About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Padraig O'Malley - Getting Here

In July 1984, Mary Manning, a checkout clerk at Dunne's Store in Dublin, refused to handle two South African grapefruit. She was immediately suspended. Nine other young workers – none older then 16 years of age joined her on a picket line, demanding the right not to handle South African produced goods.1 The head of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), then-Bishop Desmond Tutu, on his way to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, met with two of the strikers in London, endorsed their actions, and invited them, on behalf of the Churches, to visit South Africa to observe at first hand the workings of apartheid. Unfortunately, the good bishop, while extending the generous invitation didn't offer to have the SACC defray their expenses.

Through a mutual friend they approached me, appropriately enough at the bar in Buswells Hotel, a popular watering hole for politicos and the like, opposite Leinster House, the home of the Irish Parliament. I was able to raise the money for their airfares – Dublin to London to Johannesburg, and back. Three of us -- two friends (Patricia Keefer, an American, who later became an integral part of my life and this project and Louise Richardson, then a graduate student at Harvard University, now Executive Dean of the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University) decided to join me and accompany the ten on the trip, to act, as it were, as their "chaperones."

Before they left the youngsters told Radio Eireann, the Irish national broadcaster, that when they got to South Africa they were "goin' te tell dat apartide guvermint wot it cud go do wit itself." Harrowing stuff. We joined them at Heathrow Airport in London on 08 July 1985.

The South African authorities have a somewhat different agenda in mind for the strikers. At Jan Smuts Airport (now Johannesburg International Airport), they and three of us carrying Irish passports (Louise, myself and some poor chap who was coming to South Africa to get married) – are met, as we disembark BA flight 202, by 24 armed uniformed security personnel, all carrying submachine guns, a platoon of immigration officials and state bureaucrats. The bravado of "we're goin te tell dat apartide guvermint…" gave way to wails, "Where's me Mummy?"

We are detained by security guards. 'Escorted' from the customs area to the 'transit lounge' by the twenty plus security personnel, armed with an array of weapons that would have been laughable had the situation not been so real.

It's your typical authoritarian set-up.

You ask: "Who's in charge here?" Silence. More indignation on your part: "What the hell is going on? Why am I being held here?" Silence. "You just can't do this? Who do you think I am -- a bloody terrorist or what?" Silence. You quickly learn that once under the surveillance of security people trained to scrupulously ignore you, you may as well wait it out. For you, the detention is humiliating; for them it is a matter of complete indifference, part of a day's work, a nine-to-five routine before they repair to their homes, have supper, watch TV with the family, and turn in for the night. Power insouciance. The dismissiveness of those who believe that the order in which they live will never change.

I am held incommunicado for eight hours and interrogated – not with any hostile or intimidating wile but with the crisp efficiency of men who know what they are doing. I had demanded with suitable outrage to know why I was being treated in this despicable way, citing my rights as an Irish citizen. I experienced the total outrage that begins with a slow burn of disbelief at the surreal that envelops you when you realize that you are in a situation in which you are totally helpless.

The message is simple. We are, the lot of us, going to be held in transit and sent back on the night flight to London. There are no explanations; the proceedings, almost wordless. The guards are polite, methodical, coldly and efficiently professional, their menace more the result of calculated indifference than overt intimidation. We are not allowed to communicate with any consular representative – not that that mattered much since Ireland had at the time some almost impossible to find individual in the role of an "honorary" consul. No telephone calls are allowed.

However, Patricia carries a US passport and the authorities do not associate her with the strikers. She makes it into the country, contacts a mutual friend in Dublin who was the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs.2 He, in turn, contacts the South African Ambassador to London.3 After several hours, Louise and I are released – the message they are receiving from London was that our association with the strikers was coincidental. (We had made an arrangement among ourselves – that those of us who might be able to get into the country will try, even if it means disassociating ourselves from them. At Heathrow, there had been some trouble over visas and we, that is "the adults in the group" knew that getting into SA would be problematical at best.)

For the strikers, however, no relief is at hand. They are barred from entering the country and unceremoniously flown to London the same evening.4 Thus PW Botha's fear of ten teenagers who in Dublin had told the media that when they got to South Africa, they were "goin te tell de apartide guvermint wha it could go do wit itself." However, the sheer excessiveness of the government's response to what, after all, was little more than a group of young people from working class families in Dublin coming to Johannesburg with tongues in cheek, was unbelievable – a hyper-sensitive reaction to an event totally disproportionate to the event itself.

My first reaction, after I have been "freed", was that if such an insignificant event could ignite firestorm of reaction, surely it said much about the government's own sense of psychological isolation. Any government with any sense of PR would have had some second-rate bureaucrat greet them on their arrival, thus undercutting the youngsters' case that they had come to lend support in their own small way to anti-apartheid South Africa. Instead, the overreaction rebounded to the government's detriment.

On our return to Ireland, we were able to arrange a meeting between Ruairi Quinn, the Minister of Labour, and the strikers. Quinn was impressed with their passion and the articulate case they made for the boycott of South African produce. Moreover, because of the widespread press reporting of the event in Ireland and the Irish Prime Minister, Garret Fitzgerald, having to make a pro forma protest to Denis Worrall,5 the South African Ambassador to the UK, legislation was later passed by the Irish parliament banning the importation of fresh food from South Africa, making Ireland the first country in the European Commission to do so.

Back in South Africa…

We had booked ourselves into the Hyde Park Hotel, a small, well-run hotel in the suburbs of Johannesburg with a beautiful fountain in the courtyard. Under other circumstances it would have been picturesque. The telephone in my room rings at 7.00am the following morning. A sympathetic hotel employee (Coloured) says the police have arrived to search our rooms. They knock on the door, introduce themselves ask whether they can search the room. The request, you quickly understood, was not one you were in a position to turn down. But there was little they could find. British Airways had been so confident that we would not be allowed into South Africa or had been so informed by South African officials on the ground in London that they had not bothered to load our bags.6

From that point on, we know we are under surveillance. Nor does it help to read in the Johannesburg press that a number of Irish "activists" had somehow entered the country and were connected with the Dunne Store strikers who had been denied entry.

The surveillance is pervasive. The hotel staff appeared to be under instructions to report on our movements. One did not have to be an expert to see that the phones were tapped within hours of our arrival, our calls were logged and reported – all calls had to go through the switchboard. To make calls to Ireland, we had to go to American Express offices in Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein. The atmosphere is one of incipient intimidation, all the more threatening because it is not visible. In fact, there is no visible police presence after the first morning's little foray – it is not necessary when informants are everywhere.7 The smiling face, we learn, is often the one that betrays.

We quickly learn to trust no one – the most polite inquiries could conceal the most malign intentions or elicit a slightly indiscrete response. Information is knowledge, and here, knowledge was very definitely power, not just to impose, but also to depose. We were warned that even in the SACC there were informers. Paranoia, of course feeds on fear, and fear breed the need to justify it. If you yield to it, to the caution it creates, you, too, become a victim of the system. And in a sense we did. We came to suspect that the Coloured employee who would recount with vivid details how the police had come by that day and inquired about our whereabouts and how he had told them what they could go do with themselves was, we suspected, himself a police informant. Our logic is simple: no Coloured person would ever talk back to the police in the manner in which he professed to do. So our caution extended to his most simple inquiry. We kept our distance and answered perfunctorily. Fearing more police raids we hid the tapes of interviews in out- of- the- way places every evening and recovered them in the morning. And when he said, he wanted us to meet his friends --– he was living illegally in one of the "gray" zones of Johannesburg, we politely declined: "Sorry, but we have other engagements, maybe another time." Were we being discrete or simply paranoid? To this day, I don't know.

We learned something else too. The rift between Coloureds and Africans; the fear Coloureds had of being dominated by Africans in any new dispensation under which Africans would rule the country. The Coloured employee who posed – or was he real – as our friend had nothing but contempt for Africans; they were lazy, unreliable, not that intelligent and if they ever became the ruling party, South Africa would quickly sink into the quagmire that the rest of Africa was stuck in.

Those who were the targets of discrimination were as apt to discriminate as those who were the architects of discrimination. He couldn't wait for the day when he could return to the Western Cape – no Africans there. (Africans weren't allowed to enter the Cape Province until 1985; this gave the Cape a unique characteristic that in the end would prove impossible for Afrikaners to resolve: the native language of Coloureds and Afrikaners was Afrikaans. How then could you define an Afrikaner nation in terms of one that that would preserve Afrikaans language and culture if Coloureds were prohibited from being part of that nation?).

Only in later years would I come to understand the nature of the fear of Coloureds. On the one hand they wanted the abolition of apartheid, but there was ambivalence: where would they fit in any new scheme of things. They feared that the ANC was intent on establishing a one-party state, that it would brook no opposition. That fear, we discovered, arose from a number of factors.

You had the forty years of separation imposed by apartheid. People who didn't know each other didn't trust each other. One example pointed out to us during our truncated travels where separation led to distinctions was in Uitenhage, an industrial town on the fringes of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, where Africans and Coloureds had once lived together. The government had separated them, putting a distance of about 10 kilometers between the two communities. Africans were not allowed to go into Coloured communities and vice versa. As a result, you had, on the one hand, an older generation in both African and Coloured communities who harbored some remembered understanding of each other. And you had at new generation that had no such understanding.

The same we found to be true among Coloureds and whites. Many Coloureds were prone to see themselves as being an appendage of whites. They would regale strangers with the lighted-hearted but nonetheless telling quip that the white grandfather's picture was on the wall while the black grandmother's was in the drawer.8 But the reality that became clear to us as we moved across the country was that Coloureds and Indians – the minority groups among the black majority were afraid of African domination, in the event of a universal franchise and the coming to power of the African majority. Theirs were fears of domination, of being denied opportunities, of being discriminated against. Apartheid – separation-generated fear of the unknown.

Moreover, apartheid was hierarchical, all the more so to divide. At the top of the ladder you had whites, the ultra-privileged, and then in descending pecking order, Indians, Coloureds, and on the last wrung, Africans. I am beginning to learn apartheid's hidden nuances. Being a victim is no good reason for not victimizing others.

And back to our story…

Mulling our options in Hyde Park after having played the attentive tourist for a few days – theatre, art shows, museums and that sort of thing, we decide to abandon caution. Our course becomes clear: to gather from every source first hand accounts of the effects of apartheid and to bring back to Dublin messages of encouragement and support for the strikers from the people on behalf of whom they had maintained their yearlong vigil.

For two weeks, we crisscross the Transvaal, the Orange Free State and Natal,9 visiting homelands, townships, squatter-camps, relocation areas, interviewing everyone we meet: anti-apartheid political leaders-most of whom had either been imprisoned for long periods or otherwise detained-trade unionists, church ministers, tribal chiefs, and the ordinary people – Indian, Coloured, African and white. We try to capture on film the ugliness of apartheid that pockmarks the face of what is, by any standard, a physically beautiful country. Our strategy is simple: switch cars daily, never stay more than one night in a hotel, and on a daily basis ship all our recorded interviews out of the country to a London address, using a courier service – always payment in cash.

One of our first "runs" was to make a beeline for Brandfort, a small rural town in the Orange Free State where Winnie Mandela had been "banished" to the adjacent township. In Brandfort, the contrast between white dominance and black powerlessness is all the more pronounced because the scale is small. You can absorb the contrasts. The main "white street has a pastoral sleepiness to it, the houses singly spaced, lawns well-kept, a gleaming new library and high school (for whites only), a country-style hotel that breathes wariness to strangers-signs of everyday life in a small town that finds little to distract itself.

Take left into Water Street; pass under the tunnel and after a hundred feet the road turns to gravel. A few hundred feet further on, and you come to what is euphemistically called the black residential area.

The "houses" are mud/clay or corrugated sheds with no water, electricity, sewer system or lights. At 6.00pm it is dark. Smoke from the outdoor fires that are lit for cooking, heating, and light filters eerily across the seemingly endless of dusty streets. The men, phantom-like in the illusions of the smoke, are returning from their workplaces in Bloemfontein, the provincial capital, about an hour away. They leave their homes in the 5.30am darkness and return home in darkness. The women work as servants in the whites' houses, less than a quarter of a mile away, earning about $15 a month. For most of their working lives, many families see each other only in the darkness.

Everyone knows Mrs. Mandela and can recite the conditions of her banishment. She cannot leave the area without the permission of the local magistrate. From Monday to Friday, she can leave her house from 7.00am to 7.00 pm; on Saturdays from 7.00am to 1.00 pm and on Sundays not at all. She cannot attend social gatherings, enter educational institutions or attend church services. But everyone says the same thing: she has no self-pity, and is, therefore, not to be pitied. Everyone sings her praises: her unstinting work in the community, her helping hand held out to everyone, her constant concern about the welfare of others – and never a compliant out of her about the conditions she herself was forced to live in or the restrictions on her movements or even the outsiders she could receive.

We go to her house – a little more "upscale" from the others around her, but the yardstick of comparison is low. She is not there. No one seems to know where she is. We come back on a number of occasions, but still no Winnie and still no knowledge of her whereabouts – even among the local police who are supposed to monitor her movements. Only later do we find out that she had decided that she had had enough of Brandfort, had decamped under cover to Soweto where she emerged to declare defiantly that if the authorities wanted her to return to Brandfort, they would have to come and get her. With conditions in the townships, especially Soweto, deteriorating, with the youth clashing more openly with the police, torching the homes of local black councilors – sellouts in the eyes of the youth-and "necklacing"10 anyone suspected of being an informant or collaborator with the regime, the authorities thought better of trying to arrest her.

For the next five years she would rule Soweto, her own "enforcers," members of a group called the Manchester United Football Team, created by Mrs. Mandela herself, ensured that Winnie's word was law. She would project herself as a separate entity, the visible symbol of the struggle itself, the voice of her imprisoned husband, articulating the ANC's message throughout the country, but holding herself aloof from the leadership of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which tried to bring her under some control, but without success, as her increasingly bizarre actions became an embarrassment to the freedom movement.

Winnie did not belong to any structure. She created her own platform, increasingly personalized – and the masses embraced her. She was the Mother of the Nation. She could do no wrong. Her fiery oratorical skills, her unabashed militancy – brandishing a match box at rallies, thus signaling to the youth that if they had to burn suspected collaborators out of their homes or necklace fellow blacks on the mere whisper of their being informers, - would sway millions among the youth who were emerging as the key figures in making the townships ungovernable, give her a special status and establish her as the undisputed mother figure of the struggle that would last throughout the eighties.

But her independence cost her.

The killing of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi in December 1988 sidelined her temporarily when the leadership of the MDM in an unprecedented press conference distanced itself from Mrs. Mandela and her actions. Further triumphs and travails would await her, but she would never see Brantford again.

The Irish connection…

Just what language is that? I had been given the telephone number of Ismail Ayob, the Mandela family lawyer, by someone in Johannesburg. I decided to call him from a public phone booth in Brantford to see whether he could shed any light on Winnie's whereabouts. A woman's soft voice answers the phone. I explain myself. She answers in Gaelic. "Dia leat!" (May God be with you!) Turns out she's Irish, from Costello, a Gaelic speaking area in Galway County, a nun who had spent most of her working life in SA, now retired (I didn't know there were such things as 'retired' nuns), who was now working part time for Ayob. We chatter in Gaelic for a few minutes, she fluent even after all these years, me trying to muster a word here and there. She puts me through to Ayob. Again, I start to explain myself. His phone, he says, is likely tapped, so I'd better be careful. OK, I say, give me Sister Angela. To Sister Angela explain in Gaelic precisely what I want to know. She goes to Ayob. Tells him, comes back & conveys his response in Gaelic. There! Any Afrikaner listening in would hear a strange and softly lilting language. Where from? Whose? Afrikaans and Gaelic, two languages, unique to Afrikaners and the Irish, tying up the airwaves in the middle of SA. All those years of compulsory Gaelic and finally the Big Payoff!!

On to Durban…

St. Wendolin's mission is about 35 miles outside Durban. The mission owns a large area of land that has been inhabited by Africans for more than a hundred years. The government has now rezoned it under the Group Areas Act as an Indian residential area. African families are simply being uprooted, ejected from their homes and dumped in adjacent townships. The authorities paint a number on their doors, a number that appears mysteriously, arbitrarily, and anonymously. The number means that the occupiers of these houses must move, perhaps today, tomorrow or the next. That depends on the whim of the authorities.

St. Wendolin's is a singular example of how the government turns one disadvantaged group against another – Africans, in this case, against Indians. Divide and conquer: The Africans we talk too are angrier with the Indians than they are with the authorities. The government is adept at giving the less disadvantaged groups (Indians and Coloureds) some marginal privileges that puts them at odds with the Africans. Black hostility is thus deflected away from the government, and aimed at others. In fact, the survival of the system depends on nurturing a racial system that has its own pecking order, pitting the haves against the have-littles, the have-littles against the have-nots, thus creating elites among the oppressed. In addition, there is a twisted logic to the government's actions. If ever the day comes when it has to negotiate with the ANC regarding the future of South Africa, the government wants Indians and Coloureds to fear the prospect of African rule.

Lamontville is an African township, a satellite to Durban. It overlooks two huge workers' hostels, one housing 18,000 male migrant workers, the other 23,000. These workers are under contract from their respective homelands, and under the law citizens of their homelands, not South Africa.11 They are housed six to a room. Roommates are usually drawn from different tribes to minimize their ability to fraternize. Each room has one stove and two burners for cooking. The workers are bused to their workplaces in the morning and bused back to the hostels in the evening. That is the sum of their daily experience.

At the end of the year, they are sent back to their homelands for three weeks. Their contracts may or may not be renewed. Their families in the homelands are totally dependent on their cash remittances because the women, children, and old people who are left behind cannot cultivate the land. Black trade unions usually faced almost impossible obstacles organizing these workers, since even the whimper of resistance could mean dismissal, a one-way trek back to the impoverished homeland, and the revocation of permission to enter South Africa.

On Thursday, 18 July, the authorities finally caught up with us in Durban and gave us three days to leave the country, generous, we thought, considering the circumstances-we had an appointment to see Bishop Tutu at St. John's Episcopal church in East Orlando in Soweto, where he would be presiding over confirmation services, on Sunday, 21 July -- the day we had been "ordered" to leave the country.

On 20 July, PW Botha declared a state of Emergency in the Transvaal.12 Not surprisingly, Soweto was tense; police and army were everywhere, huge intimidating Casspirs – armored anti-mining tank-like vehicles-prowled the streets, making their way into the brown, dust-ridden, unpaved byroads that weaved their way through this city of between one and three million – the government didn't exactly go to great lengths to ascertain Soweto's exact population at census time.

No one will take us into Soweto. We are warned not to go there – the threat would come both from the security forces wondering what three whites were doing in the city; blacks would see us as undercover security operatives. But we were either foolish or naïve (in the course of the next fifteen years I would find that warnings of danger, where danger seemed most probable, were invariably ill-founded; indeed that danger lurked in the most unlikely of places, most likely a function of randomness than conscious intent) or we had come too far to turn back. So we struck out to find the Bishop. Never have I been more conscious of the color of my skin. Whiteness seemed to radiate from my being resting on every black face that I saw. How could we explain, if stopped by "comrades" that we were "good" whites?

It took us several hours to find the church; for a while it looked as if no one in Soweto had ever heard of either east Orlando or St. John's Church. (On reflection, this was not as surprising as it seemed at time. As I became more familiar with the "workings" of Soweto in later years, I found that residents of Soweto stuck to their own small enclaves. The neighborhood was a small community of a few streets crunched together where everyone knew everyone else. The local shebeen or church community hall were the loci of social interaction; outside of that closed circle the world was alien. Rarely was there a need to wander into it; you got fleeting glimmers of it on the way to work, but to most Soweto outside of their own close-knit communities was as distant as the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Besides, the routines of life were determined: from home to bus/train pick-up stop to Johannesburg to place of work in the morning; from place of work to depot to drop-off point to home in the evening – twelve to fourteen hours owned by others, before one could draw a free breath that might not be in violation of some law, draw some reprimand that would jeopardize one's job. In time the unions would break these working practices and the advent of the mini-van taxi revolutionized transportation).

Outside the church, a Caspir menacingly and monotonously circles. African people, who pray in small numbers, it would appear, are as great a threat to security as the masses that take to the streets to protest. When we are led into the church, Bishop Tutu stops in mid-sentence, raises his arm in the clenched fist, black-power salute – the first time, we are told afterwards -- he had ever done so. "The Irish," he thunders, "have arrived." The congregation breaks into applause, leave their seats to embrace us, tears flow, and, for the first time in my life, I am proud to be Irish.

A memory etched in the mind, frozen in time and unbearable emotion.

At lunch afterwards in the church rectory, he holds court. There are perhaps 10 people in addition to us seated around the small table. But only one voice reverberated, sometimes solemn, sometimes hurting, sometimes jocose, anecdotes concluding with great bursts of laughter. But perhaps the most dynamic attribute is the sheer energy he exudes, it simply radiates in all directions like laser beams. He is at once conducting business, attending to a pastoral matter, recounting some run-in with the government, sometimes simply a man of God. He expounds.

Raising his fist in the black power salute? "I have never before given the black power salute," he says, "because it is so emotive." Besides he doesn't believe that the raised clenched hand with the fist closed and the fingers intertwined is a sign of black power, "it is a sign of unity." The people must know, he says, that he and other members of the church really and truly identify with them, are in solidarity with them in their struggle to be recognized for what they are, "human beings made in the image of God."

And are the people nearly there? "Yes, I think we are nearly at the point where people will say, 'We've had enough." But he is forever the optimist: "I still believe there is still an outside chance -- and one holds on to this belief with the skin of one's teeth – if the government declares that it will dismantle apartheid. But it cannot go on playing semantics, speaking about reforms when it is merely tinkering with the non-essentials, with the peripheral things, and if it would ensure that our leaders who are either in jail or in exile are released or permitted to participate in negotiations that the government would call, that might turn the trick."

He reflects, but only for a moment, and says, "Yes, I believe so." And he continues: "What I have no doubt about is that we are going to be free. There is no question about that! No one is going to stop that. Not the Casspirs. Not the Hippos. Not the tear gas. Not the guns and dogs. We will be free. We would like whites to join us because we are saying you have already lost. And we are saying to them, "Join the winning side!"

But why aren't blacks more incensed at whites? He finishes off his desert, savoring every last piece, and smacks his lips with a comment: "Delicious!" And he explains:

"Our people are peace loving to a fault. Our people are delighted to see white people come into the townships. There is a spirit among our people – it's very difficult to explain in English. In Xhosa it is called ubuntu. It is the quality of being human, but also the quality of being humane. Our people want to be called human. The qualities that go into ubuntu are difficult to define. If you think of compassion but also of strength, of gentleness but also of toughness – they all go into ubuntu and the kind of dignity that comes from the fact that you are humane."

"I don't think our people understand racism. They can't act racially. They may sometimes be tribal, but not racial. When they see poor whites, even the poorest of our people say it's not right that it should be that way. They say whites don't know how to suffer, but somehow God has given us a capacity to suffer, and so poverty is something we know how to handle. White people don't know how to, so we feel very, very sorry for them. That is true. So if they turn against white people it's something that goes against the grain. It must mean that the hurt is very deep."

"You would think the UDF was something that could not possibly survive given the kind of situation we have. But it is incredible that our people lifted Beyers Naude shoulder high. They didn't say he was an Afrikaner. They didn't say his father was a founder of the Broederbond, that he was a member of the Dutch reformed Church. No. He is a human being committed to our struggle; he is okay."

He is unstoppable:

"The law is against our people. You have blatant disregard for the rule of law. You are not considered innocent until you can prove yourself not guilty. The onus is on the accused to prove his innocence. Habeas corpus went out the window long ago. We have been living in a virtual state of emergency for donkeys' years. I'm not surprised at the State of Emergency. But what I am surprised about is why they even bother. The government already has enough laws on the shelf to detain people whenever they want and detainees have no access to redress. Often they just disappear for months at a time."

His conversation is peppered with references to the ineptitude of the government, how in denying entry to the Dunne Store girls, it had catapulted a non-story into an international story in which the so-called powerful South African government was running scared of ten working class teenagers. Had the government simply allowed them to enter the country and see what they wanted to, it would have unreported -- and unnoticed.

He good-humouredly castigates the Afrikaner press for its wild unverifiable claims. One Afrikaans newspaper apparently had run a front-page story saying that he had found R60, 000 to bring "the children", as he refers to the young women, to South Africa. It just stated it as a bald fact. Not even the mention of an anonymous source, or even bothered to ask where he might have gotten the money from. "I'm going to sue them," he says to much mirth and great guffaws of laughter, "for half a million rand."13 All the same I'm a Nobel Laureate, not your ordinary Tom, Dick, or Harry. There's a thing white South Africans have about me that just drives them crazy."

His self-deprecating sense of humor, an impishness that makes him child-like aura of innocence is infectious; but at the same time it conceals a steely determination and egotism to match. Preacher and performer, he is used to being listened to; and among his own at least to not being crossed. His Nobel Prize and his position as head of the Anglican Church, his prestige in the international community give him an authority the government cannot ignore; he is one black it must reckon with on his terms not theirs: he is untouchable.

And then there is the harassment, petty or otherwise.

I was coming here through Port Elizabeth last week. My pick-up hadn't turned up, so I decided to rent a car. Would you believe that none of the car rentals – Hertz, Avis, Budget and Imperial had a single car available? They were out of everything. I sat in the airport for two and a half hours waiting for someone to pick me up. But there was no big rush on the cars. They just sat there in the lots. No one was coming to take them. And naïve as I am, it was only when I arrived here that it dawned on me that the rental agencies had been advised that it would be more prudent not to rent a car to me. Well, I'm going to write their headquarters a little note saying, "We will remember."

More laughter. And more concern.

His son, Trevor, had been picked up at work the previous Friday by some court officers saying they had to take him in for questioning regarding a large bill he had not paid. Nothing had been heard of him since. His wife was trying to find out where he might be. Wherever she went, her inquiries were met with a shrug of the shoulders. So far she had had no luck. He recalls the first time the security police had arrested Trevor: "They stopped him at a roadblock, and told him to get out and open the trunk. And Trevor said, 'I'll only open the trunk if you say please.' That was enough; they got very angry and took him in." Tutu continues:

On another occasion they arrested him on an alleged drunk- driving charge. It was a Friday evening. We tried to get bail for him, but they said, "No, the alleged charge is so serious we'll have to hold him until Monday. On Monday we had a lawyer who goes into the prosecutor's office and says, 'I'd like to see the charge sheet and the District Surgeon's report on my client's blood alcohol level when he was charged. They say, sorry, they're not available. We don't have them. And the lawyer says, 'How can you charge him with drunken driving if you have no charge sheet and there is no report on what his blood alcohol level was at the time.' And the prosecutor smiled and said, 'We can do what we like."

There is no rancor in his voice, no bitterness, just a bemusement with the stupidity of it all.

Time, he says, to go, the security people who have been camped outside are getting impatient. The Caspir continues to make its pointless circles around the church compound. But, I say, we need messages from you – one for the strikers in Dublin & one for the Irish people. Accommodating to the end, he reels off two messages.

For the strikers:

My dear friends – Mary and your young colleagues,

You are superb people and I want to commend you strongly. I am sorry I was not around when you became guests of the state rather than our guests. You are just magnificent. And I believe that you have said that you are prepared to go on for another year.

I said long ago that you really helped us recover our faith in human nature, because in a real sense there is no reason whatsoever that you and your friends should have done the things you have done for nearly a year.

On behalf of the victims of the most vicious system since Nazism and Communism, thank you very much. That seems so limp and the words so inadequate, but they come from the heart, and especially in this somber time in the life of our country when a state of emergency has been imposed.

We want to thank you for reminding us that we all belong to one family –God's family. God bless you and strengthen you in your resolve, just as your resolve strengthens ours.

For the Irish people:

Dear people of the Emerald Isle,

You are committed to the struggle for justice and peace in many parts of the world. We ask you to help us to change an evil and vicious system so that all of us in South Africa –black and white alike-will be able to live amicably together, as God intends us to; where each one of us –black and white –will know that we all matter enormously because we are all created in the image of God. Help us before it is too late. As you can see, violence is escalating in our country and we hope that you can help us break this spiral of violence, so that we, too, in south Africa can walk tall, hand in hand a s we stride into a new kind of South Africa, a truly non-racial, democratic South Africa. Freedom is coming! And we want you to be among those who will celebrate it with us.

And then he is gone, a regal benediction to all, sweeping in his scarlet red robes into the red Mercedes awaiting him; a blur with a string of state security vehicles in his wake to see what other subversion the good bishop might be up to.


That evening we are thrown out of the country, and although we are body searched we manage to conceal the Tutu tapes. The next morning I was back in Dublin. I immediately rang Irish TV, ask for the newsroom and breathlessly tell the news editor that I have a tape of the first recording Bishop Tutu made since the state of emergency was declared. "So what do you want us to do?" he asks, with an indifferent what-has this got-to-do-with-me attitude. "Broadcast the bloody thing," I bawled. "OK" he says, "bring it over."

Within hours RTE was broadcasting Tutu's words to the world.


In the long flight from Johannesburg to London, exhausted yet exhilarated by the events of the momentous day, I made a vow: one day I would return to this strange country of unsettling contrasts and try and figure out why. Why were ordinary white people, decent people so indifferent to the ravages apartheid was inflicting on black people. Why did they either condone or at least not raise any vigorous opposition to apartheid – a word synonymous with man's inhumanity to man.

Later I would learn that apartheid was as much a psychological construct as a physical one – that the infrastructure of South Africa had been designed in a manner that ensured that most whites never knew how blacks lived, that when people become invisible they simply are deleted from the consciousness of others.

And what of Tutu's remarks? His absolute certainty that freedom was on the horizon, that increasing violence in the townships would force the government either to implement further repression, which in the past had always rebounded on them; indeed, had compounded the government's problems and fueled dissent. Or would the violence, each cycle manageable, albeit at an increasing social cost, and each eventually incubating another, somewhat less manageable bring the government to the realization that Black demands for a truly representative, participatory democracy would require negotiations with their sworn enemies – the African National Congress, and that that in turn would require the government to release Nelson Mandela, the long-time incarcerated leader of the struggle for Black independence?

Or his explanation of African behavior in terms of ubuntu, which he would assert made blacks incapable of reacting to white oppression in a racially motivated way? If Africans were innately spiritually inclined, what did that align itself with the apparent apprehensions on the part of both Indians and Coloureds regarding the dominance of Africans in a new dispensation? And what was one to make of the violence in the townships? The less than enthusiastic way in which working class Africans –ordinary township dwellers – talked about the violence ion their communities and the power of the "Comrades", groups of youth who often appeared to intimidate their neighbors in the name of the liberation movement?

His repeated statements that you could not understand the African unless you understood ubuntu, left me nonplussed. Not until I attended hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation commission years later would I get a full grasp of on distinction he was making between the human and the humane.

I did manage to return in October 1997 for a week, using a passport with the most archaic variation of my Gaelic name.14 I was traveling with a friend, Dr. Marcy Murninghan, who had received a small grant from the Ford Foundation to chronicle the development of the black trade union movement, by far the most potent arm of the United Democratic Front.15 I found a South Africa in change.

We managed a short interview with Cyril Ramaphosa at the National Union of Mineworkers headquarters in Johannesburg. Cramped in a small cubicle, despite incessant interruptions, he spent more of his time questioning our motives, wondering aloud why the Ford Foundation, epitome of capitalism's excesses and worker-exploitation, should dispatch two whites to South Africa to inquire into the progress black trade unions were making, and what credence could be given to a report emanating from such an elitist institution than to actually answering the questions we asked. But that, I was to learn was the Ramaphosa trademark – a remarkable ability to shift the focus of the agenda, and on that particular day we, definitely, were not on his agenda. But later I would learn, too, that the stratagems the government used to gather information knew no bounds and that it frequently used agents, under the guise of academics carrying out research, to acquire information on every organization that was unafraid to voice vociferous opposition to apartheid and demand the release of Mandela as a perquisite to the ANC's participation in negotiations.16 Even stewardesses on South Africa Airways (SAA) were instructed to eavesdrop on passengers and report to the authorities on their arrival at ports of destination what they had overheard.

Others we talked with included Jay Naidoo, Secretary General of COSATU and Deputy Secretary General Sydney Mufamadi 17 -- both were earnestly preaching the gospel of the Freedom Charter as the cornerstone of the promised land that the unraveling of apartheid conjured up-and Alec Irwin, the intellectual powerhouse behind the National Union of Metal Workers in South Africa (NUMSA) -- he, too, was promulgating the virtues of a socialist South Africa in the making, one that would dismantle the four monopolies that controlled 80 per cent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, nationalize industries considered essential to the nation's well-being, and initiate a radical redistribution of income. The pervasive corruption of the National Party government would be exposed for the venial protection of privilege and power it had provided whites over the 50 years during which they had systematically oppressed the black man and depriving him of the first prerequisite of democracy –one man-one vote.

Across the spectrum of blacks leaders we talked with there was a unanimous consensus. Sanctions were biting but they should be enforced more stringently across a broader range of goods and services. Yes, they hurt the black man, but given what the black man had endured, he was not about to call for their relaxation, since they would, in the end, force the government to urban the ANC and get down to the serious business of returning the country to its rightful owners. Later, I would find, too, that blacks struggling to make ends meet, who often lost their jobs as sanctions took their toll on domestic enterprises, were not as enamored of sanctions as were proponents who never had to personally experience their bite.

Was there a sense of an unstoppable momentum for freedom in October 1987? No, that momentum was still gathering force, but it lacked cohesion and direction. It was not too difficult to make townships ungovernable; indeed, the government had lost control of many, but what to do, once you had destroyed the old structures, what to put in their place? Questions the youth who now commandeered the heights in the townships were incapable of answering; questions the ANC in exile had not sufficiently thought through.

The resulting breakdown in social cohesion and the further abrogation of any semblance of the rule of law by those who had never experienced the rule of law created conditions that gave increasingly scant attention to the value of life – and ultimately no value to it.

Revolution is rarely a matter of ideological theory; rather it is the slow result of the accumulation of small grievances; each in itself of little consequence, but as the aggregation grows, there is a transmutation that usually expresses itself through a single event; each event unique to the aggrieved individual. Grievances were undoubtedly aggregating, but the revolution was taking place in a vacuum, and the cadres the ANC managed to infiltrate into the townships to bring order to the accelerating chaos were often at a loss when it came to disciplining the youth, the "comrades" who saw themselves a the liberators of their communities and unanswerable to anyone. The consequences would almost swamp the new South Africa that came into being following the April 1994 elections and the transfer of power to the majority. What one sensed in 1987 was something different: a growing sense of inevitability among the ruling classes, and more especially their heirs- apparent, that the old days were coming to an end, that the stump-boots of repression could, perhaps, contain the situation in the short run but could not control it in the longer run.

In July 1987, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, who had resigned his seat in parliament and his leadership of the Progressive Federalist Party (PFP) – the official white anti-apartheid opposition in parliament -- in frustration at the inadequacy of parliamentary opposition to have any impact on the government's racial policies, led a group of South Africa's leading Afrikaner opinion-makers and business people to Dakar, Senegal to meet with leaders of the ANC, despite the dire warnings of PW Botha of the dire repercussions they would face if they persisted in going. The two sides found themselves agreeing, to quote from their joint communiqué, that "there is an urgent necessity to realize the goals of a non-racial democracy."

On their return, however, Botha was pragmatic enough to ask for – and receive-a detailed briefing of the meeting. They reported that they were surprised to find that the ANC leadership were, well, human beings, in fact no different than themselves, that the unsophisticated Marx-ranting revolutionaries they had expected to meet were sophisticated and erudite individuals, even capable of making jokes at their own expense.18. They spread the word in elite circles: the ANC leaders were people the government could do business with, not a gang of zealous communists hell-bent on overthrowing the South African government and establishing a communist hegemony: the ANC leadership were reasonable and articulate men and women intent on establishing a democratic franchise in South Africa.

Publicly, Botha kept quite. But the ice had been broken. A new breed of Afrikaner leaders would float to the surface.

One of the ironies of history is that elites who oppress others often provide their offspring with the best education power can buy, thus ensuring, unintentionally, that their offspring have a more "liberal," more broadly encompassing worldview than they themselves do. And the offspring, once they "inherit" the mantles of power, move in new directions, directions that are in most respects a renunciation of all that their intransigent forefathers stood for.

The heirs- apparent in South Africa, especially those who were elected to parliament in 1987 -- the "class" of '87, as they liked to refer to themselves, began to assert its independence from the old guard – the generation that had written and implemented apartheid legislation. The new NP MPs knew that the old order was on its last legs. Most of them were young, had traveled, some extensively, had found themselves having to defend apartheid when had stayed, as students, in hostels throughout Europe and elsewhere, were aware that South Africa could not survive, isolated from the rest of the world and crippled by sanctions. Most importantly, they knew that apartheid was morally indefensible.19

And then there are the practical realities that make the need for an accommodation more pressing. In many conversations "those-in -the-know returned again and again to a continuum of events that would suggest, if one were to make logical deductions, that things were coming to a head, that the pressures on the government, both internal and external, to release Mandela immediately and dismantle apartheid in its entirety were becoming intense, and that the government's response, under the new leadership of FW de Klerk, augured well for some substantive dialogue with the ANC to get under way. Apartheid was now being talked of in the past tense; the debate had moved to configuring the political ramifications of a post apartheid order and the governance structures that would emerge.

To the Afrikaner, long beholden to his laager mentality, the obvious was, at last, becoming obvious. His choices were narrowing, and the longer he waited to become proactive rather than reactive to the swirling vortex of the inevitabilities he had to confront, the more he was losing his capacity to control their outcome. At some point self interest had to assert itself, and self interest dictated that he would have to do that which he had vowed never to do – talk with the legitimate leaders of blacks about legitimate black demands, which meant, of course, talking to the ANC. He could do it now. And gain some. He could do it later. And gain nothing.

I returned to South Africa again in July 1989 to begin to study the transition from an apartheid to a post- apartheid era that was clearly about to take place. I, like many others, had no idea how it would unfold, how long it would take, and what the outcome would be. And, I was to learn; neither did the men and women who would become the key role players in that process.

Over a period of thirteen years, from 1989 through 2002, I interviewed some 140 plus South Africans every year, some 1,500 hours of interviews from left to right, from Nelson Mandela to FW de Klerk, leading members of the liberation struggle to key members of the apartheid regime, its surrogates and its opponents on the right. They revealed their thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams for their country. They told their stories in guarded and unguarded moments, conversations covering the momentous and trivial, the gracious gestures and the vicious affronts. South Africa would become home. These interviews are the stories of their odyssey and of mine, of the transformations, painful and wrenching to some, liberating and magnificent to others, that coagulates and produces the essences that are taking seed and will one day bloom, the seedling becoming flower, the plant the tree, the caterpillar the butterfly. All in time. The process of change is slow. The process of the maturation of democracy slower still, the process of erasing the inferiority complexes that centuries of racism, exploitation and oppression ingrain the slowest of all.

I learned much, but learned that I have so much to learn about South Africa that the journey will never end, indeed, that I, as a white man, may simply be incapable of learning many things, that there are aspects of racism, oppression, culture and tradition that will always remain outside my province of understanding.

However, in the course of my journey, there were many miracles:

In March 1992, 12 members from a cross section of parties in South Africa, Brigitte Mbandla, Fink Haysom, Bulelani Ngcuka, Khoisan! X, Judge Oliver, Penuell Maduna, Kader Asmal, Gavin Woods, and a similar number from political parties in Northern Ireland including Mark Durkan, Peter Robinson, participated in a two day public conference on "The Role of a Bill of Rights in a Divided Society" hosted by the University of Massachusetts' McCormack Institute of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

In May 1993, Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer accepted an invitation to be joint recipients of honorary degrees and commencement speakers at the University Massachusetts Boston, an historic occasion for the campus whose student composition is one of the most racially and ethnically diversified in the United States. Then-Chancellor Penny was at great pains to ensure that both honorary degree caps were lowered on to the heads of both at precisely the same time. On that date, the date for the first democratic election in South Africa was announced and Cyril told me afterward that UMass Boston could claim a little footnote in history. Before he had left South Africa for Boston, the ANC had insisted that the election date should be announced. In Boston, Cyril and Roelf were besieged by the media wanting to know more.

My memory of that day is fixed: Cyril roaring out "The University of Massachusetts Boston belongs in Johannesburg!" and the students roaring back. Watching Cyril and Roelf that day, watching the way they looked out for each other, especially Cyril making sure that Roelf was not somehow shunned or left out in the cold – he was still, in the eyes of some, the representative of the apartheid government – I knew in my heart that things would work out, that the commitment evident in both was too spontaneous, too transparent to be anything than absolutely genuine.

In 1996, after much badgering on my part, Cyril and Roelf went to Belfast and over a period of 24 hours met with the representatives of all the political parties in Northern Ireland, two hours per party, gave a public lecture, were whisked by helicopter to the home of Tony O'Reilly, where his International Board was meeting, for dinner and overnight, whisked back to Belfast in the morning to complete their meetings with the Northern Ireland parties. After their visit, they advised President Mandela that sharing the South Africa experience with the parties in Northern Ireland would be worthwhile and might help to break the stalemate at the talks about possible all party negotiations.

Mandela gave the go ahead and out of that decision the Arniston Indaba on Northern Ireland took took shape. One year later, in June 1997, representatives of all political parties in Northern Ireland, including the leading negotiators from each, were invited by the South African government's Minister of Constitutional Development, Valli Moosa, to South Africa for three days of meetings with representatives from all the parties who had participated in the negotiations – Cyril, Roelf, Mac Maharaj, Matthews Phosa, Patricia de Lille, Valli Moosa, Fanie van der Merwe, General Constand Viljoen.

When the Northern Ireland parties proved to be their usual obstreperous selves, Cyril and Mac called in the heavy armor – Mandela and Graca Machel, descending out of the sky to add the 'Madiba' touch. It fell, to me to have to tell him that we had an apartheid-like situation, since Unionists would not meet or associate with the Sinn Fein delegation. Madiba simply laughed and gave two presentations – one to Unionists and a one to Nationalists, which, as it turned out was a blessing. To Sinn Fein, he conveyed a very direct message: No cease fire and no place at the talks; to Unionists: if you insist on the decommissioning of arms to accompany a ceasefire you won't get a ceasefire.

I remember David Trimble being rather out of sorts. I thought I might be able to manage a few minutes for Madiba and him to exchange a few words but the logistics of the situation made it impossible. My colleague from the University of Massachusetts Boston, Margery O' Donnell, had brought a copy of "Long Walk to Freedom" with her in the hope that Madiba might turn up. Of course, she wanted it inscribed. However, I "confiscated" the book for the "cause" and scribbled a note on a piece of paper: "Cyril, please have Madiba inscribe as follows: 'Dear David, You are one of the few people who can bring peace to your troubled country. Rise to the occasion. Your friend, Nelson. Madiba is shaking hands, surrounded by Unionists, I reach across and hand the book and note to Cyril, who deftly hands it over to Madiba, who, without a blink or pause inscribes the book as requested, palms it back to Cyril and back to me. When Mandela was gone I sought out Trimble. "Here, David, " I said, "Mandela wanted you to have this." And I handed him the book. He took it, opened it and his usually stern features opened up into the broadest of smiles. Two years on and he'd be a Nobel Prize Peace winner himself!

The Arniston Conference jumpstarted the stalled process in Northern Ireland. Within months the IRA called a ceasefire. Sinn Fein entered the talks and within a year The Good Friday Agreement, although by no means "the solution" has altered the trajectory of the conflict and in our post 9/11 world resorting to the gun again is simply not an option.

Northern Ireland has much to thank Cyril and Roelf for. And Mac Maharaj, who a few years on when John Reid was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made some strategic interventions with Reid's imprimatur. Cyril went on to become one of two international arms inspectors to verify decommissioning of arms by the IRA, and Roelf continues to work in Nothern Ireland, especially with the Democratic Unionist Party, the hard line party that now speaks for the majority of Unionists. That story isn't over yet.

Nor is mine…
We will, none of us, go gently into the good night.

30 November 2004

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.