Nazi influence in the forming of Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa

While there are certainly a number of important historical comparisons between Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa (of which I will explore in a future post), it is also interesting to examine the influence that Nazi Germany had with the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa.  To understand the pillars of apartheid ideology and Afrikaner Nationalism, what influenced the thinking of the men who would lead one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, one must look to the links of these men to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ’40s.

The desire for an independent Afrikaner nation started long before Hitler was even born, and their views of racial superiority stemmed from their arrival in Cape Town in the 17th century, but the Nazis provided the Afrikaner nationalists with a certain model in fascism that greatly intrigued and influenced many leading Afrikaner officials.

With the ascent of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933, many Afrikaner nationalists saw a parallel in what they wanted to achieve in South Africa. But it was not just a one-way relationship, and Nazi Germany also saw South Africa as a key potential ally.

During the 1930s, a number of Afrikaner nationalists went to Europe to study abroad. Hans van Rensburg, the future Ossewa Brandwag leader, “was an open admirer of Hitler during his student days in Germany. As head of the German-Afrikaans Cultural Union, he was received in Berlin by Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler himself,” according to Sasha Polakow-Suransky in The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Piet Meyer, who would later become head of the Broederbond and eventually head of the SABC, led a 1934 Afrikaner National Student Union trip to Europe during which he even went skiing with Rudolf Hess in the Alps.  Dr. Nico Diederichs, eventual state president in the 1970s, also studied abroad in Germany during this time, and according to Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom in The Super-Afrikaners, even took part in the Nazi’s Anti-Komintern training school.

In addition to meeting top Nazi leaders, the Afrikaner students also took in ideas from European philosophers of the nineteenth century while absorbing the newer fascist ideas emanating from German universities. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “The young students carried these concepts back to South Africa in the 1930s, where they proved particularly attractive to the men of the Broederbond, as did anti-Semitism.”

Polakow-Suransky continued: “Although racism towards blacks was an integral part of Afrikaner nationalist thought, explicit hostility toward Jews had never been part of the Christian Nationalist worldview. Exposure to fascist ideas in Europe during the 1930s changed that. Nazism provided the Broederbond with precisely the sort of scapegoat it needed to rally poor, unemployed Afrikaners, who resented the ballooning Jewish population…”

“The Broederbond began to argue that Jews were the group that ‘stands in the way of the Afrikaner’s economic prosperity,’” Polakow-Suransky points out.

As Jews fled Nazi Germany, the Broederbond’s leaders actively protested the influx of refugees. In October 1936, when a ship carrying German Jewish refugees arrived in Cape Town’s harbor, Hendrik Verwoerd, the future prime minister, joined the Nazi-aligned Greyshirt movement in protest at the docks.

During World War II, South Africa allied itself with Britain and the Allies against Nazi Germany. Partly due to the Afrikaner memories of British brutality in the Anglo-Boer War forty years earlier, some Afrikaners refused to supported and aid the British, and therefore chose to support Germany. Afrikaner culture, including ancestral and linguistic lineage, were closely aligned with Germany, and Germany had actually supported the Afrikaners in the Anglo-Boer War. But it was more than just siding with Germany due to historical connections, many Afrikaner Nationalists openly supported Hitler’s ideologies and worldview.

It was hoped that with a German victory South Africa would free itself from the British yoke that still powerfully lingered in their minds from the Anglo-Boer War, and at least achieve an independent Afrikaner republic, excluding the British and the Jews. Through a powerful broadcasting station in Germany – Radio Zeesen – pro-German propaganda in Afrikaans was pouring into South Africa over the radio, led by Erik Holm, an Afrikaner who was living in Germany at the time.

BJ Schoeman, a South African MP, summed up the feelings of Afrikaner nationalists at the time when he said the following at a National Party Congress: “The whole future of Afrikanerdom is dependent upon a German victory…”

As South Africans forces fought the Nazis in North Africa and Europe during the 1940s, extremist factions in South Africa were growing more popular. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “Louis Weichardt, an unrepentant anti-Semite, led the Christian National Socialist group known as the Greyshirts; Oswald Pirow, a former defense minister, endorsed Nazi principles and launched a New Order movement; and Hitler admirer Hans van Rensburg led the most popular of these splinter movements: the Ossew Brandwag.”

OB leader Dr. JFJ Hans van Rensburg at a Stellenbosch rally, 1941

OB leader Dr. JFJ Hans van Rensburg at a Stellenbosch rally, 1941

The future prime minister, BJ Vorster, as well as his intelligence chief, Hendrik van den Bergh, served as generals in van Rensburg’s Ossew Brandwag (OB – Ox-wagon Sentinels).

The OB had been established in 1939 by Afrikaners participating in the commemoration of the Great Trek. They aimed at inculcating a “love for fatherland” and at instituting, by armed force if necessary, an Afrikaner-controlled republic in South Africa. By 1940, during World War II, while the South African army could only muster 137,000 volunteers, “the Ossewa Brandwag claimed twice that number, and at one stage, had close to 400,000 members,” according to David Harrison in The White Tribe of Africa.

OB emblem

OB emblem

Vorster, who led South Africa from 1966-1979, was unapologetic and proudly compared his nation to Nazi Germany. He declared in 1942, “We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism… In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.”

BJ Vorster at an OB rally

BJ Vorster at an OB rally

Vorster’s brother, Reverend Koot Vorster, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, was also an OB member. He summed up the feelings of the pro-Hitler group during an address to a student group on September 15, 1940:

“Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ shows the way to greatness – the path of South Africa. Hitler gave the Germans a calling. He gave them a fanaticism which causes them to stand back for no one. We must follow this example because only by such holy fanaticism can the Afrikaner nation achieve its calling.”

In Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa, Kowie Marais, an OB member, recalls the admiration he and his friends held for Hitler: “We thought he might rejuvenate western civilization…against the communist-socialist trends that were creeping in from the east. We thought it was the dawn of a new era.”

Harry Schwarz, who arrived in South Africa from Nazi Germany in 1934 and who eventually became South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, said, “If you read some of the stuff that somebody like Eric Louw [future Foreign Minister] said in Parliament, you can’t differentiate between that and what the Nazis said in Germany.”

anti-apartheid poster comparing apartheid and Nazism

anti-apartheid poster comparing apartheid and Nazism

According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky , in 1940, OB-chief Hans van Rensburg formally offered to provide the Third Reich with 170,000 OB members to help overthrow the South African government if Germany provided them arms. The coup never materialized, but by 1942 the Stormjaers (Stormtroopers), the military wing of the OB, had started a campaign of violence, which included blowing up pylons, power lines, post offices, shops and banks as well as beating up Jews and soldiers.

As a result of their pro-Nazi activities, Vorster and van den Bergh were declared enemies of the state and in 1942 were detained in a government internment camp during the war, a fate that over 700 OB members shared during the war.

The Germans had even hatched their own plans for a putsch in South Africa. In 1934, Hitler sent Graf von Durckheim Montmartin, a representative of Nazi Germany, to South Africa with the official intention of attending a conference on education, but it was later revealed that Hitler had sent Montmartin with the purpose of determining what support South Africa might provide to Germany in the new world order that Hitler envisioned. Montmartin met secretly with top Broederbond leaders during his trip to discuss how the Broederbond might be of service to this end.

Later, in 1941, a former South African Olympic boxer and Nazi sympathizer, Robey Leibbrandt, was transported on a German yacht to a remote area off the Atlantic coast and dispatched to assassinate Prime Minister Smuts and stage a coup.

Leibbrandt’s plan was foiled, yet even after his capture, Afrikaner nationalists continued to enthusiastically support the Nazi war effort. But this waned as the war turned and Germany was eventually defeated.

In South Africa, to get elected, DF Malan knew that he needed every white vote he could get, and thus he slowly began to distance himself from the anti-Semitism of the OB and began broadening his vision of the National Party to include all whites. But not all Afrikaner Nationalists supported this move, and many, including Vorster, van den Bergh, Meyer, and Verwoerd, went on to lead the apartheid government over the next forty years of its existence.

1970s French anti-apartheid poster comparing Vorster with Hitler: "The Real Face of Apartheid"

1970s French anti-apartheid poster comparing Vorster with Hitler: “The Real Face of Apartheid”

The influence of Nazism remained as it had provided a foundation upon which many of the Nationalist Party leaders built their political beliefs and policies. Even when Nazism collapsed, the seed of its ideology remained buried in the ideology of the Nationalist Party.

While the National Party’s victory in 1948 did signal some clear distinctions from Hitler’s National Socialism — most notably the fact that South Africa’s Jews were granted privileges of whiteness under apartheid, left unaffected by the apartheid legislation that formalized the separation of races — apartheid as state policy from 1948 onwards continued to resemble Nazism in its laws, views of racial superiority, and repression of dissent.

Brian Bunting’s 1964 book, The Rise of the South African Reich

25th Anniversary of Mandela’s Release from Prison


Twenty five years ago today, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. As he was able to triumphantly walk out of Victor Verster Prison, he took his first steps as a free man since 1962. It had been 27 years spent languishing in South African prisons before these momentous steps in what Mandela called his “long walk to freedom.”

What had started back in the mid-1980s with discussions and negotiations between the apartheid government and Nelson Mandela and the ANC culminated in the announcement by President FW de Klerk that Mandela would be released from prison on February 11, 1990.

At the age of 71, Nelson Mandela proudly walked out of prison. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said, “My ten thousand days of imprisonment were over.”

People around the world celebrated as Mandela had been the world’s best known political prisoner.  Due to the effectiveness of the “Free Mandela” campaign, people around the world knew Mandela and advocated for his release despite his long imprisonment.


Even in South African prisons people celebrated.  Justice Bekebeke, who was in prison at the time in South Africa as part what was known as the Upington 14, said, “We used to have one hour of exercise every day but on that day we all stayed in our cells to listen to the radio. The moment the radio announced that he was walking out with Winnie, that moment was freedom for us. We forgot where we were.”

Mandela embodied the predicament of all black South Africans. In him they invested all their hopes and aspirations; he had become the personification of an entire people.  If he was now free, that meant that they all would be free, as well.

In South Africa, a raucous crowd of some 100,000 South Africans squeezed into the Grand Parade grounds outside Cape Town’s City Hall, infusing it with the energy of a rock concert. Mandela was to deliver his first speech there later that day, at what was almost certainly one of the largest black crowds ever to gather for an event in what was still formally a white city.


Mandela told the crowd, “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today.”

But as amazing as this day was, this was not the end of apartheid by any stretch of the imagination.

As Greg Marinovich and Joa Silva said in their book, The Bang Bang Club, “Mandela’s release had been accompanied by a sustained campaign of brutal killings and terror, covertly planned, funded and executed by government security units and the police.”

Even Mandela noticed this, that as important as it was that he was now a free man, the walk to freedom was still not complete. “I might be out of jail, but I was not free,” Mandela said in Long Walk to Freedom.

“I encouraged the people to return to the barricades, to intensify the struggle, and we would walk the last mile together.”

As Mandela had said back in 1985 when he refused to take PW Botha’s offer of a conditional release, “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom.”

Difficult days lay ahead. Political violence would claim more than 10,000 lives over the next four years. Negotiations between de Klerk’s government and Mandela’s ANC stalled and broke down on multiple occasions before the country’s first democratic election that elevated Mandela to the presidency in 1994.

But on this day 25 years ago, South Africa entered a new era.



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Top apartheid assassin released from prison

Yesterday, it was announced that Eugene de Kock will be released on parole in South Africa after serving 20 years of a sentence that included two life terms plus 212 years in prison. The former apartheid assassin and head of an infamous government death squad will be released, as South Africa’s justice minister, Michael Masutha, “in the interests of nation-building and reconciliation,” and because he had expressed remorse at his crimes and helped authorities recover the remains of some of his victims.

So who is Eugene de Kock?

De Kock work for the apartheid regime first began as a member of the South African Police (SAP).  He completed nine tours of duty in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) between 1968 and 1975, and in 1977 he was appointed station commander in South West Africa (present-day Namibia), to help in the counter-insurgency against the nationalist forces.  But he saw the need for a different approach to counter-insurgency.

In 1979 de Kock found his feet when co-founded the notorious Koevoet (“crowbar”) unit. As part of the SAP,  Koevoet was created to combat SWAPO (South West African People’s Organization; fighting for the liberation of present-day Namibia) through extra-legal means. The model for Koevoet was the Portuguese Flechas and the Rhodesian Selous Scouts. Its main task was to kill freedom fighters from SWAPO.  The name “crowbar” was aptly chosen, according to Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange said, as it is “the crowbar which prises terrorists out of the bushveld like nails from rotten wood.”

They relied on askaris, local soldiers serving in the armies of the apartheid regime. The term originated in colonial Kenya and referred to Africans who served in the armies of the British.  The British turned these askaris into units of African spies who would infiltrate nationalist guerrillas, gathering intelligence for the colonists.  Askaris of this type were widely used in Rhodesia and the Portuguese Empire. The most developed askari force was RENAMO in Mozambique, which eventually grew into a political movement. As a result, South Africa saw the importance of having askari units as part of their counter-insurgency actions both inside South Africa and in bordering states. Christi van der Westhuizen says that “Koevoet had ten to fifteen black members for every white officer.”

Koevoet members had been trained in counter-insurgency in order to meet the unit’s aims, and they quickly became one of the most effective combat forces deployed against SWAPO. As Christi van der Westhuizen says in White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party, “Its members, realizing that they were a law unto themselves as long as they did the National Party regime’s bidding, left a trail of horror and destruction in their wake. They raped women, brutalized civilians, including children and the elderly, …and tortured people to extract information.”

According to Denis Herbstein in The Devils are Among Us, “the dirty task of causing enemies to disappear ” had been Koevoet’s mission.

Koevoet became well known for its high assassination rate. According to Christi van der Westhuizen, “Koevoet’s ‘cash-for-corpses’ policy – members were paid a bounty for each person killed – ensured a 1:32 ratio of prisoners to fatalities. In the ten years of Koevoet’s existence, members killed or captured 3,225 SWAPO soldiers, according to De Wet Potgieter in Total Onslaught: Apartheid’s Dirty Tricks Exposed.

Herbstein even reported that, “Off duty, members of Koevoet wore T-shirts proclaiming ‘Murder is our business — and business is good.”

Koevoet continued to operate in South West Africa until 1989, but in 1983, the South African Police transferred Eugene de Kock to C10, a counter-insurgency unit based just outside Pretoria, on a remote farm known as Vlakplaas.

farmVlakplaas functioned as a paramilitary hit squad, capturing political opponents of the apartheid government and either “turning” them or executing them.

De Kock rose through the ranks and became the commander of Vlakplaas in 1985. This government hit squad became the number one death squad for killing anti-apartheid activists.

According to Max du Preez in Pale Native, “The list of murders, tortures, assaults, and kidnappings was long.”

In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela points out that, “The covert operations program did not “officially” exist but was clearly necessary for apartheid to survive.” And the government saw it as that important that they pumped millions in secret funds into de Kock’s unit for years, according to Gobodo-Madikizela.

According to James Sanders in Apartheid’s Friends, “Vlakplaas was not an isolated gang of psychopaths tolerated, from a distance, by the securocrats. It was a state-sanctioned death squad.”

For his role, de Kock was nicknamed “Prime Evil” for his role in the killing and maiming of activists fighting apartheid in the 1980s and early 1990s. De Kock is believed to have been responsible for more atrocities than any other man in the efforts to preserve white rule in South Africa.

the documentary Prime Evil (2010)

His crimes became emblematic of some of the worst abuses in the apartheid era. One of the trademarks of the Vlakplaas unit was the depths they went to cover up their crimes and get rid of the evidence.  After killing a target, in many cases they would incinerate, burn, or even blow up the remains so that no scrap of evidence was left.

Vlakplaas was also responsible for blowing up two buildings in Johannesburg: Cosatu House, the headquarters of the ANC-aligned trade union federation, in May 1987, and Khotso House, the South African Council of Churches’ headquarters, in September 1988. Vlakplaas also was active in supplying weapons to the Inkatha Freedom Party from the mid-1980s as part of the “Third Force” violence that spread throughout South Africa up through 1994.

According to Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, de Kock was a man who “many in the country considered the most brutal of apartheid’s covert police operatives,” a man whom she referred to as “the most notorious executor of apartheid’s most brutal methods of repression.”

“As behind-the-scenes engineer of apartheid’s murderous operations, he had been nameless and faceless,” according to Gobodo-Madikizela.

That is, up until 1994 when he was arrested on charges including murder and kidnapping related to his time as commander of Vlakplaas.

In 1996, de Kock was convicted of 89 charges, ranging from murder and attempted murder to kidnapping and fraud.  With a judge saying his actions had been cruel, calculated and without sympathy for the victims, de Kock was sentenced to 212 years in prison plus two life terms for crimes against humanity.

Trial testimony revealed details of some infamous political killings, such as the unit’s role in the 1991 murder of Bheki Mlangeni, a human rights lawyer whose head was blown off by a cassette player with explosives in the earphones. A witness in another incident described how Colonel de Kock split one victim’s head with a shovel after a gun misfired twice.

With the start of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), de Kock applied for amnesty and appeared before the commission for the first time in 1997.

Eugene De Kock speaks at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 1999

Eugene De Kock speaks at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in 1999

Before the TRC, de Kock confessed to crimes against humanity. He specifically confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud, taking full responsibility for the activities of his undercover unit. His revelations shocked South Africans and revealed the length and brutal techniques the apartheid regime was prepared to take to stay in power.


This is what made de Kock unique amongst his fellow apartheid officials in the police, military, and government.  He was one of the rare individuals who came before the TRC and actually admitted to what he did.  De Kock offered thorough accounts of the torture and killing of ANC activists. His testimony helped South Africa understand the true horrors and depths that apartheid officials went to maintain white supremacy, and it helped many families find closure knowing what finally happened to their sons or daughters.

While other Afrikaner leaders maintained denial or ignorance about the crimes of humanity that had been committed, including former presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, de Kock not only acknowledged what he did, but he also showed remorse for it.

De Kock blamed most of the killings on senior politicians in the apartheid government, claiming he was just following orders. He added that the politicians, including former South African presidents, knew all about Vlakplaas and their crimes. He accused apartheid leaders of deserting their men who did their dity work: “They want to eat lamb but they do not want to see the blood and the guts.” In a 2007 radio interview from prison, de Kock accused FW de Klerk, the last white president, of having hands “soaked in blood” for ordering political killings. But de Klerk has continued to deny knowing anything about these crimes, saying that he never ordered them.

Political cartoon showing de Kock having taken orders from apartheid leaders, including presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, to carry out everything from "murder" and "torture" to "bombings" and "state terrorism."

Political cartoon showing de Kock having taken orders from apartheid leaders, including presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, to carry out everything from “murder” and “torture” to “bombings” and “state terrorism.”

De Klerk, appearing before the TRC, pleaded ignorance: “Many things happened which were not authorized, not intended and of which we were not aware. The recent information of atrocities I find as shocking and as abhorrent as anybody else.”

“South African leaders tried to distance themselves from the ugliness of apartheid violence by denying that it existed at all: the policy was see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – and therefore admit no evil,” writes Gobodo-Madikizela.

“Killing apartheid’s opponents became South Africa’s dirty little family secret that everyone could see but no one openly talked about for fear that the house of cards called apartheid might come crashing down.”

In a 2001 address at Harvard University, FW de Klerk defended his own moral distancing. In “a state of war,” he said, foot soldiers in their zeal often go beyond what is legally acceptable and commit acts that are not authorized by the government.  Asked whether he thought it was reasonable that he played a role in apartheid crimes against humanity, de Klerk shot back, “My hands are clean.”  De Klerk dismissed de Kock and his colleagues as simply bad apples in a security department that was trying to cope with a war situation.

Political cartoon showing that while de Kock's testimony shed light on apartheid crimes at Vlakplaas, there were clearly more death squad farms like this that existed

Political cartoon showing that while de Kock’s testimony shed light on apartheid crimes at Vlakplaas, this was clearly just the tip of the iceberg of the secret death squads that existed during apartheid. As Antjie Krog writes in Country of My Skull, “In the beginning, the only farm we knew about was Vlakplaas. Then it came to light that similar farms existed in the old Natal, the Transvaal, the Orange Free State, and the eastern Cape.”

De Kock continued to express remorse throughout his time in jail, reaching out to the family members of those he killed, seeking forgiveness.

He has written to the mother of ANC lawyer Bheki Mlangeni, who was killed by a bomb in 1991, asking for her forgiveness, saying, “Your forgiveness will mean a lot to me, but it can in no way wash away the pain I have caused.”  He has also met with Marcia Khoza, the daughter of ANC activist Portia Shabangu, whom de Kock executed after an ambush in Swaziland in 1989.

While clearly not everyone agrees that de Kock should be getting pardoned, especially after hearing about the brutality and evil of his crimes, South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who interviewed de Kock many times while he was in jail, feels that a pardon is necessary in this case.

“De Kock made an extraordinary contribution to the TRC process, a point that is acknowledged in the commission’s final report. Most of the security police and certainly all the police generals who applied for amnesty were forced to do so as a result of de Kock’s disclosures to the commission,” Gobodo-Madikizela points out.

In her book, A Human Being Died That Night, she argued in favor of a pardon for a man she said had been a servant to a brutal regime.

Sandra Mama, widow of Glenack Mama who was killed by de Kock in 1992, said she thought the Justice Minister was also right in granting parole.

“I think it will actually close a chapter in our history because we’ve come a long way and I think his release will just once again help with the reconciliation process because there’s still a lot of things that we need to do as a country,” she said.

Desmond Tutu agreed, saying the release of Eugene de Kock represents a milestone on road to reconciliation and healing.

To read more about Eugene de Kock, check out BBC’s Profile of an Apartheid Assassin, and read Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night.

Honoring FW de Klerk?

In Cape Town, the city is moving forward with a plan to change the name of a street.  This is not that controversial on the surface as many cities, streets, airports, schools, and hospitals have been renamed in South Africa since the end of apartheid.  It truly is a history lesson in itself to follow these name changes, and it certainly says a lot about how a country wants to view itself and its past.  Johannesburg’s main airport used to be known as Jan Smuts International Airport, but it was eventually renamed O.R. Tambo International Airport after the former ANC leader.  What used to be Harrow Road, a road cutting across Johannesburg’s central business district, has become Joe Slovo Drive after the former leader of the South African Communist party. In Cape Town, Western Boulevard became Helen Suzman Boulevard, and Eastern Boulevard was renamed after former President Nelson Mandela. And South Africa’s largest hospital, Baragwanath Hospital, has been renamed after the young Communist Party and MK leader, Chris Hani — the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.  Changes like this have been occurring regularly throughout the past 20 years, and therefore they are not usually shocking or out of the ordinary.  However, the new name of Table Bay Boulevard in Cape Town is causing a lot of uproar.

The City of Cape Town has said it will go ahead with its plans to rename the road FW de Klerk Boulevard.  The city’s naming states that citizens of Cape Town and South Africa may be considered in their lifetime if they have received international recognition of the highest kind. City councilor Brett Herron said former president FW de Klerk fell within that category.  According to the proposal, which has the support of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, it was opportune for the city to recognize FW de Klerk’s role in the transition to a new dispensation in South Africa.

The 79-year-old de Klerk was president from September 1989 to May 1994. He was last head of state of South Africa under the apartheid era. In 1993, he won the Nobel Peace Prize along with struggle icon Nelson Mandela for their role in ending apartheid.

Both the African National Congress and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) are ardently against the name change.

COSATU’s Western Cape provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich said it is wrong to put Mandela and de Klerk on even footing, despite their sharing the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. “The reality is that Mandela was a liberator of the people of South Africa and a man who aspired to undo the legacy of apartheid … De Klerk on the other hand was an architect of apartheid and responsible for implementing a system that brutally oppressed the majority.”

ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said, “He was part of apartheid. … He did not liberate us.” If it were their decision, the ANC would not rename Table Bay Boulevard after the former president.

“The ANC wouldn’t name an institution after FW de Klerk. Renaming is part of our heritage and he played no part in our revolution,” Kodwa said.

De Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, was a career politician who never floundered in his belief in apartheid.  When he took over as president in 1989, he inherited a country that was in chaos.  South Africa was in a deep financial crisis due to international sanctions, boycotts, and divestment, they were internationally isolated and roundly condemned as the world’s pariah, and there was a consistent and powerful mass action of anti-apartheid resistance that had refused to back down in the face of incessant State of Emergencies. It was in this context that within a year of taking office, that de Klerk took the drastic steps of unbanning the ANC, PAC, and other political parties, as well as releasing numerous imprisoned political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. De Klerk was arguably in a position where reform was needed and needed urgently for the sake of the entire country.  This is where a major part of the controversy originates from.  Does this about-face after decades of white-only Afrikaner apartheid mean that de Klerk was the hero of South Africa or just a pragmatist? Did de Klerk really want to end apartheid?  Did he really see it as a crime against humanity, which the United Nations had labeled it in 1966? These questions are important for the stance he took during the negotiations from 1990-1994.

Around the world, and amongst much of South Africa, de Klerk was praised for abandoning militantly conservative Afrikaner Nationalism and agreeing to negotiate with organizations and individuals that he and his government considered terrorists for decades.  He was jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize along with Nelson Mandela for negotiating a peaceful end to apartheid, but there are those who view de Klerk’s part of the prize with skepticism due to his background and beliefs.  It was during this negotiating period when tens of thousands of South Africans were killed in brutal conflicts that raged in townships around the country.  Although it was portrayed by the government as “black-on-black” violence and “ethnic fighting” between the Zulus and the Xhosa, much of it was being furthered by the de Klerk government and their security forces.  This “third force,” as Mandela referred to it, was instigating and perpetuating much of this brutal violence to try and discredit and weaken the ANC and to derail the negotiating process.  This was later revealed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s.

In Mandela’s own words, shortly before the joint award to both men of the Nobel Peace Prize, De Klerk was “a man with blood on his hands”.

As Mondi Makhanya in South Africa’s City Press wrote recently:

“Apartheid was a system that De Klerk served loyally for most of his adult life. His rise through the ranks of the NP was due to his skills, his political acumen and, very importantly, his enthusiasm for his party’s apartheid policies. He energetically supported and implemented them in various capacities as party executive, MP and senior member of the John Vorster and PW Botha cabinets.

Are we now to forget that at the height of apartheid, he was the chief enforcer of separate and unequal education? … Are we to forget that he served in cabinets that oversaw cruel repression of anti-apartheid formations, a cabinet that presided over death squads and torture chambers?

We are told that his February 1990 speech paved the way for change and he negotiated the National Party out of power. That it was Mandela and him who led us across the River Jordan.

This view ignores the fact it was during the early 1990s that his security forces ran the so-called Third Force that fanned the flames of violence in the black townships and villages.

It was on his watch that people were butchered on trains and massacred in places like Boipatong, Sebokeng and Edendale.”

While it should be noted that nearly a decade ago, Nelson Mandela actually supported naming a street after de Klerk in Cape Town, in my humble opinion, naming a street after a man who presided over apartheid and who still attempts to justify it, despite the steps that he may have taken to help dismantle it, is shocking and appalling.

As Mondi Makhanya wrote in his article, “To honor him would be an endorsement of the evils he took part in as one of apartheid’s leading lights.”

The Link between Dr. King and Nelson Mandela

mandela - mlk

With today being Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., it is interesting to look at the connection that Dr. King had with the anti-apartheid movement, as well as how individuals like Nelson Mandela and others viewed the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.  In terms of his activism and comments outside the U.S., a lot has been made of Dr. King’s focus on Vietnam, yet little has been made of his focus on South Africa.

Dr. King never traveled to South Africa and never met Nelson Mandela, yet they remain historically linked as two of the 20th century’s most respected freedom fighters, along with the mentor that they both shared — Gandhi.

Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. never met but they fought for the same cause at the same time on two continents. Mandela said he was prepared to die to see his dream of a society where blacks and whites were equal become reality. King was assassinated in 1968 while working for that same dream.

Both Mandela and King won the Nobel Peace Prize (1993 and 1964 respectively), both were committed to a campaign of non-violence, and both were imprisoned for their beliefs.

both in prison

King and Mandela were inspirational symbols for huge freedom struggles happening in both countries, said Clay Carson, a Stanford professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute.

“I think both of them were moral leaders. Both were people who had very strong principles, stuck to those principles even in the face of criticisms, and in Mandela’s case being in prison for such a long time,” said Carson.

Despite never having met, the two were closely connected to each other’s struggles and the similarities between the two.

Mandela traveled to the United States after he was released from prison and he spoke at Yankee Stadium, telling the crowd that an unbreakable umbilical cord connected black South Africans and black Americans. There was a kinship between the two, Mandela wrote in his autobiography, inspired by such great Americans as W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. King.

King, for his part, was unable to visit South Africa. In 1966 he applied for a visa after accepting invitations to speak to university students and to religious groups but the apartheid government refused to give him one. Even before then, though, he took definitive action in opposing apartheid.  In 1962, Dr. King jointly issued an “Appeal for Action against Apartheid” along with Chief Albert Luthuli, the head of the ANC and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

In December 1965, King delivered a speech in New York in which he publicly denounced the apartheid rulers of South Africa as “spectacular savages and brutes” and called on the U.S. and Europe to boycott the nation.

In his 1965 speech, Dr. King specifically discussed apartheid, referring to it as “white supremacy”:

“In South Africa today… a medieval segregation is organized with 20th century efficiency and drive. A sophisticated form of slavery is imposed by a minority upon a majority which is kept in grinding poverty. The dignity of human personality is defiled; and world opinion is arrogantly defied.”

Dr. King went on to connect his movement to the anti-apartheid movement and the independence movements throughout Africa:  “The civil rights movement in the U.S. has derived immense inspiration from the successful struggles of those Africans who have attained freedom in their own nations.”

Dr. King also recognized the role that whites were playing in the anti-apartheid movement, just like they were in the Civil Rights Movement:  “Even more inspiring is that in South Africa itself, incredibly brave white people are risking their careers, their homes, and their lives in the cause of human justice.”  Dr. King was referencing courageous individuals like Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Helen Suzman, Helen Joseph, Bram Fischer, Beyers Naude, Alan Paton, and Nadine Gordimer, among many others, who fought alongside black Africans in an effort to bring about an end to the oppressive system of apartheid. “The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most potent and entrenched racism. The whole human race will benefit when it ends the abomination that has diminished the stature of man for too long,” Dr. King continued.

In 1967, Dr. King wrote in his last major work, Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?, “Racism is no mere American phenomenon. Its vicious grasp knows no geographical boundaries.”

“The classic example of organized and institutionalized racism is the Union of South Africa. Its national policy and practice are the incarnation of the doctrine of white supremacy in the midst of a population which is overwhelmingly Black. But the tragedy of South Africa is virtually made possible by the economic policies of the United States and Great Britain, two countries which profess to be the moral bastions of our Western world.”

Dr. King clearly was following the events in South Africa and was critical of the role that businesses, banks, and even the U.S. government was playing in propping up the regime. Fighting the apartheid regime by boycotting businesses who did business with South Africa became a vital strategy of the international anti-apartheid movement as a way to isolate the regime and punish them economically.

After the assassination of Dr. King, his wife, Coretta Scott King, continued supporting the anti-apartheid movement.  Starting in late 1984, a daily campaign of civil disobedience was launched outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC that lasted for over one year. There were daily arrests for protesting in front of the Embassy, and in all, around 6,000 people were arrested throughout this year-long protest, including Coretta Scott King in 1985. On the anniversary of her arrest in Montgomery, Alabama 29 years earlier, civil rights icon Rosa Parks even willingly was arrested outside the Embassy on December 1, 1984.

Coretta Scott King (left) and Rosa Parks (right) protesting outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC in 1985

Coretta Scott King (left) and Rosa Parks (right) protesting outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC in 1985

Coretta Scott King also attended Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration as South Africa’s first black president. Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, “I looked over to her as I made reference to her husband’s immortal words … `Free at last! Free at last!'”

Coretta Scott King and Nelson Mandela

Coretta Scott King and Nelson Mandela

Mandela meets with the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mandela meets with the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mandela again quoted from the Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last” – during his 1994 address to the U.S. Congress.

But while a lot of comparisons are made between segregation and racism in the U.S. and in apartheid South Africa, there are clear distinctions between the two.  Racism in South Africa was far more entrenched and much different than in the U.S.

Prior to 1948, when apartheid officially came law and policy, there were similarities between the two.  John Allen, in his biography of Desmond Tutu, Rabble-Rouser for Peace, said, “William Beinart, professor of race relations at Oxford University, has observed that until 1948, although segregationist attitudes might have been more stringent in South Africa than in the United States…, they were not much different. The newly elected government set about changing that. …[I]t made race the fundamental building block of society.”

In Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela points out the key differences: “The conditions in which Martin Luther King struggled were totally different from my own: the United States was a democracy with constitutional guarantees of equal rights that protected nonviolent protest (though there was still prejudice against blacks); South Africa was a police state with a constitution that enshrined inequality and an army that responded to nonviolence with force.”

Jim Crow laws were not national laws passed by Congress, which is what apartheid laws were.  Desmond Tutu also points out how much more oppressive and entrenched apartheid was in South Africa:

“People are fond of drawing parallels between what is happening in our country and what happened in the ‘60s in the United States in the Civil Rights Movement, and to some extent there are some similarities. But there is one fundamental difference, the law in the U.S. was on the side of the campaigning in the Civil Rights Movement. What Martin Luther King and those who were involved with him were doing was to claim rights that were theirs under the Constitution. Here we do not have the support of the Constitution or of the law. The Constitution and the law are against us, and so we have to dismantle that whole structure.”

Denis Goldberg, a close Mandela friend who spent two decades in prison while Mandela was incarcerated, noted another major difference between America’s and South Africa’s racial equality struggle.  In the U.S., blacks were a minority while blacks in South Africa “were an oppressed majority.”

Even Dr. King agreed that apartheid was different than racism in the U.S.  In 1965, Dr. King said, “In our struggle for freedom and justice in the United States, which has been so long and arduous, we feel a powerful sense of identification with those in the far more deadly struggle for freedom in South Africa.”

Dr. King and Mandela will always be linked together as two individuals who led national movements for justice in the 20th century, and who risked their lives for this struggle. Rightfully so, these two great men should continue to be remembered and honored today for the world that they helped create.  The important connections that they had to each other’s movements is an important link between these two great leaders that never met.

Happy MLK Day!

The Power of Political Cartoons

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hedbo attack in Paris, there has been a lot of talk free speech and of the power and influence of political cartoons in our society.  One of South Africa’s most renowned political cartoonists, Zaprio (aka. Jonathan Shapiro) has praised the work of Charlie Hedbo, both before the attack and especially after it, including the controversial choice of theirs to publish an illustration of a tearful Prophet Muhammad, holding up a “Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie)” sign accompanied by the words “All is forgiven”, in French, on the cover of its latest edition.

“I am in awe of Charlie Hebdo for the courage and tenacity they have shown in publishing that cartoon on their latest edition,” Zapiro said on Thursday.

“They have stood by what they believe in and that is freedom of expression.”

In my classroom, political cartoons play a vital role in helping my students understand controversial historical or political events as they tell complex stories that are easier to comprehend than long speeches or essays.  I admit that I had not heard of Charlie Hedbo and their cartoons before the attack, but I definitely had heard of and supported political cartoonists throughout the world.

In South Africa, Zapiro is by far the most well known political cartoonist, and his biting criticisms of society, from the apartheid regime to corruption in today’s government. Even now that I am back in the U.S., while continuing to follow and read about South African news, I almost daily check out Zapiro’s political cartoons in the Mail & Guardian online and on his website to try to get a gauge as to what is happening in South African society.

During apartheid, political cartoons played an important and meaningful role in the anti-apartheid movement.  Published both in newspapers in South Africa and abroad, they served to simplify the social and political situation in South Africa in an effort to reach a broader audience. Most used visual metaphors and caricatures to address complicated political situations. They were a creative way of visually showing the reader what was happening in an entertaining and humorous way, even if the event itself was tragic. Political cartoons were able to tell people what was happening in a way that no newspaper article or speech could. It was not just the cartoonists, though, that drew the political cartoons, but the newspapers also played a vital role in deciding to publish these rebellious statements, especially inside South Africa.


Cartoon from the 1950s showing then-Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd, the “architect of apartheid”

Cartoon from the 1950s showing then-Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd, the “architect of apartheid”

Mandela arrested cartoon

Picture3In the early 1980s, it was Jonathan Shapiro who most effectively started to use his political cartoons as a form of protest and rebellion within South Africa.  He first became an activist in the early 1980s with the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), which opposed compulsory military service for white men in South Africa. He funneled his activism through his artwork and became the editorial cartoonist for the UDF’s main newspaper. He quickly became one of the most popular South African political cartoonists, and his work became well-known throughout the world. Through his pen-name Zapiro, his cartoons became powerful weapons in the anti-apartheid movement.  He was arrested and newspapers were banned for publishing his work, yet he refused to back down from his criticism of the apartheid regime.

Zapiro cartoon

In the aftermath of apartheid, Zapiro took on portraying Nelson Mandela in a powerful way that helped the world understand how South African were seeing their first democratically elected president.  Here is Zapiro describing his portrayal of Mandela:

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And while Zapiro definitely is critical of the current regime in South Africa today, using his art to criticize the corruption that almost seems endemic, he also recognizes how far the country has come since the end of apartheid:

multiracial SA today

So in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris, celebrate freedom of expression. “Je suis Charlie!”

Badilisha Poetry X-change

I just came across a great new website of audio recordings of African poetry from throughout the continent.  Badilisha Poetry X-Change is both an online audio archive and Pan-African poetry show delivered in radio format. Now the largest online collective of African poets on the planet, Badilisha has showcased and archived nearly 400 Pan-African poets from 24 different countries in 14 languages. It reflects the myriad of rhythms and rhymes, voices, perspectives and aspirations from all corners of the globe.

UntitledBadilisha began life in 2008 as an annual poetry festival in Cape Town featuring poets from all over Africa and the diaspora. The website came four years later from a desire to reach listeners and readers across the continent, and preserve the work for posterity.

New poetry is constantly uploaded, and you can search by theme, emotion, country, or poet.  This amazing resource gives an insight to the amazing poetry coming out of Africa, and allows you to hear how African perspectives about Africa.

Badilisha appears to suggest Africa’s ancient tradition of oral poetry sits more comfortably in the 21st-century technology of the podcast than in mainstream publishing. Linda Kaoma, project manager of Badilisha, based in Cape Town, South Africa, said: “A lot of publishers are not publishing poetry, but it does not have to be confined to books. It’s alive. The voice adds texture, adds a different layer to the poems. A lot of people are enjoying listening to poetry rather than reading it. We need to change the way we present ourselves to audiences, and audiences need to be aware of different ways of receiving poetry.”

The 29-year-old said her education was dominated by Shakespeare and she only started encountering African poets when she became involved in Badilisha.

Listen above to South African poet Antjie Krog, a widely acclaimed South African poet read her poem, “Where I Become You”

In the anti-apartheid movement, poetry played a significant role in fighting back against the regime. As the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto points out, poetry “had tremendous impact, especially on the minds of the young.” Poets faced the same harassment from the police as other writers, including bannings, imprisonment, and exile, but the bold statements made by these courageous poets provides yet another example of the creative ways that people chose to oppose the apartheid government.

Ingrid_JonkerAnti-apartheid poets include the likes of Ingrid Jonker, an Afrikaner poet in the 1960s. She grew up in a traditional, conservative Afrikaner family, but was appalled at what was happening to people around her throughout the country. Her most well-known and most controversial poem was “Die kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga),” which translates into English as “The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga).” It was published in 1963 as Jonker’s view of black people in South Africa not being defeated by massacres, like the Sharpeville massacre, but rising up in even greater numbers and determination to regain their dignity and freedom.

Listen above to Nelson Mandela reading Jonker’s “Die kind” poem in his opening address to the first democratic Parliament on May 24, 1994

Par2964705Dennis Brutus, a Coloured poet, first began to criticize apartheid and speak out against the government in his poetry in the 1960s. His first collection of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, was published while he was in prison in 1963. As the title suggests, they are a series of poems protesting South Africa’s racial policies and the government’s reliance on police and military force to enforce the brutal inequalities.

Amongst black Africans in South Africa, a new means of expression came out of apartheid — “struggle poetry.” “Struggle poetry” signaled a shift in black poetry from lyrical themes to indirect political messages in free verse. Poets who became well-known in this new expression included Oswald Mtshali, Mafika Gwala, James Matthews, Sipho Sepamla, and Njabulo Ndebele. Their verse expressed disapproval of the socio-political conditions in the country and was a conscious attempt to raise the level of awareness among their people.

seroteOne of South Africa’s most renowned poets, and also an adherent during the apartheid era of “struggle poetry” was Mongane Wally Serote. His poems expressed themes of political activism, the development of black identity, and violent images of revolt and resistance. It was a creative outlet that resonated with black Africans, especially during the rise of the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s. He wrote about the issues that most black people were facing during apartheid, those of squalor, violence, death, destitution, exploitation and the quest for identity and a sense of community. In 1972, he published his first collection of poetry, Yakhal’inkomo. For his outspoken poetry, the government responded with harassment and arrest, including being arrested in 1969 and spending nine months in solitary confinement.

italIngoapele Madingoane was also a poet in the “struggle poetry” tradition during the 1970s. Like Serote, he was also vital to the rise of the Black Consciousness movement in the country.  His most famous poem was Africa My Beginning, which was published in 1979. The poem was banned almost immediately, but it became a fixture at protest rallies and funerals throughout the country in the 1980s due to its message and Madingoane’s way of delivering it. Usually accompanied by flutes and drums, Madingoane’s defiant, epic poem became one of the most evocative anthems of the era.

Mzwakhe Mbuli, known as “the People’s Poet,” spent all of his career fighting injustice and racism, and in the 1980s he played a leading role in the cultural activities of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Speaking and singing regularly at funerals during the 1980s, Mbuli poetically eulogized heroes and martyrs. His debut album of poetry and music, Change Is Pain, was banned by the South African government upon its release in 1987.   Robert Christgau, former editor at the New York Village Voice newspaper, called Mbuli “the embodiment of cultural struggle.”

Listen above to Mbuli’s “The Day Shall Dawn” from 1986

Africa is a continent rich with poetic history, so check out the Badilisha Poetry X-Change site to hear what today’s African poets are saying.