Tales from Dystopia XV: When Vorster came to Maritzburg
Fifty years ago today, B.J. Vorster, then the South African Minister of Justice, came to speak at a National Party meeting in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. Pietermaritzburg was probably the centre of white opposition to National Party rule, and so Nationalist politicians who went there in the early 1960s were venturing into enemy territory.
Dr Verwoerd, then Prime Minister, had been to speak there a couple of years previously, and the meeting ended in chaos. His car had to be sneaked in by back routes to avoid student demonstrators and the meeting itself was disrupted by Union Jacks showering on to the stage,, followed by bags of flour. The opposition was quite overwhelming.
Only two short years later, the opposition was much diminished. Vorster had made a big impact as Minister of Justice. Appointed after the 1961 general election, he quickly established a reputation for kragdadigheid (mightydeededness). He passed two General Laws Amendment Acts, in 1962 (the “Sabotage Act”) and in 1963 (the “90-day detention Act”) which drastically increased the powers of the police (and his own power) over ordinary citizens, and turned South Africa into a fully-fledged police state.
The Sabotage Act gave him the power to increase the severity of banning orders to include house arrest. The 90-day-detention Act of 1963 gave any police officer of the rank of Lieutenant or above to detain anyone for up to 90 days without charge or trial. After 90 days they could be released and redetained.
At the time I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, and many students saw parallels between what was happening in South Africa and what had happened in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, when the Nazis were passing more and more repressive laws.
I remember sitting in a cafe having coffee in downtown Pietermaritzburg when the General Laws Amendment Bill was being debated in parliament. I had been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and papers from prison. I looked the traffic in the street and the people walking around town, shopping and doing their business. It all looked so utterly ordinary. And I thought so it must have looked in Germany 30 years before. This was what it was like to live in a country that was turning into a police state. Nothing dramatic, nothing extraordinary. No tanks coming down the streets. No “Big Brother is watching you” signs. Just humdrum everyday life, people keeping calm and carrying on. The banality of evil.
I’ll tell the story by an extract from my diary of the day, followed by some explanatory notes.
Monday 4 November 1963
I went to see the bishop, but was told he was in Newcastle. I had a letter telling me about a School of Prayer he had conducted, and how he had talked about God to an atheist girl of 13.
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 and 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”. 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 salute, 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. 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”. 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.
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.
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.
Only two years before the position had probably been reversed, with about 30 National Party supporters in a city hall filled with opponents. Two years later, in 1965, Verwoerd returned to Pietermaritzburg in triumph. There was no vociferous opposition, and an adoring crowd hung on his every word. Those who disagreed kept quiet. In Natal, at least, white opposition to the National Party had collapsed almost completely in the four years between 1961 and 1965.
This is one of a series of posts called Tales from Dystopia, on personal experiences of life in South Africa in the time of apartheid.
Notes and References
 The Anglican Bishop of Natal, Vernon Inman, had asked me to go and see him.
 Nusas was the National Union of South African students, whose leaders were often critical of National Party policy.
 Frankie Waring was the National Party Minister of Information.
 The United Party (UP) was the main parliamentary opposition party, though it did not actually oppose the General Laws Amendement Bill. Douglas Mitchell was the Natal leader of the UP, and Odell and Groenewald were two UP members of parliament who had crossed the floor to join the Nats.
 The one who asked the question about whether Vorster still stood by his statement made inj 1942 was Saul Bastomsky, a lecturer in the Classics Department at the university, whose family had earlier fled from Lithuania. Saul Bastomsky was himself banned in 1965
 Maeder (Sammy) Osler was a rugby player and president of the Students Representative Council at the University. He later became president of Nusas.