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Tales from Dystopia XII: Vorsterism, sabotage and liberalism

25 May 2012

Fifty years ago today my conversion to liberalism began, and the instrument of this conversion was a dominee in the Dutch Reformed Church by the name of Cruywagen. It was not his purpose to convert anyone to liberalism, quite the reverse. He was reported in the media as saying that anyone who did not support the Sabotage Bill, then before parliament, did not believe in the fall of man.

B.J. Vorster

The Sabotage Bill had been brought before the South African Parliament by the new Minister of Justice, Balthazar Johannes Vorster, and it was Vorster’s first major step in his rise to political prominence.

After the general election of 1961 Vorster was appointed Minister of Justice by prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, and he immediately took steps to turn South Africa into a fully-fledged police state.

The main stages of this were the General Laws Amendment Acts of 1962 and 1963, and the Terrorism Act of 1967.

Fifty years ago the first General Laws Amendment Act was dubbed the Sabotage Act by the media, because among its other provisions was one that increased the penalties for politically-motivated sabotage, including the death penalty. One of the provisions also undermined the legal rule of presumption of innocence. If someone was charged with sabotage in terms of the Act, the onus was on them to prove that it was not done with political motivation.

This was ironic, since 20 years earlier Vorster had been an active member of the Ossewa Brandwag, an organisation that carried out acts of politically-motivated sabotage.

The Sabotage Bill also empowered the Minister of Justice (Vorster himself) to impose more severe restrictions on opponents of the National Party government. These restrictions, popularly known as “banning orders“, were now to include house arrest, and also made it an offence for anyone to publish any “speech, writing, utterance or statement” of a person subject to a banning order. As one lawyer commented, it would henceforth be illegal to play a tape recording of the gurglings that a banned person had made as an infant in a cot.

The Sabotage Bill had been announced by Vorster in the Senate on 15 February 1962, and provoked an intense political debate.

The Sabotage Bill was also a precursor of Vorster’s style of government, in which he tried to promote the image of kragdadigheid by legislation.[1] If someone behaved in a way that broke the law (and before Vorster came to power in 1961 there were many such laws passed by his predecessors), Vorster’s response was not to charge people under existing laws, but to pass a new law to make the behaviour doubly or triply illegal, and even then his preference was not to charge them in court, but rather to take administrative measures, by banning them without trial. Thus it was a kind of aggrandisement of power, giving more and more powers to the police in general, and himself in particular, to control and restrict people.

Previously a person who painted anti-government graffiti on a wall could be charged with malicious damage to property. I am not aware of anyone being charged with that. But the Sabotage Bill greatly increased the penalties for such acts if done with political intent, and the prosecution did not have to show that they were done with political intent — the onus was upon the accused to prove that they weren’t.

B,J, Vorster

There had been a few acts of sabotage before Vorster introduced the Sabotage Bill in parliament — mainly attempts to blow up electricity pylons, few of which succeeded. But they gave Vorster the opportunity to manifest his kragdadigheid by introducing legislation to increase his own powers and those of the police.

He followed this up by another General Laws Amendment Act in 1963, which introduced 90-day detention without trial, something that was quite shocking to people in what was then called “the free world”, though 45 years later Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were anxious to introduce similar legislation in Britain, and George Bush and Barack Obama have been introducing or continuing it in the USA.

At the time the Sabotage Bill was being debated, there were still a lot of ex-soldiers around who had fought in WWII against Nazism, and to some people of that generation legislation like the Sabotage Act recalled Nazi tyranny. Christians in South Africa began taking an interest in the works of theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which were then being published in English and becoming more widely known. Bonhoeffer became known for his opposition to such tyranny, and so from about 1961 onwards there was also quite a lot of talk in South Africa of the ned for a “Confessing Church” similar to that in Nazi Germany. This intensified the debate about the Sabotage Bill, and subsequent legislation giving more power to the government.

The fact that Vorster had been a member of the pro-Nazi Ossewa Brandwag increased this still further. Someone dug up a statement Vorster had made in 1942, and spead it around:

We stand for Christian Nationalism, which is an ally of National Socialism. You may call the anti-democratic  system dictatorship if you like; in Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.

After he introduced the Sabotage Bill, people began asking Vorster if he still stood by that statement, and he generally refused to answer. I was present on one occasion when this happened, when Vorster was speaking at a National Party meeting in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. I was then a student at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg (now University of KZN). The meeting was on 4 November 1963, and this is what I wrote in my diary at the time:

In the evening I went down to hear John Balthazar Vorster, the Minister of Justice. I went down with Maeder Osler, Gavin Stewart and Dizzy Drake, and we went a sat up in the gallery. There was a big mob of people we knew there — John Lloyd, Chris Roering, Harry Wilson, Jasper Cook, John Aitchison and many more, mostly from varsity, including Darrell Wood, Henry Bird, Richard Thatcher, and members of staff — Cake Manson, Saul Bastomsky and Glenn Culpeper.

Before the speakers came in there was some shouting across the hall. Some people on the other side shouted “Vrystaat, and we shouted “Natal”, although some thought we should have made it a refined and elegant “Natal” {different vowels in the Shaw alphabet}.[2] When the speakers came in most of the audience stood and clapped. The left — mostly up in the gallery with us — sat and booed. Then we all stood and sang the national anthem. The leader of the party in Natal, a guy called Potgieter, made a speech which sounded like a sermon. Then Vorster stood up and spoke. About 30 people in the gallery stood up and gave the Nazi salue, shouting “Heil Hitler! Heil Vorster!” The tough men the Nats had stationed behind us pulled one guy back into his seat, and he got up again and shouted “Heil Vorster!” He was pulled back several times and it nearly started a fight, but a deacon of the Dutch Reformed Church stopped it — blessed are the peacemakers!

Vorster began to speak. He said he wondered why the West didn’t support South Africa, and told people to take no notice of the vocal section of the audience. He said that there was a building on the hill, the last bastion of liberalism in Natal, but already there were cracks in it. He had, he said, 150 signatures of students who supported his action against Nusas.[3] He invited them to come on to the platform so that he could welcome them, but none did. He then said that the trouble about South Africa overseas was that misinformation was being propagated deliberately. Lloyd shouted “by Frankie Waring”.[4] Then he went on to talk about the United Party, and the resignation of Odell and Groenewald. He said that Douglas Mitchell had said that if a few fleas fell off it made no difference to the dog, but there were so many fleas that the United Party must be a flea-ridden dog. Lloyd shouted, “Look where the fleas are going to.”

Vorster said that the United Party was dead and that it must eventually come to direct opposition between the conservative National Party on the one hand and the Progressive and Liberal Parties on the other, both of which were liberal — two horses harnessed to the same cart. He said that the vocal section of the audience had their own regiment — “Luthuli’s Own”, and we all shouted “that’s us”, and “Luthuli for President”, and cheered.[5]

He read out of a Nusas pamphlet, and it was so twisted that I didn’t find out until after the meeting what he had been referring to. He talked about communists, and trying to support communists and South Africa’s image overseas. It was actually an appeal to other unions of students to contribute towards a fund for students and lecturers who were arrested for political crimes, to help pay for their legal defence and support their families.

At one stage Lloyd shouted, “That’s twisted”, and Vorster said, “My friend who shouted ‘that’s twisted’ can come down and read it for himself it he wants to”. Lloyd went and sat on the platform and Vorster went on about “little pink liberals”. At the end, after Vorster had said that a part of the Nusas pamphlet referred to obtaining the best legal defence even in corrupt courts was an attempt to smear South Africa’s name overseas. Lloyd asked if the packing of the Supreme Court to get the Coloured voters off the roll was not a corruption of justice. He asked a couple of other things as well. Vorster replied by asking Lloyd if he thought our justice could be bought, and didn’t give a straight answer to his other questions. Sammy Osler asked why Vorster had told lies about Nusas, and said he was prepared to substantiate his arguments, but the chairman took no notice.

Then someone shouted, about the statement made by Vorster in 1942 — “We stand for Christian Nationalism. In Germany it is called National Socialism in Italy Fascism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism”. He asked if Vorster was prepared to withdraw that statement. Vorster did not reply. The chairman said, “What do you know about it, you weren’t even born then”, and closed the meeting.[7]

Outside a guy asked Maeder Osler if he was prepared to have a discussion of his views. Sammy said yes, and the guy said, “Let’s go round the corner and fight it out.” Sammy said he defended his views with words, and if he couldn’t do that they weren’t worth defending, but he offered to beat the other guy up if he liked, and a Gestapo guy called van Rensburg said “Come on now, Maeder, don’t fight” and we went off. Van Rensburg seems quite a nice guy. We went and had coffee at Gavin Stewart’s place.[6]

The meeting was also interesting in that it marked a stage in the collapse of white resistance to the National Party regime.

Two years previously Verwoerd spoke in the Pietermaritzburg city hall, and he had to be brought into town by a back route to avoid student demonstrators on the main road. During the meeting sacks of flour were dropped on to the platform, and most of the audience were rowdy and heckling the speakers. The Nat supporters were a minority (I was not there, but read about it in press cuttings). At the 1963 meeting with Vorster, described above, the Nat supporters were in the majority, and there were only about 30 vociferous opponents, mostly students.

In 1965 Verwoerd spoke again. It was just after Smith’s UDI in Rhodesia, so the local and foreign press were there in force to hear what he said about it. He said nothing about it, but confined himself to making attacks on the United Party, the official (and ineffectual) parliamentary opposition. All he said about Rhodesia was that South Africa did not believe in interfering the the affairs of other countries, and that that was a matter for Rhodesia and Britain to sort out. And there was no heckling, no vociferous opposition. It was clear that, on the whole, white opposition to the NP had collapsed between 1961 and 1965. Before the meeting many of the audience were singing pro-Smith songs.

But, to get back to the Sabotage Bill, it was ds. Cruywagen’s statement that anyone who did not support the Sabotage Act did not believe in the fall of man that got me thinking and converted me to liberalism.

I had been persuaded by a friend to join the Progressive Party, and worked for that party during the 1961 election campaign, and the MP for our constituency, Houghton, was the only one to be elected. That was Helen Suzman, who for the next 13 years was the only voice in South Africa’s parliament who seriously opposed the National Party’s totalitarian legislation. But I was not very happy about the Progressive Party’s franchise policy. Under the National Party the franchise policy was was based on race — all whites, and only whites, could vote for parliament (coloured voters had been moved to a separate roll in 1956, and black voters had been removed entirely in 1960. The black voters had been allowed to vote for white representatives — two communists and a Liberal). The Progressive Party proposed to move the qualification from race to class. The rich and educated of all races could vote.

Dominee Cruywagen said that anyone who did not support the Sabotage Bill did not believe in the fall of man. The logic of that escaped me. The Bible said “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). To my mind, “all” included Vorster and and the police force. So it seemed to me that anyone who supported the Sabotage Bill must believe in the immaculate conception of Balthazar Johannes Vorster.

And by the same reasoning, the Liberal Party policy of “one man, one vote” seemed much better than the Progressive Party policy of votes for the rich and educated. If all have sinned, then no one is inherently more fit to rule than anyone else, and certainly not on the basis of skin colour, wealth or education.

So today I thank Dominee Cruywagen who, though it was not intention, put me on the path of liberalism, and helped to turn me into what Vorster would have called “a little pink liberalist.”

So I’m a pinko liberal, and proud of it.


Tales from Dystopia is a series of blog posts I am writing on memories of the apartheid era. You can see a list of the other posts here.

Notes and references

1. Kragdadigheid is an Afrikaans word that is difficult to translate into English. Literally it means “mighty-deededness”, and in Vorster’s case the mighty deeds including the passing of redundant legislation as a tool of public relations.

2. At that period I wrote my diary in the Shaw alphabet, partly in order to learn it. It allowed one to represent several more English vowel sounds than the Roman alphabet. It never caught on. It was similar to shorthand in that many of the letters were s single stroke of the pen, and it took about a third less space on a page than the Latin alphabet.

3. Nusas: the National Union of South African Students

4. Frankie Waring was the Minister of Information.

5. Albert Luthuli was then president of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC, and Luthuli himself, were then banned.

6. Maeder (Sammy) Osler was then President of the university SRC, and later President of Nusas. He was also a very fit rugby player.

7. The one who shouted the question was Saul Bastomsky, a classics lecturer at the university, who was himself banned about two years later. In reply to what the chairman of the meeting had said, “You weren’t even born then”, someone else shouted, yes he was, he was six years old.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 11 July 2018 2:58 pm

    Interesting memories. This was a little before my time, but I heckled PW Botha as an undergrad – so resistance was not entirely dead.

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