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What did you do in the Struggle, Daddy?

Following the transition to non-racial democracy in 1994, it emerged that no-one had ever supported apartheid. Actually, some had but they had emigrated or were dead. This must have come as a relief to everyone, particularly to black people.

It also emerged that many more people had fought against apartheid than had been apparent at the time. One still hears from such people, seeking opportunities to set the record straight, and it certainly has been a humbling experience to discover how many heroes we have all been growing up amongst.

I myself have been silent too long, and now feel the time has come to record for posterity my own contribution to “The Struggle”.

During the latter half of the 1980s, that watershed period in which opposition to apartheid, both locally and internationally, was coming to a head, I was a student at Rhodes, Grahamstown. It was undoubtedly an exciting time to be at university, even if for white males the awful prospect of military service at the end of it cast something of a pall.

There were protest marches, much angry rhetoric, plenty of theorising as to what to do next, and a stream of long, angry screeds, invariably replete with typos, in the student press. There was also a great deal of fear and distrust on both sides.

Having radicalist pretensions at the time, I gravitated towards the leftist camp. Relating to lefties was not easy, however. Overwhelmingly, they proved to be dogmatic, one-track minded and suspicious of the slightest deviation from the party line.

Being hopelessly naïve, I soon proved out of my depth in this environment. At my first NUSAS (National Union of South African Students), I put my foot in it immediately by describing terrorism as “the cancer of modern society” and then sitting back happily, oblivious of the sudden tension. The chairman (I think it was Ray Hartley, today deputy editor of the Sunday Times), who then casually drew my attention to one of the posters on the wall featuring the notorious John Vorster referring to terrorism as — ahem — a cancer. “Well, how about that!” I remarked as brightly as I could, amidst curious and non-too-friendly looks. No doubt the ominous words “police spy” were being silently mulled over, then dismissed, since no police spy would be so thick as to give himself away so blatantly from the very outset. My NUSAS career was short-lived.

There subsequently would be a major “police spy” scandal at Rhodes when it was revealed that Olivia Forsythe, previously considered one of the uber-Lefties, had long been in the pay of the apartheid government. The fall-out lasted for weeks thereafter, with much whispering and finger pointing in the Oppie Common Room while former ‘comrades’ studiously avoided eye contact with one another.

Despite growing misgivings over the increasingly violent and intolerant direction the liberation movement was taking, I nevertheless did my best to work myself into a suitable froth of indignation over apartheid injustices. As editor of OY!, the official magazine for Rhodes Jewish students (circulation 100; actual readership, about 20) I penned many a blazing editorial designed to make the upholders of our fascist dictatorship hang their heads in shame.

I was also persuaded to accept the vice-chairmanship of a new Jewish society calling itself South African Jews Against Injustice (SAJAI). It was the brainchild of a disaffected SA Union of Jewish Students committee member who had fallen out with the leadership and, like every good Hebe under such circumstances, had broken away to start his own organisation.

The memorable launch of this latest anti-apartheid weapon was attended by its founder, myself, the previous SAUJS chairman as an act of contrition and no-one else. Predictably, that was the last anyone ever heard of SAJAI and the aforementioned functionaries of the apartheid regime could breathe easily once more.

Election day, 1987, was one of the highpoints of political activity at Rhodes during my student years. Police climbed zestfully into student protesters earlier in the day and a mass gathering was arranged to take place on the administration lawns around noon. The gathering was, of course, to be an ‘illegal’ one under existing State of Emergency legislation and was expected to end in violence as the cops had reportedly been given free rein to deal with the Communist agitators.

Gallantly, I joined the march but made damned sure I was positioned near the back so as to be among the first to run away when the time came. Unfortunately, in approaching the grounds, the crowd swung around in a wide arc so that I found myself sitting right in front when it came to a halt.

It was a bowel-loosening moment, but there was nothing for it but to sit tight since there was no way of sneaking off without being exposed to hundreds of scornful glances. Quaking, I squatted down on the grass with everyone else, all of whom seemed to be in a disconcertingly cheerful mood. Facing us was a line of ‘Boere’, no doubt smacking their chops at the prospect of the massacre to come.

The affair ended in a merciful anti-climax. My history professor, Rodney Davenport intervened with the police official in charge, persuading him to allow the students to remain where they were for ten minutes and let off a bit of steam before dispersing (some students, hell-bent on martyrdom, were none to pleased with the compromise). After the usual choruses of “Viva Communist Party-UDF-Cosatu Alliance, Vivaaa!!” the meeting broke up and I got the hell out of there.

In the end I blew it. Outraged over how a meeting called by the Moderate Student Organisation had been torpedoed by rowdy black students, I dispatched a letter to the Rhodes campus newspaper in which I denounced creeping fascism on our campus and also referred to the guilty parties as a bunch of onanists (actually, not that exact word perhaps….).

Retribution was swift. My movie review column in the paper was summarily axed and many cold looks greeted me in the student union in the days that followed. It only dawned on me just how much I had burnt my bridges, however, when a certain student, who was universally acknowledged to be a police spy, passed me in the street one day and gave me a distinctly brotherly smile.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.