ABC The Drum 6.12.13, The Australian 7/8.12.14
Defined by his commitment to end the evil and debilitating system of government in South Africa known as Apartheid, when I arrived in South Africa on 1 July, 1976, to take up a diplomatic posting as Second Secretary with the Australian Embassy, Nelson Mandela had become a symbol of inspiration in the struggle for change. Blacks were inspired by his single minded quest for justice and decency. His presence was palpable.
By the mid 1970’s Mandela was increasingly sharing public esteem with Steve Biko, the charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), which had come to fill the political vacuum created by the banning of the ANC, which existed underground.
I arrived in South Africa two weeks after the outbreak of the Soweto student riots. I found a dysfunctional Australian embassy whose only reporting on black affairs was due solely to the efforts of my predecessor, Di Johnstone.
However no contact had been made with office holders of the BCM or with underground members of the ANC. Di had made contact with with politically active black artists and trade unionists.
Reporting from the Embassy to Canberra concerning the dramatic events unfolding was a disgrace. Barriers needed to be broken and substantial changes made.
The country was on the edge of revolution and, with the exception of my predecessor no one at the Embassy seemed concerned.
I was directed to write on the economy, told not to write on the riots and advised by the Ambassador that the riots were caused by township criminals organised by communists and this interpretation was the only one allowed to be sent to Canberra. Meanwhile as Soweto burnt I was tasked with reporting on the economy.
Without direction I went to Johannesburg and met with leaders of the BCM and with hostility. I was the nominal white on which to take out their frustration. I went to Soweto and met with students, teachers, parents, nurses, doctors, priests and workers and I was unable to report any of these meetings and the frustrations, hopes and aspirations expressed back to Canberra. In the short term I hit upon a device known as a record of conversation. Ask the right questions and information flows. To challenge a record is to challenge the integrity and veracity of the record taker and not even the worst of the bottom feeders in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) had the courage to do that.
I met with Steve Biko on 13 January 1977 and we immediately got along. Nine months later and he was dead, murdered by white security police while being interrogated in Port Elisabeth. Biko was a natural leader, intelligent, tall and good looking; we had some great conversations. He spoke reverently about Mandela, hoped for his early release and looked forward to working with him. He saw the BCM as the youth wing of a revived ANC. But at the time of his death he saw the BCM as more powerful than the ANC, particularly in terms of numbers, ideas and energy.
I was young and driven by a sense of injustice. Apartheid challenged my positive belief in human nature. I had resources and I used them. I held open house in Pretoria which, with diplomatic immunity, was useful. I allowed people to stay who were on the run from the system and from individual police. I went to the police on their behalf, to try and end some very personal vendettas. I visited political prisoners in detention and took nappies and formula for their babies, toys for their children and track suits, books, writing material and even a TV for the parents. Life was busy and a lot of my activities were outside the limited range of embassy duties.
Wherever I went the name of Mandela was invoked as an inspirer of tired and fearful souls, as a prop against despair, as an exemplar of resistance, of courage and hope. At this time Steve Biko’s name was linked with that of Mandela.
However I still had the problem of a dysfunctional Embassy and the need to get the place running normally. An opportunity came in the form of a directive from the Minister Andrew Peacock, telling the Ambassador to make representations at an appropriate opportunity on the detention of four black women from the Young Women’s Christian Organisation. I was the action officer. The Ambassador was reminded of the directive on a number of occasions and finally responded in writing with great irritation, that there had not been an appropriate opportunity and nor would there be. Long standing tension came to a head and the Ambassador asked for my recall. DFAT asked for back ground and I said it was because of fundamental differences between the Ambassador and myself over interpretation of events in South Africa and the conduct of Australian foreign policy in relation to those events.
The Ambassador demanded proof and I showed him a copy of the annotated directive which he stupidly cabled to Canberra and spent the next three months fighting his recall to Canberra. Eventually he left and the Embassy was able to function more or less properly.
Life changed with Biko’s murder and the banning of the BCM leadership and his friend and mine, the feisty newspaper editor, Donald Woods. There was an Inquest into the death of Steve Biko from 14 November to 29 November at the Old Synagogue in Pretoria. Each day there was a large black crowd in attendance, which sang and chanted the names of Mandela and Biko.
I offered to take him out of the country. Donald had written a book in the months after Biko’s death, which included all the material from the sham inquest. The book was important but could not be published in South African.
There were difficulties organising his departure. My plan was simple, but was fiddled with and built upon by other friends making it more complex, which nearly proved its undoing. I got Donald to Maseru, capital of Lesotho, in time for the second phase of the plan, involving his wife and children, to come into play. The weather nearly beat us with unusually heavy rain, causing rivers to rise rapidly and the dirt roads to break up.
Donald took a copy of the’ Biko’ manuscript with him and another copy I sent through the diplomatic bag to a colleague in New York for on forwarding to the publisher.
Further bannings, bashings and detentions meant a steady stream of people wanted to leave the country to save their lives for study opportunities no longer available in South Africa or military training. They were assisted wherever possible, others wanted messages passed around the country and others wanted to speak with BCM and ANC leaders in neighbouring countries and there was literature and money to be distributed from outside of the country; much of the latter going to the wives and children of political prisoners on Robben Island. There was an ongoing need to avoid the security police and avoid compromising activists. My diplomatic immunity got a lot of practical use.
By 1978 I was collecting a wealth of information which I traded with journalists and other embassies for information on the government and the military or for a good lunch.
Following his release from prison Mandela visited a number of countries to thank them for their support in the fight against Apartheid. He came to Australia in October 1990. He was greeted by a huge crowd at the Opera House which overflowed into the Botanical Gardens. Australians were keen to show their warmth and affection for him. The Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, threw a lunch on 23 October for Nelson Mandela in the Great Hall of Parliament House for around 330 people, who for one reason or another had a claim to a place at a table. The gathering was electrified by his presence and the importance of the occasion and entertained with his droll and dry wit.
I met Mandela again when he unveiled a statue of Steve Biko, in East London, on 12 September, 1997, twenty years after the death of the black leader.
Mandela, like Mahatma Ghandi, will live on as a powerful symbol of what one good and determined person can achieve against the evils perpetrated by lesser men and women.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who worked in South Africa.