About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

18 Aug 1989: Chalmers, Judy

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POM     Judy you were just telling us about the Black Sash.

JC     A little bit about the Black Sash just to give you some idea of the base that I work from. It was formed in the 1950s as a protest to the coloured community being taken off the common voter's roll and it has continued ever since. And when the pass laws started causing the huge suffering that they did the Black Sash started an advice office in Cape Town to address and monitor what was going on and now we have nine Advice Offices all over the country which is an incredibly useful and really productive aspect of our work because we are able to, at grassroots level, accumulate information from people who are living in the townships, it is almost all addressed to the black community. Here in Port Elizabeth we have our Advice Office started in 1980, it was operated in the 1960s but there was a lot of harassment, police, official harassment, and it closed down. Started in the 1980s again and we twice had it burnt; the last time was in October last year when they incinerated the little house that we operate from and it started in my office. I'm a field worker for Black Sash so I do a lot of the documenting and research work that comes out of our office. And they poured paraffin and petrol through the window of my office and the fire wasn't picked up until - they must have done it about midnight and we didn't hear about it until four o'clock in the morning and by that time it was too late, So a lot of my stuff was actually lost in that fire.

POM     So if you were comparing the nature of the problems that you dealt with five years ago, pre-emergency, with the problems you are dealing with today, how would they have changed?

JC     Are you thinking of it from a particular aspect?

POM     No, just on what comes into your office.

JC     Well, just one aspect as far as we get a tremendous lot of pension problems, old age pensioners. Because of the poverty down here, so many, in many households the old age pension is the only income coming in. You can find five or six or seven or eight family members and they are all living off that one old age pensioner's income. And I think what we are seeing is an escalation in the problems connected with things like state grants and it seems to be tied into general government cut backs on staff, on money they are prepared to put into those benefits, social benefits, the people are so extremely dependent on. Just at the moment we've got a campaign down here of monitoring and identifying what the pension problems are. We are having meetings with the local government officials, the department that looks after them has just changed, and we're meeting with them and initially hearing what they are saying, hearing what their problems are, and then we're really actually are really going to start turning the screws on them. They themselves are perfectly well aware that shortage of staff, that the cut backs have affected them and they are not able to do their job as a result. So we put pressure on them to put pressure on central government to address this because it is certainly escalating, it is causing more poverty, it is causing more problems and inevitably when that happens the violence is not far behind.

POM     So five years ago you would have spent perhaps a major portion of your time dealing with the pass books.

JC     Not initially a major portion. It never was as bad down here as in the Western Cape and in the Transvaal. There was always seen to be a bit more leeway here as far as that was concerned, but, yes, of course in 1985/1986 a huge amount of time was spent with emergency problems because Port Elizabeth had more detentions than any other city in South Africa during that period, There was no other body that was handling this and so we found ourselves, a huge amount of our time was spent looking for people who had been detained, assisting and supporting families whose members had been detained, and actually finding lawyers for them, etc., etc. So that has tapered off a great deal and now it is just sheer poverty that we are dealing with. And it is worse, I mean the rate of unemployment in the black population in Port Elizabeth is in excess of 60%. So what we try to do is not just react to the problems but try to be a bit proactive and try to give people options, try to give them, try to use it as an educative sort of medium as well. So we say to somebody, alright, this is what you can do. You can try this, you can try that, you can try the other and give them two or three alternatives in how to address their problem; and do it in such a way that they go back and then tell their neighbour about it. We try to do a little empowering of people as we go along.

POM     If you were to politically compare the situation today on the eve of another election with what it was when the first emergency came in 1985, how have the two situations changed?

JC     You see,after the first state of emergency as I am sure Mkhuseli Jack will probably have told you, there was still a lot of power in the civic organisations. The consumer boycott was on the go, the whites of Port Elizabeth were feeling very threatened because of the violence, because of the fact that there was this consumer boycott on the go, and the civic leaders had a lot of power. They were negotiating with Chamber of Industry, Chamber of Commerce, with the City Council, etc. I would say now there is a great deal less co-ordination, less organisation, less power as such in the black community than there was in 1985 when the, there is a lot less buoyancy, there is a lot less confidence. Which is one of the reasons that negotiations are on the cards, because I think people have realised that violence isn't a viable option at this stage, as far as the black community is concerned. From the white perspective, I think the same sort of thing applies but I don't think there has been a moral change of heart, I think it is because their pockets have been touched, I think people are frightened but in a different way. I think they are frightened because of the fact that the rand is buying less and less and less and so they are also talking about talking, which is quite nice actually.

POM     I would like you to hold in on that for a minute because in many respects it's counter intuitive, you talking about the black community having less power and on the face of it that should make the white community less frightened. And yet out of the emergency and the post emergency period, we have found, compared to 1985, a spirit of optimism and the words 'negotiated settlement', the phrase itself being used a lot.

JC     In the white community or throughout?

POM     Throughout.

JC     Yes, I think so, I think that is so. The fact that people have come and gone from Lusaka so frequently. I was in Lusaka with that Five Freedoms group a couple of weeks ago, There has been an acceptability, sort of gut acceptability of the prospect of negotiations with the ANC. Look we don't have the CP down here as it exists in the Transvaal so we don't have that sort of exposure. We don't have that, we just don't have that scene as it was, although in Uitenhage, which isn't far away, there is a certain element. But in a way I think we slightly live in an ivory tower, those of us who are working with UDF affiliates, etc., because we are not exposed to that CP element. And I wouldn't be able to comment at all on that, But for the rest I think, yes, there is a much more pragmatic viewpoint from the black community definitely. I mean people are talking to people they would not have dreamt of talking to three years ago. Even the fact that we are talking now to the Cape Provincial Administration on pensions, we are sitting down at the table with them; we've got some of the Port Elizabeth women's organisations, which have been quite a militant black women's grouping, they are coming with, we are actually talking to officialdom in a way, and discussing it with the civics as well, in a way that we would have been very wary of doing two or three years ago when you would have had the whole business of sell out and co-option. And there has been a tremendous amount of co-option but the whole viewpoint has definitely shifted.

POM     How has that co-option taken place?

JC     It has taken place, it has been a very carefully thought-out state strategy I think in terms of housing, in terms of - they have inevitably made capital out of the unemployment, the municipal police force, I mean you find in some of the rural areas people who were comrades in 1986 are now municipal policemen. And whereas in 1986 when they first became policemen their houses were being petrol-bombed, their lives were very much at risk. Now if they are good municipal policemen they are accepted as such.

POM     And that they moved from their role as comrades to municipal police because of their employment situation? Is that the primary factor?

JC     Absolutely, the bottom line, that's the only factor I would almost say.

POM     I want to go back for a minute to something you said about the black community being more pragmatic now and realising that violence is not the way forward.

JC     That's my own viewpoint.

POM     Yes, two questions, One person characterised the situation for us as being one in which on the one hand you had realisation by the ANC that a revolutionary war would not liberate South Africa; on the other hand you had a recognition by the state that reform imposed from above would never bring about stability and peace and that these two kind of recognitions have moved both bodies towards a posture of negotiations. Do think that is an accurate assessment of the situation?

JC     I think certainly the ANC, I think the assessment as far as they are concerned, I think they won't give up the armed struggle. They can't afford to give up the armed struggle I don't think. I really do not think that they can. I think that they would lose the youth, the black youth, of South Africa if they did.

POM     There is a couple of things that puzzle us on that. Take for example the IRA, the IRA operates within its communities, it is protected by their communities, it can launch a continuous serious of attacks on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis on British military installations, on police stations, on individual policemen or soldiers. There are only about 50 or 60 active people, people active in this with a support system maybe of four or five hundred people but in a way, under one hundred people have tied down eleven thousand troops and eight thousand policemen in a place which has only a million and a half people. Yet, one doesn't get the sense here, or what one reads abroad, or what one hears from people who have been here, of the ANC being able to conduct what would be called a traditional war of liberation where there is a consistence and pattern to their activities. First of all do you think what I'm saying is correct in terms of the scope of their activities and if so what is the nature of their war of liberation? Is it about something? Is it like somebody used the phrase, armed propaganda as distinct from trying to target facilities?

JC     I think it is very symbolic, their armed struggle; I don't think it is effective. I think in the whole history they have had one or two, that Sasol strike, they've had one or two really effective strikes. I think in the long run, I won't say it has done them more harm than good, but it has been terribly difficult for them to control. People like McBride have run slightly amok and committed actions that were not controlled and I think it has done them a great deal of harm and yet on the other hand the symbolism of it keeps the fire in the young people's hearts. When a bomb blast goes off somewhere, and it can do terrible, horrible damage, you will still get rejoicing throughout the length and breadth of the townships. To me the armed struggle, I find it terribly painful because I think those young people who come back are cannon fodder, I really do. I don't think they stand a hope in Hades of surviving for any length of time. We do see when there has been an attack, the police,maybe the police in South Africa, the whole security force network is more effective than the Brits in Ireland, they have a huge range of informers, and when a cadre gets caught in a house by the police not only does he die but very often the rest of the household is decimated as well. But I think it is a symbolic struggle and I think, as I said, it what's keeps the fire in the young people.

POM     What do you think it is that allows the authorities to recruit so many informers? Is it an economic thing again?

JC     Yes, I think it's money. There is nothing moral in it whatsoever. It is just that they buy them and I think that it is that that causes such terrible bitterness. I don't think you would find any ideological, you wouldn't find a PAC person I'm sure, I'd really put my head on the block about informing on a UDF or ANC soldier. I think it is money. It really is, I suppose basically it is part of the co-option as well.

POM     Just before we leave the townships, there's been a lot of violence in this area between members of the UDF and members of the PAC?

JC     No, very little.

POM     There's been very little.

JC     In Uitenhage there was in 1985, there was AZAPO, there was violence, there was a sort of war that went on, AZAPO and UDF. The man who organised and ran that campaign was a sort of maverick Black Consciousness guy who AZAPO in fact nationally expelled him. He himself says he was never a member of AZAPO and I don't in fact think he was. But that warfare that took place at that time was Africanist verses UDF and he was charismatic. An amazing fellow. I mean if you were to meet him you'd be entranced because he was just the most extraordinary man. We don't know what has happened him now actually, He was a friend of Biko's. He worked with Biko and then kind of took his own line. And I don't think he's all together sane. But part of that insanity was what captivated people I think.

POM     What was his name?

JC     Maqina, Reverend Maqina, Mkhuseli knew all about him, But for the rest, in the Eastern Cape there has been very little ideological split from the ANC accept in Uitenhage, which there is still. There is another war brewing up there right now between AmaAfrica, a group called AmaAfrica which Maqina called himself as well AmaAfrica and UDF or UDF people. But all the violence that has been anti-UDF here has kind of stemmed from that one source which has been a sort of maverick source, it hasn't been really mainline. The PAC would I'm sure deny that they were involved in that in any sort of active militant fashion.

POM     Has the division been exacerbated by the security forces? Have they tried to exploit it?

JC     Very much, very much so. In Uitenhage it has been well documented. Rory Riordan, he has documented that. We have also in our office. There was an event in the beginning of January 1987 when AmaAfrica marched through Kwanobuhle township, which is in Uitenhage, with a police helicopter hovering about and police vehicles backing them up, not participating but giving them back up support for their action. What they did was to go into all the UDF houses, pull out their furniture and burn it in front of the houses and there were two deaths on that day as well, on the 5th of January 1987. So the police, and it was the same while Maqina was in full cry in the township here in Port Elizabeth, he was picking them up here and taking them to the police stations and sort of handing them over and was well documented his own involvement in the violence but he was never charged with any action at all.

POM     Before we leave the subject of the black community, what do you think have been the major and most significant developments within the black community itself over the last five years?

JC     Well, it is difficult because it is so different now to how it was in 1985 and 1986. I mean then it was the UDF and the Eastern Cape is, except for that little maverick group, 100% ANC-UDF I think historically, and they're all Xhosa speaking, there just aren't the divisions down here that you find elsewhere. The repression has been worse here I think, more concentrated than it is elsewhere, I think, except for ... who were assassinated, we have not lost our leadership here which is very good, And they are now consolidating themselves again and beginning, not beginning but it's just wonderful having them out of prison, but don't forget that for three years they were inside. So for those of us who were out it has just been a holding operation.

POM     I suppose I am talking about things like the emergence of the trade union movement.

JC     That's has been - yes of course.

POM     I trying to look at what development has taken place that has increased the capacity for mobilisation and also made many of them believe that for the first time that some forms of negotiations might take place.

JC     Well you see Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage have always been quite strongly unionised because we have had the motor industries here and NUMSA has been a potent force for years although in Uitenhage, Uitenhage is a scene in itself where Volkswagen,Goodyear are they are funding up divisions within the trade unions as well, and traditionally so. But certainly we find,which is new, that now if any major decision is to be taken on a campaign, we always consult with the trade unions. They,like the anti-removal committee, any new committee that is formed the trade unions always have a representative sitting on it to participatein any sort of decisions that are taken. If a group are particularly threatened at any stage, for instance in a removal,the trade unions come in as well and participate in the action to try to save that community. I think that is, sure, that has been the major development over the last five years, is the strength of the trade unions.

POM     What impact on the black community has the emergency of the black middle class had? There are two views; one says it is a form of co-option because they are becoming in a way part of the establishment and the other view is that traditionally it is the middle class that starts making demands on the system that bring about real change.

JC     I think both of those are valid. It always amazed me how the state was so incredibly slow about developing a middle class. I mean if they'd had any creativity in the way that they were approaching their own problems, they would have created a middle class twenty years ago because they do definitely see it as the buffer between themselves and the impoverished masses. And they are. We have a black theatre sister who is one of our Black Sash members, she has a house, quite an up-market house in one of the more privileged areas, and she says, I am locked into the state forever. Housing subsidies are a huge weapon as far as the state is concerned, I don't know if you have been to the townships but in the one area, it's quite pathetic actually because they are really quite nice houses on tiny little plots squashed cheek by jowl and they overlook this huge shack area. But those houses cost between 60 and 100 thousand rand. And they are owned by the City Councillors, by the nurses, by the doctors, by the black lawyers, by the black professionals, by the black businessmen, and they all live there and anybody that has a link up with the state has received a housing subsidy, so they are utterly locked into that.

     But you are absolutely right. Because it is that they are also the better educated, they are also the thinkers, they have got a lot to lose but it is only a matter of time I think before they start - it sort of goes up in steps before they start making demands themselves, and what form those demands will take, I don't know. We are fortunate here because our black hospital has a very active NAMDA, a group of NAMDA which is the National Medical and Dental Association. It is the alternative medical association to MASA and they are wonderful, they are a very supportive group as far as anti-apartheid is concerned. But, yes, in Port Elizabeth we have quite a strong new, and it is happening all over the country, group that is just formed on an open city initiative. And those have been formed in Port Elizabeth, in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and the whole open city initiative is something very exciting. And it is only a matter of time before the black middle class really comes in with strong representation in that grouping because it is on local government that there is the space, there is the space to move.

POM     What happened at Boksburg?

JC     What happened after or at Boksburg? What is happening right now? I'm not sure but there is a new little booklet that has just come out put out by the Institute of Race Relations on the Boksburg option which would probably be worth your while to get.

POM     Is that in Port Elizabeth?

JC     No, the Institute of Race Relations is in Johannesburg. But there is a little book shop here that I think would be worth your while if you have a chance to pop into called Frontier Publications. And they have most of that Race Relations literature.

POM     Where is that?

JC     It is next door to our advice office in fact. It is in a building called Capital Building on the second floor in Main Street, North End.

Pat     You are in the same building as IDASA aren't you?

JC     No. I can show you on the map downstairs just where it is. But they have all that Race Relations stuff.

Pat     What is the address, what is your address?

JC     Capital Building, North End on Main Street. It is on the corner of Mount Road and Main Street above Jet Stores.

Pat     Is there a street number?

JC     I don't know what the street number is. I can't really - it would be a waste of my time me telling you about Boksburg.

POM     Looking at the white community you said that they were beginning to feel the impact of the decline of the economy. How severe has this impact been and what do you think has caused the decline of the economy?

JC     I think the inflation rate, what is it now 17 or 18 percent, has been a huge factor, I think everybody is feeling the pinch. Pensioners are finding themselves just absolutely not able to make ends meet and certainly in Port Elizabeth we have a huge old age population, we have the best old age homes in South Africa and a very big old population. I think as far as that is concerned you'd be better advised to get an economist to really feel you in. But we see it, we hear it, you hear it everywhere this sort of gut unhappiness with, and people's fear of the future. Unless there is some sort of a basic reassessment and change of plan as far as the economy is concerned, I mean the poverty, the loss of just money in running just on a local authority basis - it is like the tricameral system, of having however many local authority structures for the coloureds, for the blacks, for the Indians, for the whites and that is in education as well, that is in health as well, that is on every level having these four completely self-operating structures, is killing, it just cannot sustain it for very much longer, it absolutely can't. If you talk to the local Town Clerk here, if you talk to the Medical Officer of Health, they are saying we have to have single cities, we have to have single cities, we can no longer afford to have divided cities. That is a big factor for change you know.

POM     If you were to look at the attitudes that prevailed in the white communities in 1984 or 1985 with their attitudes today what shifting in attitudes would you pick out as being the most important?

JC     I think people are beginning to realise that they can no longer live, they are no longer able to maintain and sustain the lifestyle that they were living, and we live incredibly privileged lives, I think. Just a little indication, every six months in our advice office we have what we call an open day to try to involve more women in coming to assist in our Advice Office because we are desperately short of voluntary workers. Last year we got ten or twelve interested women. We had one last week and we got 60. We had a bus, a social history tour where we took them out to the townships and drove them around. Ninety-five percent of whites in this town have never been to a township, The bus was full. We had to get a bus and a half in fact and I think for some of them it was a moral reason for going, but with others it's just a general acceptance that things are going have to change and if things are going to have to change people have actually got to be meeting with one another. These terrible divides are going to have to be crossed. When you look at the Democratic Party, the people who are now standing as candidates are people who would never have dreamt of so doing, standing for the Progressive Federal Party in the last general election. The head of police, the Commissioner of Police in the Eastern Cape, a man named Brigadier Ernest Schnetler who we battled with in 1985 and 1986 when he was head here, he was always an honest man, he wasn't of the calibre that some of them have been, but he was always a straightforward honest man; he is now supporting the Democratic Party.

POM     How do you spell his name?

JC     Schnetler, he resigned from the police force in Johannesburg because he was having to implement the Group Areas Act in Hillbrow and he just said he found that too difficult. He is a professional and now he has come out in open support for the DP.

POM     Do you think most whites have now moved to a point where they know great changes are in the offing, but that they are still in a sense denying the reality of those changes for themselves?

JC     Yes, I think that is so. I mean I do have a sort of gut fear that there is this urge of support for the DP, whether or not the election results reflect it very strongly, there is this surge from people who were Nationalists in the past, and the reason is because their pockets have touched. I just hope that if some of them do get in to parliament - I don't know how far this change extends to actually having a non-racial state. I don't know how much it would extend to having their children going to mixed schools, having an open city, having a black person living next door, making friends with black people. I'm not sure.

POM     Do you think sanctions have been effective?

JC     I do actually, I mean I have terrible problems with sanctions because we work every day with such terrible poverty, but we were working with poverty before sanctions and I think it has been incredibly powerful weapon as far as this Nationalist government is concerned, I think it has been an incredibly powerful weapon as far as the average white person is concerned. Whether the realities, whether it is stoppable now so that the economy does not become utterly eroded I don't know, I am no expert and it is something I tend to mentally shy away from because it fills me with great concern. But I think it has been tremendous and I think selective sanctions are really the answer, the answer to a lot of things, but mandatory sanctions I do have problems with.

POM     I will give you three possible scenarios in the forthcoming election and I would like you to tell us what might be the policies of the government in each of the three situations. One, a situation in which the National Party is elected with a majority, not the majority they had but nevertheless a comfortable majority, The second, a scenario in which the National Party is elected with a small majority and this is accompanied by a significant increase in the support of the Conservative Party, And the third would be a hung parliament.

JC     I don't think it will be a hung parliament. I just don't think so.

POM     I'm not saying what you think it would be, I'm saying if it were what do you think would happen?

JC     With the first option I think, that was just a less of a majority but not significant reduction; well, I think then they would press ahead with greater reform. I don't know, I don't know that they are capable of it, I just don't know that they are capable of it on any of those three levels. They do say that no state has ever willingly given up power and I don't know that the Nationalist government, if it were a hung parliament they would have to, I just can't see them starting to unravel the apartheid laws. I just, myself,am confused about how the state - I don't think like them so I don't know what they would do. I know what I would do but I don't know how F W de Klerk, he is so new, he has had a very rocky ride over the past few weeks, I think he is a conservative man in himself. I think that the securocrats are chaining his hands and feet and chaining his mind to a certain extent. I think every little puff of violence that happens he will quake and quail and I think take a few steps backwards. I think what comes out of the Kaunda meeting, something might come out of that. I think Pik Botha is a more courageous man altogether and I think that he is a gambler, he's prepared to take chances and if he's working with F W de Klerk they might be willing to take a few more risks. But as far as those three scenarios are concerned ...

POM     Do you think the National Party would attempt to form an alliance with the Democratic Party?

JC     I mean they have sworn down the line that they are not going to do that. They have said categorically that that is not going to be no matter what happens, that would not be where they would go. But if there were to be a hung parliament it may be that they would have to, I can't see them moving towards to CP because that is not where anything is going. Mandela, they are in fact handcuffed to him as well. I really do think they may have to release him, in which case

     they have burnt their bridges forever in as far as the CP is concerned.

POM     What changes do you see on the horizon? You are not very optimistic about any significant repeal in the apartheid laws. Would the releasing of Mandela lead to the beginning of a process? Or is the gap between what the ANC and other democratic organisations like the UDF is looking for so great that there is a chasm that can't be bridged?

JC     You know, up to two years ago there has been a logjam that one could not think would even be, you couldn't think which was the first log that was going to break away to cause the river to start flowing again. The river is flowing again and things are moving but it is in such a state of flux at the moment that I'm not quite sure quite down which path we are going to go. And I, just myself, have a kind of mental logjam because I don't trust this government to have the vision to be able to really move in the direction that is necessary in order to create a peaceful future.

POM     So the only thing you are certain about is that there will be a lot of uncertainty?

JC     I'm sorry, that's it. I live so close, I live sort of, a lot of my days are spent in the townships and working right down there and I find it difficult to move back into white politics really. I've become so separated from it and the way white people actually think, the white fears are no longer my fears, so it is difficult to actually realise the consequences of those fears but also I've lost patience with those fears and, I just hope that, I hope in fact that the DP, I will be voting in this election, I mean I didn't in the last election. But in this one I will be voting because I think that the DP is one of the strategies that is being used at the moment, It is one of the weapons. And I think that the MDM realises that as well. But what this government will do I just don't know, what the Nationalist Party will do I don't know and I don't think they know themselves you see, that's the tragedy of it. They are floundering, they are lost, they no longer have a vision, which Verwoerd, for all that it was a crazy mad vision, he had a vision.

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