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From Krugersdorp to Constitution Hill: Tautana Wessels’s path through apartheid


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

To fully understand Leon Wessel’s journey, it is best to start with his sheltered childhood, the rigours and expectations of Afrikanerdom, of the church, and the family and community.

I think it was Ben Turok who once told a performance revolutionary, “I did not ask to be born white” – or something to that effect. Like Ben, and like most everyone, I did not ask to be born into a Malay family. I also had no say over the religion that was foisted on me by my family, nor did I have a say in determining the “coloured” identity that was given to me by the apartheid state (and that was retained by the ANC). Over time, however, we changed. 

His family and friends may forgive me, I am sure, for saying that Ben did not emerge from his mother’s womb as a revolutionary, and a card-carrying member of the ANC. Likewise, I wasn’t born with an Azapo membership card stuck to the vernix that enveloped me… The first thing that Julius Malema said when he was born was not, “kiss the boer” nor did he refer to “genocide against whites”. He was, I am sure, just a cute and cuddly baby. We changed as we grew up. 

Though we never forgot where we came from, we took great leaps of faith, and slowly began to embrace new ideas, and discard old ideas, beliefs and values. In my youth, and a dutiful Muslim, I considered the kitchen as the rightful “place” of a woman. My mother had to go through seven pregnancies – because that’s what was expected of her. But I changed. I also abandoned all my Azapo tendencies when I became a journalist. 

Malema has also changed. For instance, he once said:

“I will never form a political party that will contest the ANC, even if I get fired.” Then the EFF was born. Malema changed. I am sure he would want us to accept that it is natural for people to change as conditions change. I discussed this issue in a previous column

To paraphrase that French philosopher who has influenced me way too much – the one with the sensory exotropia in his right eye — people like Julius, Ben and I made something (else) of what was made of us. I should now, in deference, stop referring to Ben Turok – he was an exceptional person of great humility – I’m not sure Julius and I can make the same claims.

Leon Wessels and the Ghosts of Apartheid

This brings me to Leon Wessels, and the brutally honest and exceptionally (deeply) introspective book that he has just published. Encountering Apartheid’s Ghosts: From Krugersdorp to Constitution Hill, traces Wessels’ personal journey from the platteland, criss-crossing the country as the child of a policeman, through the National Party, to Constitution Hill, via his own changes and transformation, his personal moral crisis, to a space more enlightened where, today – or for the past 30 years – he has probably done more to make South Africa a better place than very, very many people. This is less of a book review than a reflection on a remarkable South African whom I got to know fairly well, more than 30 years ago.

To fully understand Wessel’s journey, it is best to start with his sheltered childhood, the rigours and expectations of Afrikanerdom, of the church, and the family and community – his loyalty to these institutions – and the questions that befuddled him as a child. So seeped was the young Leon in these traditions that many of these questions were glossed over, or explained away glibly, because that’s just the way things were. Whites were superior to blacks, the Bible confirmed this – at least in their tradition – and that was that. But along the way, Wessels refers to incidents which, I imagine shaped his career as a National Party politician, and the first apartheid Cabinet minister to admit to culpability in the crime of apartheid. 

In an early passage that stands out in his book, Wessels admits to his own “paternalistic racial attitude” while he became ever closer to, and best of friends with people (mainly Tswana-speaking) who worked for his family.

“One of the workers was Hendrik Legakwe, a gardener and a groom of our horses. I spent hours in his company; learned to speak a little Tswana, could sing a few Tswana songs and learned to sing Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika. My positive sentiments about the Tswana people have never deserted me. Years later some people called me a Motswana. My name Leon became Leeu (Leo), then Tau (Lion) and eventually Tautana (Big Lion). Legakwe and I laughed a lot, talked a lot and sang a lot. I was always aware of the age difference but it did not bother me that he did not refer to me as baas. For him I was just Leeu.”

I want to believe that his first lesson in humility came at a time when his befuddlement could not be contained. He explains:

“At one stage while still living in Vryburg, the police conducted a search for dompasses, illegal possession of dangerous weapons and illegal possession of liquor in the township. Policemen were marshalled from early morning to move from house to house. My father and some of his colleagues patrolled the outskirts of the township. My father was on horseback. This was my first encounter with these measures. A lot of water would have to flow into the sea before I understood what was happening. 

“Very naively and without understanding the context of my words I said to my friend, constable Sexton Motsemai, ‘I thought you guys were young and strong policemen. I thought you were catching murderers and robbers, now I see that you are arresting people for the dompas. Why don’t you catch real criminals?’ He was between 25 and 30 years old and I was barely a teenager. A deadly silence fell over us. Finally Motsemai said, ‘Leeu, when you are an adult and you still speak like this, I will say you are a man.’ There was no further debate. It was clear that I did not know what I was talking about.”

Thirty or 40 years later, Wessels still spoke like that. But these, it seems to me, were the earliest breakthroughs, if I may call it that, in Wessels’ maturity. But the social and historical forces of his people held greater sway over his direction in life. He would, surprisingly late, join the National Party, and as the latter part of the book explains, he would play a progressive role in the negotiations, and the constitutional settlement that delivered democracy to South Africa. 

This is the part that interested me the least. Here is where I should explain my path crossed with Leon Wessels when he was appointed to FW de Klerk’s Cabinet (he had already made that apology for apartheid – so he was surprised that he was called up), and I was appointed as the first political correspondent of a black newspaper, Sowetan, and stationed in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. During that time, I followed the legal dismantling of apartheid by day, and negotiation of a new dispensation by night (kind of).

I was particularly harsh and critical of Roelf Meyer at the time. I remember referring to him in an op-ed piece as “De Klerk’s Machiavellian understudy”, but I could never find anything negative to grab on to with Wessels – except that he was white, Afrikaner, and in the National Party. Although I have not seen Wessels in almost 25 years, I can say, without fear of contradiction – and in anticipation of much blowback – he has done more for our political maturation, and democracy, over the past three decades, than very many of the people who have become wealthy by dint, purely, of fealty to “the movement”, and questionable business deals.

As I opened this article, I situate this book in the changes that we all go through in life, as new circumstances arise. Malema has changed, I have changed, but neither one of us has had as progressive a role to play in the constitutional democracy that South Africa became after 1994, as Leon Tautana Wessels. DM


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