This man might well not have been sitting in front of us right now. In 1981, at the culmination of five years of immersion in the Irish republican struggle, or ‘The Troubles’, he finally lost consciousness from food deprivation in the cells of HM Prison Maze, west of Belfast. His family intervened and, well, he’s still with us. Ever since, he has used his talents to fight that same fight, if in different ways now that there has been much change in his country. But not enough because, as he said yesterday (Tuesday July 5), “The Struggle is for a united Ireland.”
Suddenly realising I was in the presence of one of the hunger strikers, right in front of me, gave me goosebumps. As a young journalist I was captivated by the running story. You felt you were in the cells with these men, tried to imagine what it must feel like to emaciate by choice, to find the courage to carry on when your body is railing against what your mind has decided. To try to perceive what Margaret Thatcher must have felt like in turning her back steadfastly to their plight.
During this time, Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament, and that would be the British Parliament at Westminster. What they wanted, of course, was their own parliament in a united Ireland. They still do not have that. Many Northern Irish, including Laurence McKeown, still want that. So I asked him whether Brexit might help.
The question resonated, because there are many in Northern Ireland right now, he said, who feel that the ground has shifted, that things are not the same, and they see opportunity. It gives them, he said – north and south – that rare thing: something that unites them. The south is already part of Europe and will remain so, being out of the United Kingdom. But the north, like Scotland, is a part of the UK and voted to stay in Europe, almost to a man and woman.
In fact, McKeown said, even those Northern Irish who did vote to leave the European Union are now saying that, given what they now know, they would vote differently were there to be a new referendum – and the populace does want that, he said. Just as the Scots do, and they undoubtedly will have a new referendum on leaving the UK and going their own way, and of course staying in the EU. The Northern Irish by and large were not, he said, voting to break up the UK, but republicans like himself still seek a united Ireland.
“I spent time with Bobby,” he said of Sands and the rest of the striking prisoners in 1981, smiling wistfully as he recalled what he described as “a poet, a writer, a songwriter, a great singer he was”. He (McKeown) had left home at the age of 17 to join the Irish Republican Army. The conflict had started “three or four years earlier” and joining the fight meant having to leave home and the end of his family life. In August 1976 he was arrested and imprisoned, sentenced to life, that ironic term for years behind bars, which is no life at all. Protests by republican prisoners began soon afterwards, and continued until 1981. “We were in the cells 24/7,” he said, “naked.” The prisoners had refused to wear prison garb, insisting on having their own, which was denied. They had just a blanket.
The deaths of the 10 in 1981 was to end the strike, and when Sands was buried, 100,000 people lined the route of the funeral procession. He was just 27.
McKeown was released from prison in 1982. In his new life, he found new ways to continue the cause. He developed a political education programme. He became interested in other conflicts, in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and elsewhere. He met ANC figures along the way. He moved on to “more creative artistic pursuits” – took a PhD in sociology, and co-wrote a feature film, H3, about the hunger strike. He was later to co-found the Belfast Film Festival, and has written books including The H-Block Struggle. He has written several plays, and we had just seen his Those You Pass In The Street, brought to Grahamstown by Kabosh, which is no ordinary theatre company. Kabosh, artistic director Paula McFetridge told us afterwards, is involved in conflict resolution through the medium of theatre, and she was at pains to point out that the two references to the ANC and apartheid in the play were not “put in” as a sop, knowing that the production was coming to South Africa. They’d been in all along.
The play begins with the widow of a Royal Ulster Constabulary policeman walking into the Sinn Fein offices to register a complaint about the behaviour of kids in her neighbourhood. Sinn Fein surged ahead in the wake of the five years of protest, until ultimately the party became a part of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. A friendship is forged between the widow and the Sinn Fein community officer. The four characters in the play – the balance of whom are always watching from the sidelines – turn out to have interconnected lives on one side or the other, either connected with a perpetrator or a victim on either side.
In the end, it is about reconciliation, which is where the parallels between their struggle and ours, both during and after, become clear. For all my adult life, and even as a teenager, I have felt an odd kinship with the Northern Irish republicans. Their “troubles” have always seemed so like ours in ways, even though theirs was not to do with colour or race but more with national pride and independence. One (black) South African in the post-performance session admitted to being surprised that they should feel they should have such a struggle given that both they and the British were “all white”. This is a theme worth exploring and thinking about for us, here in the deep south where white fingers point at blacks and black fingers point at whites.
It’s the commonalities that we need to be looking for, not the differences. And differences need not have a colour. They may merely be an attitude, a distrust, or an unwillingness to hear.
In the end, most of us are the ordinary people in the street. As the widow says, “Is one of those you pass in the street one of those who set your husband up, one of those who pulled the trigger…?”
We’re ordinary people, most of us, and if we South Africans start to listen to one another instead of talking at one another (and there is far too much of that in these Daily Maverick forums); if we find each other and talk to each other, reach out and listen instead of blaming, blaming, blaming and distrusting, then we have a hope of getting to the other side of all this.
Towards the end of the after-show discussion Paula Fetridge answered another question from the audience, a question from a (black) woman who, with a bewildered, exasperated tone in her voice, asked why white people will not just once and for all say “I’m sorry”. Fetridge was clearly moved. That was exactly it, she said, and when people do apologise, they find it is accepted and people can move on. There needs to be apology because, even if you were not ideologically in tune with the perpetrators of the crime (apartheid, for us), if you went along with it, lived through it without sufficiently opposing it, you were complicit, even if you did not mean to be. And you should therefore apologise, as we have long known since we went through our Truth and Reconciliation phase.
But we never did quite get there, and we need to start again.
I will do so right now and right here. I have never admitted this before, so this is no small thing for me, for I am proud of having, ideologically, inwardly, stood against apartheid, its regime, and what it stood for. But I did not fight it, I was no activist, and I regret that.
I am sorry. I am complicit. That I did not do so much more is inexcusable. Mea culpa. I am so sorry to every compatriot, every struggle hero, every victim, every disenfranchised South African, that I and my white kind benefited from your oppression, even if reluctantly. And I am deeply aware that merely to write this down here is far, far short of the depth of apology that is warranted. It feels glib, and easy. I am concerned that it may seem trite. I have tried to address this in my (stage) plays, and I will try harder.
Apology is dealt with in this intimate, moving play too, in one of the two references to our own struggle. A character remarks that “you can’t find anybody who was on for it”; anybody who would “put their hands up and say ‘we were wrong’”.
Let’s do it, all of us white South Africans. Let’s just start doing it. Let’s tell every South African (other than our white compatriots) that we meet – even stop them in the streets – and say, ‘”I just want you to know that we were wrong, and that I’m sorry”. And shake hands, and hug, and start talking. And listening.
It really is as easy as that. Hard as it may be. DM