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Bruce Haigh answers questions from high school students relating to the motivation for undertaking certain activities in South Africa.

Q1. What were some fears that you encountered while fighting for justice?

Answer: The biggest problem in taking on issues, particularly if they are not popular, is handling the enmity of family, friends and perhaps employer. Of course in some situations there will be physical fear, but I found the hardest to deal with was exclusion or the fear of exclusion from comfort zones. Being alone and wondering whether the cost of lost relationships was worth it and indeed whether I was right. It is always easier to go with the flow.

For instance in Australia and America it is difficult to take up the cause of Palestinian rights or euthanasia. The first thing I find is to decide within yourself what are the merits of the issue you are faced with. What are the rights and wrongs. Nothing is ever really clear cut, their are always arguments for and against, or at least when you first get involved in an issue; the more you get into it and the more you get involved the clearer it seems to get. However, that can lead to a loss of perspective, a loss of balance as you become convinced of the absolute justice of your position.The position and actions of the other side might drive you to distraction, but at the end of the day you are dealing with people and people have many flaws and many strengths, it depends always on how you view your enemy!

For instance soldiers sometimes shoot prisoners and women and children. Why? What drives or allows people to do these things? Particularly when years after most will regret their actions. In a situation like South Africa under Apartheid it was necessary to keep talking to and maintain a working, if not strong dialogue with the ruling Afrikaner elite.

It is necessary to keep talking to the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka even though they have behaved appallingly to the Tamils. Talking with should not amount to agreeing with but often people fall into that trap in order to maintain their comfort zone. It can be difficult to disagree with someone when you have accepted their hospitality. However by the same token their can come a point that you have to get up and leave if you are being bullied, no matter how politely!

I guess it is much harder to have moral courage than physical courage. We live in countries where physical courage is placed ahead of moral courage. It always amazes me when someone has been rewarded for feats of bravery and they subsequently turn out to have feet of clay. We often see this in our military leaders, “we had to destroy that village in order to save it.”

The Taliban are terrorists, so we will not talk or negotiate with them. The war cannot be won by military means, so if we will not negotiate, what is the end game? What does the Taliban want? What are their aims? Is their any ground for negotiation? What is Pakistan’s role? What does their army and intelligence services want? And so it goes on.

In South Africa, my Department, Foreign Affairs, expressed itself against Apartheid but not for black rights, so I had to work alone and quietly whilst at the post. And do the same when I got back to Australia. Lobby politicians and others of influence to try and bring about change as well as differences in our policy, which sometimes were the same thing. My parents did not share my views, so that was difficult.

Q2. When you were trying to help Donald Woods escape, were you afraid? Were there any other moments in your life that you felt afraid while fighting for justice?

Answer: Yes. Donald was not the only one. With these sorts of things, you make a plan and go over it, refine it and try and cover all the things that might go wrong and once ‘satisfied’ wait, and that’s the hardest part.

Once things are underway it’s OK and problems and the unexpected can be dealt with on the run so to speak.I have felt afraid of a lot of things, exams, getting into trouble at school, being judged at work, riding horses, motor bikes, sailing, in the army, I think the thing for me was learning how to handle and cope with fear – the fear of failure, looking stupid, just the fear of fear. It is a constant battle, but handling it has made it easier the next time. Mental toughness is the answer. Helping people when you know or believe other people will mock and criticize you. Self belief, self knowledge – it is leadership of another sort and not always learnt in police or military academies.

I felt afraid in Afghanistan, in Kabul. Taking photographs of Russian soldiers and installations and waiting for rocket attacks. I felt afraid when I challenged my employer, the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Q3. How accurate was Cry Freedom historically?

Answer. The film was fairly accurate, but all films highlight some things and marginalize others. They can never illustrate all the complexities of personalities. That is why some people prefer documentaries.

Q4. Is there a particularly special story you could share about Biko &/or Woods that was not in the movie that could shed even more light on who they were?

Answer: Donald Woods was irreverent, a cowboy, a congenial loner, a maverick with a strong belief in justice and a great love of people. Steve Biko was a natural leader. Tall and good looking, smart and charming, he was the sort of person you would naturally elect to be student president. Women had difficulty resisting his charms. He was sensitive and courageous, but did not chase risks. He understood the mind of his oppressor and could therefore deal with them as people.

Q5. In the movie, the “scoop” is phoned in before the Woods family departs Maseru. This seems to get the South African government upset. Was this just for a dramatic ending to the movie, or did you really alert the South African press before they departed?

Answer: I haven’t seen the film for awhile. I had it as a video but haven’t got it as a DVD. I can’t remember the ‘scoop’, but the press did not find out about the escape until Donald and his family were safely in Lesotho and then they turned up from Jbg. and Cape Town to interview him. That was important from the point of view of protection for Donald. There was a possibility that the SA security police might have tried to kidnap and take him back to SA.

Q6. While working with Biko, were you ever worried about what was going to happen to you or your family?

Answer: Always a bit worried, that a rogue security policemen might have done something silly. There were a number of incidents, but nothing serious. Also it was always a bit of a worry going into the black townships, particularly Soweto, as a white man.

Q7. In the 1970s, did you have any idea at the time how impactful your actions were on South Africa, and for that matter the world?

Answer: Well I don’t think I had much impact, but certainly Donald and Mamphela did.

Q8. What was the most “mind-blowing” experience that you ever witnessed?

Answer: Most people will say it, but the birth of my children and the day I realized that my step son and I were as close as all my other children. But mind blowing. I’d like to be able to say the day Australia became a Republic, but it hasn’t happened yet! It is a very good question because some of the best mind blowing things to have happened are simple things with the kids or friends or around the farm. But I know what you mean. I guess sailing with lots of sail up in a very strong breeze. Benazir Bhutto being elected Prime Minister. Seeing the Rolling Stones live on stage in 1963 with Roy Orbison. Meeting Nelson Mandela.

Q9. Did you ever have any “doubts” regarding your career path? Did you ever lose hope?

Answer: I have had a great life and wouldn’t change much, but doing what I did or rather being who I am was not great for my formal career in Foreign Affairs, but for the real life aspects of that career it was great.

Q10. What was it like to travel to Afghanistan and report on the war and other aspects of the Soviet Union?

Answer: Maybe I have covered this question above. Afghanistan is a ruggedly beautiful country. It has not been kind to invading armies from Alexander on. I used to go to Afghanistan for ten days at a time. The embassy had a permanent lease on a house in the middle of town. Staying overnight in New Delhi and catching an early morning flight to Kabul. To avoid the Stinger Missiles the pilot of the Indian Airlines 737 would extend his flaps at 6,000 feet and spiral down very quickly to the runway. I once sat in a seat going back to Delhi which was very wet, the previous occupant on the flight in had let go of his bladder!

I made a point of talking to diplomatic representatives from eastern bloc countries. Once talking with the Polish Ambassador I noticed the attache in the room with us had something square under his jumper – the conversation was being taped but very crudely! I invited people for drinks to the house. The Polish and Czechs were very critical of the Russians. This was 1988. It wasn’t too long before The Wall came down. Russia was on the back foot. When back in Delhi and out of the war zone I would celebrate with a really nice meal and before going in would do the same and call it the last supper.

Q11. What advice do you have for kids interested in becoming active agents for social justice? In other words, how can kids get involved?

Answer: By asking that question you are on the road to getting involved. Some people, maybe a lot of people, believe that Democracy is set in stone and as a result can take a lot of neglect and abuse, it cannot. It is a fragile thing and requires constant nurturing and care, like the environment. To get involved empower yourself. When things annoy you or when something needs to be done, write a letter to the paper, ring the radio station and try and get on air, particularly if it is a nasty right wing shock jock. Ring and write to your local, state and federal politicians; be polite, be persistent, don’t be fobbed off. Know you facts, present your case. Be passionate but not a pain, although there are times when that might not be a bad thing.

Has Bill Gates made a difference? Could he have done it without his Billions? Has Ralph Nader made a difference? I would venture to suggest you do not need billions to make a difference – you need strength of character and that needs to be developed just as surely as fitness for the sporting team. You are lucky to have a teacher who has that it mind. Not many teachers would go to the trouble that Mr. Hjelmgren did with this topic including tracking me down.

All the best with your collective futures, I know all of you in different and positive ways will make a difference.

Bruce Haigh
Last Updated ( Friday, 11 June 2010 )