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Tales from Dystopia VI: 1960 was a very bad year

27 February 2010

Someone suggested that many young people do not remember the time of apartheid, and that those of us old enough to remember some of the things that happened then should share our memories, so that young people can have some idea of the darkness from which we have come.  So I’ve been writing an irregular series of “Tales from Dystopia”, as they occur to me and I remember them, usually whilte I’m doing something else.

The year 1960 is on my mind at the moment because I’m working on a history of the charismatic renewal in South Africa with Prof John de Gruchy (whose son Steve was tragically killed in an accident last week), and I’ve made the main starting point of the story 1960, so I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot. Some of what follows is taken from my draft for a chapter, and edited.

1960 was a very bad year

It was 12 years after the National Party had come to power with its apartheid policy.

If anyone thought that apartheid was simply an election gimmick, and that the Nats weren’t serious about it, they were soon proved wrong. Many of their leaders had had Nazi stympathies during the Second World War, and some feared that they would introduce a Nazi or fascist state in South Africa.

The Nats were elected by a minority of votes, but a majority of constituencies, so they acted swiftly to consolidate their power. In 1950 they passed the Suppression of Communism Act, which banned the Communisdt Party, and enabled them to take administrative action against people the Minister of Justice “was satisfied” was promoting any of the objects of communism. They created 6 new constiuencies in South West Africa (now Namibia), whose (white) voters they were sure would vote for them, and they began preparing laws to remove coloured voters from the common roll. Black voters (in the Cape Province only) were already on a separate roll. They nationalised most church schools. They charged the organisers of the Congress of the People (which publicised the Freedom Charter) with treason. Their power seemed pretty firmly consolidated.

Then came 1960.

In 1960 there were many events in church and state that signalled changes, and there were some natural disasters as well.

First was a rock fall at Coalbrook pit near Sasolburg, where over 400 miners were buried, the worst mining disaster in South African history. For a week the country prayed while rescue teams tried to reach them, but in the end they gave up, and their workplace became their final resting place. It seemed symbolic for a lot else that happened that year. The message was: there is no hope. Give up.

There was a meeting of South African member churches of the World Council of Churches at Cottesloe in Johannesburg. The representatives of the Dutch Reformed sister churches who were present signed a statement that was critical of apartheid, and this was later repudiated by their churches, which also withdrew from the WCC. There seemed to be no hope for ecumenical relations between the Dutch Reformed sister churches and the rest of South African Christians. One of the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk (NHK) representatives, Prof Albert Geyser of Pretoria University, was formally charged with heresy by his church.

The Pan African Congress (PAC) campaigned against the pass laws, and urged people to leave their passes at home and go to their nearest police stations and ask to be arrested. Those who gathered at Sharpeville police station were shot at, and nearly 70 people were killed.

In Cape Town, 20000 people marched to the city hall, and the young man who led them, Philip Kgosana, spoke to the senior police officer at the city hall, and agreed with him that the crowd, having made their point peacefully would leave peacefully. The police officer agreed to set up a meeting with the government, and the crowd dispersed peacefully. When Philip Kgosana went for the meeting, he was arrested. The cabinet were disappointed — they had wanted a massacre like Sharpeville — and that police officer’s career reached a dead end – punished because there was no massacre. The PAC confidently announced that freedom would come to South Africa in 1963. They were only about 30 years out.

The Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg, Ambrose Reeves, had affidavits from people who had witnessed the Sharpeville shooting, and clandestinely left the country with these. On his return, he was deported. The government declared a State of Emergency, banned the ANC and PAC, and detained many opponents of its policies.

In the midst of all this were the celebrations of 50 years of the Union of South Africa, and the situation was summed up by a cartoonist’s drawing of a frightened little man cowering in an armoured car, flying the celebratory ‘50’ pennant from the gun turret. Perhaps in celebration of this, blacks lost their last vestiges of representation in parliament (three white MPs who had been elected by black voters in the Cape Province). The Cape Colony had insisted, when it joined the Union 50 years earlier, that its nonracial franchise remain unchanged. So much for politicians’ promises. Later in the year was the (white) referendum on whether South Africa should be a republic, which happened in 1961.

And some time in the middle of all this, a white farmer from Magaliesberg, David Pratt, attempted to assassinate the Prime Minister, Dr Verwoerd.

There was a popular song at the time:

My old man’s a dustman
He wears a dustman’s hat
He wears cor blimey trousers
And he lives in a council flat.

And a new version did the rounds:

My old man’s a Dutchman
He wears a Dutchman;s hat
He held a referendum
And he got shot by Pratt.

Of course these events, and others, had an effect on me. I was a student at Wits University at the time. But while many of these things were happening I fell in love with a girl and got distracted. She later decided she was gay, but that’s another story.

What is more relevant here, in a Bildungsroman kind of way, such as my blogging friend Cobus van Wyngaard is writing, is a student conference I went to in the July vac.

It was the inaugural conference of the Anglican Students Federation, meeting at Modderpoort in the Free State in July 1960, the coldest time of the year, and the coldest place in the country. About 60 students gathered from universities, teacher training colleges, and theological seminaries around the country.

The conference was taking place under the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre. Two of the students were from Sharpeville, and knew people who had been killed or wounded in the shooting. For most of the students, aged 17-25, it was the first time in their lives that they had spent a week eating, sleeping, praying, singing, worshipping, discussing and arguing with people of different races, and seeing that what held them together, when the world outside would drive them apart at gunpoint, was Jesus.

My mother came with me, partly because she didn’t trust me to drive her car by myself, partly for a holiday in a cottage on the grounds, and partly because some of the parents of female students wouldn’t allow their daughters to attend unless there was a “chaperon”. Things were like that back then. In Vereeniging we picked up the two students from Sharpeville, Benjamin Photolo and Jacob Maleke, and drove past Coalbook, scene of the mining disaster, and through the Free State winter highveld mielielande to Modderpoort.

One of the speakers at the conference was the Bishop of Bloemfontein, Bendyshe Burnett. He spoke as the host, because Modderpport was in his diocese. Later he was known by his first name, Bill, but in the Free State in those days having a bishop called Bill was a bit infra dig so they called him Bendyshe.

Alan Paton spoke on Ourselves and the African Continent. “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them” — he said that white people did not follow this rule in their treatment of black people of South Africa, but substituted “fear” for “would” — do to others what you fear they will do to you. Our Lord never promised that kindness would be repaid.

Another of the speakers was Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection in Johannesburg. He spoke on Pilgrims of the Absolute: the unrespectability of our religion.

But when we know from our own experience that God is a person who cares for us, whose very being is love, which means “caring for”, then we should be able to make other people believe it too – if they want to believe. If we could show by letting everything go, letting everything slip into the hands of God, we should lose nothing, but gain immeasurably.
St Francis let go, and so did many other holy walkers, and, according to Jack Kerouac, there are the Beats on the West Coast of the USA, who seem to be looking for something very like St Francis was looking for. And maybe it was people like these that Jesus spoke about when the disciples came to him and John said, “Master we saw a man driving out devils in your name, and as he was not one of us, we tried to stop him.” Jesus said, “Do not stop him: no one who does a work of divine power in my name will be able in the same breath to speak evil of me. For he who is not against us is on our side.”
The Beats seem to look for God for the kick of it. St Francis looked for God because he thought God wanted him. In The Dharma bums Jack Kerouac describes his hero fire-watching on a mountain, absolutely alone for months on end, and spends his time practising Zen. Now the goal of Zen is enlightenment, or as the Beats (or Beatific Ones) would say, “getting with it” or “being hip”

In The Dharma bums, by Jack Kerouac,  one of the characters says

… that’s the attitude for the bard, the Zen Lunacy bards or old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume. I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ’em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures,

For many of the students, this was powerful stuff. The vision of a Jesus revolution, with Jesus bums taking part in a rucksack revolution, seemed a good alternative to the kind of society where the government penalised policemen for stopping massacres. Jack Kerouac’s Zen Catholicism struck an answering chord in the hearts of at least some South African students, and some seeds were sown.

Back in Johannesburg after the conference, Brother Roger lent me books on this and other topics, which I read. The Beat Generation was a literary movement of the late 1950s, which inspired a following, the Beats, and later the Hippies, who were turned off by the materialist values of Western society. The mood is captured by Lawrence Lipton in his book The holy barbarians:

The New Poverty is the disaffiliate’s answer to the New Prosperity. It is important to make a living. It is even more important to make a life. Poverty. The very word is taboo in a society where success is equated with virtue and poverty is a sin. Yet it has an honourable ancestry. St. Francis of Assisi revered poverty as his bride, with holy fervor and pious rapture. The poverty of the disaffiliate is not to be confused with the poverty of indigence, intemperance, improvidence or failure. It is simply that the goods and services he has to offer are not valued at a high price in our society. As one beat generation writer said to the square who offered him an advertising job: ‘I’ll scrub your floors and carry out your slops to make a living, but I will not lie for you, pimp for you, stool for you or rat for you.’ It is not the poverty of the ill-tempered and embittered, those who wooed the bitch goddess Success with panting breath and came away rebuffed. It is an independent, voluntary poverty.

Ten years later the movement of disaffiliated youth was much stronger, especially on the west coast of the USA. People like Jack Sparks, who had been part of the student ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, began a ministry to the Berkeley street people as well, which he called the Christian World Liberation Front, which published a Christian underground newspaper, Right on! Sparks was one of many. Win with love, the Berkeley free church directory, listed hundreds of radical Christian groups and ministries to street people, hippies, drop-outs, student revolutionaries, and runaways who had come to join in the fun and found themselves homeless, starving, and often addicted to drugs. And in the midst of this turmoil, the Jesus freaks appeared, the Jesus revolution was really happening.

But it was Brother Roger, CR, at Modderpoort in 1960, who gave some of us the idea. It you want to read the rest of what he said, you can find it here.

Yes, 1960 was a very bad year, but some good came out of it.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 March 2010 9:18 pm

    Steve, I love the story and a first hand peek into a time in history that I have only heard a little about – thanks for sharing. It is so interesting to think about the odd places we find hope and encouragement along the way.

  2. Gus Gosling permalink
    2 March 2010 11:29 am

    Steve, do you have a reference for : “The cabinet were disappointed — they had wanted a massacre like Sharpeville…’? Considering the fallout from Sharpeville, they’d have had to be insane to want a repeat.

  3. 2 March 2010 12:59 pm

    I don’t have an exact citeable reference. It comes from an article in a Sunday newspaper a few years back that told the story of the police officer and his subsequent (stalled) career.

    As for their sanity, they were insane, or at least their policy was. Jimmy Kruger was not being idiosyncratic when he said that Steve Biko’s death left him cold. And the fall-out? What was that? They won the referendum, and increased their majority in the following general election. There was nothing like a good show of kragdadigheid to rally the party faithful.

  4. Gus Gosling permalink
    2 March 2010 1:37 pm

    (i) Foreign immigration into SA virtually ceased;
    (ii) The first wave of white emigration commenced;
    (iii) Most seriously, from the government’s POV, it brought about a major financial crisis — foreign investment ceased, foreign capital left at such a rate that foreign exchange controls had to be introduced…. In all, the country seemingly faced a financial crisis equal to that of the 30s.

    I take your point though that there was no internal backlash from the white electorate. But, I still doubt that the cabinet would have relished a repeat of Sharpeville only 9? days after the event.

  5. 2 March 2010 2:01 pm


    None of those things would have had time to take effect between the Sharpeville massacre and the Langa march. They were far too close together.

    Concerning the first two — at that stage the Nats weren’t keen of foreign immigration, and the emigrants were mostly opponents of the government anyway, so they saw it as good riddance.

    On the third, foreign investment etc. — none of that much effect between Sharpeville and Langa. And in the longer term, by 1962 South Africa was enjoying the biggest economic boom it had ever experienced, or at least since the 1930s. By 1964/5 they did encourage foreign immigration, and got it — the boom needed more skilled people, and they weren’t going to let blacks do those jobs, so they imported skilled whites, mostly artisans, who would support apartheid because they didn’t want blacks to compete for their jobs.

  6. Gus Gosling permalink
    2 March 2010 2:26 pm

    Steve. the reaction on the JSE was immediate and horrific — there was, within four days, a paper loss of 250M USD in gold stocks alone (that’s in 1960 dollars!). Capital outflow began quickly too — exchange controls had to be introduced by May, though you may be right that it would not have been noticeable within two weeks of the event. So, I still doubt that cabinet would have encouraged a repeat of what was already a financial and PR disaster for SA.

    The recovery of the SA economy post-Sharpevile was indeed remarkable. The markets are amoral.

    • 2 March 2010 7:46 pm


      Yes, the markets are amoral, and I suspect the reason for the drop was the perception that the government was losing its grip, and not from moral revulsion at the massacre of citizens. There too, kragdadigheid wins the day. The markets bounced back because it seemed that the government was in control. We, the controlled, had little say in the matter.

  7. 2 March 2010 8:56 pm

    I just wanted to say that I have loved this particular series for the first-person perspective on South African history you’ve provided. I’ve often wondered what was going on in the SA religious communities at this time, and you’d be surprised how hard it is to find that information in the US.

    Thanks for sharing your memories on this as you’re drafting your chapters!

  8. John permalink
    3 March 2010 5:33 am

    But dystopia is all that there is now–turn on your TV.

    We now live in a humanly created “world” that is a combination of everything that was predicted by George Orwell in 1984, and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.

    Paradoxically God was always absolutely present in the midst of all of this–and so too in the midst of all the humanly created horrors of his-story.

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