Can’t Possibly Do That! The Heavens Will Fall In!

Amy EdelsteinBlog, Cultural Development, Dialogues, Social Activism, Values, Ethics, Morals

Amy Edelstein interviews MP Ray Swark, leader of the South African anti-apartheid movement

The dismantling of apartheid rule in South Africa is one of the recent decades’ greatest models of social evolution. It was as if the sleeping world stretched and heaved off a great weight, and did so without massive bloodshed, hatred, or deeper scars marked into the human psyche. What were the factors that led to that tremendous shift in paradigm and power? Who were the individuals involved? What can we learn from them about their motivations and inspirations and support this generation as we stir to make our own transformation of equally great proportions?

Photo: Helen Suzman & Ray Swark

Many are now recognizing the need to shed the skin of our current global lifestyle, a production and relationship paradigm that has proven its untenability over the long term. For some the response has been conscious, for some fraught of necessity, for others an unconscious response to deeper shifts in our environment. The end of raced-based rule in South Africa was an evolutionary step for modern man. Following are some of the thoughts and reflections of two of the leaders who helped bring the struggle to fruition, working against tremendous inertia of an entrenched and enforced status quo to see real transformation come about within their own lifetimes.

AMY EDELSTEIN: At the close of the recent World Summit for Sustainable Development there was one thing that there was consensus on—that we are at a critical juncture and some kind of dramatic change in the way we are living is vital.  You can see the pressures increasing on the natural resources and taking their toll on the human resources in the different world populations. In South Africa, less than a decade ago, an almost unimaginable shift of the social, political, economic, and power structures took place, one that up until just before it occurred seemed virtually inconceivable. Yet it happened, and relatively smoothly. You are one of the key individuals who helped bring about this historic transformation. As a Member of Parliament for many years before the end of apartheid, you exerted sustained pressure on the government, pressure that was instrumental in bringing an end to the gross inequities of colonial rule. What motivated you to become involved in the frontlines of the struggle? What were the most significant leadership qualities that helped bring about change?

RAY SWARK, MINISTER OF PARLIAMENT: I was motivated as a young man in the fifties when I first got into politics. I could see, as could Helen Suzman and a group of us, that what was happening in the country was something which couldn’t in any way be sustained. It was morally indefensible. And practically it was never on that a small white minority would dominate the majority in Africa. We then decided that we would form a political party, which would try to break down the racial barriers and look at people on the basis of equal opportunity for all people in a non-racial society. That’s what we tried to change and what we stood for. We certainly battled to do it. It was a long and tough battle and we may not have succeeded but we were a voice at least echoing the things that we thought should happen in South Africa.

AE: Was there a particular event that catalyzed your involvement?

RS: It was a combination of events. There were thirteen of us, who were all Members of Parliament at the time, who formed the Progressive Party. We had tried to formulate a revised policy from within an established party but we were getting nowhere because the party was committed to outdated principles of racism. Seeing that we were getting nowhere made us go out into the wilderness and form our own party which would advocate a nonracial South Africa. We were not popular, of course! Hence the fact that come the first election, Helen Suzman was the sole survivor of the thirteen of us. All the rest of us lost our seats right away and it took us quite some time before we made it back. 

AE: What gave you the courage to continue on?

RS:  was a belief. One had a feeling for this! There we were living in Africa, born in Africa, we are Africans, and the injustice in society was something which we couldn’t tolerate. We were fairly committed idealists. We didn’t have our heads in the clouds, but a lot of people thought we were mad. We just thought, we couldn’t go on like this. We couldn’t face our fellow black South Africans, or Asian South Africans, or Colored South Africans, all the various groups. It was just nonsense that the white minority could think that they could continue to dominate. I don’t believe that race should determine the value of people. There are all sorts of other qualities you should look for. I’m a liberal and I’m very proud to be a liberal. I know it’s a very often a swear word now in many parts of the world but I’m a liberal. I believe in people. I believe in humanity. I like people! I don’t like nasty people  [laughs] and I don’t like wars and I don’t like bullies. That makes me a bit idealistic, doesn’t it, because there lots of people like that all around us!

AE: Are you optimistic about what’s going to happen at this point in time for South Africa and for South Africa as a leader for the other African nations, given the kinds of development and natural crises facing this continent?

RS: Africa is faced with enormous crises—the crisis of poverty, water, sanitation, lack of education, the whole backlog which makes its problems immense. I think we should be able to play a leading role in trying to overcome the problems in Africa but we also have a heritage which we have to live down.

There’s a fair amount of depression now among whites in South Africa about what they see as inadequacies or threats from the new system of government. Look, I don’t think whites are all that popular and I understand why we’re not all that popular. Why should we be? We’re very lucky we are this popular, thanks to Nelson Mandela and the greatness of the reconciliation philosophy. That’s a very significant factor in South Africa and a very rare thing. Mandela has been magnificent and has had a very great influence. His attitude was exactly the right attitude. It allayed the fears of a lot of white South Africans, which aren’t so much allayed now because we’re seeing a much more strident leadership. A leadership which often appears to be positively pro black and almost anti-white, or disinterested in white matters. I understand that, I think it’s something we’re going to have to live through. But I just don’t share all that depression.

AE: Why not?

Because I think by and large the new government has done a great job. I give them six out of ten. Given the fact that they had no experience whatsoever at governance—running a country or a civil service—I don’t think they’ve done all that badly. One can highlight gross inefficiencies and inadequacies. The crime situation is awful. There is corruption. Not that corruption is a monopoly of the black government; there was corruption in the previous white government. But there is corruption and there is crime, and that’s bad, it’s not doing us any good. The foreign policy is rather quaint. But that’s part of the legacy too. They’re trying to repay old chums, who were their chums during the tough years. That’s why we have a whole variety of people who are acceptable here. Khaddafi can come and go into the country, and George Bush can come and go in this country too, for that matter. And Tony Blair, and Yasser Arafat, they’re all our friends. Some more than others. That’s part of the change here, and it will take time. It will take time before you get really good governance in South Africa.

I think people are too impatient. It’s only eight years into what has been a massive transformation. If you’d been in South Africa before 1994, under the old apartheid years, you’d understand just how massive it is. It’s a huge turnover of power and opportunity. I work part time now for the KwaZulu Natal province chairing a land development tribunal. I come into contact with people of all shades and colors and I find most of them very impressive. They’re competent, they’re enthusiastic about the job they’re doing, they’re reliable, intelligent people. That gives me hope for the future. They’re working for their ideals. They want to see the country properly run. And they’re not running it as badly as a lot of people might think.  Again, if you had heard white opinion before 1994, before the end of the eighties anyway, they used to say to us, “Majority rule in South Africa? You’re mad! They’ll be bloodshed! There will be absolute chaos overnight! The heavens will fall in. Do you want black people living next to you? Would you have an Indian living next to you? Can’t possible do that!” I had it here in this very neighborhood. This used to be my Parliamentary constituency in the old days. One walked the streets and had doors slammed in your face. “You’re crazy!” They’d say. “You can’t possibly allow blacks to live in our white areas, or sit on the same park benches or go into the shops or go into the cinemas, or go into the restaurants with us. The heavens will fall in.” They haven’t fallen in!

AE: What do you think made the peaceful transition?

RS: Well certainly Nelson did. At that stage, I think one must give some credit to de Klerk, who saw the light. But I don’t think he was motivated by altruism, or anything like that. I know de Klerk. I think he’s intelligent enough and practical enough, particularly given the effect of the economic sanctions, to say, “ok, this is it, we can’t go any further.” He unscrewed the power base and a lot of his own people probably will never forgive him for doing so, but it was the best thing he could have done. So that was leadership at the right time, but Nelson was the star figure. To come out and preach reconciliation, and try to allay the fears of the whites at the same time recognizing all the injustices of the past. He did some extraordinary things, Nelson did. He went to visit Verwoerd’s widow, and all these dreadful people who’d done the most ghastly things to black people in South Africa. Nelson decided “I’m going to take the olive branch and go try to say hello to them.” Extraordinary! Puts on a rugby jersey and goes to the rugby match when the World Cup was at stake. It was his leadership, coupled with the great tolerance of the blacks, who, given his example, didn’t go wild and cut everybody’s throat.

As you’ve said, there have been great strides in South Africa in the last eight years, at the same time, given the pressures we’re facing as a global culture, especially with issues like HIV/AIDs, the upcoming famine throughout southern Africa, unsustainable development practices, we don’t have the luxury to wait for good governance to mature. The World Summit of course was meant to address some of those issues and to bring the key players together to facilitate a more rapid degree of response. What do you see as the most important factors to move us forward into the next era?

You put your finger on it. The AIDs crisis is an enormous crisis. It is having a big effect now on the population, far more than most people realize and as time goes by it’s going to be greater. That is a huge problem; as you know, the history of the present government isn’t very good on AIDs. It’s all linked to lack of proper education, lack of training, lack of money, mainly. What one does in the short term to overcome them is another matter. I also really think our leadership should be seen quite soon, should already have been seen, to be quite critical of all the indiscretions that take place in Africa, especially with individuals like Mugabe. The current leadership hasn’t done that, I think they’re afraid to be seen as criticizing a fellow black. Again, that’s part of our long legacy. It’s going to take some time to live it down.

AE: Do you see it as a personal responsibility of leadership to take the moral high ground?

RS:  Yes, I think Nelson did it. If he were a younger man and had been able to be president now, I don’t think Mugabe would have gotten away with what he is. And I certainly don’t think the AIDs thing would have been handled in the same way it has been. With all these issues, I think it is a question of leadership. You asked when are we going to look at the broader picture—there’s so much here that needs our attention.

AE: True and still we can’t afford not to look at the broader picture. 

RS: That’s right, that’s absolutely right!

“When I was in Christy Medical College, I used to say,
“One man, one vote.” Apartheid just didn’t make any sense to me.
But if anyone told me that would happen in my lifetime
I’d have thought they were dreaming.
Now there are children who don’t even remember apartheid. “
 ~Marius Barnard,

who assisted his brother Chris Barnard in the world’s first heart transplant surgery, served in Parliament, was one of the 13 founding members of the Progressive (anti-apartheid) Party, and, despite numerous threats, used his family name to speak out against racial segregation in every situation he could. Marius’s father, a missionary, used to cross racial lines to preach to a colored congregation, claiming, “It is impossible to be a Christian and practice apartheid.”

What do you think?