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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
22 Jul 1992: Irvine, George
POM Maybe you could start with your changed circumstances and contrasting your experiences in the Eastern Cape with your experiences here in Natal.
GI Well let me begin by saying that it's very nice to see you both again. You might be aware, a little bit, of my move. Round about two years ago it became clear to me that the Eastern Cape, where I was the Bishop, needed a black Bishop. The church in the Eastern Cape has been existence since the 1820 settlers arrived in Algoa Bay and never has there been a black Bishop in that area and, I repeat, it became very clear to me that when, for instance, Mr Mandela and others were released, the mood in the church began to show a different outlook, if you like, a number of problems emerged which were not there before. It seemed to me that I could describe it like this, that while we had this big animal of apartheid to fight our eyes were all out there fighting it, our attentions were given to it. But when the church began to feel, now the people who were in jail can now speak for themselves, we don't need to speak for them, a lot of internal issues began to open up within the church, like, for instance, the mood of freedom was beginning to sweep the Eastern Cape and that, I think rightly so, inculcates itself into the people and they began objecting to authoritarian ministers, clergy. They were objecting to the authoritarian politicians and counsellors. I had three clergy evicted from their homes and parishes just like that.
POM These would be the white clergy?
GI Black clergy.
POM Black clergy.
GI Evicted by black young people and all of a sudden I began to feel: wait a minute, the name of the game has changed now. What we need is a black Bishop in here who can actually understand what's going on much more deeply than I could. So to cut a long story short I announced at the Synod that I wished to stand down. The Presiding Bishop and the other Bishops asked me to move here to Durban and I did at the end of the year and the Synod last year elected a black Bishop in my place. So he is in his place and I have moved to Durban. That's a very confused story but that's what happened. Now I've come to Natal. I don't perform the function of a Bishop here. I've simply got a church, a number of churches which I oversee, but I no longer function as a Bishop which for me has been an interesting change. I think moving to Durban has been a sense of relief in one sense because I don't have all those burdens on top of my head and I jokingly say that since I left the Eastern Cape there are no more problems because nothing can happen to me now which is worse than that.
But having said that, having moved to Natal we've come into the more violent province I think of them all. People will have told you this, but there have been more deaths in Pietermaritzburg in the last couple of years than in the whole of the Irish conflict over the last 22 years. The Inkatha/ANC debacle is right on the top. I can't begin to tell you the violence and the disruption coming about through that. Now that we didn't have in the Eastern Cape. We had mostly an ANC constituency, maybe PAC as well but not greatly, but here we have this great divide and so I've been put straight down into a reasonably affluent church which doesn't know a lot about what's going on in Natal. In fact my first task here was to get Urban Foundation to drive myself and, there are three of us on the staff, around the greater Durban area to the informal housing and to some of the warlords' territories, you've heard about the warlords? And I tell you that was the first time they had seen it, my colleagues, and some of them have been in Durban for about 15 years. So I found the church, a very nice church, but very insulated against the harsh realities of the violence and the pain and I am taking some steps to change that.
POM Your church and the churches that fall under your jurisdiction, serve a white congregation?
GI Yes, we have got a number of black members but we're predominantly white. We have a Zulu speaking congregation which worships here on a Sunday, but they worship in the afternoon. From next year I will be Superintendent of the circuit and we will be bringing seven Zulu congregations into the circuit. The good thing about that will be that all our circuit meetings will then be multi-racial, non-racial if you like. We're going to have to have all our meetings in Zulu and English. It's going to very difficult to persuade whites to come to a meeting on a Saturday afternoon which is the best time for churchmen but whites they sit down to their rugby so that we have a very interesting problem there. So, yes, we're a white congregation. From the beginning of 1993 we will be a non-racial circuit and we will be grappling with some of the big issues.
POM Now, George, when you took your trips out to the shanty towns and to the warlords, did you come here with an open mind with regard to the violence? What I mean by an open mind is it's not Inkatha's fault and it's not all the ANC's fault and Buthelezi isn't the single bad person here or the single element responsible, it's probably more complex, like all violence is. What I would like to hear is what you found as you opened yourself to these experiences, what were the impressions you had and then what conclusions you began to draw from those impressions.
GI I think I must be honest and say that when I came here I didn't come here as a Buthelezi supporter, but I haven't changed. I've tried to be as open as possible but I really haven't changed in my suspicion of Mr Buthelezi. But I did come, I think, not knowing anything of the dynamics of the struggle here simply because I wasn't living here and didn't have to know anything about it. I'm certainly not saying Inkatha is all wrong and ANC is all right. Not at all. I sense that there will be probably faults on both sides. When I came and when we went travelling it was interesting to me that while in the informal settlement areas the warlords would be in complete control of that area and young ANC people would be in complete control over here.
Maybe I need to go back a bit and tell you where this kind of thing began. You most probably know this as well as I. Shacks would suddenly emerge on the veldt over here, people just needing somewhere to stay. Someone would then come and offer them protection, "Nobody will touch you while I'm here", and then that protector warlord would demand a weekly or monthly payment. "Encourage your friends to come and move here. I'll look after them." And before you could say Jack Robinson there's a whole big spread of shacks under the control of the warlord and his henchmen and no-one to this day knows how much he gets paid, they're pretty well off.
On this piece of veldt over here a couple of shacks went up (this is a simplification). ANC young people, mostly young people, would bring money for protection and I think be paid as well a certain amount. And then when the fights broke out it was a territorial fight because the warlords realised the bigger they could get area-wise the better and so they would raid each other's territories and I think both were to blame, they were both very conscious, ANC and the warlords, both very, very conscious of territorial rights and we would like to be in control of more shacks than you.
When I travelled there I did find one thing, the people had the money to put water and electrification into a whole big area of shacks but the warlords wouldn't let them do it because it meant pegging each plot, it meant people beginning to own their little plot and the warlord knew that as soon as that began to happen he would lose his income. So the ANC people were very worried for the electrification to take place and for the pegging so I was pleased about that. The warlords seem to me to have much more investment in seeing to his own self. The ANC young people while they did appalling things in terms of the violence, and still do, I think they seem to me to be more committed to seeing the people grow than to make money for themselves.
POM Did you in your travels meet a man by the name of Thomas Shabalala?
GI I've heard of him, did not meet him.
POM We met with him yesterday afternoon and he said all the right things. He is reputed to be one of the most notorious of the warlords, but during an afternoon with him he never put a foot wrong in terms of he saw himself as an agent of his people, empowering them and was proud of the electrification that he had had installed, of the KwaZulu government. Is it your impression that the youth in the ANC and the warlords are under the discipline and control of the parent organisations? Is Buthelezi in control of the warlords? Do the ANC Regional Offices or whatever their command structure is, are they capable of instilling the discipline on the ground?
GI My impression is that they are not. I could be wrong but my impression is that they are not. My impression is that the young ANC people began doing things which the leadership would have to condemn. It's probably very difficult to condemn up front. I am quite sure that the Inkatha warlords and others do things which Buthelezi perhaps would disagree with but the train is running away, he's got no control and neither has the top body of the ANC.
POM So to a certain extent you would see both Buthelezi and - who would be the chief ANC man? Harry Gwala?
POM As being kind of not free agents. They are somehow prisoners of their respective constituencies.
GI I think that's true. I have a feeling that, I don't know how to say this, one of the problems that we face when we try to get close to oppressed people is to begin to think that because the person or persons are oppressed anything goes, any kind of moral standard would go, would not be challenged because if I were oppressed I would probably be doing worse. As a result of that a lot of things happened which were pulling you back and nobody felt like getting up and saying we shouldn't have done that. And I think we have created a crop of people on both sides who feel that they can just about do anything. They've been so badly hurt themselves, so badly oppressed themselves, that they can do anything and nothing falls under moral judgement at all.
POM Do you think this is part of, for want of a better term 'a liberal guilt syndrome' that you don't condemn atrocities or bad actions by people who were obviously oppressed because if they were not oppressed then they wouldn't engage in these actions in the first place? The oppression in a way becomes an excuse or an explanation.
GI Yes, I really believe that with all my heart. I had to go by bus one day, just for the day, to see my successor. They were meeting to know, to discuss evicting him right out of his manse.
POM The Bishop?
GI This is the Bishop and these are his church members. I mean they held him hostage last Saturday night, right through the night into Sunday, in his manse.
POM Where you lived? The manse where you lived?
GI He's now living in a different home in Uitenhage. I lived in PE. They held him hostage right through the night. We were kept in touch and they threatened to throw the furniture out of the house and burn it and the Presiding Bishop made a very difficult decision and that was to get him to call the police. Because when you call the police in the townships it's a bad do because the police are constantly seen as the oppressor and they have been, believe me, and still are. Now the Church goes calling them in to protect the Minister. So it's my feeling that he will be evicted tonight. He'll live in another home.
POM This would be a meeting of predominantly black Methodists?
GI In his church. You see he's not just the Bishop, he's also got a church.
POM And he's in Uitenhage and they would evict him from that church although he still remains the Bishop? What is the ostensible reason for it?
GI A couple of reasons. We sent him a young man to work with him, to help him with the load of work now that he had become Bishop. That young man was not a good man and he created lots of problems in the church, telling lies about his superior, the Bishop, and so on and the Bishop had to move him out. Now he left behind a whole group of supporters who were so committed to this young man that they now moved against the Bishop on his behalf. There is my point I think, there you had a bunch of Christians, churchgoers, oppressed people, but they can do what they like. That's the feeling. And when I asked, "Is this the way to do it? Why don't you use the normal church structures to deal with the problem?", "No we've got to evict him, we've got to throw him out. We've got to go that route." It's very worrying, Patrick.
POM Is this connected in any psychological way to what happens to a people when they are told they are now free? That everything becomes an expression of that freedom, everything becomes seen as a right because you are now free and freedom isn't bounded by moral law, by political laws or by other constraints because they have no knowledge of those constraints, no knowledge of how civil systems operate, no knowledge of proceeding towards structures?
GI You've summed it up well. I think there's another observation which arises out of that and that is those people don't have any role models in solving conflict. They haven't grown up with any role models at all because they are the oppressed, they are fighting. There's no way a child could look up to his father and see a good role model. That's another factor in the situation. Very complex.
POM Has this happened in other churches too?
GI Yes indeed.
POM Has there been any sharing of experiences across the board?
GI There have been. The Episcopal Church in Grahamstown have come very close to evicting their Bishop although he's still in the home, the church is quite divided on him.
POM And would this be a white Bishop or a black Bishop?
GI Black Bishop. You must have heard of him? There's been a big division in his church.
POM Over him?
GI He's been perceived as being too dictatorial, not consulting the people enough. This is what I meant when I said, the freedom thing with all the guys coming out of jail, which was excellent, and the mood which was good, so we're free, we're really free now, we really are. The boot is going off our necks. Everybody then began looking around at our situation which was causing oppression. If you perceived the Bishop to be oppressing you or your Minister, that's basically where it was coming from. It's really very worrying.
POM As you look at the last year which has gone through a series of highs, I think the high note being the whites' only referendum to the recent lows with the breakdown of CODESA, in your community and I put this as you were still in Port Elizabeth at that point, when people voted yes in the referendum, what was your impression of what they were voting for?
GI I think they were voting for negotiations led by de Klerk. I think that many of them hoped that de Klerk would be able to get a white veto power put into the constitution, which of course he can't do. I think that's what they were hoping. They compared de Klerk with the right wing and they saw Treurnicht equalled bloodshed, confrontation. They saw de Klerk as giving perhaps the best deal possible for whites. That's where it was coming from.
POM But stopping short of transferring power?
GI Oh absolutely. Absolutely. I think it must have been a very small percentage of whites who voted yes in the referendum saying there must be now handing over to a black government.
POM What do you think, again talking to members of your community, what do you think blacks thought whites were voting for?
GI It was interesting, there was a Minister at retreat at the same time as the referendum and that would mean that the white Minister would ask each other what they should do. So they had a meeting between blacks and whites in the retreat and the whites said to the blacks, "Look if you guys think we should really go and vote, but if you chaps say no we're not going to vote. We'll really only vote if you think it's a good thing because we have a sense of voting not just for ourselves but for you." And a couple of black said don't vote, but it was the general perception that we should go and vote. "Please go and vote because without negotiations there is no hope." And there it would have stopped, Patrick, they wouldn't have been more definitive than that. Of course this breakdown of CODESA is exactly what was expected because there's no doubt that Mr de Klerk's been dragging his feet. You must have talked to people very close to CODESA to give you an idea of what's going on.
POM Were you surprised when the ANC offered 75% veto threshold?
GI Very, very.
POM And 70% threshold for the constitution?
GI Yes. You see, I think for that reason Mr Mandela still has the high moral ground because what de Klerk actually came back with was a suggestion that would have given them veto power.
POM So do you think that the government blew the best deal it would ever be offered?
GI The trouble with the government is they make changes which are not trusted and they make suggestions which are not trusted. Let me give you an example. The government's decision to close down Koevoet and 31 and 32 Battalions. They don't simply say, these battalions are going to be disbanded. They say, they're going to be disbanded and they're going to be dispersed. Well as soon as say that sort of thing, you're trying to keep them, what do you mean by that? What do you actually mean? You see what makes us insecure with the Nationalist government, and again I'm not telling you anything you don't know, this must be the only country in the world outside the so-called communist countries where heads never roll you know, Patrick. Heads never roll here. You can do what you like but no heads roll. Nothing. Even in America the President's head could roll. There's something going on in Britain at the moment when the Minister of something or other resigned. There's nothing like that here. So there's no way you can see obviously that this government means business.
POM How do you see de Klerk as having interpreted his mandate, so to speak?
GI I think he's doing a good job. I think too much is expected of him but I would like to be a lot surer that he's changed. He's never gone up front and said apartheid is wrong, never. I'm forced to remember that he worked with Vorster. He's a member of the Broederbond still. He was with Verwoerd. He never said a word. And now he's up front with some suggestions regarding change. I'd like to trust him, but sometimes I wonder if any politician can see us out of this.
POM Coming back to the person or agent having a free hand, and let me relate this question to the question of violence, from the incredible number of reports that I've been issued with, either through the media or otherwise in the last couple of years, one would find it very difficult not to believe that either the police force are incompetent or unwilling to take action, partake covertly or sometimes overtly in actions that result in the deaths of people, investigations for the most part are sloppy, slow or non-existent and that when Mandela makes the accusation that either de Klerk does not control the security forces or implicitly by his lack of action condones what is going on, one must take it as a serious charge that on the face of it has credibility to back it up.
Yet de Klerk always responds weakly to that question by simply saying there is no direct evidence to tie the security to any act of violence, bring the evidence and I will pursue it. That since he knows how much rides on this, that it has surfaced as the major issue, what do you think constrains him from being either unwilling or unable to take the actions you would expect him to achieve executively, fire three or four senior people, fire the Minister, suspend local Commanders, have independent investigations, besides the Goldstone Commission, into just the operations of the security forces themselves? What appears to be powerlessness, is he powerless because he is to a certain extent or is he powerless because he is not willing to alienate part of his own constituency?
GI It's a difficult question. Let me come back to my previous question which I don't know the answer to. The Afrikaner mentality doesn't allow Afrikaner heads to roll. Now why is that? Is there a kind of brotherhood where you can do, like the Masons, forgive me for making the analogy I'm sure it's not relevant, but we used to say of the Masons, if you're a Mason then you're ... of anything. I sometimes think that the Nats were a bit like that. So, one, why doesn't he sack this Minister, why doesn't he sack that Minister? He doesn't sack anybody. It's not their policy. So if he found out that the head of the police was guilty of this, he wouldn't get sacked, he'd get moved, he'd get relocated.
My second comment would be, I can't believe that he doesn't know what's going on. I really have difficulty in believing it. If he doesn't know what's going on then we're in real trouble, we're in big trouble from the rogue elements who have been exposed and did you notice, of course the ANC did the same, did you notice how he used the Goldstone Report a while ago? The way he twisted it? What does that say? It's not saying that he's very, very serious about implementing change and bringing some of these rogue elements to justice. I honestly believe the ANC had no other option but to come out of CODESA. There's Cyrus Vance coming in and that's a positive thing. Your question to me could be answered by me like this: I think he knows what's going on but I do not know if they have any skills at all in dealing with the brotherhood when it goes wrong.
POM What about Boipatong? Before that you had a massacre at Crossroads.
GI Boipatong was the right time. It wasn't the major massacre of the country. Boipatong was used by the ANC as a strategic move to bring to the world's attention the fact that they could not proceed with CODESA any longer because the government wasn't taking seriously its role for peacekeeping and doing away with violence. I am amazed at de Klerk going in to visit Boipatong, weren't you? He really ought to have known it wouldn't have been acceptable there.
POM Some people have suggested to us that de Klerk has developed a kind of a swollen head about his success in the referendum, for the short term at least eliminating the threat of the right for his reception in the international community where he is feted as a hero and great reformer, has given him the illusion that for him anything is possible.
GI That's possible. What does he actually believe? That the people really wanted him if the nasty ANC hadn't worked them up against him?
POM That's the impression you get from talking to some of them. They believe they can attract a section of the black vote in an election.
GI I think he actually believes that if the ANC would do a people's vote all the blacks would go with him. I think he actually believes it. It's amazing. [I think you could see that they were getting the knowledge out of ... They would have used that I am quite sure if they had needed the extra. That's right, nobody used it. Most perplexing.]
POM Do you think that if the government had accepted what the ANC had proposed, the 70% and 75% thresholds, that the ANC leadership would have had trouble selling that to their followers?
GI I really can't comment on that. I think they would have tried very hard to do it and I think they could have done it, but I don't know. Rory Riordan would say, I think, (he's joined the ANC) that his real contribution is in trying to get the ANC organisationally much more efficient. So my answer to your question is I think they could persuade their followers to go with that but they don't have an efficient way of saying it. So, if they had the right word, the right structures, I think they could sell it.
POM So when you look at the Eastern Cape, your observation there is that the ANC has not yet developed efficient organisational structures?
GI Rory has moved in there. He's made a big difference. They're getting very far advanced in conversation. You find so many things happening down there.
POM Isn't this the situation again about a white man moving in to ...?
GI He's moved there at the bottom, not taking any power.
The Eastern Cape is in trouble. I must say I'm not going again. When you look at the Eastern Cape and Natal, now I'm going to sound like a preacher, all the negotiations going on, with all the negotiations breaking down, it's the politicians vying with each other because they have their power bases to protect, and no-one has really asked the question, who's going to heal us? There's got to be healing in there somewhere. Rory said that to me. Rory, by the way, Rory's an atheist. We used to pull his leg. We used to get him into church for funerals, so he's not speaking from any religious point of view. But when I went back there about two months ago, I was still a Trustee on the Human Rights Committee, he said, "You know what you must do? You must come back to the Eastern Cape and heal us because what's happening here now is we're all trying to get on together but we don't know what to do with our wounds." That was a deeply moving thought for me. Not that I must go back and heal them, I couldn't do that. But what do we do with our wounds because they're very sore, very painful and very frightening, deeply hurting. So whether it's 70% or 60%, we must get an interim government in, we must do all that but who's going to heal our wounds?
POM Looking at the last two or two and a half years, do you think your initial optimism, most people want to be optimistic, has become more cautious in that the loosening of apartheid, the laws and structures and the emergence of political parties and movements, has bred competition for power among groups and within groups that has created a situation of where the level of polarisation is at least as great as it was before Mandela was released and perhaps in some ways that the level of polarisation has actually increased?
GI I think, and I am still fairly optimistic, I think there is a distinct mood in the country that polarisation or not we've got to get our act together. I think what is quite obvious to people is that if we don't get our act together we're dead. We really are. We've got no future. And that's what keeps me encouraged. Where I sense in the Mandelas and in the Buthelezis, although he may be an exception, and the de Klerks, I may have said this to you last year, have you noticed how even in their most angry rhetoric they don't close the door? That for me is encouraging.
POM Just talking of Buthelezi, is the white community in your church, do they like him, love him?
GI They love him. He's a Christian and he says so on television and Mr Mandela doesn't say so on television. So obviously Mr Mandela is not a Christian. Buthelezi, like Richard Nixon, is into prayer breakfasts and things. He's always going to preach at prayer breakfasts.
POM Have you read his book? It's full of Christian sentiment.
GI It makes me very suspicious. Politicians who go to prayer breakfasts and stuff, I'm being very ... but I don't trust him. I don't trust politicians who have to use their so-called Christianity to get them votes or to convince people what good people they are.
POM So what do you see over the next several months? Do you think the parties will get back to the negotiating table?
GI Yes they will, no doubt. And let's give Mr de Klerk his due, they've actually gone a long way. There was a time when they wouldn't let anybody in. So there is change, on both sides I think. And I'm pretty optimistic about the future.
POM OK. Hold it at that, on an optimistic note.
PAT You say you think that Cyrus Vance coming in was a positive thing. What do you personally hope that Cyrus Vance is going to achieve?
GI I hope he'll get them back to the table. I couldn't expect any more I don't think. I think they will come back to the table anyway so I think Cyrus Vance coming in helps them to go back to the table without loss of face. That's my only thought there. They would have gone back anyway.
PAT Is it important that they get Buthelezi to the table?
GI Yes. For all we've said about Buthelezi, you can't ignore the Zulus. It's totally ridiculous to think you can. That's the worrying thing. You see Mr Buthelezi has lost out in one very significant way. He's the only political player among the blacks who comes across ethnically. The rest of the guys, well Mandela is a Xhosa to his finger nails but he doesn't come across as a Xhosa, he comes across as ANC and the ANC is made up of all kinds of people. But Buthelezi, traditional dress, traditional weapons, very Zulu and very ethnic and that's not a good picture.
POM So if you had negotiations resume, or you had in fact some agreement between the government and the ANC, would any accommodation they reached be able to stick if Buthelezi was still outside the tent and objecting to the proposals, saying that he will not be a party or his government will not be a party or the Zulu nation will not be a party to them. Does he in fact have a veto power?
GI I don't think he's got a veto power but what he has got is, it's a bad analogy, but in the same way that it took Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo ten years to go into the same Cabinet, the Cabinet actually existed before Joshua Nkomo got on to it. There could be an interim government without Buthelezi, but the bloodshed would continue and maybe ten years up the road he would be on the Cabinet. But he's got to get on it I have no doubt. I think they could, it would be terrible if they had to, but I think they could manage without him.
POM Could you have free and fair elections in this part of the country anyway given the violence?
GI It's a difficult question. I don't think you could at the moment. Well it is very vicious here. I was, last week, I was at Murchison Hospital just outside Port Shepstone, about 8 - 10 kilometers past Port Shepstone, run by the Brethren people, very nice conservative people, most of them are from Northern Ireland I think. I just went down to take people down there, they were staying for a while, and the fights between Inkatha and ANC were obvious on the wards.
PAT In the hospital?
GI Oh yes. They are apolitical. The Brethren don't get involved. But those men tell a little bit about the viciousness of the violence, all they do is stitch them up and pray for them and then they go out and do it again. I'm afraid that's going to be there a long time after an interim government is in force.
POM An interim government without the participation of Buthelezi would exacerbate it.
GI So I've said. It won't stop the interim government but the violence will be terrible because every supporter of Buthelezi will want to kill somebody just to make a point. That's an exaggeration. You must have talked to Van Zyl Slabbert?
POM Not yet, he's on our list.
GI Let me tell you, he's a prophet. He can be a bit optimistic sometimes but I think he has a very sound mind and when he speaks listen very carefully because you will be hearing sense. That's just my point of view. So don't miss him.
POM I agree with you. He's always excellent. We see him every year.
GI Don't miss him. [He's even more important than ...] Thank you both.
POM Thank you.