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I was driving from Randburg down to the Joburg city centre last week in what I always knew as DF Malan Drive. I smiled when I noticed the new street sign: Beyers Naude Drive.
We were filming a documentary and needed the architecture of old Joburg as a backdrop. We found the gardens in front of the National |Library in Market Street the ideal spot. And there, in the corner, was a larger-than-life depiction of the same Naude on a glass wall.
I smiled again. I knew Oom Bey well. This man of courage, integrity and conviction was almost a golden thread throughout my life and a tremendous inspiration. He deserves to be honoured.
Naude was a senior member of the Afrikaner Broederbond and influential NG Kerk leader until he had a change of heart about apartheid in the 1960s. He was defrocked, driven out of his church and harassed for almost three decades by the police, banned from meeting, speaking and travelling.
In an obituary after his death in September 2004 he was quoted as saying: “What really annoyed the leaders of Afrikaner nationalism when I broke ranks was that I was every bit as much a white Afrikaner as they were…
“I reminded them of that side of Afrikanerdom which they have never been able to tame. It is an Afrikaner willingness to cross frontiers, relating to their own experience of exploitation, struggle and poverty.”
Naude was the early trailblazer for several other Afrikaners who knew they had a bright future in dominant Afrikanerdom with ready access to money and power if they decided to stay inside the laager, but preferred the lonely, dangerous road of dissent and opposition. Some, like theologian Nico Smit, poet Breyten Breytenbach and politician Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, became known outside Afrikaner circles, but most of them just struggled on in isolation.
I interacted closely with most of these figures during my own small quest to oppose apartheid thinking in my tribe and to undermine narrow ethnic chauvinism. I witnessed their sacrifice and ostracism. But I can also testify to the powerful impact their subversion of the dogma of the fathers of the volk had on Afrikaner thinking.
I have no doubt in my mind that these rebels and activists had a major bearing on the moral debates around apartheid that eventually helped shift and bully the leaders of Afrikaner nationalism into opting for democracy.
Things are going wrong again in our country, even though we have a democracy now and no legitimacy problems like the previous regimes had. But where are the new dissidents, the new rebels prepared to jump out of the laager and challenge those in power?
Where are the black Beyers Naudes?
I find most comparisons between the previous and the present dispensations senseless.
But I do think it is relevant to draw some comparisons between the attitudes and thinking of the previous ruling elite with those of the present lot in power.
Power is intoxicating, even if you’re just on its periphery. The life of an insider is a comfortable, affirming one.
It is good for your social life and standing and never does your job and financial prospects any harm. It enhances the quality of your life and your confidence if you feel that you belong, that you’re trusted by the inner circle, that you move in influential circles with all the trappings of power.
So when confronted by the non-believers, those with uncomfortable questions about where the party is really going, you demonise and ostracise them. In my younger days, people like me were accused of being disloyal to the volk, disrespectful of history, sucking up to blacks, limp-wristed liberals or traitorous communists, out of touch, bad Afrikaners/whites, selling out. We were shunned and maligned.
It is happening again, all the accusations of disloyalty and disrespect, of selling out, of being counter-revolutionary, having white/extreme leftist tendencies, of being bad blacks or coconuts.
Red lights screaming “Outsiders!” are being flashed in the direction of people who are questioning the abuse of power, corruption, cronyism and the blurring of state and party.
Disappointingly few people are prepared to face these accusations. And those in power are getting more arrogant in the process. We are witnessing the virtual betrayal of our liberation, the surrender of much of our democratic gains, the abandonment of our quest for a new moral order.
Mercifully there are memorable exceptions. We do have our Mamphela Rampheles and our Njabulo Ndebeles, but not many of them from the heart of the ANC and not nearly enough of the younger generation.
I’m happy to note that many of the independent thinkers and straight-talkers are black journalists. This wasn’t true of Afrikaans journalists during the apartheid years.
SA needs new dissidents with, in Oom Bey’s words, a “willingness to cross frontiers, relating to their own experience of exploitation, struggle and poverty”.