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Tales from Dystopia I: Epukululo Lovawambo

27 June 2009

Apartheid, we were told by its proponents, would create a paradise; not a Utopia, but a Eutopia. Instead it turned out to be a dystopia. But that is all in the past now, and why dredge it all up and tell tales of dystopia?

A couple of other bloggers have recently suggested some reasons for doing so, and telling our stories.

Cobus writes about How one Afrikaner became an African theologian: my contemplations:

We do not take part in this African conversation by forgetting Apartheid, by forgetting our past. We do not take part in this conversation in spite of Apartheid. We take part in this African conversation by remembering our past. By telling our story, so that this may never happen again.

And Tom Smith wrote in Soulgardeners: Amahoro further thoughts… (2):

It is disconcerting to me how fast white South Africans want to move past the memories of Apartheid. This kind of amnesia that is prevalent in the talk of the beneficiaries of oppression serves a particular agenda; to keep the status quo.

So they have given me an incentive to tell some tales from dystopia.

For some of the younger generation the apartheid era is past history, and so it may be worth telling some of the stories of that era, and I saw it all. I remember the day, when I was seven years old, when I heard adults talking of going to vote at Ingogo near the station, just across the main Durban-Johannesburg road. The main road is no longer there, and nor is the station, but the countryside looks much the same. I asked what voting was, and it was my first conscious memory of politics. That was in 1948, the year apartheid began. The adults said then that the Nats had got in because they promised white bread — war-time rationing was still in force, and if you wanted white bread you had to sift the flour, something I had watched my mother do many times when she baked bread.

The roots of apartheid went back much earlier, of course. Segregation was a fact of life in Smuts’s South Africa and before. But in 1948 it was consciously articulated as an ideology, and applied as a policy. It was an ideology with which children were to be indoctrinated in schools, and which the whole machinery of the state was to be brought to bear on making it something that could not be questioned. It was not a policy to be debated and compared with other policies; it was the framework within which all political debate was to take place. As time went on, discussion outside that framework was crushed.

So I will tell some of my stories, a series of Tales from Dystopia, in the hope that they can perhaps help us not to fall into the same trap again, and perhaps it can help, in a small way, to give the younger generation a picture of what living in the apartheid era was like.

Epukululu Lovawambo - cover

Epukululu Lovawambo – cover

But the first of my tales is a tale about a tale, or rather about a book of tales, Epukululu Lovawambo (Stories of Ovamboland).

In 1970 I was living in Namibia, and my cousin Jenny Aitchison and her husband John came to visit. John had been banned for five years, from 1965 to 1970, under the Suppression of Communism Act, but when his ban expired, it was not reimposed, and he was free to travel outside the Pietermaritzburg district, and to help with publishing literature. We asked them to help with the publication of a second edition of Epukululo Lovawambo, and it was duly published by Khanya Publications. About a year later, in 1971 John Aitchison was banned again, and one of the reasons for this banning was the part he played in the publication of Epukululo Lovawambo, described by the Security Police, in memos to the Department of Justice, as a “liberal chuch publication”.

So what was Epukululo Lovawambo, and why was helping with its publication so heinous an offence in the eyes of the apartheid regime that they thought someone should be banned for it?

Epukululo Lovawambo was something like a chapbook.

The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History defines a “chapbook” as

Cheap popular books, published in London from the 16th to the 18th centuries and sold by booksellers, chapmen, or pedlars throughout the land. The text consisted of traditional stories and ballads, histories, and moral and religious tales.

A Kwanyama homestead in Ovamboland, by John Muafangejo

A Kwanyama homestead in Ovamboland, by John Muafangejo

And that is a pretty accurate description of the content of Epukululo Lovawambo. It was written by an Anglican priest, Stephen Paulus, in Kwanyama, one of the languages of Ovamboland. My friend David de Beer and I were chapmen. We followed the example of an American Anglican priest, George Pierce, who was the diocesan misssioner for the Anglican Church in Namibia. While he was stationed in Winddhoek he visited isolated settlements of migrant workers, mostly from Ovamboland. They lived in camps of corrugated iron shacks out in the countryside, maintaining the roads or the railways. Sometimes they worked on mines, which were usually far from towns. George Pierce visited them wherever he found them, and most of those there were contract labourers from Ovamboland.

When George Pierce was transferred to Ovamboland, Dave de Beer and I tried to continue his work, going to mines and road and railway camps. At one road camp at Brakwater, about 20 km north of  Windhoek, the people built a chuch out of corrugated iron. At most such camps there were Kwanyama-speaking Anglicans from Ovamboland, and we found that many of them had been holding their own church services while they were there. At one mine they presented Dave (the diocesan treasurer) with all the collections they had taken at services the previous six months.

We took books with us in a suitcase to sell, because there were usually no shops in the vicinity of the camps, and there was little to do in time off but drink or gamble. The most popular books were Bibles, prayer books, hymn books, and Epukululo Lovawambo. One reason for its popularity, we were told, was that it was written in very pure Kwanyama, and people liked to read it just for the language, even when they had read it so often that they knew all its stories almost by heart.

The crucifixion of Jesus, from Epukululo Lovawambo

The crucifixion of Jesus, from Epukululo Lovawambo

Eventually it was sold out. People kept asking for it, but there were no more copies, and that was then that we decided to reprint it. We asked John Muafangejo, an Ovambo artist, to do some illustrations for it, but we kept the original illustrations by the author as well. For the history part, it had a list of the Kwanyama kings, and potted biographies. It had folk tales, religious tales and some natural history, about the birds of Ovamboland, and descriptions of Ovambo life. John and Jenny Aitchison did the layout and got it printed, and for that, John was banned a second time. The apartheid regime was quite philistine.

Our occupation as chapmen was also not without ideological hazards, as the following extract from my diary (13 March 1971) shows:

In the afternoon Dave, Tini Schlemmer and I decided to visit the Oamites Mine, a new mine just about 35 miles south on the road to Rehoboth. Tini was an old school friend of Jill Nicholson who was staying with them for a while. Dave had heard that the mine was starting production, and wanted to see if there were any Anglicans working there. As we drove we saw enormous quantities of fat green locusts, only they were too fat to hop. The workers came out to buy books, which we were selling at the gate of the compound, and we sold vast quantities of Kwanyama New Testaments. A white guy drove up in a bakkie. He was Mr Smit, the compound manager, and seemed not too happy to see us there. We told him what we were doing and he pushed off again. The Ovambo contract workers on the mine said that we should go to a camp across the valley, where the people who were working on the electrical installations were staying, so we went there and found more workers, who worked for SWAWEK.

They seemed to be mostly from the Republic, with very few Kwanyamas. There were Zulus and Xhosas and Tswanas. We sold a few Zulu New Testaments. Then another white guy came along and he was far less pleasant than the first one. He said he would donder us, and told us and everyone standing around that we were selling “communist Bibles”, which I’m sure the Bible Society would be pleased to hear. He said that if any of his workers bought any Bibles they would immediately get the sack. I tried to be nice to him, and said that we had done nothing that we could see to make him mad at us. I said that he too needed salvation, and that he should repent. He scoffed at that idea. He had no sins he needed to repent of. One of the guys from the main compound was with us. He had actually written a letter to the diocesan office asking us to go there, and he was rather bewildered by the whole affair. The white guy said he would send the number of our bakkie to the SB. I said he needn’t bother, as they already knew it, as there was an SB guy in our congregation (Kaluvi, a catechist at Katutura).

The Birds of our Country - original illustration by Stephen Paulus

The Birds of our Country – original illustration by Stephen Paulus

The incident at Oamites had some unforeseen consequences. Some time afterwards Dave de Beer went to Johannesburg, and spoke to a meeting arranged by the Nusas local committee on the Wits campus. A journalist who had gone to the university to report on another meeting and found it had been cancelled walked in to the back of the hall, and wrote a report on it. One of the things that Dave said was that the contract labour system was a form of slavery, and illustrated this by describing the incident at the Oamites Mine. The boss not only wanted the workers to work for him, but tried to control who they talked to in their leisure time, the books they could buy and read, their religion and so on. He treated them as if they belonged to him, body and soul, so it was very little different from slavery. This was reported, and the phrase that “the contract labour system is a form of slavery” was made the centre of the report.

In the following week it (or a variation) was front-page news in Die Suidwester, the Nationalist Party newspaper, for a whole week. They sought out and interviewed Mr Tim van der Vyver, the compound manager at SWAWEK, and had a picture of him. Later still Jannie de Wet, the Commissioner General for Ovamboland, made a broadcast speech on Radio Ovambo saying that the contract labour system was not a form of slavery, because no one was forced to work on contract, and they could leave and go home at any time. Some of the contract workers at the compound at Walvis Bay who heard the broadcast responded by writing to the other compounds suggesting that they take “The Boer Jannie de Wet” at his word and do just that — go home, and many did. There was a contract workers strike at the end of the year which ended in all the contract workers being sent home to Ovamboland. But that is another tale.

At that time the religious right in South Africa were fond of bringing in speakers from overseas to tell of their experience of smuggling Bible into communist lands. I went to a gathering where one of these speakers, David Hathaway, spoke about smuggling Bibles into Czechoslovakia. He spoke in Durban City Hall, which was packed full, with maybe 1000 people, mostly, I should think, from church youth groups. What he said sounded pretty authentic, because I had had very similar experiences with the likes of Tim van der Vyver at Oamites. And one of the most authentic bits was when he told of a car being stopped at the border, and the customs officials seizing the load of Bibles and saying that they were “capitalist propaganda”, and I thought of Mr Tim van der Vyver and his “Communist Bibles”.

But if the Security Police had seen me there, I could have gone to jail. I was banned at the time, and was not allowed to attend “political gatherings”, that is, any gathering at which any form of state or principle or policy of the government of a state was discussed, and David Hathaway was discussing the policies of the government of Czechoslovakia. And there were these thousand or so white high school kids, gasping with horror at the wicked repression of the Christian faith by the evil communists in Czechoslovakia, and not realising that the same things were happening under their very noses, but they couldn’t see them, because of their indoctrination. Yes, in Communist Czechslovakia people could indeed be fired from their jobs for buying Bibles, but I heard South Africans being threatened with the sack in South African-ruled Namibia.  And a few years later some of those high school kids would be on the border, defending us from the communist hordes who were rampaging down through Angola, bent on taking away our freedom to read the Bible — or so they were told.


Click here for more posts in the series of Tales from Dystopia.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 June 2009 4:02 pm

    thanx for sharing the stories

  2. Trevor permalink
    28 June 2009 12:40 pm


    Thanks for sharing these experiences. It is disheartening to read how people misused Christianity and other religions in supporting their political agenda.

    Looking forward to more blogs.

  3. 29 June 2009 6:40 pm

    Telling the story is so important. At least it is still happening in SA. On this continent, it is rare. Of course, some are quick to demonise – I have come across people who subtly think that because I’m a white (ex-) South African, and an Afrikaner (of sorts), my racial opinions are – suspect? Little do they know of my story, and that of may poarents, and family. Little do they know of attending church services across the racial line, when that was frowned upon. Of my dad who was well known at the petrol stations and nurseries etc as Ntati Moruti (he was a teacher, not a minister). Of the box of tracts in Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Sesotho, Tswana, Sepedi etc he kept int the boot of his car, always. Of trying to find a bible for a new worker at the petrol station in his own language. Of virtually bringing his entire matric class in a township school to Christ. Of how my parents had to flee Zambia when they were replaced by East Germans etc. While they were very anti-communist (understandably), they were also called “K…..-boeties” for not being racist and caring about the welfare and souls of all those around them.

    Those were surreal times, at best. Best dealt with in stories.

    I look forward to your own stories to come…

  4. 1 July 2009 11:24 pm

    Well, for Trevor’s sake, I looked back over this article again, to see how anyone was misusing religion for their political ends, but I don’t see it. I only see people having great mercy on other people, bringing them the Truth to help lighten the heavy loads of their lives. Whatever could he have meant, then? This is a beautiful article that encourages me in my own service to the poor. I hope I am as attentive to their spiritual needs and the material ones, and as compassionate as these shepherds.

    • 2 July 2009 3:37 am

      At the time of the incident Trevor was working at St Mary’s Church at Odibo in Ovamboland. He had come from Britain under the aegis of an organisation called Voluntary Service Overseas, and was working as a mechanic and teaching the local people how to maintain vehicles. I think the “misuse” he was referring to was indoctrinating young people with the idea that they were defending freedom of religion and saving Western civilization by going to fight on the “border”.

  5. 13 February 2012 3:35 pm

    I love the idea of a chapbook.

    Incidentally, I had to look up what banning was.

  6. Jenny Aitchison permalink
    15 February 2019 1:01 pm

    I wish we hadn’t changed the cover of Epukululo Lovawambo or had at least used an example of Ovambo art.


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