Race Relations

Apartheid – the lighter side of darkness

Mbeki – smoking tobacco from SA
Thabo+Mbeki.jpg

This whole cat-among-the-Sparrows race commotion, Big Leaders clinging to banners on the side of tall buildings, the ANC’s 104th birthday and an unexpected e-mail recently received, reminded me of an incident some years ago… a lighter little aside to the apartheid darkness, and perhaps a lesson for today.

At the height of the final days of apartheid during the late 1980s, with fires burning in townships across South Africa, I travelled to a very hostile – for white South Africans – Zambia to cover the then still banned and exiled ANC’s 75th birthday bash in Lusaka.

This was made possible through my contact with one Tom Sebina, then ANC spokesman in Zambia.

In those days the ANC, SACP and other organisations were still banned under the security legislation of the day as ‘terrorist’ and ‘communist’. By law the media was not allowed to quote them.

As I reported on issues of political and security significance, I was regularly summoned to Pretoria for ‘confidential’ but quotable briefings by the military and the security police – little ‘battle of ideas’ propaganda sessions, not unlike those we once more have today.

Back at the office I would call Tom in Lusaka for their unquotable side of the story. Nonetheless, to get past the law, I would use Tom’s inputs in my article, but attribute them to “sources close to the ANC said….” – all perfectly legal. 

In the process a warm rapport developed between myself and Tom, making possible several trips to Zambia, courtesy of the ANC and Tom.

A memorable visit

On one occasion Tom forgot to meet me at Lusaka airport with the necessary entry papers, resulting in me being put under armed guard by the Zambian army for several very uncomfortable hours as a “South African spy”, until Tom eventually pitched – out of breath, but with the necessary papers. 

On this occasion I was in a larger group of South African and international journalists.

As was my habit, I had brought a bottle of Tom’s favourite Klipdrift brandy and a bottle of whisky and Borkum Riff pipe tobacco for Thabo Mbeki. Tom knew his bottle was waiting in my luggage.

After two hours of fielding questions, mainly from American and German journalists, in the then Pamodzi Hotel in Lusaka, Tom suddenly grew very thirsty and tired of the foreign journalists.

I was sitting with Tom and Max du Preez – who had brought along his own present for Tom – when Tom suddenly jumped up, gestured wildly at the foreign journalists and shouted in Afrikaans: “Julle Amerikaners kan nou almal f…of; nou gaan ek eers ’n dop drink saam met my wit broers van Suid-Afrika!” (You Americans should all f… off now; I am now going to have a drink with my white South African brothers.) He then repeated the message in somewhat more polite English.

Upstairs to the rooms we went and out came the bottles.

At one point Thabo Mbeki joined us and received his tobacco, etc. Joe Slovo joined us for a while and attacked a hamburger like I had never seen before. He must have been quite hungry that day.

At the end of that visit, having missed my taxi and running late for the weekly plane back to South Africa, a helpful Thabo Mbeki rushed me to the airport in his battered little white Toyota Corolla.

But back to the point. Here we sat, two white journalists from apartheid South Africa in a room full of “murderous ANC terrorists” who, according to the PW Botha regime’s propaganda, would, with Russia’s assistance, murder us in our beds … and that in a very hostile Zambia. Not a pleasant thought.

Given the jokes, the stories, the reminiscences of “back home” and laughter as the bottles were being passed around, I could be forgiven for having thought I was in the wrong place and time.

And it was not the alcohol doing the trick, although it might have helped us to relax. What was really happening was that we were, South Africans from (perceived) divergent ends and perspectives, even enemies, given the times. Yet, as Tom put it, brothers sitting in a room far from home, finding commonalities, sharing ordinary human traits, and bonded by a shared love of a country some distance to the south.

I asked Joe Slovo when he expected to set foot in South Africa again. His answer: By the end of the decade.

It turned out to be prophetic words. By the end of the decade FW de Klerk made his famous speech and the ANC came home. Mandela stepped out of prison, all smiles, made his conciliatory speeches and defused a bloodbath on the eve of the 1994 elections.

What went wrong?

How I long for those days: Give me a room full of ANC ‘terrorists’ in a hostile Zambia any day, rather than Sparrow’s racist rants, six storey banners, hate speech towards whites and all the other things now fermenting at the bottom of an almost empty bucket.

Footnote: Tom returned to South Africa shortly afterwards but sadly has since passed away. The other day, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from his grandchild who wanted to know more about her (in)famous grandfather.

Bless your lovely soul, Tom. 

And, on my return from Zambia, at the old Jan Smuts Airport, customs officials rummaged through my bags. It turned out they were not looking for banned ANC and SACP literature as I thought – and of which I had plenty in my bags.

No, they asked me, “Do you have any Playboy magazines, Sir?” – also still banned literature in South Africa at the time.

So much for the then “Rooi Gevaar” (Red Threat)!

by Stef Terblanche

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