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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
02 Dec 1993: Verryn, Paul
POM Perhaps you could begin first by just giving me a little bit of background about yourself and the work you have been doing and take it from there.
PV OK. I'm a Methodist Minister and I am stationed in the Orlando section of the Jabavu circuit in Soweto. I have just completed six years ministry there, I have five congregations. Some of my other work involves me in the training of probational Ministers in the Methodist Church and also working alongside many of the communities around the Witwatersrand and in the Western Transvaal and that work would then take me into the informal settlements and into the townships and into community organisations dealing basically with communities at grassroots. I do quite a lot of counselling, belonged to the Detainees' Counselling Service when that was still operating when we used to counsel people who had come out of detention and also people who had come out of prison, mostly for political problems.
POM The violence, which seems to be almost like an epidemic in the country, just political violence which only accounts for a small amount of it but Johannesburg, for example, including Soweto, I think is the murder capital of the world. It makes other cities pale by comparison. What is your understanding first of the different kinds of violences there are and what are the driving motivations behind them?
PV I think it has a fairly deep political history to start with, I think that's one of the things. I think the exclusion and disempowerment of people for such a long time to the depth at which it happened, the silencing of community feelings and people's aspirations has built up over the years to a point of greater and greater intolerance. It's an incredible thing that a formidable church body gets to the point in the mid-eighties of saying that, "We feel that we have no choice other than having to support an armed struggle in South Africa." Although that was very seriously debated it indicates something about the psyche and I suppose the thing that pushed that over the edge was the fact that in the later 1980s there was this enormous clamp down on children until eventually people were so dehumanised that the only way in which they could re-empower themselves was to take up some kind of force.
POM When you say enormous clamp down on children, could you elaborate on that a little?
PV I suppose from about 1985,1986, 1987 - 1986, 1987 and 1988, in some of those years over 60,000 children were detained and we are speaking children under the age of, let's say, 18. There was always this very technical argument about them not detaining children but children were detained for sure. So I think the one reason for the violence is obviously the pushing down of the aspirations of people and everything that apartheid meant particularly to the black community. I think, secondly, a deep cause of the violence is the poverty and the enormous disparities that there are in this country, the profoundly rich and the unbelievably poor living almost cheek by jowl with one another. I think that that creates untenable tensions. I think, thirdly, that there is a lot of thuggery in the wings of the political violence. There is a lot of mischief and people take advantage of the situation and the fears of people and the vulnerability of people. So hidden behind the political agendas there is amoral behaviour.
I think that another cause of the violence is the disillusion of the families and that the cohesiveness which is very much part of the African culture in terms of extended families and responsibilities for one another has been eroded systematically. A father not actually being able to find employment or a father having to stay away from his family for eleven of twelve months in the year because of the migrant labour system. That kind of thing has fractured the society to such a degree that people lose meaning in life.
I think another cause of violence is that people in authority have abused that authority. Not all of them but there have been large numbers of both army and police whose behaviour particularly in the townships has been completely unacceptable and I suppose that's the living out of the prejudices of race. And then I think this government has fuelled the ethnic differences. The creation of the homelands is the broad construction of that but even in the townships sometimes you will get the Zulus staying in one place and the Xhosas staying in another and so on and so forth and the deep underpinning feeling among some white people that the tribes cannot co-exist. I don't think that the violence, for instance, that has emerged from the hostels and from the townships upon the hostels hasn't been fuelled by some of that sort of racist ethnic division.
POM I go to visit Thokoza quite a lot and members of the IFP will never refer to the ANC, they will refer to just Xhosa-speaking people always. That was another question that I used to ask at some length a couple of years ago, whether or not there was an ethnic factor in the conflict and whether structures of government would have to be built to take account of ethnic differences in what would be called in literature 'a divided society' and I found white liberals and academics were willing to say, yes, there is an ethnic factor there but it's not talked about because to talk about it is to imply in some way that the government was right with its homelands policy it just implemented it wrong. It was giving a back-handed justification for apartheid. Do you think that this is an issue that is there and that unless regional and local structures of government are carefully put together that it could raise its ugly head in other ways as it has in other countries?
PV I do think it's there. Let me give you an illustration from my congregation. In the last seven months there has been far more awareness of who is Tswana speaking, who is Zulu speaking, who is Xhosa speaking, who is this and that and the other. A simple illustration is that for the first time in six years the Tswana speaking people have said, "Why do we always do the liturgy in Xhosa? Isn't it about time that we started singing a couple of Tswana hymns and including a part of the liturgy in Tswana?" Now that's good in one sense because it's people coming into their own understanding of who they are and beginning to be OK about the fact that they are Tswana and be able rather to celebrate the diversity. And so my feeling is that, you know, the lesson that apartheid has taught us about separation and divisiveness and that sort of thing has been so severe, it has crippled us economically and it has created such profound disconnection between black, white and Coloured people in this country that if we now begin to start dealing with our variety of ethnicities in a similar way I think we're going to reap a whirlwind. I think we need to encourage the self-understanding and self-concepts of people and I think that structures that validify separation terrify me for the future because I really do think we will have that kind of thing. We must remember that, for instance, that in a place like Umzomhlope(?) in Soweto, Zulu people have lived in the hostels there, there have been Xhosa speaking people, there are quite a lot of Tswana speaking people in that area as well and really before 1976 when there was quite a lot of mischief made between township and hostel they lived quite peacefully with one another and there has been a lot of inter-marriage. Yesterday I married a Zulu and a Sotho speaking person so there has been an ability to absorb and respect one another's cultures and it hasn't been a problem.
POM Then after 1976?
PV Well in 1976 there was the attack at the hostel on the Umzomhlope people where there was the most appalling carnage particularly in the Umzomhlope area and then, of course, the relationship was very strained. Some terrible things happened then.
POM One thing that has struck me is the intensity of the violence and the savagery that accompanies it, the mutilation, the hacking of bodies, the burning of people, as though killing somebody is not enough, it has to be taken one stage further. I do a lot of work in Northern Ireland where people shoot each other, they leave it at that, there's no follow up so to speak. That's one, and two; why is it so concentrated? I don't want to call it black on black violence but when a black community suffers the overwhelming consequences of the violence?
PV Well, not to be trite, I think that the intensity of the violence, like the hacking of the bodies and so on, is an indication of the pathology of the society. It is bad enough to kill somebody and I suppose it's like sometimes they categorise psychopaths as one star, two star, three star, four star and five star and the five star, as you know, will be capable of all sorts of glorious things and I think there is a psycho-pathology, I cannot understand it in any other form. There is a profound disease within the society, not to say that Northern Ireland - it is sick but it would most probably rate as a three star in comparison to us here. I also think that it is the kind of thing that has been happening to many black people in the shadows of the society for a long, long time. Some of things that have happened on certain of the farms, for instance, in this country have been unbelievable.
POM On the farms?
PV Yes. I was in Bloemhof last week where they were conducting a case in town where a farmer would kill staff on his farm and then chop them into little pieces and paint the little pieces and that trial was taking place. This is what I was told by a community member. I have no way of ascertaining whether or what, but certainly that folklore goes around. There was a time in the Western Transvaal when bodies were ploughed into potato fields and to give you another illustration, the kind of profound disrespect that has existed from white to black in many, many instances. Just recently I was doing a workshop at Black Sash and this woman had lost her job and I think the reason she had lost her job was because she had had a child and had been away and so forth and when she came back she had lost it so she went back and wanted to get the few remaining things that belonged to her from the room and she was chased off the property very unceremoniously. So then, as the gospel says, her husband went to go and pick up the property and they shot and killed him and it's that kind of, it's a menu of violence that has been part of our existence since 1980 which has been staggering.
POM What value is put on human life?
PV Well I think that the black community values human life profoundly, if you know what I mean, but I think that the level of brutalisation that has taken place has been so austere that when ultimately the anger ventilates itself it actually doesn't come to an end with just destroying the person. There is still more anger that's got to be taken out and what does one do? One actually tries to, if you can understand what I mean, I hope it doesn't sound logical because it isn't logical in a sense but there is another sense where the depths of agony in some people is terrible. What do you do? In my congregation, for instance, earlier this year on 16th January a young boy hacked his mother and grandmother to death and got his aunt, she's lost her eye now, and when the community got hold of him he confessed what he had done and they shot him five times and they put a pick through his chest and then they set him alight and it was tough business to bury without enormous antipathy towards particularly myself because I decided that it needed to happen. Roy Campbell wrote a poem "The Zulu Girl" (I don't know whether you've read it?) many years ago in which he predicts a harvest of this nature. Mothers losing their children, children going into detention and being so seriously brutalised that actually as a counsellor I don't ever see them getting better. I think that the investment on person to person therapy would be fifteen years at the minimum. Electric shocks in their genitals and on their ears and on their toes and forced to lie down with corpses and all that sort of stuff. It's very much like the abused child becomes an abusing parent even though that child might be more terrified of becoming that than anything else.
POM So when you were serving in Soweto, during those years one heard a lot about the comrades and the power the youth wielded in the townships themselves and how their parents very often, and adult members of the community, were often hostage to what the youth wanted to do. They were the force, they set the pace, they set the standards. Did you see that work?
PV They are a force to be reckoned with. In 1976 that basically was the beginning of the mobilisation of the youth in a visible and tangible form.
POM How would they impose their discipline or their will on their own communities?
PV Very often brutally.
POM A PAC member was saying to me, "You would be surprised how many people won't vote for the ANC because they remember when they were forced to each fish oil or something because they broke a boycott or whatever."
PV The problem that it's created in the township has been unbelievable because parents are scared of their children, many of them, and because there was no way in which the young people could be disciplined at all. To put parents into the position where they in actual fact have to invest themselves in the destruction of their children is very, very difficult. Parents wanted their children to be properly educated but the education system in the townships has been appalling and it's still not better. We've been grizzling on about this since 1976 and to actually think that a country with the resources that we have has not been able to address that single problem in any really substantive way and any way that speaks of any kind of integrity is amazing. A disinvestment, a disinheritance of our future. So you send the children to school but they are actually being mal-educated so that when they come out of school they have got to be re-educated, one has got to do remedial teaching on people who come out of the matric because they would never ever face, most of them will not face tertiary education. I've got a child in my house who has just passed Standard 8, goes into Standard 9 and he came sixth in class out of a class of I think it was 39 pupils and his aggregate was 42%. That's 1993 on the verge of liberation.
POM Did the whole movement of mass mobilisation and resistance build a generation of young people who essentially - the socialisation process was mobilisation and striking back at any authority structure that was there, destroying any authority structure that was there so that a new government coming in would be faced with enormous problems because the only thing they know how to do is to react against something, not to become part of it except as a legitimate government. Are they are outside the pale so to speak?
PV Are you asking me are they outside the pale? You're asking a Minister that? I could never admit to going against the gospel. There are paradoxes. This is the strange thing, there is not a simple answer to that. Part of the reason that there was this enormous rebellion against authority comes from the abuse that the authority used of their power, both in the police and in teachers, the canings, the sexual harassment of particularly young girls in schools, the completely unacceptable standards of corporal punishment, those kinds of things have inculcated in the young people a sense that this is a bully and we have to deal with the bully and they haven't had enough insight, I don't think, typically to be able to distinguish between what is good discipline and bad discipline. So it's all been thrown out. That's on the one side.
On the other side, however, there is a very clear drive amongst many young people to get education. I have streams of people in this office all the time wanting to get bursaries, wanting to get into schools, wanting to get a place, wanting to find something that they can work at, wanting to do something for their future. That's the thing that causes a slight dissonance for me because it's not without remainder that I say to you that the situation as far as the education and the youth are concerned is desperately serious and the horizon is very dark, very dark. But then there's this kind of motivation in black people to acquire knowledge that is - maybe it's a spark of hope. I see it as a spark of hope.
POM How long do you think a new government would have to make its mark felt?
PV I want to react, can I react to the one statement? I wonder whether we would have an option. I think that the government that comes in is going to have to be fairly fascist to get to grips seriously, I think.
POM That was one of my questions, are you faced with a situation where a new government coming in might face a situation of such instability and turmoil that one of its first acts will be to suspend the constitution and declare a state of emergency?
PV It will be very difficult to perceive where the instability comes from because I do not think that the government that comes in will be able to sustain a state of emergency if they blame the state of emergency on their own people. It will be very difficult. The state of emergency would only be sustained if it came as a result of what the enemy was doing, the right wing has become so restive that this has become essential. Does that make sense?
PV You asked another question which I didn't answer and that was how much time?
POM After five years what should the average resident of a township have the right to expect in terms of delivery of services and whatever from a government of national unity?
PV Nothing! Poor roads, electrical services that don't work very often, telephones that have been cut, high rate of corruption.
POM Corruption in?
PV In government.
POM Why do you say a high rate of corruption in government?
PV Well because I am not 100% certain of whoever is going to come in not wanting to line their own pockets.
POM They have already started doing that.
PV Yes. I didn't want to say that but somebody came in here on Tuesday and gave me a report of what is happening in certain political organisations, what wheeling and dealing is going on. You can't prepare for corruption and then when it falls in your lap not expect it to be there boots and all. We've really prepared ourselves for it, we're very corruptible. It's not as if we can't be bribed and are Snow White and the seven dwarves sitting on the southern tip of Africa. Absolutely not. We laid a solid foundation for the works of darkness. I think so. That is the one picture that I have.
Then from my church community, you know a lot of people go to church in this country, there's another story, a very, very different story of people with unbelievable tenacity, people with integrity like you just cannot believe who have really been pushed to the edge or survival and who still have remained faithful and honest and good and there are a lot of them who are not prepared to keep quiet if there are bad things happening. So that's the mixture. I suppose any new birth thing has got that potential for disaster and the potential for good. If I had to speak to you as a churchman from my every week experience in my parishes I could tell you I've got some people there who could govern this country with aplomb. It would be good. They are selfless, they have been in positions of power, they have exercised that power with integrity, they have shown the highest standards of self discipline, their families are well integrated, they are profoundly compassionate, they choose the option of the poor, they are deeply sensitive to suffering of other people, they practice the kind of ubuntu principles as if it's flowing in their veins every day. Those kinds of things I don't think they are sentimental claptrap. That's how it's actually worked for as long as it has in the townships, as well as it has. It's incredible to think that you have so many forces wanting to destroy, wanting to corrupt, wanting to divide, wanting to undermine, wanting to disempower, because I think that that fundamentally was the essence of the seventies and mid-eighties apartheid regime. They have not succeeded in destroying the essential fabric of that society. It's stretched to its limits but there is still a most unbelievable integrity in the lives of some people.
POM If this government doesn't perform?
PV The new one.
POM It would seem to me all hell would break loose. At least visible signs that 'we are trying to do something'. Expectations far exceed what any future can be.
PV I think that many people are dealing with those incongruities. I did some voter education two weeks ago and there were a wide variety of community leaders from Alexandra and we spoke about expectations very briefly and I said it has been said that when liberation comes there are going to be houses for all, do you actually think that that's going to happen? If you imagine if you were put into government, and clearly, clearly, clearly people can see that the wild promises of what liberation will bring will not be delivered and I think part of the reason for that is because the violence has been a very sombre lesson. People on the ground are terrified of it and sick of it. Sick, sick, sick to death of it. And so maybe if the new government does not deliver I wonder whether we couldn't envisage a fairly thoroughgoing, hard-line disciplining of that government. It could happen. In church circles if you do something wrong they will bring you back but you'll put on the shoes that they've got for you and perhaps while you are going through the process you might think actually was it worthwhile trying to make my way back into this organisation? Of course when you are back then it would be worthwhile, but there is nothing spared to make you come to terms with what you have to come to terms with and if that could work on a more national kind of level.
POM Do you see the future with a great deal of optimism or do you think we're on a knife edge and it's going to stay on a knife edge for some time?
PV We're on a knife edge.
POM Where do you think the main threat would come to putting things from being on a knife edge to pushing it over the edge?
PV It's difficult. It's like the question: what ultimately puts a country at war with another country? To actually identify the force that will do that is very difficult but I should think that if something is not done about the violence that ultimately it will just carry on and on and on.
POM Do you think that the violence at its present level will continue post-election in certain areas?
PV I think that some of the violence is the mischief of political groups.
POM And that you would expect to continue for a while?
PV It depends, of course, on what the incoming government does. If the incoming government has a very hard, tough, hands-on discipline it might be slightly different. If we have a fascist government for five or six years, getting worse and worse and worse as time goes by, it might be the only way to control it.
POM One woman in Thokoza said to me, a remarkable woman, Gertrude Mzizi, she just doesn't see a stop to it, that it has a life and a dynamic of its own.
PV This is the IFP lady?
POM Yes, that transcends any ...
PV You know that's the difficult thing about this country, that you have these two extremes. I don't know if you have ever lived in Grahamstown or been in Grahamstown? Well they can have four seasons in a day quite easily and that's exactly what this appears like. We're in Soweto, Soweto is very, very dangerous in many respects and we've had peace there for months. There really hasn't been any - really it's been amazing and we actually can't get the peace structures together in Soweto.
POM Peace, the peace structures being in place.
PV And in Thokoza, they are far down the line with their peace structures in comparison to ourselves and, well one gets to the point of saying one can't imagine that the human mind could think up anything more brutal but Thokoza certainly has taught us the lesson. So I think when you're living in that kind of situation I'm sure you can't see an end to it.
POM Does the fear make communities closer together or does it create distance and space between them?
PV Can I give you three answers to that? I think yes, it can create distance because of the ongoing suspiciousness, so that I can get close to you but I'm what they call smiling in your face. It can draw them closer to one another because in fact as they try to deal with their inadequacies they find that pooling their resources is much stronger. There's another thing and that is, for instance, what we discovered in detention is that a lot of the young people, not only the young people, but they would grow attached to their torturers.
POM The hostage syndrome.
PV Yes. And there is a relationship that starts building up. So even amongst those people in Thokoza, those enemies, there is a symbiosis, they are feeding off one another.
POM Like Nelson Mandela designing a house that was the replica of the house he lived in with his guard.
PV Strange isn't it.
POM What proportion of families in the townships would be single parent families?
PV What proportion? I wouldn't know. I should think at least 20%.
POM You've had the ANC saying the government is behind the violence , that it is part of their dual strategy to negotiate on the one hand and on the other hand to undermine us in the townships so we grow weaker and weaker. You have the IFP who clearly come out and say this is between us and the ANC and the ANC are the aggressors. Then you have the government which says, well really it's both due to the ANC and the IFP. Despite all the references to third forces no evidence has emerged that there is an orchestrated third force out there operating. Just from your observations and talks with people, where does most of the violence come from? Is it from within the communities or is it exported into the communities?
PV I suppose a lot of the violence comes from within the communities because they are brutalised and all those kinds of things which we spoke about. But I don't understand why the violence isn't in Soweto at the moment and I don't understand how you can phone Thokoza police station and find the paragon of inefficiency. It's just unbelievable, the situation that is as perplexing and as distraught as that. You phone the police station as a Peace Action monitor and they say, no, they haven't got a car, they've only got one car and he's alone and they can't contact the car. And so you see when one has actually seen that kind of carnage and officialdom actually doesn't take that seriously I don't understand it. I really don't understand it. In the 1980s they just about knew what I was having for breakfast and who I was thinking of meeting during the day. They had a security force that fiddled around with every dimension of a person's inner being and they had plenty of people to do it, files and all sorts of wonderful information on everybody. And now suddenly we're faced with incompetence like you just cannot believe in that very self same Thokoza.
I've worked in Phola Park right from the very beginning and I was involved with them when they were first a coal yard community and then they split into two communities and I was involved in negotiation to bring them together and then involved in negotiations with land and with ESCOM and all sorts of things like that and the police knew everything. But now you have a police station that's falling to pieces, you have a war zone there, you have a ghost town where it's very dangerous to move around and you have vulnerable residents, most incidentally are Zulu who have been expelled from those homes.
POM Most of the residents are?
PV That have been expelled from their homes in Thokoza and are Zulu speaking.
POM They're now living in the hostels?
PV Yes. So it's not as clear as it looks.
PV Is that OK?