From whipping boy to Whip

By Maggie Follett Time of article published Nov 7, 2011

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Jannie Momberg vividly remembered the morning in 1945 when he came into the kitchen to see his father sitting with his head in his hands, weeping. “I asked my mother: ‘Why is Pa crying?’ She replied: ‘Hitler is dead.’”

This anecdote from From Malan to Mbeki – The Memoirs of an Afrikaner with a Conscience” illuminates the background of a colourful and contentious politician: a former “Nat” branded as a nest-feathering traitor by his own people, vilified by the Afrikaans press, and accused of deserting the liberal fold for political expediency, who finally found safe haven in the welcoming bosom of a previously-banned, black “left-wing” organisation.

The late Momberg earned opprobrium in conservative circles for committing various offences against the Afrikaner in a long, chequered career. The first was to resign from the National Party to which he had belonged for some 30 years. Then he helped found the Democratic Party, becoming an MP. But it was his secret courtship of ANC leaders in exile, and subsequent defection to stand as one of the movement’s first MPs in a democratic government that was perceived by NP loyalists as the ultimate betrayal.

I must declare myself here – I had the privilege of editing Momberg’s book, which has given me a fascinating insight into the man. Far from being the arrogant, bombastic, self-serving opportunist portrayed by his detractors, he emerges rather as big-hearted, somewhat naive, often brash and overly forthright, but a man whose political actions were motivated largely by compassion and contrition about apartheid.

Momberg, known throughout the Boland as “Jan Bek” (literally “Jan Big-mouth” to differentiate him from his less-loquacious cousin “Stil Jan” Momberg) tells his story in the slightly unwieldy style of an Afrikaans-speaker who, though fluent, is not entirely comfortable in English.

Jan Hendrik Momberg was born in Stellenbosch in 1938 to an affluent, deeply conservative farming family with strong Nationalist sympathies. Prime ministers DF Malan and John Vorster were family friends, and for the young Jannie – 10 years old when the National Party came to power – a political career within its ranks was virtually a given. His formal grooming in politics began at Stellenbosch University where, on the committee of the NP youth wing, he showed his mettle as an excellent election campaigner.

At 21, when his father died, Momberg inherited half the family farm, and reluctantly suspended his studies (obtaining a BA in history and economics a decade later). Never a committed farmer, Momberg sold his share after only four years to buy the historic Neethlingshof Estate and becoming a successful wine producer.

He was branch secretary of the local Nat party in 1963 when he first questioned its policies. Learning that coloured music-lovers had been barred from attending a symphony concert in Cape Town’s City Hall, he wrote to Die Burger, condemning the Group Areas Act as “immoral”, saying “he had never heard of ‘skollies’ in dress suits attending symphonic performances”. From then on, until finally severing ties 24 years later, Momberg was “continuously engaged in fights with the NP over certain policies with which I could not associate myself”.

He had a parallel career in sports administration (variously as chairman of the Western Province Athletics Association and Stellenbosch Athletics Club, vice-president of the SA Athletics Association, and president of the Boland Cricket Union), and became manager of barefoot runner Zola Budd in the mid-1980s.

Budd had become a British citizen, and Momberg regularly visited the UK where he read uncensored media reports on the South African situation. Concerned that South Africa was teetering on the brink of civil war, a disillusioned Momberg resigned from the National Party in 1987.

The following year he became a founder-member of the Democratic Party. A year later, as MP for Simonstown, he accompanied a handful of DP members to Lusaka for talks with exiled ANC leaders. This brief encounter with country-men whom he had been led to believe were terrorists and ruthless killers proved a life-altering experience.

Two years after the ANC was unbanned, Momberg and four other Democratic Party MPs joined the ANC.

Momberg became ANC house whip, and later chairman of the parliamentary programming committee. He also served on various parliamentary portfolio committees, including Home Affairs, Sports and Ethics.

In 2001, at 63, Momberg was appointed ambassador to Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus. During his tenure he became dean of the African Group of Ambassadors, and was awarded the Medal of the City of Athens for fostering excellent diplomatic relations between South African and Greece.

On January 7 this year the man succinctly described in an obituary as “often controversial, always passionate, never at a loss for words” died of heart failure at 72. He is survived by his wife, Trienie, sons Niel, Steyn, Jannie and Altus, and five grandchildren. In the week of Momberg’s funeral a blog referred to him as a “snake, and traitor”, a post angrily censured by journalist Max du Preez.

These memoirs of a much maligned and misunderstood “our dear Jannie” – in the words of ANC veteran Ahmed Kathrada – will do much to vindicate a patriotic politician who went from NP whipping boy to ANC whip. - Cape Argus

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