Yesterday I went with Fr Elias (Palmos) to visit St Benedict’s House in Rosettenville, Johannesburg.
St Benedict’s is an Anglican retreat house, and I was reminded of it by meeting Kathy Barrable last month, on a radio programme in which we both participated. She is the director of both St Benedict’s House and St Peter’s Lodge, a conference centre across the road. Fr Elias was involved in the development of the Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit in Gerardville, and I wanted to show him St Benedict’s House, partly as an architectural model for a retreat house, and partly to assess its suitability for retreats, conferences and training courses until we have such a centre of our own.
Kathy Barrable agreed to show us around, and it was a journey to the past for both of us, as it turned out that Kathy had been Fr Elias’s English teacher in high school. And Fr Michael Lapsley, who had just held a Healing of Memories Workshop at St Benedict’s, was also there, and we met Fr Joseph of the Camboni Fathers, which made an interesting tea-time gathering.
My memories of St Benedict’s, however, go back more than fifty years.
I went to a retreat there with my mother in February 1959, at the urging of a friend of my mother’s, who said that a retreat was a marvellous spiritual experience.
In those days many of the Anglican parishes and organisations in and around Johannesburg had an annual retreat at St Benedict’s, and they all followed the same pattern. The conductor of the retreat was usually a priest. People would arrive at tea time on a Friday afternoon. St Benedict’s was run by the sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete (OHP), who had their mother house at Whitby in England, and they lived above the kitchen and dining room. St Benedict’s was, in effect, also their monastery, so going on retreat was like entering the monastic life for a weekend.
Tea was followed by Evensong, and an introduction by the retreat conductor, after which everyone went into silence. People would be asked to book time for a meeting with the retreat conductor by filling in time slots with a C (for confession) or an I (for interview). Apart from the services, these were the only times that one spoke. At supper one of the sisters would read from a book, usually a devotional work, but on one occasion I remember one of them reading from Winnie the Pooh. Supper was followed by a devotional address, and then Compline and bed. The bedrooms were comfortable, but sparsely furnished, like monastic cells.
There was Mass in the morning, followed by breakfast, also in silence, with one of the sisters reading. At 9:00 am there would be a devotional address by the retreat conductor, and followed by tea, and then free time for reading or prayer or meditation, while the conductor would hear confessions or have interviews as requested. There would then be another address followed by intercessions, before lunch. The afternoon followed the pattern of the previous day, and it was repeated for the Sunday, with silence ending at afternoon tea. On the first retreat I went on, I found I was reluctant to break silence, and had little to say at afternoon tea. We had latched on to a retreat organised by another parish, where we didn’t know anyone anyway.
Six months later I went on another retreat, this time organised by the Anglican Society at Wits University, so they were all people that I knew. St Benedict’s, with its enclosed courtyard (not a proper cloister, as there was no walkway round the inside) and walled garden, was a haven of peace in a busy suburb, and its architecture impressed me as the ideal place for such a retreat. I have been to retreats at other places since, but after St Benedict’s, they didn’t feel quite authentic.
Another activity that took place at St Benedict’s was Shoe Parties. These took place once a month on Wednesday evenings. Someone would speak on a particular topic, and people would come from all over Johannesburg and beyond. It would be followed by tea. These were so popular that there was hardly room for all the people, and someone remarked that they were reminded of the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in a shoe, and had so many children she didn’t know what to do, and after that they became known as Shoe Parties.
Among those who usually attended were the students from St Peter’s Theological College across the road.
Here are a few of the Shoe Party topics that I recorded in my diary:
- 23 Sep 1959 — Fr Francis, SSF, spoke on “The Franciscan Revival in the Anglican Church”. At tea afterwards I chatted to Desmond Tutu and some of the other students from St Peter’s (the seminary across the road)
- 9 Dec 1959 — The Archbishop of Cape Town (Joost de Blank) was supposed to have spoken on “The Church in Africa”, but he was ill, so the local bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves, filled in for him and spoke on “Nuclear fission”
- 21 Mar 1960 — Fr Hugh Bishop, of the Community of the Resurrection (CR), spoke on enclosed religious communities, and especially the newly-founded Society of the Precious Blood at Masite in Lesotho. Rosemary Barron, one of the members of the parish we belonged to then (St Augustine’s, Orange Grove), later went to join the Society of the Precious Blood. It was also the day of the Sharpeville massacre, and at the tea afterwards there was some discussion, as some had heard stories of the shooting, but there was no definite news. One of the students at St Peter’s College, Benjamin Photolo, was from Sharpeville.
- 6 Sep 1960 — the new Bishop of Pretoria, Edward Knapp-Fisher, who before being elected bishop had been principal of Cuddeston Theological College, spoke about ordination training and ministry in industrialised society. I talked to some of the students from St Peter’s afterwards, including Benjamin Photolo.
- 17 Nov 1960 — Someone spoke on Indians in South Africa — it was the centenary of the arrival of the 1860 settlers in Natal.
- 16 Dec 1960 — Bishop De Mel, of Ceylon, spoke on the Church in Ceylon. He was a very impressive bishop.
- 31 Jan 1961 — Fr Leo Rakale CR spoke on his trip to Tanganyika to attend the consecration of Fr Trevor Huddleston, CR, as Bishop of Masasi.
- 27 Feb 1961 — Canon Milford spoke on freedom.
- 4 Dec 1961 — Fr Brabant spoke on Creation
- 1 Oct 1962 — Brother Roger, CR, spoke on Beat Generation literature, and St Francis of Assisi as an early dropout. How Beat was St Francis, and how Franciscan are the Beats.
- 9 Dec 1963 — Fr Clement Sergel spoke on Confession.
I am not sure when the Shoe Parties stopped happening, and when we were discussing them with Kathy Barrable, and wondering if they could be revived, she said that people in Johannesburg don’t like going out at night. I can think of three factors that might be responsible for that:
- The steep rise in the petrol price after 1973
- The introduction of television in 1975
- The increase in car hijacking in the 1980s
I can understand that when television was a novelty — but restaurants seem to have recovered from that since then, and seem to do good business, so why could shoe parties not be revived?
I suppose that another factor is that back in the early 1960s the core of the Rosettenville Anglican community in Rosettenville was the two monasteries, male and female — the Priory of the Community of the Resurrection (CR, male), and the Order of the Holy Paraclete (OHP, female). The CR fathers ran St Peter’s College, but in 1963 it was forced to move to Alice in the Eastern Cape because of the Group Areas Act, and half the CR members moved with it. They had originally run St Peter’s School as well, but that had been forced to close some years earlier as a result of the Bantu Education Act. It was reopened as St Martin’s, a white school, but under secular management, and still continues on the same premises, but is now, of course, non-racial.
All this meant that the CR scaled down their presence at Rosettenville, and later moved away to Turffontein, and eventually left South Africa altogether. The OHP sisters built a new convent next-door to St Benedict’s, which moved their activity away from the retreat house, and later they withdrew from South Africa altogether. They were replaced by sisters of the Community of the Holy Name (CHN) from Zululand, who had no tradition of involvement in St Benedict’s, and whose ministry outside the monastery seems to be mainly among local people in the neighbourhood.
Kathy Barrable is battling to get people to make full use of the facilities at the centre, and I suspect that one of the reasons for this is the loss of the monastic core. The CR brethren, in particular, visited many Johannesburg parishes as guest preachers, and their ministry became fairly widely known.
Fr Elias has a vision for an Orthodox monastery in South Africa, which I think in some ways might be similar to the Anglican setup in Rosettenville in its heyday, with male and female monasteries, a seminary, a retreat and conference centre and so on. I too would like to see such a centre, and have a similar vision for it. Without monasteries Orthodoxy is weak and there are no Orthodox monasteries in southern Africa. It would not work in exactly the same way as the Rosettenville setup, but I think there are valuable lessons we can learn from it. And I would like to see an Orthodox version of St Benedict’s House, and it would be good to see more Anglicans using the one they already have.
No tales of the apartheid era in South Africa would be complete without the SB, also known as the Special Branch, the Veiligheidstak, the Security Police etc. They were what in German was called the Geheime Staatspolitzei — the Gestapo.
They were probably around even before apartheid, and perhaps were chasing suspected German spies in the Second World War. But they really came into their own when Balthazar Johannes Vorster became Minister of Justice in 1961, and worked very hard to turn South Africa into a police state. Within two years he had given them enormously increased powers in two General Laws Amendment Acts — powers of surveillance, detention without trial and more. Any criticism of the policies of the ruling National Party was deemed to be a threat to the security of the state, and so the SB became involved.
I have no horror stories to tell about the SB.
This is just to let anyone reading this in the hope or expectation of seeing such things here that they probably wont find them. Undoubtedly some people had horrific experiences with the SB, Steve Biko, for example. That was one of the things that sometimes surprised visitors from abroad during the apartheid time — things didn’t immediately look as bad as they expected them to be. And the trouble is that on the surface, everything did look so ordinary and normal when Mr Vorster was busy passing legislation. Nasty things did happen, and they happened to lots of people, but they didn’t happen to me. So I am able to tell the funnier side of it, though even the funnier side is rather sad. But never forget that there was also a very nasty side.
Thanks to the reports that the SB sent to Mr Vorster and his successors, I am able to tell when I first came under their attention (onder aandag). It was on 9 April 1964. I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and my friend and fellow student John Aitchison, who was a member of the Liberal Party, persuaded me to help him distribute Liberal Party leaflets to workers coming out of the Eddels Shoe Factory in Pietermaritzburg.
The SB had come under my attention a bit earlier than that, when I went to visit Arthur Blaxall, an Anglican priest whose ministry was mainly among deaf and blind children, and was also secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an ecumenical body that promoted Christian pacifism. As I noted in my diary for 17 April 1963, “Later I went back to town to have lunch with Father Blaxall, as I had arranged yesterday, but I found a note on his door to say that the heat had raided his office, and that he would not be back.”
It later transpired that he had been arrested, and was he was tried for contravening the Suppression of Communism Act. He received a suspended sentence and wrote a book about it. It was on the occasion that Mr Vorster came to Maritzburg I met first met the notorious Warrant Officer van Rensburg, the most visible SB man in the town.
In August 1964 my friend John Aitchison was picked up by the SB when he was riding his bicycle through the middle of town. He was taken to the SB offices for questioning by a bloke called Baker, an old boy of Hilton College (the most expensive private school in South Africa). They confiscated a lot of papers dealing with “blackspot removals” (ethnic cleansing) in various parts of Natal, which the Liberal Party was documenting and exposing. Baker showed John a copy of a book by Dale Carnegie, one of the early self-help gurus, called How to stop worrying and start living, and urged him to read it. Stop worrying about the country, and leave it to us. We are looking after your security too, said Baker.
John Aitchison also recruited me to drive people from Pietermaritzburg to meetings of rural branches of the Liberal Party. Most of the members of the rural branches were black peasants, and most of them were living in “blackspots” — land owned by black people in areas the government had designated for white occupation. They were the ones who were most intimidated by the SB, who harassed them in any way they could, by arresting them on trumped-up charges, urging employers to dismiss them, distributing scurrilous leaflets and occasionally throwing petrol bombs. So the city members would travel to rural branch meetings for a show of solidarity. And the SB would travel to the meetings with their tape recorders to record the speeches, note the names of those who were present, and sometimes follow up with something unpleasant.
On Saturday 27 February 1965, there were several meetings, and we went in two cars, Roddy Holmes driving his Wolseley 1500, and I was driving the Liberal Party car, a rather clapped out Opel station wagon. We passed the SB headquarters in Loop Street, and Van Rensburg was waiting outside, and waved to us as we went by. The SB went in three cars, and two of them had gone ahead.
The first meeting was at Stoffelton, and John Aitchison and Jennifer Hugo spoke. The SB arrived in their green Studebaker Lark (then the fastest production car on the road) and set up their tape recorder in the doorway — big reel-to-reel jobs in those days. Those of us sitting near the door shuffled our feet a lot to interfere with their recording.
We went on to the next meeting, which was at the Ukukhanya Mission in Upper Umkhomazi. The Umkhomazi River follows a winding course down to the coast and at its mouth is the seaside resort known to English-speaking people as Umkomaas. We turned off the main (gravel) road between Underberg and Nottingham Road, and climbed a winding stony track. Roddy Holmes was in front with his Wolseley, and we, following in the Opel, got stuck while crossing a drift across a stream. It had water in the distributor.
I cleaned and dried the distributor cap, while the girls walked down to the river for a swim. The SB men were stuck behind us in their Lark, and kept muttering that we were trying to hold them up, which, of course, we were. We said they would be welcome to push the Opel through the stream and up the bank on the other side but they declined the offer. We, and they, arrived too late for the meeting.
The advantage of the SB arriving late at the meeting was not that they couldn’t record it, but rather that they could not show their presence to intimidate the people.
The SB set off back down the hill ahead of us — they were not going to risk being caught behind us at the drift again. But they got stuck on a protruding rock, so their car was rocking with its front wheels or back wheels off the ground, so it was their turn not to move. They also holed their petrol tank.
So we passed them and went on to the next meeting, at Stepmore, where Van Rensburg had been impatiently waiting through the heat of the day. John Aitchison asked him if he had a warrant to attend the meeting. “Just get on with the bloody meeting!” he said. Oops, temper. Perhaps he was going to be late for a dinner date back in Maritzburg.
A year later, at the beginning of 1966, I went overseas to study in the UK. That involved an encounter with another
SB man, Detective Sergeant Van den Heever. I was in Johannesburg, driving buses to save enough money to travel overseas. Van den Heever phoned me at 4:30 one afternoon, and asked if he could come and see me. I said I was going to work. Could he come next morning? I said I had overtime. But I had some time between my overtime in the morning and my regular shift in the afternoon, so could I go and see him? I agreed to meet him at 11:00 am the next day at his office in The Grays, the SB Joburg headquarters. Then I thought he would either have a banning order to give me, or was coming to take my passport away, and either would disrupt my plans to study overseas.
I went to consult John Davies, the Anglican chalplain at Wits University, and we decided that I had better not keep the appointment, and that I should be out of the country by the time it came round. There were no available planes before 11:00 the next day, so I drove through the night to UDI Rhodesia, while my mother arranged a plane booking for me from Bulawayo to London. John Davies came with me to bring my mother’s car back.
A few days later my mother had a phone call from a Mervyn Harvey, saying he was a friend of mine from university and wanted to see me. She told him I was out. After another few days she had a phone call from Detective Sergeant van den Heever, saying he was looking for me, and for two friends of mine, Michael Blane and Mervyn Harvey, and she thought, “It’s you, you bugger” who had phoned her last time. He wanted to come and see her, and she said “I hope you won’t come in uniform, what will the neighbours think?” So he said he would come wearing his police blazer.
She told him I was over 21, and didn’t tell her everything I was doing, and played the ignorant parent card. Meanwhile I’d written her several letters from the UK, and she had organised my flight there. Later he informed her that I had left the country with a passport, as if it was news to her.
I learned later, from the SB files in the archives, that Vorster had signed a banning order for me on the 11th January 1966 (I had left on the 18th), so van den Heever was doubtless coming to deliver it, only I had scarpered. I also learned that they had sent an instruction to the Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria not to issue me with a passport, only I already had one, though valid only for Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. In December 1966 I got it extended to include Western Europe and the UK at the Johannesburg Regional Office for Home Affairs — they obviously hadn’t got the SB memo there yet.
While I was overseas I sent Van Rensburg a Christmas card every year, to his home address. That may have disconcerted him a little — the SB are supposed to know their clients’ home addresses, but their clients are not supposed to know about them.
On my return to South Africa in July 1968 the SB picked up where they had left off. One day two spooks came to confiscate my passport. A Lieutenant Dreyer made a new appointment in place of the one with Detective Sergeant van den Heever. I was impressed, having graduated from a Detective Sergeant to a Lieutenant. And also, it seemed, from The Grays to John Vorster Square. That was interesting. He told me his office was on the 11th floor. But I could find no lift to the 11th floor. I asked at the counter, and they pointed me to a small passage down the side. I got in the lift, and it zoomed me up to the 10th floor. A bloke at the desk asked who I wanted to see, and I told him. He phoned Lieutenant Dreyer to check. Then he told me to get back in the lift, and he sent me up to the next floor. There was no button for me to press. There were two hefty bank vault doors along the way to Lieut Dreyer’s office as well.
He asked me questions about where I lived and what work I did, all the kinds of questions preliminary to a banning order. A waste of time, since I wouldn’t be there much longer. My file was on his desk, a foot thick. All shredded now, I’m sure, just before the SB were disbanded in 1994.
The SB were not very numerous, but they had a huge network of informers, pimps as they were called, izimpimpi, or imisheshelengwana. After my interview with Lietenant Dreyer I did not see much of the SB, except once. I was driving through Pietermaritzburg past the university, and spotted Van Rensburg at the side of the road, keeping an eye on a student demo across the road. I pulled out of the traffic and stopped next to him to say hello. We were most amused at his policeman’s reflex, like Dr Strangelove’s arm. Before even seeing who was in the car he had pulled out his notebook to take down the car number.
In early 1969 I was working at the Missions to Seamen in Durban, and conceived the idea of visiting some of the former members of the Liberal Party (which had been forced to disband). I drove to Ladysmith on my day off to see Elliot Mngadi, the still-banned former Northern Natal Organiser for the Liberal Party. He kept a fish and chip shop at Roosboom, and we called there for some fish and chips and a chat. While we were there some of the children from the neighbourhood, aged about 8 or 9, were reciting my car number in sing-song fashion. The next day I got a phone call from someone claiming to be from the police, asking if the car with that number belonged to me. It had been reported as having been in an accident in Ladysmith the previous day, they said. Had I been in Ladysmith yesterday?
Yes, the SB used kids as young as 8 as pimps. I wondered what incentives they gave them?
Later still I was in Windhoek, and a group of us had a kind of Christian commune, what would now be called in some quarters the “new monasticism“. We lived in a house belonging to the Anglican Church, and eventually some of us, the ringleaders, as the SB no doubt saw us, were deported, along with the Anglican Bishop, Colin Winter. Just before we left our next-door neighbour, Jean Rees, came along and told us she had been offered the house at a very low renal, on condition that she spied on us. She came and volunteered help in the church office.
There were many SB pimps, and one of the problems of those days was that one was suspicious of everyone, You never knew who might be a spy.
In the SB reports to the Minister of Justice there were frequent reference to “a sensitive source” (‘n delikate bron). In some cases this may have been a spy, but in other cases it was clearly a member of the SB who went through the mail. It is clear from the SB files that all the letters that John Aitchison had written to me while I was overseas had been read and the contents noted by the SB. And at least some of the letters I had written back to him had received similar treatment. It was also clear from these reports that I was a “client” of the Pietermaritzburg SB, and they were the ones who kept tabs on me. When I lived in Durban, or Johannesburg, the SB in those places didn’t really know what I was doing, and didn’t really care. The Windhoek ones were more diligent, but mainly used informers. Some of the ones we suspected we may have suspected unjustly, but the chief suspect was one Cyril Banet, who tried to find out all sorts of things he didn’t really need to know.
When I lived in Melmoth and in Utrecht in 1976-1982, the SB got many things completely wrong, and didn’t have a clue what I was really doing. In their reports to the Minister they were obviously making things up. And the most obvious spy was the funniest, but also the saddest one of the lot, one Alfredo Tembe.
In early 1977 he popped into a revival service we were having in Utrecht, and gave his testimony, to the effect that he had been a soldier for Frelimo in Mocambique, and after independence had been put in charge of a village, but when an inspector came round he was found AWOL and was sacked. He came to South Africa, got a job as a carpenter on a mine, and then got ill and went to hospital where an evangelist preached to him and he was converted. He said the had been a boxing champion, and one could believe that, as he was physically impressive.
We used to have ecumenical evening services in Utrecht, attended by all denominations except white Dutch Reformed. One of the people active there was Neville Richardson, who was personnel officer for two of the local mines that belonged to the Rand Mines-Barlow group. Alfredo was working on one of the mines as a carpenter.
He sometimes accompanied me to outlying congregations, and though his English was very poor and my Portuguese non-existent, he tried to learn local languages, and fancied himself as a preacher, though he seemed rather naive. I could see why his irresponsible behaviour might have got him fired in Mocambique.
Then one night he came to us, like Nicodemus, in great agitation. He confessed that he was an SB spy.
He said he had been given a tape recorder by the SB and asked to go around with me and record what I said at church services, and also what Neville Richardson said. But he was in trouble. There was something wrong with the tape recorder, and the SB could not get the tape to play back, so they wanted the original recorder that had recorded them — perhaps the head was misaligned or something. But he had left the recorder at the mine security office, and the security officer had lent it to someone else and now now nobody knew where it was. The SB were threatening to arrest Alfredo and deport him back to Mocambique. I said he would be well advised to tell the story to Neville Richardson as well, who found it disturbing. He was a rather non-political type, and this story sounded quite Kafkaesque to him.
It soon became clear that when Alfredo came out with me, he did not have time off work. He told the compound manager where he was going, and the compound manager signed his shift ticket as if he had worked.
A few months later some people from BOSS (the Bureau of State Security) came to the mine. They wanted to speak to the mine management about the security risks in industrial unrest, and what steps they could take to prevent it. And the mine management told them to get lost, and told them the story of Alfredo Tembe.
Here was the carpenter, whose boss, the compound manager, was using the mine’s money to pay Alfredo to spy on his (the compound manager’s) boss, namely Neville Richardson, the personnel manager. Neville was at the meeting with the BOSS people, who said that that was done by the SB, and the SB were stupid flatfoot policemen who didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and the men of BOSS were far too professional for that kind of thing. In fact, Neville told me, the BOSS people were furious with the SB for queering their pitch.
So poor blundering Alfredo had unwittingly set the SB and BOSS at each other’s throats. It was rather amusing, except that Alfredo was such a sad character.
The saddest tale of all, however, is not really mine to tell. It had to do with one of John Aitchison’s spies, who was a mental patient, an inmate of Fort Napier. He was a Dr Harry van Zyl, who attended Christian Institute meetings in Pietermaritzburg. It should really be for John Aitchison to tell the story, but using a mental patient as a pimp seems somehow even worse than using young children.
This is one of a series of posts called Tales from Dystopia, memories of what life was like in apartheid South Africa
Two years ago we published a book on African initiatives in healing ministry. Well, it was published by Unisa Press, but Lilian Dube, Tabona Shoko and I wrote it. But it seems that though Unisa Press sent out several review copies, few or no reviews were published, so hardly anyone knew that the book existed.
Now Lilian Dube, who is a professor at the University of California, has prescribed it for students in one of her courses, on African Theology and Cosmology, so perhaps it will get some readers.
But there seems to be a conspiracy to keep this book obscure. I posted something about this on Facebook, in groups dealing with Missiology and Global Pentecostalism Research. But though Facebook has notified me of several comments about the post, I can see neither the post nor the comments. So though I hate the idea of soliciting “likes” on Facebook, and generally avoid it, I’m making an exception in this case, and asking anyone who actually sees a link to this, or any post that shows the picture of the book cover, to “like” it, and, if possible, to make a comment on it. I’d just like to see if I can see any more comments.
Anyway, thanks to Lilian Dube, at least some of her students in California will read it. I wonder if anyone in Africa will. Unisa Press has reported that the main interest in the book has been in the USA, with little in Africa and very little in Europe. If anyone is interested in buying a copy, contact Unisa Press here. At the moment only a hard-copy edition is available, but Unisa Press will consider producing a Kindle edition if there is enough demand for it.
I was on a radio programme this morning. It was on “Healing of Memories”, and was part of the build up for a workshop on that topic, to be led by Fr Michael Lapsley.
I was there because of butterflies.
On 11 January Gillian Godsell tweeted on Twitter about the annual butterfly migration arriving in Johannesburg. Someone retweeted it so that I saw it, and I remarked that the butterflies were late this year — they usually come between Christmas and New Year. Gillian Godsell, who hosts the Jozi Today programme on Radio Today, a local Johannesburg radio station, then invited me to join her on the programme, with a group of very interesting people. I don’t know if I was able to contribute much to the programme, but it was good to meet a group of such interestying and stimulating people.
Fr Michael Lapsley is an Anglican priest, originally from New Zealand, a member of a religious order, the Society of the Sacred Mission, which sent him to South Africa in the 1970s to be a student chaplain. The National Party government thought he was a bad influence on students, and deported him, and he became active in the struggle against apartheid in exile. Just before the end of apartheid someone sent him a parcel bomb, and he was badly injured, losing both hands, the sight in one eye, and also left him partly deaf. It was this that led him to make the main focus of his ministry the healing of memories, which he has written about in his book, Redeeming the past: a journey from freedom fighter to healer. You can read more about that in my review of the book, here.
He holds such workshops all over the world (he’s in Sri Lanka, as I write, which is just recovering from a long and bitter ncivil war), so his workhop in Johannesburg is a current topic there, hence the radio programme.
One of the things that the Healing of Memories workshops offer is an opportunity for people to tell their stories, to move from pain to healing. I haven’t been on one of them (the price is a bit steep for a pensioner), but I think telling stories is important, not just in a “get it off your chest” sense as part of a helaing process, but also for future generations, to know something of what the apartheid period was like for ordinary people. When such things are relegated to the history books, they tend to become abstract, and the suffering tends to disappear into statistics. People often tend to think it was both better and worse than it actually was. Telling stories helps to preserve something of what it was like, and the more stories that are told, the better. I’ve tried to tell a few on this blog, in the Tales from Dystopia series. So if you have stories to tell, blog about them! And if you don’t have a blog, perhaps it’s time to start one.
A story in the Daily Sun about President Jacob Zuma practising witchcraft seems to have spread rapidly among the right-wing media. Daily Sun Mobi
Speaking to supporters at KaNyamazane, outside Mbombela in Mpumalanga yesterday, Zuma said he had a history in Ka-Nyamazane.
“That’s why I came here now,” he said, speaking in isiZulu.
“I’m home here. I used to practice witchcraft around here, bewitching Boers during apartheid,” the President reportedly said.
Zuma went on to promise the crowd that if the ANC was re-elected with over 90% of the popular vote, he would come back to the village to celebrate.
This was the picked up by the UK’s Daily Mail, with some added spin South African president Zuma reveals he used to practice witchcraft against white people | Mail Online
South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma has told how he used to practise witchcraft against white people.
Speaking in his native Zulu language at a pre-election rally in the country’s rural north, he told a crowd of his voodoo past.
‘I used to practise witchcraft around here, bewitching the Boers during apartheid’, Zuma reportedly said.
It looks as though some jounalists don’t do irony. Or perhaps that applies mainly to right-wing journalists and political commentators and izimpimpi. The story was also taken up by the Neo-Nazi website Stormfront.
I first learned of this story by reading the denials, which pointed out that President Zuma was speaking figuratively and not literally.
And that to me seems much more likely.
What President Zuma was saying was that when he was an underground political activist in that area at the time that the ANC was banned, he used to pull the wool over the eyes of the police and other security forces of the apartheid regime (in that context, that is what “Boere” means, not “white people” as the Daily Mail misleadingly suggests).
And I think hundreds of people must have anecdotes about “bewitching” the police in that fashion. Just to clarify the kind of thing that happened, I’ll tell one of mine.
It was on 24th May 1965, when a group of us, mainly university students from Pietermaritzburg, went to a couple of Liberal Party meetings in northern Natal, but were plagued by car breakdowns. Here’s what I wrote in my diary.
I went to the Liberal Party office, and took the car up to varsity to fetch Rod Smith. He joined the party. I set out with Pat McKenzie and Miss Cooper for Bergville. We had tea at Mike Ndlovu’s place, and there were altogether about 12 members from Maritzburg there. Mike and Rajan Naidoo were just about to go to town to get the battery from John’s car when the Opel broke down, and so they went in Marie Dyer’s car, and Rod Smith, Roddy Holmes, Rajan and I tried to fix the Opel, while the others went to a meeting at Bethany. We took the carburettor to pieces and cleaned it, and did the same with the distributor.
Pat McKenzie left early to take John’s burnt-out Volkswagen back to Maritzburg. It had no windscreen and the seats were badly burnt. We got the Opel going again, but it broke down just near Bergville, and so after finding a mechanic, Rajan, Mike, Rod Smith and I left in Marie Dyer’s car for Inkunzi.
We stopped at Ladysmith for petrol, and got to Inkunzi at 6:30, two and a half hours after the meeting was supposed to have taken place, and not surprisingly everyone except the Special Branch had gone home. We went to David Ndlovu’s house, and sat there while Mike explained why we were late. Rajan, Rod and I sat on a sofa, and facing us on the other side of the dining-room table were three African Special Branch men. The leader was a big middle-aged man who looked like a business executive or Rotary type. The one next to him wore a raincoat and had shifty eyes, and looked like a gangster. The third one seemed asleep or drunk.
We went out to the car, and began to eat our supper of corned beef and bread, while the Gestapo sat in their van and wrote their report. Perhaps they thought that nothing would happen now that John is banned, but in the week that they banned an Anglican ordinand, two more had joined the party. We went back to Ladysmith, and went off at St Chad’s to see Fr Kraft and ask if some of us could sleep there for the night if the Opel were still stuck in Bergville. The Gestapo followed us there as well, and as we got nearer there were groups of men all going to some sort of meeting — perhaps they thought that there was a new party branch meeting. Fr Kraft was out, and the cook told us that he had gone to Zululand.
We went to Ladysmith, and then to Colenso, with the Gestapo still following us all the way there. We drove around Colenso for a while, and lost the Gestapo, and took the Winterton road and then to Bergville, where we learned at a shop that the Opel had been left there, and that some of the people had been taken to Ladysmith to get the train, while five had gone home in the remaining car. We went to Mike’s place for tea, and then came back to Maritzburg, where we woke up Pat McKenzie and told him about our trip. We went on to Rajan Naidoo’s place, and had toasted curry sandwiches. Then I took Rod home, and went home myself.
What happened in Colenso was that we drove around quiet residential streets until we saw a house with no lights on. We backed the car into the driveway, and the Special Branch men got out of their car and started walking up to the house to see what was going on. As soon as they were a bit away from their car, we started up, pulled out of the driveway and drove up the street, and by the time they had got back in their car, we were gone. So we pulled the wool over their eyes, or, to use Zuma’s term, we “bewitched” them. We used no muti. We just fooled them. The SB men were all black, but in that context they were “Boere”, because they represented the “Boere” — the Boer Government.
And I’m sure that that is the kind of thing that Jacob Zuma was referring to.
But the story was reported in the Daily Sun, which, like its Sunday counterpart, is full of stories about witches, tokoloshes, zombies and the like, so if there is any way of putting a supernatural spin on it, they will. And that kind of journalistic spin is itself a kind of ubuthakathi (witchcraft). It was the Daily Sun after all, that produced the best placard headline ever — Zombie stole my soap!
But while we are talking about witchcraft and Boere, let us not forget that it was the Boere, the security forces of the apartheid regime, who practised literal, and not figurative witchcraft when their agents put hexed nails in the driveway of Bishop Desmond Tutu when he was Archbishop of Cape Town.
Notes and References
 The burnt-out Volkwagen belonged to John Aitchison, another Liberal Party member who had been banned earlier in the week. He had lent it to Mike Ndlovu, the Northern Natal organiser of the Liberal Party, who lived at Rookdale, near Bergville. While it was parked at his house it was petrol bombed, probably by, or at the instigation of the Security Police.