This is an edited version of Pieter-Dirk Uys’s speech at his UKZN graduation ceremony this week. The satirist received an honorary Doctor of Literature degree.
Durban - We stand 30 days away from the most important election in the 2000-year history of our place on Earth. For the first time ever, young South Africans born after we had our first democratic election in 1994 will vote.
Apartheid will never come back again under the same name. But do not underestimate the inventiveness of bad politics. Of course it will be back. It made money for a political elite then; it will make money for a political elite now. It won’t be the segregation of colour. It might be the segregation of language, of tradition, of culture. Of education. The toll gates of politics.
Democratic South Africa is 20 years old. Twenty years ago two lives changed. Pieter-Dirk Uys and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. In 1994 at the age of 76, former prisoner 466/64 was already the most famous man in the world. I was 49 when for the very first time in my life, I was allowed to queue up with… everyone. On April 27 millions of South Africans queued up to vote for the very first time.
The Rainbow Nation was born. A new national anthem was sung. Nelson Mandela freed me from my jail of prejudice and fear. It was now no longer politically correct to be a racist in South Africa. In fact, I was no longer just a white Afrikaner; I was now a citizen in a democracy. At last. Who said life can’t start at 50?
During the 1980s my work in theatre was inspired by the politics of what we all called our democracy. Blacks, whites, coloureds, Indians, English, Afrikaans, Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Muslim, Hindu, Scientologists, Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Chinese, honorary whites, British immigrants, Rhodesian refugees: 27 million of us lived in South Africa; of which about 4 million were white; of which about 3 million had the vote; of which about 1.5 million used the vote; of which about 700 000 voted for PW Botha’s National Party government in that 1981 general election – 700 000 out of 27 million? That’s not a democratic government; that’s a small town council.
Even then some were wondering how a small political elite could rule the country on behalf of only 2.6 percent of the population. Not difficult – if you know how to censor your newspapers and media.
Not difficult – if you are in full control of your state broadcasting corporation, radio and television. Not difficult if you have the support of the most powerful military force on the continent, being strengthened through secret arms deals.
Not difficult if you have a compliant judiciary. Not difficult if you have a loyal police force who shoot to kill. Then just ignore the corruption, the nepotism, the racist innuendo and the lack of service delivery – that’s the South African government that ruled us from 1948 to 1994.
Forty-six years is a lifetime, but at least the NP didn’t rule till Jesus Christ comes back. That we leave to the ANC. Although I doubt if the ANC would give Jesus a visa.
It wasn’t just the National Party who gave me those gifts of a PW Botha, a Pik Botha, a Fanie Botha, a Bothalezi. There were also inspirations among those white South Africans who fought the system from within the system. Especially an unlikely freedom fighter called Mrs Helen Suzman. She showed what one woman could do, bravely trying as best she could to make her government accountable. For all those years – 13 of them alone – she sat in the South African Parliament, the only member of a white opposition to the apartheid regime.
Helen had a legendary brittle sense of humour. She would challenge the apartheid regime with their own parliamentary rules.
One of these rules allowed MPs to ask questions of the government, which was obliged to answer in Parliament, sight unseen. We still have to get there in our current democratic structures. To add injury to insult, Helen Suzman asked the same question in Parliament each year, a question pertaining to the Population Registration Act, the foundation of the worst apartheid laws:
“Mr President? Would you please tell us how many South Africans were racially reclassified during the last year?” Here is the answer she forced out of them in 1985:
“Nearly 800 South Africans officially became members of a different race group last year:
518 coloureds became white
14 whites became coloured
7 Chinese became white
2 whites became Chinese
3 Malays became white
1 white became an Indian
50 Indians became coloured
57 coloureds became Indian
17 Indians became Malay
4 coloureds became Chinese
1 Malay became Chinese
89 blacks became coloured
5 coloureds became black.”
You notice that no blacks became white? And no whites became black!
“No sis, Mrs Suzman, why do you ask such an embarrassing question every year?” “It’s not the question that’s embarrassing, Mr Botha; it’s your answer!”
One expects this sort-of obscenity from an apartheid government. But remember the discomfort, when in the 17th year of our non-racial, non-sexual and in many ways, nonsensical democracy, that same bad smell returned. With Census 2011. There was that question again: “What is your race? Black, white, coloured, Indian, Asian or other?”
A few months before they did a DNA test on me for a television show, and the DNA test proved that I originated in the Congo. For 49 years my Book of Life assured me that I am white. Then I did some research into my father’s family background and found we had a great-great-great grandmother who in 1791 plied her trade on the road between Cape Town and Paarl. Her name was Wilhelmiena Opklim. So that means I’m also coloured! I don’t know about Indian, Asian or Other, but hell, that’s three out of six? I’m truly South African!
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.