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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.


  1. Po Po 3 July 2008

    My father knew at least two white uber-lefties who turned out to be police spies. They were everywhere it seems.

  2. owen owen 3 July 2008

    I fought the communists in the 70’s and 80’s and would do so again. I still think that it kept a one party communist state from happening.

    Not that the present setup is far removed from being a one party state but it has a chance at democracy which we would not have otherwise had.

    In 70′ and 80’s any government in SA was going to be a dictatorship (it was the politics of the day in africa), I preferred the the one that had US backing to the one that had Soviet backing.

    To me apartheid was the lesser of 2 evils.

  3. Mandrake Mandrake 3 July 2008

    I was still in diapers(literary and figuratively) during the early eighties. However i remember my father was very active in Black rugby circles back then.

    My old man played for Winter Rose Rugby club and was heavily involved in the forming of SARU. In fact he was part of the delegation which went to Cape Town for that formation.

    I remember him telling me a story of a “Boer” who klapped him in Cape Town cause he looked the bugger straight on. Father dearest shoved the guy down the stairs, but since he was in white company no arrest occured.

    i think thats my “Struggle” story for now, and i’m sticking to it. I do however have an uncle that i’ve never met who was killed by the security policy in Umtata. His name is Siphiwo Mazwai. If you google that you’ll find a chilling recount from his mother to the TRC as to how this young man’s life was stolen from him before he even made a huge impact.

    Chizama rests…

  4. Robin Grant Robin Grant 3 July 2008

    I know its difficult to grasp, but most white South Africans were subject to a state driven propaganda machine of note here in South Africa during the apartheid era. The only white South Africans who really got to see through the cracks were the privileged few who went to university and were exposed to the intellectual concepts within other ideologies, but they were generally muzzled/supressed by the actions of the security forces

    We have the opportunity to see such a propaganda machine at work in Zimbabwe at the moment. The state controls most of the media and airwaves. Most of the Zanu-PF supporters really think that Mugabe is right because all of the information from sources of authority pumped constantly at Zimbabweans via the airwaves and through printed media.

    From the outside we can see the reality of the situation in Zimbabwe, much like outsiders could see that apartheid was wrong, but for those living in it – they don’t have much chance of escaping the influence of a daily bombardment of propaganda.

    To blame most white people in SA for the atrocities of Apartheid is a meaningless exercise. We did not vote for Apartheid. In was imposed upon us by legislation and then enforced. After a while, through the propaganda machine most white people became brainwashed. Great leaders like Nelson Mandela could see the obviousness of it all and the real possibility, that once the propaganda machine was shut down, that normality would be able to return.

    I applaud those who when presented with the opportunity to do something about apartheid, did, but for the most – the general populace – it is pointless to try and blame all white people for apartheid.

    While we may have benefited materially slightly for a while (Those in power and their cronies were the ones that really benefited > much like now) spiritually, we were dwarfed by apartheid. On the surface life looked hunky dory, but below the surface you could see in the psyche of white people, the trauma of the situation. This manifested physically as excess drinking as the norm, and drug abuse, just to name a few. Consequently many white children grew up in dysfunctional households during this era – broken families with one of the highest divorce rates in the world. We were forced by law to go to the army, and witness and partake in inhumane forms of abuse and killing. I have many friends who were permanently scarred by their military experience, some to the point where they became totally dysfunctional in society.

    So the anti white rhetoric and new racist laws discriminating against white people is not going to help the healing. There is healing to be done on both sides, and the majority of the populace, both black and white did not have any say in what the government did. Only once/if this permeates into the Zeitgeist of the nation can the healing begin. I fear however that there are those in power right now who are taking full personal advantage of the situation, who will NOT benefit by the healing taking place.

  5. Brent Brent 3 July 2008

    The Nats won huge majorities but voters who supported them can’t be found now, which proves that Mad Bob up North learned his election rigging from the Nats.

    You can’t find any Blacks to day who were not active MK operatives, proving how useless they were taking sooooo long to topple Apartheid.

    So lets face the painful truth – all South Africans, Black and White, are terrible liars. lets accept this, move on and start picking up the wounded Rainbow nation and together build a better future.


  6. Mandrake Mandrake 3 July 2008

    Very well written Robin. I’ve often said that by not talking and debating about these issues we ensure that this ridiculous rifts between blacks and whites(mainly) will forever be there to be used by other idiots(like current tripartite cronies).

    But sadly you come to this enlightened opinions after some education and introspection.

    Chizama rests…

  7. DE DE 3 July 2008

    All whites had a choice. All whites knew what was going on. All whites made their choice. I made mine, you made yours, David made his own but Rhodes students were either stoned or pissed so I’m surprised his recall is so sharp. Don’t try wriggle out of it now – just like Germans can’t wriggle out of the Holocaust. It is far more honest to say ‘I fucked up, I made the wrong choices, I backed the wrong side, but hey – there is a chance now to make good, to put something back.’ And then make sure you do so. Not many people = let alone colonisers – get a second chance, so take it.

  8. Gerry Gerry 3 July 2008

    Robin – very well said.

    Not many of our friends realise the trauma an average whitey had to go through. It was not choice, it was indoctrination, and if you dared speak up, you were reviled at best, jailed at worst. Many of us white ou’s went through our pre-democracy youth years confused, and frankly, totally fucked up, because of things that were forced down our throats that did not make sense. I’d bet my ponytail that less than 10% of people who joined the Weermag (SADF/SAP)really believed in its cause, the rest went because if you didn’t, you went to jail. It was the lesser of two soul-destroying evils. Thank God Mandela took his walk out of Victor Verster before the Weermag could get their hands on me, I could not avoid them much longer.

    Our more fundamental black friends will do well to acknowledge this. We did not believe in it any more than we believed in the tooth fairy. We were indoctrinated. They owned us – body and soul and in most cases, even in mind.

    Robin, you said it all in your post, mate, I can’t add to it.

  9. AntonS AntonS 3 July 2008

    I contributed to the struggle when the Nats led by FW de Klerk wanted us all to vote YES. We never knew what the question was all about because they kept it a secret from us , all I knew was that Roelf Meyer and FW de Klerk wanted to make decisions for all of us, so I was one of the few who distrusted the NP and so I voted NO !

  10. Moss Moss 3 July 2008

    Actually, Brent, that Nats were elected without majorities on at least four occasions (blame the first-past-the-post system we inherited from Britain) Not that it really changes anything, since they did get majorities in the others, some of them quite healthy.

    I predict that it’ll be hard to find supporters of Thabo Mbeki soon, and down the line there won’t be many Zuma fans either. All the more reason why road and place name changes shouldn’t be implemented until the individual in question is long dead. ;)

  11. owen owen 3 July 2008

    To all of you – I don’t think apartheid was wrong at the time it took place. So I did not make a mistake nor will I make apologies.

    It was way better than communism, although far from ideal.

    I ask this question: Why have millions fled Zim, Moz, Nigeria, etc and why did so few blacks flee SA?

    My answer : apartheid was not that bad.

    Without apartheid SA would today not be the strongest economy in Africa. Don’t tell me that the commies would have done better.

    We (us apartheid okes) gave all of SA a great economy in 1994 compared to the rest of Africa – don’t squander it. (remember the electricity worked back then and we built our own warships)

    Don’t ever say that I don’t have the guts to stand up and be counted and I am still here contributing to the economy.

  12. Garage trash Garage trash 3 July 2008

    “The Nats won huge majorities but voters who supported them can’t be found now, which proves that Mad Bob up North learned his election rigging from the Nats.”
    Where did you get this?
    I was a child during the declaration of the Republic of South Africa, and grew up amongst a community of NAT voting masses where UP voters were few and sparsely sown. If nothing else, the NP did not have to go through any trouble to rig any elections because the UP was no match, not to mention the few Progs, mostly Jewish, only active in your typical Cape Town and Houghton and of course mostly interested in the economical outcome.
    Afterwards, the competition was from further right like Albert Hertzog, Jaap Marais and later Andries Treurnicht, Ferdie Hartzenberg and Constand Viljoen. So, how could NP rigging have disadvantaged any leftists if there were none in the elections?
    Wet manure you’re passing mate!

  13. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 3 July 2008

    with regard to the comments about Germans being responsible for the Nazis and with regard to Mr Saks Jewish origins, I suggest you get out the DVD: “Sophie Scholl.”

    Oskar Schindler wasn’t the only “good” German, some protested from the beginning and died for it.

    There was also a famous “Good Nazi” who saved hundreds of Chinese using a Swastika armband in the Rape of Nanking.

    There are good and bad of all people and some did more than others.

    With interestingly bizarre anomalies, such as (with some evidence) the original Jewish resistance in Palestine approaching the German Ambassador in Turkey and offering to form a Jewish SS Battalion if they gave them the guns to fight the British in Palestine. (It was turned down apparently.)

    And there were British fighting on the side of the Nazis, in the Waffen SS “British Free Corps”:

    Perhaps it is about time that you started talking about what atually went on with whom under Apartheid, then you might not be so surprised when the Chinese ask to be Black under the BEE, since the were classified “Coloured” under the Race laws.

    And why they are so insulted by Black Businesses now trying to fight it and claiming not to be Racist since they are Black.

    History is a mess of contradictions from the accepted version, and it is about time you started telling the truth about it, including the Afrikaans who refused conscription and the leftest police spies.

  14. GUS GUS 3 July 2008

    I feel sorry for you David.

    I served in one of the finest military forces the world has seen & led by honourable men (& a few dishonourable ones). We fought African communists, Cubans, Russians and, sadly, East Germans with no assistance from the so-called free world. And guess who had the upper hand? Not Vietnam for us, pal.

    And as for Umkhonto – sorry, a contemptible bunch who didn’t match up to the likes of PLAN, FAPLA or FRELIMO. Now they play tough, but would run if a young girl is prepared to defend herself – I have seen it.

    Although the regime at the time might not have enjoyed universal support for whatever reasons, our cause was just and patriotic. I also assure you that this has little to do with racism as black soldiers in the SADF where of a very different calibre than the rubbish you see today in the SANDF. In fact, they were the reason for many operational successes, and I would proudly serve with them & give my all for SA again if the ANC & its cohorts were no longer in charge.

    In those years I and many others knew the ANC leadership for the cowardly & opportunistic thugs they eventually became – just like their mates in other African liberation movements. A Malema or Vavi or Mugabe would not have gotten away with what they do or say today – they wouldn’t even have dared to. That you can be sure of.

    I can assure you the esprit de corps lives on in the hearts of many, and it will surface again but not in support of Mbeki or Zuma. It might have for Mandela but I wouldn’t count on it.

  15. Sehlaphi Sehlaphi 3 July 2008

    Owen, your statement begs the question, why would the introduction of apartheid have been better than the introduction of a “normal” democracy instead, back in 1948?

    If communism is evil, everything is permitted?

  16. Cool Down Cool Down 4 July 2008

    Good Heavens
    Broken families,drunk nogal,traumatised the lot.
    That was not the problem,many who were forced into
    the army were real sissies,missing the home
    comforts,not used to any form of manual labour
    and were first to throw uniform parts away
    on the first route march.
    These sissies refused to crawl through dongas
    with some lunatic enlisted from the than
    Rhodesian army discharging his FN rifle,from the
    hip nogal,to see if he could get as close as
    possible to you bum,cigarette dangling from
    one mouth corner.

    Shame on you lot,you are real moaners unable to
    take the punch and that in my opinion is the
    problem with a lot of youngsters today.

    Time to bring compulsory army training back
    it will install some discipline so sadly missing
    Brainwashed never,we believed in what we did
    and would do it all over again.To see some
    of these old Mk solders on parade,good heavens
    the biggest joke ever.Any sargeant major from
    the old SADF would have loved to put them into

  17. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 4 July 2008

    Robin Grant

    Well said. You defined it perfectly – for all of us.


    I agree with your point, but would like to point out to you and others, that in fact the Nats did not have the majority of the white vote in 1948 and for the next 20 years when they were fighting the blacks. Blame Smuts – he demarkated South Africa’s voting districts to heavily load in favour of the conservative Afrikaans rural areas. Even so there were many liberal Afrikaners who voted against the Nats.

    However, when the ANC became openly communist and trained in Russia – THEN, and only then, did the Nats get the majority in number of white votes. BOTH English and Afrikaans South Africans were religious – and not prepared to suffer a state where God was banned.


    Your “huge majorities” were against the communists.


    “All whites had a choice. All whites knew what was going on” Rubbish! However, let us discuss ZIM

    “All blacks have a choice. All blacks know what is going on”

    AND WHAT are you personally doing about it?

    Cool Down

    I don’t agree with what you say – except that the present army and police force are an embarrassment that make me cringe. Dicipline? They would not know the word. Both the old SADF AND the ANC had discipline. Where did these mutants come from? Plus senior officers can be guilty of fraud and KEEP their jobs?

  18. Luddite Luddite 4 July 2008

    @ GUS, owen, Gerry and Robin

    You guys want a tissue for your sob stories? Shame, poor, put-upon white dudes. It real is a cruel world…

  19. Cool Down Cool Down 4 July 2008

    Lyndall Beddy
    check what happened in ANC training camps
    neatly swept under the carpet and those
    who wanted to tell their stories were quickly
    Look at the discipline of our Army now and
    you see a reflection of the former Mk discipline.

  20. Vusi Nzapheza Vusi Nzapheza 4 July 2008

    To an extent that there are only a handful people who will concede to having voted for the Nats, methinks the election was stolen. Be that as it may, judging by the number of people hankering for the good old days during apartheid in letters to the editor and blogs(especially the beneficiaries), when things were supposedly hunky dory, I can only reach a conclusion that indeed many do not want to come out of the closet and admit the embarrasing truth. How many of those who had the vote in those days have proclaimed that they did not know that the situation was so bad for blacks? These are the same people who have started websites villifying the current democratic despensation. The same people who suddenly think Mandela is a saint after three decades of believing that he was a terrorist (like the Americans who this week suddenly decided to remove his name from the terrorist list). And to the beneficiaries of apartheid: do not believe your domestic worker when she says the current government is a failure and she would vote differently next time. She is only saying what she thinks you want to hear. Centuries of oppression have taught blacks that the white master wants to hear only certain things. Things are definitely better in a democracy. Tough, but definitely better.

    @David Saks: Victims of apartheid are notoriously bad at keeping the records but we definitely know who took part in the struggle and who did not.
    Beyers Naude, Bram Fischer and Helen Joseph comes to mind but ehere are thousands of other pale skin compatriots who were in the trenches during our darkerst hour. We do not forget.

  21. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 July 2008

    Cool Down

    I know all about the atrocities in the camps – run by Zuma I would like to point out – but would you call that lack of discipline? It might be regarded as over-discipline!

  22. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 8 July 2008

    Cool Down

    I have been thinking about it, and about the many of my family who died in battle defending democracy.

    We tend to weigh the atrocities of the ANC camps against the atrocities of the Security Police, but of course it was not the same.

    The SADF was a diciplined fighting force whose allegiance was to country not to any party. If it had not been we would not have had a smooth transition – but chaos like in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

    The present lot are a mob not a fighting force. You are right, I was wrong.


    The SADF kept records – none of which were destroyed. The ANC did not – nor did the Security Police.

  23. BenzoL BenzoL 14 July 2008

    Time makes good things seem better and bad things disappear from our memories. My parents were decorated for their contribution to the resistance during WW2. A few months after it ended the attended one of the many memorial services after which my father said dryly: “did not know we had so many people in the resistance”. Upon asking “if he would do it again?” he only said: “I was lucky to be at the right side when it ended”. Many Germans, when asked about the concentration camps said: “Wir haben es nicht gewusst” (we did not know) like many South Africans today: “we were brainwashed…”. I do understand some of the black anger but they must have had many traitors in their middle for the security police to be so “efficient”. My parents were more afraid of traitors than the Germans who did not know the lay of the land, the people and the language. .

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