Saturday, November 30, 2013

The "Camelot" years in the anti-apartheid struggle

A fascinating feature of Alan Wieder's biography, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War against Apartheid (2013), is his reference to the 1950s as "Camelot" for white people who were part of the struggle against apartheid. As Wieder says, it was Gillian Slovo, one of the children of First and Slovo, who applied this term, and, one senses, she didn't do so entirely approvingly. The Slovo children clearly suffered from their parents' intense commitment to the struggle, as the children of other public men and women have often struggled, and Gillian Slovo's perhaps unhappy characterization of her parents' world should be understood against this background.

Nevertheless, the word may be apt. Nadine Gordimer's book Burger's Daughter -- a work of fiction, but connected to the actual life of a leading South African anti-apartheid lawyer, Bram Fischer -- vividly describes the partying of the day. It was, it seems, exciting to oppose apartheid in those years. And why shouldn't it have been? The whole world was moving away from doctrines of racial inequality, and surely South Africa would not sustain its isolation from this progressive trend indefinitely. Victory was coming. Meanwhile, though there were risks and consequences, they were much less severe than they would soon become. In the 1950s, of the many anti-apartheid leaders and activists who were accused in the Treason Trial, not one was convicted. And when police raided your house (as I think Stephen Clingman recounted in his biography of Fischer, Bram Fischer: Afrikaner Revolutionary (2000)), you offered them tea -- if you were white. A measure of the romantic flavor of the time is that many people apparently didn't take the precautions their clandestine efforts really called for. And, while the political struggle went on, the opponents of apartheid were able to live a life that crossed racial lines -- lines that no other South Africans dared cross.

Things would soon grow worse. A state of emergency and a host of laws that made emergency rule part of regular life, a series of successful prosecutions (including of Bram Fischer), and the institutionalization of police torture changed the world of anti-apartheid opposition. It would take till the 1970s for a spirit of opposition to begin to flourish again. It's all the easier to understand how powerful the state oppression of those years was, when we know how much had been dreamt of and lost from the 1950s.

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