the majority of students are white South Africans. Reg also informs us that Rosebank admitted black students before this was legal and that he traveled to Pretoria to argue against the government’s policy of segregated post-secondary education.

As we get to know one another and the atmosphere becomes more familiar, our conversation turns more directly to South Africa. The slight young black man in his early twenties tells us that he is hopeful for his future and that of his country. He is particularly concerned about the situation in the townships, but like all of the people whom we met at the Rosebank Bible College he speaks of the transforming love of Jesus Christ. He speaks of how Christ changed his life. As I listen to this young man, I am struck by the simplicity of what he is saying: spiritually transformed people will bring change to this country. The message strikes me as old- fashioned. In this room, among these people, there is no talk of revolution; there are no references to “contextual theology,” only the simple expression of faith in the power of God.

The afternoon ended and we said good-bye to the students and the faculty. Reg gave each one of us a key ring. Attached to the ring was a plastic tab on which was printed the logo of the college. Under the logo, in small letters, is printed the motto of the Rosebank Bible College: “God is Able.”

South Africa has one of highest ratios of sunny days to cloudy days of any country in the world. Even in the late South African fall the warm dry sun is a part of most afternoons. So it was the day we visited Bophuthatswana. Bophuthatswana is one of ten putatively independent national states, or tribal homelands, within South Africa. The homelands policy of separating black tribal groups from the white urban areas has been an essential ingredient of apartheid since even before the National Party assumed power in 1948.

The route from Pretoria to Bophuthatswana takes you through north Pretoria where large numbers of lower class whites live in sprawling tract developments. Brian Bench, our guide for the afternoon, explains that it is these whites who are most resistant to any change in the apartheid laws. Brian is a remarkable young white South African; in his mid-twenties, he is a research associate at the Center for International Affairs at the University of Witwatersrand. Intensely committed to change in his country, Brian is a knowledgeable and eloquent interpreter of his country’s realities. Listening to Brian I am impressed by his sagacity; later, my friends and I comment that if Brian remains in South Africa, his future is bright.

Leaving behind the barren landscape that separates Pretoria from Bophuthatswana we stop briefly for a soft drink at a convenience store owned by whites and located just inside the homeland’s border. The store could be a copy of most 7-Elevens in the United States. Next to the checkout counter Brian notices several bags of charcoal used for home barbecuing—a favorite pastime among South Africans. What catches Brian’s eye is the Arabic writing on the front of the bags. Laughing, he tells us that this must be a mistake; after all, South Africa is not supposed to be doing any business with Arab nations. We get the point.

We drive through the black residential areas of Bophuthatswana, where it is not so much the obvious poverty which impresses, but the great mix of homes: some are quite small and modest with cinderblock walls and tin roofs; some are large, modern, and even by American standards ostentatious; many are well maintained; others are not. All of the homes are laid out neatly on bare dirt lots alongside narrow tarred roads. Brian explains that the largest homes belong to tribal leaders who wish to make a statement.

After spending several minutes driving around these communities, Brian tells us that he is going to take us to a squatters settlement a short drive away. Turning off the main road, Brian drives our car over a rocky, dusty path into a community of makeshift one- room dwellings made of single sheets of corrugated tin. The dwellings sit almost on top of one another along a path which ascends several hundred meters and then descends back down again. We creep along lest we damage our car. Brian points to a hilly area maybe two kilometers away. He comments that the white people who live on that hilly area requested some time ago that the government destroy this settlement. They consider it an eyesore. Brian suggests that it is significant that the government has not done so.

Brian stops the car and tells us that he would like to get out and talk to some of the people who live here. With some apprehension, we follow his lead; he assures us that it is safe to do so. As we lock the doors of our car, several people stop what they are doing to stare at us. A group which is close by approaches us. Brian begins to talk with a young black man in his late teens or early twenties; the man, head shaved bald and wearing a brightly colored T-shirt, is obviously drunk. More people gather around us while Brian strikes up a conversation with another young man. This man invites us into his home.

The first thing that crosses my mind is how unbearably hot this dwelling must be during the long summer months. Sitting on a torn sofa is an old black woman cuddling a small child. The man remarks that this is his mother and his daughter. He crosses a small divide into the bedroom, which comprises at least half of the dwelling. A standard-size double bed takes up nearly the entire space. I am struck by how neatly the bedspread is positioned on the bed. There is not much of anything else in the room. The man introduces us to his wife, who is sitting on the bed. The man is visibly distraught. He explains to us that he was employed by Alfa-Romeo at its plant in the nearby city of Brits. He shows us a sheet of paper which describes his wages as well as his medical and funeral benefits. His voice dropping, he relates how he no longer has his job since the company left Brits and pulled out of South Africa, two years ago.

While Brian and my American friends talk to his wife, the man walks over to me and with anguish in his voice says that without a job he cannot be a husband or a father. Pointing past the door-less opening to the area outside of his home where several men sit drinking, he angrily remarks that he does not want to be like them. They, he says in disgust, are not men. I sense that in relating to me his despair, the man is also pleading with me. I want to help him, but I don’t know how. As we left the man and his family, he told us that he hopes that Alfa-Romeo will come back or that maybe another company will come to Brits so that he can provide for his family.

Cape Town is a spectacularly beautiful city. The flat plateau of Table Mountain and the rugged stone hills of Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak dominate the city from every direction. Nestled within a pristine forest directly under Devil’s Peak and amidst flora unique among all the floral kingdoms of the world sits the University of Cape Town. Cobblestone walkways meander around ivy-covered stucco buildings through one of the world’s great universities. Adjacent to the south end of the campus is a quaint residential area of dignified old homes surrounded by tall green hedges.

John Reid, vice-chancellor of the university, lives in one of these homes and has invited us to spend Saturday morning with him and his wife. A cardiologist by professional training, John was dean of the university’s highly-regarded medical school before being appointed to his present administrative position a few years ago. A big man with gray hair and a handsome, youthful face, John is dressed casually in a plain white shirt and baggy khaki slacks. After taking us for a walking tour of the university campus, we return to his lovely home for tea.

Our conversation centers on the political situation in South Africa, clearly an all-consuming concern of John. At one point, our conversation is interrupted as he introduces us to one of the two black politically radical students who live in his house. Shortly thereafter, the door bell rings and three of John’s university colleagues join us. Introducing the wife of one of his friends, John remarks that she is a Black Sash activist; almost parenthetically he immediately nods in the direction of his own wife and tells us, proudly, that her mother was one of the founders of that old and distinguished anti-apartheid women’s organization.

The conversation in the Reid’s elegant living room is civilized and articulate. John and his friends express to us their disgust at the Botha government. John relates that the university administration is united in its commitment to fight any attempt by the government to intimidate the faculty or the students. John is determined to protect the independence of the university at all costs. He believes that what is taking place at the university can be the catalyst for the emergence of a new black majority-ruled South Africa.

John Reid makes it clear that he does not support student violence; at the same time, however, he places the blame for such violence on the government. Again and again he affirms support for the students. Much of what he says to us doesn’t fit neatly into what we expect. He argues forcefully that the African National Congress reflects the aspirations of black South Africans; that Western economic disinvestment from South Africa is a mistake of immense proportions; that Zulu Chief Buthelezi must be involved in any post- apartheid political arrangements. Chief Buthelezi, John’s wife adds, “has suffered so much.”

We end our time with the Reids around a lunch of English cheese, sausage wrapped in baked pastry, homemade cake, and South African wine. Mrs. Reid asks my American friends and me about each of our families; she particularly wants to know about our children. As we went around the table I noticed a change in the look on her face. After we finished, she told us how lucky we were that our children lived at home with us. Turning in the direction of her husband, her voiced cracked as she told us that all of her children have left South Africa—for good. She explains, with sadness, that she and husband cannot afford to visit them in Australia and Great Britain.

Anton van Niekerk is a professor of philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch. Located fifty kilometers due east of Cape Town, Stellenbosch is known for its charming eighteenth-century Dutch colonial buildings and the lush vineyards which cover the surrounding hills and valleys. The university is known for its historic relationship with South Africa’s Afrikaner population. An Afrikaans-speaking university, Stellenbosch has served as the intellectual guardian of the Afrikaner world—and particularly the National Party—since its founding. It was no small matter, therefore, when Anton and several other professors at the University publicly broke ranks with the ruling National Party, severely undermining the intellectual justification for the government’s apartheid policies and creating an important split in the Afrikaner world.

Like most of his colleagues whom we meet at Stellenbosch, Anton seems driven to talk about the University’s new role in determining South Africa’s future. After spending the morning in faculty offices, we continue our conversation over lunch at the old Dutch colonial Lanzerac Hotel, a frequent gathering place for the residents of Stellenbosch. Joining us is one of Anton’s friends who teaches in the Department of Biblical Studies.

A stocky man in his early forties, Anton speaks with a thick Afrikaans accent. His friend is tall with a boyish-looking face. As they talk, I sense Anton and his colleague lowering their voices from time to time, lest they be heard by the wrong persons. Stopping his conversation at one point, Anton nods in the direction of a table close by where a smartly dressed older man and woman are seated; he mentions that this man held a high-ranking cabinet post in a previous National Party government. There is a discernible excitement in the voices of these Afrikaner professors; it is as if they have discovered and embraced something new, something that for so long they—and the Afrikaner world—have considered taboo.

The professors tell us that the social system upon which the National Party has ruled South Africa for forty years is no longer acceptable. Anton and his colleague seem particularly eager to discuss the foibles of the Botha government and the need for the government to reach out to all South Africans. Anton’s friend informs us that he recently met with representatives of the African National Congress in Lusaka. Looking directly at Anton, he said that he expects a reprimand from the Dutch Reformed Church whom he represents as a professor of Bible. What about the ANC, we ask. Anton’s colleague replies that while there is a Marxist- Leninist influence in the organization, he is not concerned about this. Anton appears uneasy. When our conversation turns to strategies for change, it is clear that these men believe that they represent the new Afrikaner and the new South Africa. There is no self- effacement, no guilt, no desire to deny their Afrikaner roots; only a strong belief that reform in South Africa is imperative and, with their leadership, probable.

The KLM flight from Johannesburg to New York via Amsterdam seems interminable. It is a good time to reflect. Thinking over my conversations with Byers Naude, Sydney Mufamadi, Michael Cassidy, the folks at the Rosebank Bible College, the man from Bophuthatswana, John Reid, Anton van Niekirk, and many other South Africans, I realize how difficult it is to generalize about South Africa. South Africa is a riddle inside a paradox.


  • Dean C. Curry

    Dean C. Curry is chairman of the department of history and political science and associate professor of political science at Messiah College. He coauthored Nuclear Arms: Two Views on World Peace and edited Evangelicals and the Bishops' Pastoral Letter. When he wrote this article, he was serving as an advisor to a World Without War Council-National Association of Evangelicals program, studying war and peace issues among evangelical churches, colleges, adn seminaries.

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