When the World Was Watching

As the Mandela era is overtaken by African politics as usual, a Canadian diplomat shares his personal account of the end of apartheid

Illustration by Moshekwa Mokwena Langa

Artwork by Moshekwa Mokwena Langa

March 30, 1988

Afraid to come out with the news, I timidly announce it to my family over dinner: “They want us to go to the one place we’ve always said we would never go.” My wife, Alena, knows instantly: “Not Pretoria—no!” Our children Katherine and Peter, for their part, claim to have no stomach for leaving a happy high school life in Ottawa to live in a pariah state. Our eldest, Elizabeth, insists she will stay home for university. She has been convinced by the newspapers that we’ll be caught up in grinding police brutality in the black townships. Just then, as in a cheap novel, the lights in our neighbourhood go out. We all sit in darkness, considering our fate.

South Africa, a land of lambent beauty, has been poisoned by racial confrontation since the Dutch first settled the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-seventeenth century. But the situation took a distinct turn for the worse some 300 years later, when the largely Afrikaner National Party formalized racial separation via legislated apartheid, then banned the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s resistance party. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964, becoming an international symbol for the fight against apartheid. Today grassroots resistance is more fervent than ever—even as it is violently suppressed, at arm’s length, by a minority elite.

I joined the Department of External Affairs to build a career in the real Africa, not to hobnob with white diplomats in the segregated halls of Pretoria and Cape Town. The day before we leave in August, John Schioler, the amiable head of the department’s Southern African Task Force, assures me this is a good career move—both Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark are viscerally committed to getting rid of apartheid—but I’m not so sure. Unlike with the refined negotiation of most diplomatic postings, I’m meant to be “in the thick of things,” as Schioler puts it, actively pushing for change, which is not only dangerous, but probably futile.

September 16, 1988

Having more or less settled in, we take our first trip to Soweto, a neat trade-off: our tidy all-white neighbourhood in Pretoria for the teeming chaos of Johannesburg’s townships. Instead of jacaranda-lined avenues of white Cape-style homes, with BMWs in the drive and glistening swimming pools in back, we wend our way through a vast, treeless community of matchbox houses, depressingly uniform in their layout, bathed in twenty-four-hour light from the kind of pylons usually seen towering above prison yards. People, buses, and ramshackle cars jostle for space in the streets. And not a white face in sight.

We are here to visit a Canadian-supported career centre, a scene of hopeless despair: unemployed and unemployable young people grasping at empty straws, left behind by the ravages of second-class Bantu education. I can see now what an insidiously clever invention apartheid is. By legally classifying people as white, black, coloured, and Indian, and then creating separate and inferior schools for the latter three, the former maintain a pool of cheap labour for mining, for domestic work, for the hard-slog shovelling needed to keep them in luxury. Then, at the end of the day, they can force the non-whites to take segregated transport into police-controlled townships, far from their own well-protected bastions.

Apparently, these career centre applicants do not share my dismay or discouragement. They are dancing and singing, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”). Really?

September 24, 1988

A colleague at the embassy, Lucie Edwards, hauls us away from the joys of our swimming pool to attend a detainees’ tea party at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. The guests are the wives (and sometimes husbands), children, and parents of anti-apartheid workers who have been arrested and tossed into jail, often for indefinite terms. These families are left with no breadwinner, and thus little food and no school fees. Worse, they have no money to retain lawyers for their imprisoned spouses. I feel apprehensive, and for good reason. Instead of tea, we find a resolute crowd chanting struggle songs and marching threateningly around the church hall. We had better get used to it, Edwards says; this toyi-toyi dance will emerge as a fixture wherever we go in the townships; it is the scourge of the police, the nightmare of whites, and the joy of protesting crowds across South Africa.

Taking subtle charge from the corner of the stage is David Webster, from all appearances a white professional with the money to be out golfing. Yet here he is, hosting illicit tea parties for relatives of the country’s cast-offs. Alena and I have already come to marvel at the willingness of a small group of liberal whites like Webster, who it turns out is an anthropologist (but no golfer), to risk an affluence and a sense of security few in Canada could imagine, all in the name of human rights. There is little reason for them to suppose their sacrifices will change anything in the next decade. And there is no reason to expect gratitude for their efforts.

November 1, 1988

In the diplomacy business, you never know what you’re getting into when you accept a social invitation. At a dinner party hosted by activist neighbours in Waterkloof, the issue of sports sanctions is raised over the soup course. Canada has convinced all Commonwealth countries except Britain to impose largely voluntary restrictions on business dealings with South Africa (as external affairs minister Joe Clark says, these sanctions are “to bring South Africa to its senses, not to its knees”), but the ones that seem to hurt the most are those that prevent white South African rugby and cricket teams from competing with New Zealand and Australia. By the time dessert is served, one guest, a well-known orthopaedic surgeon who has been glowering at Alena and me throughout the meal, suddenly bursts out. (Good whisky and wine may have helped.)

“What I’d like to know is why you Canadians can participate in the Olympics and we South Africans can’t!” he demands in flattened Joburg vowels.

“Because we run people like Ben Johnson!’ ” Alena shoots back.

Recalling Johnson’s humiliating disqualification, I give her the eye, and she backs off. I hope neither of us needs knee surgery while we’re here.

November 8, 1988

In Pretoria’s township of Mamelodi, Alena meets with Ivor Jenkins—“Afrikaner through and through,” he says with unabashed pride, despite the classic Welsh name. Secondary only to the conflict between blacks and whites in South Africa is the one that developed between the Dutch farmers who fought their way north into African lands, and the English tycoons and miners who followed, chasing gold and diamonds. In the South African War (or Boer War) at the turn of the twentieth century, the British military used scorched earth tactics to subdue Afrikaner rebels and gain control of the region. But in 1948, the Afrikaners won the election, immediately instituting apartheid. As the English love to point out, Afrikaners are people “of the Book,” the Old Testament. Ivor, a Baptist dominee (clergyman)—and now head of the church-based NGO Koinonia (which means “communion” in ancient Greek)—is one of a small minority anxious to do right by all South Africans. He invites Alena into the somewhat shambolic shipping container that sits incongruously by the edge of a busy road and serves as his office, and explains the work they do: “We get blacks and whites to eat together!”

“And? ” Alena asks.

“And nothing,” he replies. “We get them to eat together.”

“I understand that, but what do you actually do? ”

“Alena, in our country blacks and whites never eat together. This is the nature of our achievement.”

Alena and I have ourselves just hosted the first of many dinners for activists from various groups and races that would not otherwise have much contact. While Canada’s ambassador, Ron McLean, doesn’t feel he can get away with taking the lead on this kind of activism, he nonetheless becomes a frequent guest; as do Ivor; Congress of South African Trade Unions leader Cyril Ramaphosa; white liberal icon Helen Suzman; and two notable representatives of the South African Council of Churches, Beyers Naudé and Saki Macozoma. It is a more sophisticated group than the one Ivor convenes in the townships—black and white attendees feel comfortable talking and eating with one another—but the event still feels subversive, and I find myself believing in the impossible.

November 18, 1988

The South African sun burns into my woolly diplomatic suit as I make my way across Pretoria’s Church Square toward the massive red stone building that houses the Supreme Court. Waving my embassy identity card, I cower past a couple of yellow armoured vehicles, the mammoth personnel carriers known as Casspirs, and then push through the ubiquitous police lines that keep black demonstrators away from politically charged events. Once inside, I slide into a seat next to a group of anxious black women and only slightly more assured white human rights lawyers. We all stand as the white judge presiding over what has become widely known as the Delmas Trial enters amid the usual court panoply, and up from the cells below come the accused: eleven rather ordinary-looking men, all leaders of the United Democratic Front, a loose organization of anti-apartheid groups that represents the exiled ANC inside South Africa. The judge began reading his decision three days ago; today he finally convicts several of the UDF leaders of treason and, for good measure, condemns the entire organization.

As the convicted disappear back down into the holding cells, they exchange defiant shouts of “Amandla!” (“power”) with their families. But the only power I can see lies in the hands of the police. Weeping wives emerge from court to face a wall of uniforms and lunging dogs.

December 10, 1988

Peter rings from Soweto, where he is staying with his best friend, Wandile Motlana, son of Nthato, a UDF leader. While it is no longer illegal for white South Africans to visit the townships, most would be shocked if they knew we let our son visit what they regard as a cesspool of danger. Some, like the parents of Katherine’s grade twelve classmates, won’t even allow their children to come to our house to watch Cry Freedom. When one of the girls who does join us wonders out loud at the start of the film whether they’ll show the part where Steve Biko—leader of the influential Black Consciousness Movement—dies, another girl, from Biko’s hometown, squeaks, “He dies? You’ve just spoiled the whole plot for me!”

Peter is thrilled to have a few days away from this predominantly Afrikaner, piously Christian senior civil servant neighbourhood and his notionally multiracial school (with a sprinkling of black boys for optics), where he has had his head thrust into a toilet by a gang of classmates who accused him of being a kaffir-boettie (lover of black people). He wrote to Joe Clark after that incident and received a gracious response: “Your letter drives home how difficult it must be to advance Canada’s position on apartheid in the midst of a skeptical and fearful white South African student body.” Now, in a breathless, somewhat reverential voice, Peter informs his mother and me that he has spent the afternoon with Wandi’s Auntie Winnie: “Winnie Mandela. You know, Nelson Mandela’s wife.”

Winnie has become a symbol of resistance in her own right, the “mother of the nation.” She sat them in the kitchen and talked of change as she cooked. “Then she took my hand and asked what I thought of the situation,” he adds. “I think she was interested in my opinions, Mom.” At fourteen, he is becoming politicized.

January 18, 1989

If any living character embodies South African apartheid, it is the dryly formal state president, P. W. Botha. A fiercely determined Afrikaner, he joined the National Party as a teenager, drawn as much by its intense hatred of British clout as by its commitment to unfettered white rule. He was put in charge of publicity for the party in the lead-up to the 1948 election, and worked tenaciously over the ensuing thirty years to become its leader, earning himself the nickname the Old Crocodile.

Now, six days after his seventy-third birthday, Botha has a “mild stroke.” The government plays it down; no weakness is to be shown. Outwardly, party members remain adamant that the apartheid system is working, both as a solution to racial tension in South Africa, and as a counter to what they insist is a Soviet-led “godless, communist total onslaught” that threatens Western values across the continent. Internally, of course, there is much ambivalence regarding apartheid’s claim to racial harmony. Perhaps more compellingly, its infrastructural and security demands are severely straining the economy, swelling a faction of moderates represented by the likes of Roelof Frederik “Pik” Botha and Barend du Plessis, both possible successors to P. W. Botha. Most members, however, keep their heads down, including the inscrutable minister of education, F. W. de Klerk.

March 30, 1989

David Webster invites Alena to lunch with Johnny Clegg, the frontman for the interracial band Savuka, an international phenomenon. (Michael Jackson reportedly cancelled a concert scheduled for the same night as Savuka’s show in Lyons, France, last year, prompting the newspaper headline “White Man Singing Black Music Outsells Black Man Singing White Music.”) As Webster, Clegg, and Alena amble down Church Street, blacks stop, awestruck, or rush over to shake Clegg’s hand; inside the small, dark eatery, waitresses approach shyly, one after another, just to gaze at him.

He and Webster are interested in how our $2.5-million Canadian Dialogue Fund can best assist critical anti-apartheid projects. They each make a solid case—Webster for supporting detainees’ rights, and Clegg for investing in music as a means of surmounting racial and cultural barriers—and they want to meet again when we return from a month’s leave in Canada.

When our driver, Moses Nnawe, fetches us from the airport in early May, we ask what we’ve missed. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, he replies, “David Webster’s memorial yesterday, with 8,000 mourners.” The details are beyond grim: Webster was shot point-blank by “unknown assailants” (undoubtedly a government-sanctioned death squad) outside his house, in front of his partner, Maggie.

July 3, 1989

However hard those such as Webster fight, the real force for change radiates from two poles, widely separated and carefully cut off from each other. One is the prison on Robben Island, at the country’s extreme south, where many ANC members, including Nelson Mandela, have been incarcerated. The other lies completely outside South Africa: to the north, in Lusaka, capital of Zambia, where ANC president Oliver Tambo presides over the organization’s wide international network, while Joe Slovo plans terrorism operations inside South Africa for its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK (“spear of the nation”).

I have come to Lusaka to meet with ANC leaders, and to add my voice to those who believe the MK is as immoral as it is ineffective. I end up arguing late into the night with Slovo and the ANC’s head of international affairs, Thabo Mbeki. Slovo is his avuncular self, telling me with discouraging finality that the ANC cannot abandon violence: “Force must be met with force.” Mbeki is more suave, and he has a specific message for Canada: “We need tougher sanctions, more pressure in the UN, more money for the struggle inside South Africa—more of what you’re doing. And say thanks to your Mulroney and Clark.”

Neither is prepared to admit that change might be in the offing, even though de Klerk has taken over from the ailing Botha as the new leader of the National Party. But as the night wears on and the whisky takes hold, I am left with the impression that at the very least secret discussions have taken place between the ANC and South African ministers. Surely Mandela’s release is next, now that he has been moved to Victor Verster Prison, where he lives in a proper house, complete with a cook, and receives occasional visitors.

August 28, 1989

About a month ago, maybe sensing that the government was wavering, maybe just to keep up pressure, the Mass Democratic Movement—a new name for the now banned UDF—announced that it would attempt to desegregate hospitals, schools, and transport. I participate in the Defiance Campaign by joining MDM activist Sandy Lebese in Proclamation Hill, Pretoria’s most conservative district, at 6:45 a.m. today, to watch four pleasant young Indian kids and a white student try to board a white bus.

We are met by twenty-seven police officers, and by two inspectors who take turns stopping buses down the road and then deftly ferrying white passengers around our bus stop in their cars. When the Indian students do finally manage to board a bus, they find it empty of passengers. The police claim they have peacefully foiled the attempt to challenge apartheid laws, but the independent media have their stories and pictures. A point has been made.

There is, of course, a price to pay. Ivor Jenkins, who planned much of the Pretoria bus campaign, has had shots fired at his house; others involved have gone into hiding; and Sandy Lebese and three others are in jail, charged with conspiracy. I walk to the police station to try to find them, the catch of the day, stuck in a single cell, black and white together. I’m told to come back at 6:30 p.m., and I do—to be let into the cell to talk. But what can I offer? A few words of comfort, then a quick wave goodbye. I return home for a beer and a good meal. They stay behind in the bleakness of Pretoria Central Prison.

August 31, 1989

Things are heating up. The MDM campaign may be peaceful, but across the country it is met with force, and any talk of negotiated change seems to have evaporated. This morning, I rush off to Johannesburg: the mostly white students of the famed University of the Witwatersrand, where David Webster once taught, are engaged in an “illegal” protest. For three hours, the police chase small cohorts about the campus with tear gas. The intrepid Moses drives me into whirls of the toxic vapour, just as several hundred students are being herded into the enclosed, multi-storey quadrangle of Senate House. Some climb to higher floors and peer apprehensively from the balconies above; others kneel or squat on the marble below. Silent police officers line the walls with tear gas guns at the ready. Standing alone in their midst is the deputy vice-chancellor, Mervyn Shear, a wispy-haired oral pathologist. As happens so often in South Africa these days, he is suddenly a hero. “Thank God you’re here,” he whispers tensely. “Now maybe we can get the police to back off before they do something really drastic.”

September 8, 1989

A tall, distinguished, and experienced diplomat of the old school, Ron McLean always looks somewhat out of place behind his modest desk. (Much of the embassy is actually quite tawdry; we couldn’t afford to spend money on premises we might yet abandon.) He tells me he was summoned peremptorily to the foreign ministry offices in the Union Buildings yesterday. “Your John Schram has exceeded the bounds of diplomacy,” the usually even-tempered deputy head of the department admonished him. “He has been participating in protests; he has interfered with the police; he has taken part in the MDM bus stop campaigns; he has stuck his nose into the university protest at Wits.”

McLean responded bluntly: “If we can’t show Canadians we’re doing more than just drinking tea here, we’ll be closed down—and so will your embassy in Ottawa.” Not since the Holocaust and the Second World War have Canadians been so united in their contempt for injustice. And while Sweden, the Netherlands, and Australia have adopted similarly assertive approaches, the government here seems bothered particularly by the Canadians. I return home that night unsettled. Katherine appears with a grin, holding a very homemade cardboard magic wand to wave away this poor country’s problems.

September 27, 1989

To whites, the Eastern Cape is settler territory; to blacks, it is the birthplace of protest. The early anti-apartheid leaders—Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela—all hailed from the region, and it was in cities like Port Elizabeth and East London that the defiance campaigns of the 1950s gathered steam. By the early ’60s, the ANC, having rescinded its commitment to non-violence, began recruiting volunteers for the MK. The decade also saw the rise of Black Consciousness, and it was in Port Elizabeth that Biko was finally arrested and tortured, which led directly to his death in 1977. Today I am on Oxford Street in East London, being swallowed up by a vast protest rally. That I could be part of such a historic fight for racial justice is a wonder to me, and an inspiration to carry on, whatever the South African government might threaten.

Any lingering doubts are laid to rest when, at the human rights conference I have come to attend, I am approached by a white churchman. He would not be at this event if his heart wasn’t in the right place. Like so many South Africans, he is obviously kind and concerned. “I noticed you were sitting alone both last night and this morning,” he says. He had not observed that I was sitting with Saki Macozoma last night, and this morning with a black representative from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). To many whites, blacks are still completely invisible unless they come out marching in the streets.

November 24, 1989

Now it is my turn: I am called to the foreign ministry this morning by my official nemesis, Malcolm Ferguson. He is a high flyer, married to a Canadian, and now in charge of South Africa’s troubled relations with Canada and the United States. With his usual forceful jocularity, he invites me to peruse a wall of photographs: street protests, toyi-toyi-ing crowds, police cordons, dogs, and Casspirs. Not until I recognize Wits students cornered by police officers do I realize these pictures all have one thing in common: me. “You’ve been participating,” Ferguson accuses. “What you are doing should never be tolerated from a diplomat.” There is a pause while I search for a diplomatic response, but Ferguson preempts it: “In this case, we won’t support the police’s demand that you leave South Africa. This is a unique situation. Even we in Foreign Affairs want change.”

Walking back from the Union Buildings, I am of course relieved but also astonished: for an official like Ferguson to even mention the possibility of change represents quite a departure. But then, I consider, well he might. Bigger events are now forcing the pace. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and with it the South African government’s pretext of crushing black communism. De Klerk, now state president, faces increased pressure, from the MDM and from the international community. The sense of waiting for Mandela is everywhere.

February 2, 1990

President de Klerk opens parliament by lifting bans on the ANC, the UDF, and other anti-apartheid organizations, allowing political exiles to return home, promising the release of political prisoners, easing hundreds of restrictions, and stressing negotiations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarks, with uncharacteristic understatement, that it took his breath away. It has actually left me feeling quite at sea. So much, so quickly.

February 11, 1990

This is it, what the world has been waiting for all these years. Nelson Mandela is free. He and Winnie walk triumphantly, hand in hand, through the gates of Victor Verster Prison into joyous crowds and shouts of “Amandla!” A hapless South African TV anchor tries in his stiff Afrikaner way to convey something of the occasion’s meaning, but the message is beyond him.

I face my own media moment later in the evening. Just as Alena and I arrive home, after a frenzied day at the office, sharing all the details of Mandela’s release with our counterparts in Ottawa, a Montreal radio station phones. They want me to tell their audience, live, about “the reaction on the streets of Pretoria.” I have to make it up. While black South Africans are celebrating far off in the townships, the staunch Afrikaners in my neighbourhood are locked up at home in shocked apprehension.

February 13, 1990

When Mandela speaks to a crowd of more than 120,000 in Johannesburg, telling them to be disciplined and loyal, our son, Peter, is not among them. To his profound disappointment, we won’t let him go, for fear he will get caught up in the jubilant throngs. So once again, along with much of South Africa, we are fixed as a family in front of our television screen. Here, as all can see, stands a peerless leader, careful yet confident. What a waste that for twenty-seven years he has been locked away. But finally there can be no doubt that he was worth waiting for.

After Alena and I fall asleep, Brian Mulroney’s office calls to demand a telephone conversation with Mandela. My career depends upon this conversation, and I feel at a loss as to how to save it. Thinking quickly, Alena dials long-time ANC and UDF activist Albertina Sisulu, whose husband, Walter, was imprisoned with Mandela. To our surprise, our call is answered and Mandela is there. His doctor is giving him a late-night checkup. He would be delighted to speak with Mulroney. The next morning, there is a message from the PMO thanking us for “knowing enough black leaders to get the PM’s call through last night.”

February 17, 1990

Career worries quickly fade into the thrill of having rubbed shoulders with the people who are fundamentally changing the attitudes of South Africans and, I suppose, how blacks and whites will see each other around the world. This evening, Alena and I are hosting one of our dialogue dinners, planned long before Mandela’s release and now oh-so timely. Everyone is here, primed to celebrate a victory no one could have predicted. We have vats of various curries for the diverse palates and faiths. The ambassador’s housekeeper, hired for the night, gets so carried away with excitement that she lets one huge pot burn to a crisp. Then, in a misguided effort to repair the damage, she scrapes up the bitter, blackened bits and mixes them into the good stuff—a small disaster that, during an otherwise perfect evening, no one seems to notice.

Over the next few years, the black-white confrontation of the anti-apartheid struggle transmogrifies into “black-on-black” violence, as the ANC jockeys for position with its newly energized political rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party. Amid clear evidence that the police and the military are backing Inkatha, Mandela quickly comes to distrust de Klerk, whose party is still advocating for special white rights in multi-party negotiations. But despite the occasional deadlock, talks continue, and it becomes increasingly clear that one of the world’s most entrenched systems of oppression is being dismantled.

At our farewell party in December 1992—probably the last time stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle will gather before the “new South Africa” takes hold—Mandela’s top aide hands us a book. The frontispiece contains a note written in large, strong script:

Dear John and Alena:

During your stay in South Africa we have come to know and respect you as people who care about South Africa, about our trials and tribulations, our setbacks and victories. Through your warmth and understanding and positive contributions you have won many friends not only for yourself, but also for Canada.

You have touched our hearts, and will be sorely missed.

…Nelson R. Mandela.

This appeared in the March 2012 issue.

John Schram
John Schram served as minister-counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in South Africa (1988–1992). He is a distinguished senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Moshekwa Mokwena Langa
Moshekwa Mokwena Langa, a South African artist, makes use of collage, drawing, and video.