Home About Chapters Gallery Library Glossary Links Copyright

Straddling Both Camps, The People's and The Enemy's

In early 1982 a trade unionist and medical doctor named Neil Aggett became the first white political prisoner to die in Security Police custody.i At the end of the year, a part-time student and community worker, Barbara Hogan, was sentenced to an unprecedented ten years in prison for gathering information about trade unions and community groups for the ANC.ii The effect of these events on the 'white left' was profound.

 “A group of us sat down and tried to plot out what role there was for progressive whites in South Africa. We never got terribly far — the wave of detentionsiii took out half the people in one swoop. What that group said is that whites are doubly disadvantaged: mainly they are intellectuals, so they are not actually going to play a major role in working-class struggles. Secondly, progressive whites are a very small minority and we have no chance of forming a mass-based party, so any role we have to play is in conjunction with other progressive forces in the country, whether they be democratic trade unions, community organizations or political organizations. Our finding was also that in order to offer our support to progressive black organizations we had to do so from a position of strength, and you could only do that from being organized at a certain level.iv

 When Barbara Hogan was detained that changed my life totally. She was someone I knew really well: she was my student and friend. Then came Neil Aggett's death, and suddenly I realized that the police were serious about what they were doing. We all developed politically at that time, because up until then it had been a rather abstract kind of game, and then suddenly it was the real thing: torture and life and death. I helped form the Detainees' Parents Support Committee (DPSC) and Detainees' Support Committee (Descom). By working in the detention field, one learned in a very empirical way what you were up against: the ruthlessness of the state and what it is capable of, in terms of raw power. It was an alarming thing — I was quite naive until then.

We started to broaden out, to monitor the police, to make their life as difficult as possible, to make each new detention a high political price to pay. And then taking on the state itself — because it becomes clear that apartheid is undemocratic and that the only way you can maintain such an illegitimate structure is by repression, so if you really want to end detentions you have to end apartheid.

 I think also, by the way, you can't underestimate the influence of Helen Joseph. She was unbanned in 1982 and she went straight onto the campuses and started talking and reviving. With this lack of knowledge about the ANC and its policies, broadly, whites hadn't heard of the Freedom Charter until about 1981 — it was a forbidden topic. So Helen being unbanned was quite an influential thing, because she immediately hit all the campuses and started talking about this glorious non-racial past. She was a point of entry, because she looks like a granny and she is so reasonable and so sweet. She was critical in raising a whole white generation's consciousness about the non-racialism of the struggle in the old days.

A lot of people just grew up with the idea that there is no role for us to play, because Black Consciousness has been with us for quite a long time and it has more or less always been like that. Then people started reading Time Longer than Ropev — that was a really important kind of buzz book to read — and began to realize that there is a whole tradition of nonracialism around. You began to realize that, in fact, there was a longer tradition than Black Consciousness, a tradition which was more respectable in many ways. And then structures emerged which actually proved the idea: the emergence of progressive community organizations, student organizations that you could work hand in glove with as whites. So that you knew you were actually playing some kind of role, in a very personal, experiential way.”

, a social anthropology lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand

“One of the most pressing political issues for whites is military conscription, for every white South African man is compelled to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF). The experience of educating whites about conscription and militarization offered important insights into how this community is most effectively organized.

At the University of Cape Town we took up a big campaign around the issue of the extension of conscription. It was extended in 1982 to two full years, plus annual camps, and we had a lot of debate around that issue. I think it was then that I started developing an idea about the importance of organizing in the white community, and the importance of whites' resistance to the military and to the government. We realized that national service was an issue that white students were really concerned about — because it affected them personally, it disrupted their lives, and they were very unhappy about it. 

There was the argument that whites have to actually make a choice: either they support the ruling class or they support the people. We all go through a process, to some extent, of breaking away from our backgrounds and our parents and from our very sheltered upbringing, and we felt that it was incredibly important that people make that break. So that was the argument that we used: it was like dividing the ruling class. You know, there is an incredible difference between South Africa and Rhodesia before independence. There you had an almost homogeneous white population, with very few voices of dissent. The whites were prepared to just fight unquestioningly until the end, not actually knowing at any stage what was really  happening and what the black community thought. Here it is different because we have got that room to move and to change white people's attitudes.

Why did the conscription issue only emerge in the early 1980s?

There had been a very small group called Milcomvi which was taking up this issue, and it came to be seen as something which was actually jeopardizing the building of a legitimate student movement on campus. And in addition, you had a situation where your progressive or left leadership of the white student movement at that stage was very small and it was quite elitist in its approach. They were working from an understanding that committed white democrats should stay and work in the country and build up organization, and that led to a line that student leadership should actually participate in the army — 'strategically' participate. 

During 1982 the national student movement started discussing this issue, saying obviously we can't say to people, we mustn't go into the army — but we can expose exactly what the SADF is doing and the role that the system of conscription is playing.”

, 1982 NUSAS Secretary-General during the build-up to the launch 
of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) in 1983vii

The SADF claims to be defending all South Africans. The End Conscription Campaign and a growing number of young people who object to service in the SADF refute this claim — and so do millions of South Africans living in the townships. The fact is, the SADF is being used more and more to suppress opposition to apartheid, not only on the borders of the country,

but in the townships and homes of ordinary South Africans. In anyone's  language, this is civil war. And many patriotic young men are deciding that they cannot be part of this war. They are refusing to be conscripted to fight against unarmed citizens, their fellow South Africans. The numbers refusing to fight apartheid's war grow annually — so much so that the Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan, has refused to release the figures of those who have failed to report for duty.

ECC calls for an end to conscription because we feel that these young men should have the right to choose not to fight in a civil war on the side of apartheid. It is the right of all people to refuse to take up arms when their conscience dictates otherwise. The overwhelming majority of South Africans support us in our defence of this right.

Stop the Call-Up; ECC pamphlet, April 1986

Relentless media attacks attempting to link ECC with every 'communistinspired' body from the ANC to the KGB revealed the extent of state alarm at ECC's popularity. In fact, the ECC had decided to operate as a `single issue front' — a strategy based on the assumption that the number of whites who opposed conscription far exceeded those who would actively campaign against the government.

“Initially I had quite a strong liberal position, often attacking the left, NUSAS, mainly because I didn't like their style, rather than their content. I thought they were arrogant and cliquish — which we are in the left, often. They were not open, not wecoming. I think we have shifted a lot in NUSAS since then, but I think we have still got a long way to go before we appreciate the importance of working with liberals — not in an expedient way, but in a genuine and sincere way.

ECC is as broad a front as one can imagine. We have Black Sash, the South African Institute of Race Relations, Women for Peace, and some church groupings which are relatively conservative. The broader our support, the greater the threat that we pose to the state, the more legitimacy we have within the white community, and the more protection we have. I also believe that we have the ability to move people, so when we have PFP Youth coming into ECC, I don't believe that that is going to cause us to move backwards and to compromise our position. 

The same scepticism of the liberals now would have been applied to the Christian left within NUSAS in the old days. That has had a really powerful influence on my work, meeting the Cathsoc [Catholic Students Society] and YCS people and coming to understand that their commitment and the energy that they put into their work is no different from ours. And I think I would go further: that we can learn a lot from them, that there is a sense of compassion and humility that the left often lacks. I think that all of us come into the left from a moral position — then we develop a scientific analysis and that moral position is repressed. 

I think what is happening as the course of struggle intensifies is that the white community becomes increasingly polarized — which means that a greater number of people will be hostile to what we are doing, but a greater number of people will take a step of supporting us. Because I think it is becoming increasingly intolerable for the white community to be sitting on the fence. We are never going to mobilize the entire English-speaking community, or a significant section of the Afrikaans sector, but we are mobilizing a significant sector of the white community — significant in terms of its quality, rather than its quantity.”

, ECC national organizer 1985-86


“I think I have learnt something of democracy from being involved with non-racial groups. I have found that very impressive, the degree to which people are consulted, and the need to have mandates to act. I think the kind of tradition out of which I came was very much the white liberal tradition, where everything is on a kind of individualistic basis. Here, for the first time, I was really confronted day to day by people who were not so concerned about individuals, but were concerned about communities and organizations, and finding out what those groups' opinions were before acting, and referring back issues to get a wider support for them. All this was very new to me and quite startling, and it affected me.”

PADDY KEARNEY, director of the Diakonia ecumenical centre in Durban since 1976

Often it was contact with blacks — or more importantly, an insight into their experience of repression — that whites found most educative.

“When we were having our Black Sash conference I got a telephone call from the chairman of the parents' committee in Uitenhage township, and he said to me, 'Molly, please come quickly, they're killing our children.' Well, I didn't know what to expect, so I said to the girls I was going to leave the conference and go out, and did any of them want to come? When we arrived in Uitenhage we found a little cluster of distracted people, and they were terribly worried — their children had been taken that morning by the police and they felt they were being assaulted.

By some strange quirk we got to the police station and the policeman said, `Oh, you can go down to the cells.' Well, we took a wrong turning and we walked in on a torture scene there. A young man was handcuffed to the leg of a table and there was a man whipping him The point that I am trying to make is that that story actually hit the headlines — because Sash gave a very, very clear statement to the press of exactly what we had seen — and still people

said, 'Oh, he must have deserved it.' That's the average white reaction. I mean, the fact was that a young man was handcuffed to the leg of a table and there was a man whipping him — he was lying on the floor with blood coming out of his mouth and terrible scars on his head — and people still say, 'He must have done something wrong.'

Which do you see as more important going to the black areas and standing up for rights there, or making changes amongst your own community of whites?

I don't think its possible to make changes amongst the white community without black involvement, and by that I mean not only taking terrified whites over to the other side to go and look at the community problems and showing them that really they don't need to be so fearful, but I also mean that it's important to bring articulate, sensitive, clear-thinking black leadership over to this side to talk to the whites, and let them question and cross question.

Those sort of meetings which we've had with them have been very, very productive and useful.”

MOLLY BLACKBURN, Port Elizabeth Black Sash leader and PFP Member of the Provincial Councilviii active in support of Eastern Cape community organizations from the early to mid-1980s

 Black leaders attached great importance to involving whites in non-racial politics, though they often found the outreach effort taxing.

“It is painful to speak to white audiences, to help them out of the heavy propaganda they have been subjected to, but I feel I have to do it, even if it is only a few who become committed. They may disagree with you, but at least when the consequences and the result of their activity come, they will remember you have spoken to them. These people are also victims of apartheid as I am a victim of apartheid, and all of us are battling to come out of that apartheid system. 

My understanding is that in any struggle there is an option for dissent from the ruling group, and therefore my theory makes allowance that there would be a few people — I'm not expecting a lot of whites to come on our side, but a few — who become committed and give their lives to be part of that struggle. It is a matter of them participating and proving their genuineness in action more than trying to theorize about the possibility of their participation.

What would you advise a white person who wanted to become politically involved?

I would make him aware of the situation that apartheid has created — the tensions that are there, the fact that he is privileged, the fact that he has more education. And therefore the white person has to be humble enough to also accept and understand the positions of the others, that they will be suspicious and might not trust him. A white person must also be conscious that he can easily dominate and irritate people because of his privileges. It will demand a lot of commitment over a long period. You must be prepared for hard words against you.”

FRANK CHIKANE, General-Secretary of the Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) 1983 — 87 and Transvaal UDF executive member

The UDF launched a 'Call to Whites' campaign, aiming to counter the emigration of liberal whites with the slogan, 'Stay and Contribute'. Whites were being offered a political home, but at the same time being told that they would have to build it themselves. Many activists argued that it was time for whites committed to the UDF's non-racialism to construct an organizational base from which to affiliate to the front. The Johannesburg Democratic Action Committee (JODAC) was one of the first attempts at building such a base.

The general thrust of the UDF is not to start with a model of a non-racial organization, but to start with consciousness and with the conditions that operate on the ground and build towards a non-racial organization. There are a lot of whites who feel that they simply want to work with blacks, and sometimes JODAC is not able to fulfil those expectations. The fact is that one has got to operate in the conditions that are created by apartheid so as to transform those conditions. 

“How did you derive the name of the organization? Why the word 'democratic'?

Because we are trying to put on the agenda, as openly as we can, the central political problem, which is the question of democracy. Now in itself democracy is open for debate: one can stop at one person, one vote or one can deepen it into the economy. So it's a klynamic concept. We would never use the word 'white' in the name of an organization because we see ourselves as being part of the non-racial movement, first and foremost. We happen to be the organization that is addressing people who live in the white group areas and our membership is predominantly white, but that is because of the conditions that we have to deal with.

Has JODAC been successful in reaching out to whites, or does it just preach to the converted?

Well, first of all there's nothing wrong with organizing the converted, because you can never operate effectively as an individual — you've always got to operate through some form of organization. But more and more people are joining our structures because of the way the struggle has gained momentum and created confusion and division within that white ruling group — and then we move in and provide alternative political perspectives. 

 We work very closely with the people in the townships. For instance, JODAC went into Alexandra township [after a 1986 massacre of protesters by police] and laid flowers at the cemetery. The whole thing was planned with the people in Alexandra and they came out in full force to support and protect the whites from the army — a very strong expression of non-racial solidarity. It's not only whites that are organizing whites — more and more blacks are seeing the need for themselves to start organizing whites. There's a growing realization that the white community is the responsibility of the democratic movement as a whole.

The enemy's camp is never a static camp — it's always in a state of fluctuation and change. And the interesting thing about JODAC is that it straddles both the people's camp and the enemy's camp, and that's what gives us our unique position. See, JODAC doesn't see itself as a leadership organization — we see ourselves as playing a leading role in facilitating a process. The leaders are the people in the townships. 

Do you see any parallels between efforts to organize whites in the 1980s and the efforts of the Congress of Democrats to organize whites in the '50s?

We formed in a very different historical context. COD had a very elevated position in the Congress Alliance: each had an equal number of representatives, so COD had as many representatives as the ANC, for instance. So in a sense it had a position out of proportion to its membership. One difference that exists now is that white structures have no elevated place at all. We operate as equal partners completely, so there's no possibility at all of talking about white domination or control. 

, former YCS national coordinator and first chairperson of JODAC

As in earlier periods, organizing whites in the 1980s reflected differing political approaches and regional contexts. For example, the strong Congress tradition of mobilizing in the Eastern Cape contrasted markedly with the historical resistance to organization on ethnic lines in the Western Cape. Thus whites in Grahamstown joined together as a UDF affiliate in 1984, while whites in Cape Town debated for years before finally forming the Cape Democrats in 1987. 

“In the Eastern Cape there is a lot of non-racial contact between white activists and progressive organizations, and black people and black organizations. Grahamstown is a small community; the process of organizing in townships is quite new. Township people would need resources, so they would approach white people who they had begun to meet. I think Congress ideology has always had far more of an influence in the Eastern Cape than BC ever did. So I found when I first started making contact with the comrades in the townships that they were always very accepting of whites.

That has all been affected by the State of Emergency. I don't often go into a township these days, because if I get bust there by the police or military I am going to get hammered for it. Also, because clearly the kind of relationships I had established were with leadership activists and not the mass of youths in the townships, they are going to see me as any whitey going in there. I was stoned once in the township by some militant.

Is that a serious obstacle to building non-racialism?

Look, it is a difficulty. However that is not to say that simply by having contact with black people you are actually furthering non-racial struggle. Black-white contact represents one understanding of non-racialism, but non-racialism as an abstract goal can be anything. It can be that you are going to have a coloured kind of people running around in a couple of hundred years' time, or it can be simply that no racial differences are acknowledged. 

So one concrete question posed on the ground is: what are all these white people going to do that are becoming increasingly active? They can't all be involved in resource work — the days of whites playing an important role in trade union formation are largely over — so you need to develop appropriate structures and organizations which will give those people a role to play which is productive to the goals and aims of the struggle.

Our usefulness to the democratic movement is basically to the extent that we are successful in disorganizing the white bloc through actually organizing a part of it, through driving into it. There is no way that we are trying to organize to the extent which the civics and trade unions do. Your class context is totally different. We are organizing members of the ruling class — to put it quite crudely — against their interests, and the civics and the trade unions are organizing members of the oppressed classes in their interests.”

ROLAND WHITE, a Grahamstown Committee of Democrats (GCD) founder member who served on the Eastern Cape UDF executive


“I think that the meeting we are at tonight bears living testimony to the fact that we are in the process of building a cohesive nation, a non-racial, democratic South Africa. For the first time in many years, we see that white democrats are confident about the fact that they can actually play a role in the changing South Africa, that they can struggle side by side with the oppressed and exploited. In fact, they are as much victims of an oppressive, vicious system of apartheid as blacks are. 

South Africa is at present a country at war with its own people. That is why we in the UDF are grateful for opportunities like this, where we are afforded the opportunity to put forward our case. We feel that white South Africans are being cushioned from the realities out there. And that is why we want to urge everybody present here tonight in all communities to throw their lot in with the extra-parliamentary organizations. 

It is important that you become part of this big wheel that's turning inevitably towards our freedom, because the fact of the matter is that the tide is unstoppable. Our people will get freedom. It may not be in five years, ten, twenty years time, but it's certainly going to be helped along if there are a lot more people joining in, particularly in the white areas, where the Nationalist Party seem to claim that they have a base in people like you.”

CHERYL CAROLUS, UDF Western Cape executive member, in a keynote speech at the GCD launch, May 1985 

The State of Emergency, first declared in 1985, then reimposed in 1986, hit hard at all resistance. 'White democrats' were among those detained and forced into hiding. Yet in the face of this crackdown, groups of whites flouted the laws restricting contact with banned organizations and flew to Lusaka to meet with the ANC — first businessmen, then liberal parliamentarians — blazing a trail that hundreds of concerned white South Africans were to follow over the next few years.

The quest for political alternatives was motivated by a deteriorating economic and social climate, buffeted by international sanctions and escalating militarization. The white initiatives that arose next were more broadly based, extending to a range of less politically experienced sectors, from professionals feeling the economic squeeze to mothers worried about their sons' army service, in new organizations ranging from Jews for Justice to Afrikaanse Demokrate [Afrikaans Democrats].

Outreach to the white community spawned a number of institutional bases: the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA), founded in 1986 by PFP members who responded to the UDF's call for whites to pull out of the sterile environment of parliament; the Five Freedoms Forum, which gained prominence in the debate over white participation in the 1987 parliamentary elections; and the Consultative Business Movement, an outgrowth of a 1988 meeting between representatives of industry and the UDF.

In 1989 the Five Freedoms Forum led the largest group of whites ever to meet with the ANC, representing businessmen and trade unionists,  academics and activists, city councillors and students, as well as members of the newest parliamentary grouping, the Democratic Party, an amalgamation of the PFP and two smaller liberal parties. The ANC, in turn, put forth a high-powered delegation that included more than half its NEC members and resident Tambo himself, for the meeting was seen as a forerunner to the kind of negotiations that might eventually take place between the ANC and the white power bloc.

“To what extent do you think it is possible to make inroads into the white community?

 You mean in sufficient numbers for them to be able to change, and thereby positively to make a contribution? I can't see that happening. There is too much fear. There is too much self-interest. There is too much ignorance of what is happening in black society.

I think whites will only discover the truth from the one shock after the other. It could have been avoided if we had had the foresight and the understanding to work this through in a much more open association with the black community. But I am afraid that we simply have to accept the fact that the white community will experience the one reaction of anger and bitterness after the other. And therefore there will be increasing fear. We see this now: for the first time the white community is experiencing, materially, the cost of apartheid. Before, the price — I mean financially and otherwise — was always paid by blacks. 

Do you feel that when South Africa changes, you yourself will benefit?

I personally don't think I will benefit. I'm convinced if, by benefit you mean materially or financially, it is going to be a period of very deep and serious sacrifice. But that is the price that we have to pay for this longstanding system of injustice and oppression that we have devised and imposed. It is going to be painful, stormy and difficult. But I believe that, in human terms of building, eventually, a society where people of different cultures and different backgrounds will learn to live together, in that respect South Africa could make a contribution to the challenge which is being presented to the whole world. Because in the real sense of the words, South Africa is a microcosm of some of the major problems and issues facing the whole world.

So where does that leave whites? Is there anything positive at the end of that long road?

Oh yes, certainly. Eventually, with the tremendous economic richness and potential of the country, I think there is a possibility of a much higher standard of living for everyone. There will certainly be a lower standard of living for the whites, but I don't think their standard of living was a good one: I think it was detrimental to the white community in many respects. Secondly, I think they will rediscover their humanity which, to a large degree, the white community of South Africa have lost, or are in the process of losing. Thirdly, they will discover that, if they know how to handle it, they will be rid of many of the fears and anxieties which simply kill whites in their responses. It certainly won't be easy, but I am convinced that in the long run we will have a society which will be therefore more human and more warm and more open than the one that we have built up on the basis of apartheid.”

BEYERS NAUDE, General-Secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) 1985— 87 and UDF patron



i An inquest into Aggett's death acquitted the Security Police of his murder, despite testimony from a fellow detainee who had witnessed Aggett being beaten shortly before he was found hanged in his cell. Aggett was the 54th political prisoner to die in detention.

ii Hogan was the first person in South Africa to be prosecuted for treason in a case that had involved no violence against the state, and upon sentencing became the first white female political prisoner since the 1960s. She served seven years of her ten-year sentence before being released in February 1990 in the amnesty announced with the freeing of Nelson Mandela.

iii The detentions of some 15 white activists in 1981 marked the most extensive clampdown on whites since the 1960s. Though many were held for up to a year in solitary confinement, the state failed to mount a threatened security trial aimed at proving a white-run conspiracy, and the only white detainees convicted of major ANC activities were Hogan and Robert Adam (who was sentenced to ten years in prison, with his co-defendant, Mandla Mthembu, sentenced to five years).

iv In an effort to put across this kind of analysis to a wider audience, NUSAS produced a booklet in 1981, Dissension in the Ranks: White Opposition in South Africa.

An overview of South African history analyzed in terms of class and nationalism, by Edward Roux (University of Wisconsin, 1948, 1964).

vi While South African women have generally tended to be under-represented in political organizations, women have attained some prominence in NUSAS, which elected its first female national president in 1951 (Pat Arnett from the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg). Women became particularly active in NUSAS from the mid-1970s, partially as a result of the trend of young male war resisters taking lower political profiles in order to dodge military service, with many ultimately forced to leave the country.

vii The other precursor to ECC was the Conscientious Objectors Support Group (COSG). Note also that as early as 1979, the ANC's NEC issued a statement saluting white war resisters.

viii Blackburn was open to criticism of her participation in this government body. She defended it on grounds that the council was due to be phased out and was not a creation of the new 'constitutional dispensation', also hinting at her possible resignation from the PFP.

ix JODAC disbanded in response to the 1990 unbannings and encouraged its members to join the ANC.

x The first delegation of whites to meet the ANC at its Lusaka headquarters was led by Anglo American chairman Gavin Relly in September 1985; the second, later that year, by the PFP's Frederik van Zyl Slabbert; and by 1990 more than thirty meetings had occurred, involving clerics, students, academics, Nationalist Party members and even former SADF officers. Most of the meetings were convened in Zambia, but a crucial summit, including Afrikaans establishment figures, took place in Dakar, Senegal in July 1987, and top business leaders discussed future economic policy with the ANC in Harare in March 1990. Similar meetings have been organized by other minority groups: in October 1988 more than 50 Indian South Africans — businessmen and religious leaders, as well as NIC and TIC members — travelled to Lusaka to meet the ANC.

xi Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, in early 1986.

xii The Five Freedoms Forum was founded in late 1986, in reply to a call from the black community for whites to respond to the State of Emergency. It was among a variety of groups that came together to consider putting up a left-of-the-PFP candidate for the 1987 white elections, but dropped the idea in favour of a campaign to publicize the five basic freedoms against which the policies of the parties could be measured: freedom from want, from fear, of speech and association, of conscience, and from discrimination.

xiii The National Democratic Movement, formed in 1988 by a breakaway PFP parliamentarian, Wynand Malan, and the Independent Party, led by a former South African ambassador to the UK who resigned from the National Party, Dennis Worrall.

© SAHA 2023 Disclaimer Privacy Policy