Monday, April 12, 2010

When I think about South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup and the country’s continuing challenges, particularly with the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche, a white supremacist, I am reminded of the courage of two South African friends of mine, black and white, who long before many others were pioneers of truth and reconciliation and forgiveness.

William Nkomo, a medical doctor, was a co-founder with Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress Youth League because they thought the Congress was not militant enough. William was dedicated to bloodshed, to revolution and to getting the white man out of the country. George Daneel, on the other hand was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church and a famous stalwart of the Springbok rugby team.

In 1953 Nkomo met at a multiracial conference in Lusaka a group of Afrikaners, principally theological students from Pretoria University, who told him they had been wrong to adopt an attitude of racial superiority and described their commitment to a different South Africa and their desire to find a basis of unity through listening to the voice of conscience on the principle not of who is right but what is right.

They seemed so sincere. It seemed senseless to liquidate such people and reactionary for me to maintain the old stand,’ said Nkomo. ‘What shook me most was to meet rabid Afrikaner nationalists who had found something bigger to live for and were prepared to apologize to me and other African nationalists for their former attitude of hatred and arrogance. I began to realize that instead of planning for the liquidation of people, I could sit with them, and listen to God’s guidance, to plan for a new South Africa together with them.’

A year later Nkomo spoke at a public meeting in Cape Town City Hall. He said, ‘I swore to drive the white man to the sea. Then I saw white men change and I saw black men change. And I myself decided to change. I’m now fighting with thousands of African for a hate-free, fear-free, greed-free continent peopled by free men women.’ One of the Afrikaner nationalists, George Daneel, spoke along with him.

I remember the event well for I was there. The occasion had two parts, the performance of a stage play, The Boss, in which I played a part, and the meeting. The next day the Cape Times underlined in its headline the fact that black and white were on the platform.

Over the next years Nkomo and Daneel worked together. Blacks sometimes accused Nkomo of being a sell-out, while whites accused Daneel of softening up Afrikaners so that the blacks could take over. Opponents of Nkomo tried to set his house on fire and Daneel was attacked by Prime Minister Verwoerd in the cabinet and by the Afrikaner secret society, the Broederbond. Daneel was one of the first Dutch Reformed ministers to speak out against apartheid – 45 years before his church’s Synod finally brought itself to condemn it unequivocally.

A documentary A Man for all People records the way Nkomo continued to speak out without hatred well before there was any certainty that the rainbow nation would emerge. It describes how at one point a Pretoria policeman stopped him for a traffic offence, hitting him in the face and seriously damaging his eye. The officer was brought to court, where the magistrate found him guilty but discharged the case. Bitterness again welled up in Nkomo and some urged him to take revenge. ‘I remember saying we had taken too many things to God and perhaps this time we should take them to blood. When I went home God spoke clearly to me that this was the action of an individual and I shouldn’t blame it on a people.’

Nkomo died in 1972 at age of fifty-seven. Ten thousand people came to his funeral. Alex Boraine, president of the Methodist conference and later to be vice chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said of him, ‘Every experience of suffering which his people bore, he felt in his own body and spirit. He knew no hatred of any man, yet his indictment of injustice was a hurricane of fire.’

His Afrikaner friend, George Daneel, spoke at his funeral: ‘When I heard him say that he had shed his hatred and bitterness towards the white man, I realized that it was the attitude of superiority and arrogance of white men like myself which had caused the bitterness and hatred in the hearts of black men. I asked God to forgive me and I apologized publicly. It may be that every white man in this country, maybe every white man in the world needs to face up to this. Since them I have committed myself, with many others of all, races, to put right what is wrong in this country.’ Daneel died in 2004, aged 100.

Such lives and voices are needed everywhere today.