I have a secret. Since 1994, I have kept, hidden in the back of my closet, a tattered old orange-white-and-blue South African flag. This is the story of that flag. It is also the story of my life. And a tribute to Nelson Mandela.
By the time you read this, more than 100 hours will have passed since the death of Nelson Mandela. He was the icon of the liberation struggle in South Africa, a road that was long and bloody, but righteous and victorious.
Better journalists than I am have written obituaries and analyses; more of them than anyone could possibly read. They’ve had years to prepare the perfect front page, the perfect cover tribute, the perfect editorial, the perfect eulogy. I do not propose to try to best them, or even add to them.
I do not wish to add to the platitudes and superlatives, all of which the real Mandela exceeds. I will not contribute to the beatification of a man who was fallible and human beneath the mask of miracle-worker.
Instead, I will tell a personal story. It is a short story, but to understand it, you need to know me, and what Nelson Mandela meant to me, to understand it. That is a long story. Call this a long-form anecdote.
I want to tell you the curious history of the skeleton in my closet. I own a genuine flag of the old South Africa, made of 100% polyester, with faded orange, white and blue bars, and a torn bottom-right corner.
Skeleton is a good word for it, not only because it is a long-held secret, but because it represents death.
It represents the death I felt in my marrow when I had a rare opportunity, while Mandela was president, to visit Liliesleaf Farm and Vlakplaas. They were grim time capsules, as yet untouched by renovations, and closed to the public except by special arrangement. They were the sites where security police arrested, tortured and murdered people on suspicion of fighting for freedom. They were haunted by the shades of evildoers still living, like Eugene de Kock, and by the ghosts of their victims, like Griffiths Mxenge.
It represents the death I witnessed through the lenses of Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, João Silva and Greg Marinovich.
It represents the death that resounded in the written words of reporters I greatly admired, like Allister Sparks, Max du Preez, Joe Tloloe, David Beresford, Christelle Terreblanche, Ivor Powell, Thami Mazwai, and Anton Harber.
I have always hated that flag.
As a child, I went to an Afrikaans school. I was ordered to treat this flag with reverence. I learnt the meaning of its colours, and of the small flags it contains. I was taught to stand at attention before it, with my thumbs pointing down the seams of my grey school trousers.
I was instructed how to raise it, how to salute it, how to strike it, how to fold it, and how to carry it. I was warned that if I ever let it touch the ground, it would be desecrated, and the wrath of the headmaster, as the duly authorised representative of prime minister John Vorster and God, would descend upon me, and there would be great weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I hated that flag.
My parents were immigrants who knew little about South Africa’s history when they brought me here in 1976. Aged only four, I was too young to argue.
They never had much interest in politics. With hindsight, they would have chosen differently, but at the time, their life savings had been invested in the move. They tried to make the best of what they found in South Africa, without either actively making themselves guilty of complicity, or drawing unwanted attention by causing trouble in a country that was not their own.
They didn’t make waves, but they were good Christians who taught me liberal virtues that clashed with what I was being taught at school.
I was to treat all people with kindness, decency and respect. If it was Afrikaans custom to address my seniors as “oom” and “tannie”, however odd that sounded to us, I would do the same for the help. We called her “Tannie Victoria”.
That it was also Afrikaans custom to call her “k****meid” seemed inconsistent to me, but if we discussed it, I can’t recall. Perhaps how other people behaved towards her was just not a matter for my conscience. I did not reconcile these questions for myself until many years later.
Once, in primary school, we were asked which party our parents would vote for. The class was mostly divided between the ruling National Party and the right-wing opposition Conservative Party. I did not really know what the difference was. When my turn came, I said that my parents weren’t allowed to vote, but if they could, they would vote for the Progressive Federal Party. I did not know who Helen Suzman was, or that the PFP was the only party in South Africa’s parliament that openly opposed Apartheid. I was denounced by the teacher, to the jeers of my classmates, as a “k****boetie” (little k***** brother).
I hated that flag.
For outstanding performance in Afrikaans and history, I won a prize. I was proud of it, because Afrikaans was not my home language. The prize was sponsored by the Junior Rapportryerskorps (the Junior Despatch Rider Corps), which was the youth wing of the secretive, quasi-masonic, and powerful Afrikaner Broederbond. It was a book about the Israeli offensive against Syria in the Golan Heights during the Six Day War. To me, it was just an adventure story. I was ten years old.
I wore glasses. I sucked at sport. I read biographies of the classical composers, for heaven’s sake. To teachers, I was a precocious pain in the neck. To my peers, I was just a nerd, and a weakling at that.
I was also an immigrant. Even my friends called me “kaaskop” (cheese-head). It was as unremarkable to me as calling the English “rooinek” (redneck) or “soutpiel” (a rather more crude term), or calling black people “houtkop” (blockhead) or “k*****” (which surely needs no explanation).
Who was I, a foreigner, to question a culture I did not like? My objective as a child was just to fit in. To be accepted. I joined in their jingoistic jeering, and never mentioned the PFP again.
But I never did fit in. I hated that flag.
Our history curriculum always started with the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. I was Dutch, so that we were important to South Africa once was a source of pride. The rest of the lessons were limited to wars featuring brave Afrikaners defending themselves against cruel and inhuman Englishmen, or wars featuring pious Afrikaners trying to civilise an array of godless and inhuman black tribes, and failing that, to drive them off or shoot them. Always in self-defence, of course.
At face value, those lessons explained why Afrikaners had to stand together against the threat of outsiders. How was an immigrant kid to know this narrative was both selective and biased? I was in love with a singer, Sonja Herholdt, and if this story was good enough for her, it was good enough for me.
My father’s youngest sister was a student in Holland, and wrote a sociology thesis on multiracial churches in South Africa. She visited in 1983, on a research trip. By then, I was 12, and multiracial churches struck me as a sufficiently curious phenomenon to be studying.
My parents were Protestants, and our Afrikaans church wasn’t for black people, so we took her to Catholic and Anglican churches. The home-made ginger beer after the service at Regina Mundi in Soweto burnt my throat. I did not know it was an important church. The stones of St Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg were old and cold. I did not know that Desmond Tutu was its dean. I did not know who Desmond Tutu was.
When I went to high school in 1984, some of us were assigned to sweep the classrooms for bombs before school started. We had to be on our guard. “Paraat”, they called it. Always ready. It was drummed into us.
The Church Street bombing only a year earlier proved that blacks were terrorists who were out to kill women and children. That the two bombers accidentally blew themselves up proved how stupid k*****s were. Weren’t we proud to be white, God-fearing Afrikaners? Wasn’t that worth defending? I checked under desks with nervous trepidation at what I might find, and mortal fear of missing something.
On Fridays, we were made to come to school in army browns, and after school, we would learn to drill. Our instructors were teachers, but they had real army ranks. The highest-ranked was a lieutenant. Even the other teachers saluted him.
Sometimes, we got to shoot .22 rifles. My father said it reminded him of the Hitler Jügend. I didn’t understand. Those history lessons, which I dropped as soon as I could, never did cover World War Two. I’m not even sure I connected “Hitler Jügend” to Nazis. If I did, they were just outlandish baddies in films, like the mafia, or Red Indians, or Martians.
The aunt who had visited us a few years earlier mailed us some ANC brochures and information about the Dutch anti-Apartheid movement. I worked out later that it must have been 1987, on the occasion the 75th anniversary of the founding of the ANC. At the time, my father placed an expensive telephone call overseas to explain just what would happen if we were found to be in possession of subversive literature.
We were not revolutionaries. We were not part of the struggle. South Africa was a dangerous, confusing country that we only half-understood. We wanted no trouble. We rarely raised our heads above the parapets, and never boldly, or for long.
At the age of 15 years and six months, I received South African citizenship. I didn’t ask for it, but they couldn’t call me up to the army at 16 otherwise. Officially, I had to fit in. Going to the army was my duty. It would make a man of me. If I didn’t like it, I should go back to where I came from. Corporal punishment was still frequently applied with sadistic pleasure, so I didn’t dare say that this was exactly what I wanted to do. I hated that flag.
The indoctrination was effective in that while I knew enough to realise I did not want to live in South Africa, I did not know enough to explain why. I felt I was just kicking against a culture that rejected me, and in which I never felt at home. Between God, PW Botha, the dominee (pastor), the cadet drill sergeant and the headmaster, there was a great deal of authority to fuel youthful rebellion.
At school, I was into mathematics, computers and science. I neither liked nor understood what passed for history at school. Politics and sociology was something other people studied once they grew up. The only copy of the anti-Apartheid newspaper the Rand Daily Mail I had ever seen was its last edition in 1985.
It never occurred to me to call what I hated “nationalism”, or “authoritarianism”, or “racism”. I didn’t think to describe South Africa as a “police state”, in which a “black majority” existed that were “oppressed” as “second-class citizens”.
I didn’t even know the words I’d need to use to explain why was I unhappy in this country. All I knew was that as soon as I grew up, I wanted to leave. I hated that flag.
None of this is an excuse, or an abdication of responsibility. Although it was less common among Afrikaners than among English liberals, some of my school friends tell me they did rebel against Apartheid. If they could understand it, why didn’t I?
Perhaps it was my need to fit in. Perhaps it was a sense of caution instilled in me by immigrant parents who had learnt to keep their liberal values to themselves. Perhaps the craven knowledge that I could escape back to the Netherlands played a role. It shames me now that I wasn’t as smart as I thought, when I was young.
I passed matric at the top of my school, although admittedly in a weak year, and after my main rival had left to complete his matric at a classy private school. I was admitted to university, where I signed up for computer science and applied mathematics.
And there they were: everyone that PW Botha had warned us against. “Die swart gevaar” (the black threat). “Die rooi komplot” (the communist plot). “Die goddelose sondaars” (the godless sinners). They were all real. It was glorious. And they all hated that flag!
The year was 1989. It was not a good time to sound like a Boer. In a matter of months, I got rid of my heavy Afrikaans accent, and constructed myself a new one. To this day, people don’t know where in England I’m from.
As early as orientation week, I met the riot squad, whom we called “the pigs”. We got teargassed for singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika at them. I didn’t yet know all the words, but in defence of the baton-wielding thugs, we did sing it with vicious intent.
I found that I could muster deep reserves of anger. Not anger at being oppressed, of course, but anger at being betrayed. My country, my government, my church and my school had all lied to me. They had pretended that South Africa was civilised. That we were the good guys, with God on our side. They tried to turn me into a white supremacist who wouldn’t baulk at murder, and they had almost succeeded.
I learnt an astonishing amount of politics and philosophy in a very short time. Like a pinball I bounced about, talking to anyone and learning from everyone. Except the communists. I discovered to my dismay that you can’t argue with hardline communists, because they’re even more dogmatic than Afrikaner nationalists. If I can’t argue with you, we can’t hang out.
I never knew the United Democratic Front existed, but discovered they’d been there all along, risking their lives for freedom and human rights while PW Botha was wagging his finger at us. I discovered that white anti-Apartheid activists existed, in the Black Sash and the National Union of South African Students. That same year, the Mass Democratic Movement was formed, uniting the union federation Cosatu, the UDF and other organisations into a single-minded defiance campaign to finally break the back of Apartheid.
I could not have hoped for a better time and place to imbibe politics, and discover what it was that I had hated so much.
I had a great deal to learn, and I didn’t learn quickly enough to seriously consider refusing to vote in the whites-only election of September 1989. Having turned 18 six months earlier, I reasoned that having a vote was a rare privilege, and that the responsible way to use it if I wanted an end to Apartheid was not to abstain, but to vote for the Democratic Party.
That choice was vindicated, or at least made moot, on 2 February 1990. I was walking across Eastwood Street in Turffontein, when a friend called me back to listen to the car radio. The African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, Cosatu and a host of other organisations had been unbanned. I was elated. I recrossed that street as if walking on clouds. Momentous change was in the air, and I, as a raw 18 year old, felt part of history in the making.
Nine days later, after 27 heroic years in prison, the mythical struggle hero whom I knew only from stickers and t-shirts and protest songs walked onto our television screens. Nelson Mandela was free.
He immediately made a great impression. He laid the remainder of his life at our feet. He said that a majority, both black and white, recognised that Apartheid has no future. He said that the defiance campaign and the armed struggle would continue, until the conditions for a negotiated settlement had been created. He called upon whites to join the freedom movement, and evoked a vision of a free, democratic and peaceful South Africa on the horizon.
I admired the conciliatory messages he so pointedly added to his appeals to the struggle base.
He repeated his memorable words at the Rivonia trial in 1964: “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His was a vision I accepted, not only with my head, but with my heart. I marched often, and learnt to toyi-toyi, as badly as only white people can. But when the defiant harmonies of struggle songs echoed a capella from a full-throated crowd, all self-consciousness was sublimated in a sense of justice and unity.
To be fair, I also partied; I was a student, after all. The Woodstock era, with its strong anti-establishment and anti-war message, was appealing for the many parallels to the South African struggle I was witnessing. I was a political searcher, rather than a fanatical activist. I was an enthusiastic amateur, not a hardened political operative. The lines between rebellion against the establishment and protest against Apartheid were fuzzy. But things were moving in the right direction, and for the first time, I felt like I fit in.
I met icons of the struggle, like Joe Slovo and Thabo Mbeki, while working at the campus radio station. They were kind, intelligent and charismatic.
We began to broadcast without a licence, having decided that we no longer accepted the authority of the government to grant us official permission to speak. We were shut down a month later, but we had made our point.
We played African jazz, revolutionary reggae, hardcore punk, hippie-era rock and a fresh wave of home-grown protest songs in all languages, Afrikaans included. The ideal of non-racialism and reconciliation was very much alive on campus, and in the bars and clubs of Hillbrow, Newtown and Yeoville. As whiteys, appropriating that sentiment for our own was grandiose and sanctimonious, but it was visceral. We didn’t want to spoil it by over-analysing it.
I joined the End Conscription Campaign, because although military service had been reduced to one year in 1989, those call-ups were still coming. By now I knew that I would be expected to defend an unjust regime and shoot people I considered compatriots. I also knew that objectors like David Bruce and Saul Batzofin were still in prison for refusing to serve.
In 1992, I failed to apply for academic deferment, and I ignored my call-up. I got a letter warning me that next time, they’d arrest me. I figured that if the military police weren’t already knocking on my parents’ door, they’d never do it. I got another call-up later that year, and wrote a letter to Magnus Malan, the hated minister of defence: “Dear Magnus, Thank you for your kind invitation to an all-expenses paid trip to Upington. Unfortunately, I have prior arrangements. Yours, Ivo Vegter.”
I never heard from them again. It wasn’t a grand gesture. I wasn’t risking my life. My liberty was probably not at great risk, because I sure wasn’t the only one no longer reporting for military service. But it felt good to register this formal act of defiance, two years before conscription was finally abolished in 1994.
It was as if I was getting to know my country for the first time during those tumultuous years of South Africa’s transition. Everything I’d been taught I assumed to be false, and I adopted the Vrye Weekblad and Weekly Mail as my textbooks. These were the publications that exposed the scandals, the plots, the assassinations, and the murders. They were guiding readers through the complexities of electoral systems, human rights and constitutional principles.
I finally learnt why it made perfect political sense for the Broederbond to give a young child a book about the Six Day War if he were to grow up in a country that had few true friends, and saw itself as a white David fighting for its survival against a black Goliath, supported by the red Soviets.
I realised that the anti-British propaganda that was drummed into us at school not only explained Afrikaner nationalism, but explained rather more than they probably wished to admit. Like the acts of an abuser can often be traced back to their own abuse as a child, the history taught by the Apartheid state told an all-too-candid tale of a nation humiliated by the British. Once they threw off the shackles, they picked up the tools of their former masters, and became even more cruel oppressors themselves.
I read political essays and political philosophy, and began to realise that the end of Apartheid did not merely signal a victorious campaign of armed resistance, or an effective campaign of economic sanctions, or a change of heart by the white oppressors. I started thinking of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as the trigger. Before the end of the Cold War, South Africa was a proxy in the global standoff between the West and the East. That explained the link that was always drawn between “die swart gevaar” and “die rooi komplot”. The Apartheid government’s black threat propaganda, used to maintain the delusion of white supremacy at home, was anathema abroad. Not so a communist plot, which was a legitimate danger that kept Western powers, however grudgingly and reluctantly, on South Africa’s side. When the Cold War ended, so did the strategic reason to prop up the whites-only regime for the sake of stability. On its own, it could no longer sustain itself in the face of armed struggle, sanctions, ungovernability campaigns and open defiance.
I followed the negotiations obsessively. Several times, as the talks deadlocked, I feared a civil war. Every time, political divisions were bridged, and catastrophe was averted. My faith in humanity grew.
Many times, violence with complex causes erupted, causing heart-wrenching pain and blood-boiling anger, no matter who stoked it. Every time, the flames of hatred were doused, and war was averted. My faith in humanity grew.
The March 1992 referendum was a nervous time. It was the last time whites would go to the ballot box alone, with the power to call an end to the reform process that had begun on that summer’s day in February 1990. I was terrified that Mandela’s hope, that whites would join the freedom movement, would be dashed. It wasn’t. The turnout was huge, and more than two thirds of whites voted to end Apartheid. My faith in humanity grew.
I was especially afraid after Chris Hani was assassinated. Even if you were a right-winger opposed to a negotiated settlement, it seemed to me stupid to try to provoke the angry, disaffected youth into a genocidal bloodbath, by killing one of the leaders they most respected.
I was on my way to his memorial service in 1993, only to meet Bishop Tutu walking in the other direction. In a nearby square, anger had erupted into violence. I followed. Things were about to get ugly, and, being white, I was allowed to cross the police line.
Minutes later, they opened fire on the crowd. I helped a man wounded by birdshot, and he spat in my face. I had hoped my long hair would distinguish me from the pigs who had shot him, and from the lunatic who had shot Hani, but I couldn’t blame him.
Later that day, Tutu mustered reserves of moral authority that gave the lie to his diminutive stature and squeaky voice, to calm the angry crowd. And my faith in humanity grew.
On New Years’ Eve of that year, a group of friends and I celebrated the death of Apartheid. We had decorated a friend’s parents’ house with editorial cartoons photocopied from the newspapers, documenting all the heroes and villains of the transition years. They’d been splendid years for cartoonists, and we had a nostalgic time constructing our collage.
At midnight, we sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, which must have surprised the neighbours in these posh northern suburbs. But we knew the new year would bring the long-awaited New South Africa. And we couldn’t wait.
With swelling heart, I, and millions of South Africans watched an unprecedented three-day election begin on 27 April 1994. We saw voters of all races smile in long snaking queues that needed no barriers. We watched old people vote for the first time. White and black shared camp chairs and picnic lunches. We witnessed the infinite patience and good humour of a rainbow nation that had struggled for freedom, sacrificed for peace, and thirsted for this moment. When I drew my cross, next to the face of Nelson Mandela, it felt like the consummation of a sacrament.
Two weeks later, I stood on the lawns of the Union Buildings, watching Nelson Mandela take the oath of office. I felt at one with the multitude, as we sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. There was no venom left in the singing. We did not get teargassed for it. I watched the Air Force fly over, painting the sky in the colours of the New South African flag, and for the first time, that Air Force protected us all. We were one. Free at last!
I had learnt many things during South Africa’s transition years, but that was the day that I realised I didn’t hate South Africa. I loved it, deeply. I knew, on that day, that I could never leave. Mandela made South Africa my home.
When I heard that Nelson Mandela had passed away, I cried, remembering my tears of joy on that day. I grieved, knowing that Madiba, more than any other influence, defined my adult life. He may have meant even more to millions of other South Africans, but his was a heart big enough to share with the country, and the world.
I paid no heed to those who tried to deny people the right to eulogise him because of their anti-ANC positions of the past. I paid no heed to those who said Mandela supped with communists, or endorsed an armed struggle in which innocent people were killed.
If Mandela taught us anything, it is that we must acknowledge faults and remedy failures, but we cannot let guilt or grievance, however justified, waylay us on our quest to forge a peaceful, prosperous country from the shattered fragments of our divergent pasts.
I have kept many mementoes of that period. Among the most treasured are a 1994 election ballot paper, and near-complete sets of back issues of my student texts: the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad.
But this is about the skeleton in that closet of mementoes: the old South African flag I own.
A few months after Mandela’s inauguration, I was rummaging for second-hand furniture at a pawn shop in Ontdekkers Road. I bought a rickety coffee table that I still have, and a few other bits and pieces. I needed to get them home, but I had no trailer, and no roof rack. The pawn broker went inside and returned with a tatty old South African flag to protect my car’s roof when we tied the furniture to the top.
It was startlingly absurd. That flag, which I had once been taught to revere above all else, was being given away by a pawn broker. That flag, which must never touch the ground, was reduced to packing material.
That this flag no longer held any value could not have been demonstrated more eloquently. Even to burn it would have given it back some of its significance, because you cannot desecrate something that means nothing.
I realise that the flag holds different memories for different people, which is why I have never taken it out since that day, almost 20 years ago. But for me, it signifies the cathartic private realisation that Apartheid had truly been consigned to the dustbin of history. I look on that flag as I imagine Germans might look upon pieces of the Berlin Wall: not as an offensive celebration of the past, or a defiant statement about the present, but as reminders of an evil empire that holds no terrors anymore.
All my subsequent political thought has its roots in those transition years, when both communism and Apartheid, each for its own reasons, but one ironically dependent on the other, collapsed.
It would take many more years of reading history and economics for it all to crystalise into a coherent world view that I was prepared to debate openly in opinion columns.
However, it was Mandela’s ability to negotiate with his enemies that taught me to always focus on the substance of an argument, rather than a caricature of the speaker.
Mandela drank tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of Apartheid, HF Verwoerd, in a remote Afrikaner enclave, Orania. Who are we to dismiss our fellow-South Africans simply for who they are, or denounce all they say simply because we don’t share their ideology?
If we do that, then everyone who has ever disagreed with Mandela, about communism, foreign policy, the armed struggle, voting age, or AIDS, would also have to reject the manifest greatness of his ability to lead a divided country to peace, reconciliation, justice and freedom.
Rejecting both communist totalitarianism and racist discrimination remained fundamental principles for me. Mandela taught us that a just society is based on certain basic principles, and that those principles are non-negotiable. But he also showed that human dignity demanded the inclusion and consideration of all, from the powerful rich to the outcast poor.
In those formative years, Nelson Mandela taught me that what I hated wasn’t the country, but its government. Never again have I confused the two.
He restored my faith in humanity. He reduced what I hated to nothing, and taught me to love freedom. He demonstrated that free people, together, can achieve miracles.
I no longer hate that flag, because it is no longer worth hating. Its meaning is that it has no meaning any more.
That is why I thank Nelson Mandela. Rest now, Madiba. The walk has been long, and you carried so many people. I was just one of them. DM
Riding a Black Unicorn Down the Side of an Erupting Volcano While Drinking from a Chalice Filled with the Laughter of Small Children is the title of a dark cabaret album by 'Voltaire'