Defend Truth


It’s right to celebrate Freedom Day but the day we require is Peace Day


Dr Matthew Blackman is a journalist and the co-author with Nick Dall of ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ and ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia and lives with two dogs of nameless breed.

We forget that in the five years leading up to South Africa’s first election, 17,425 people were killed in political violence.

Like many of the people who lived through our first election on 27 April 1994 and voted, I look back on that time as William Wordsworth did when remembering the French Revolution:

For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood

Upon our side, we who were strong to love!

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

but to be young was very heaven!

But what I forget, while sorting through my memories of young love, the joy of freedom and hopes for a non-racist future, is just what that dawn of freedom brought with it. That is the terror that occurred at the time just before 1994. When what had been a low-intensity 46-year civil war reached its heights.

The apartheid state was brutal, killing the likes of Steve Biko and thousands of others. But people tend to forget that in the five years leading up to our first election 17,425 people were killed in political violence. Again what is forgotten is that many of these deaths were in the troubled KwaZulu-Natal area, in what were then often termed the “faction fights” between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

But the violence before the election went much further than this. There was white-on-white violence, like when the police fired on and killed members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) at Ventersdorp in 1991. There was white-on-black violence, such as when members of the AWB opened fire on buses carrying black commuters. Or when they went rampaging through Bophuthatswana killing people as if they were on some rabbit hunt. There was also the white-on-anybody violence, when the AWB set off a series of bombs in Johannesburg during the days of the elections.

Then there was black-on-white violence, like the St James Church and Heidelberg tavern massacres. And let us not forget the Bisho massacre, the Shell House massacre, Boipatong, Sebokeng and the assassination of Chris Hani.

Simply put, it was a hellish few years.  

Having recently researched this period for the book Spoilt Ballots written by Nick Dall and myself, I am convinced that we got through by the skin of our teeth. The fact that this violence did not lead to a full-scale civil war is in reality thanks to Nelson Mandela and the leadership of the ANC. And yes, FW de Klerk did play his part too. De Klerk could have turned his back on the negotiations and turned to the army, as PW Botha had done. In fact, any leadership other than Mandela and De Klerk could well have taken us in another violent direction.

There were, after all, leaders and politicians around like Eugene Terre’Blanche and Clive Derby-Lewis, willing to set off a civil war at any moment. Oupa Gqozo of the Ciskei wanted to fight, Lucas Mangope attempted to enlist white right-wing soldiers to defend his homeland and Mangosuthu Buthelezi took the country to the eleventh hour with his last stand.

But if you put your faith in statistics there is another story to be told. The homicide rate rose above 20 per 100,000 in the 1950s in direct relation to the development of apartheid. At its height, in 1994, it rose to 63 per 100,000. What is so disturbing is that it has never dropped below 20 per 100,000 since 1994. In fact, in the past five years, South Africa has become more violent with homicides and rapes yet again on the increase.

George Orwell, in his essay Decline of the English Murder, noted that the kinds of murders in England changed with world War 2. Where before the war notable murders had some rationale to them, during and after the war murders became callous. They were about cars, cheap perfume and small amounts of money. This was, he claimed, due to the brutalising effects of war.

We live in a country where brutality has never entirely gone away: It reached a peak in the early 1990s and is heading that way again.

It is almost certainly right to celebrate Freedom Day but the day we require is Peace Day. Freedom is fine, but decency, kindness, the acknowledgement of people’s rights, feelings and traumas are entirely different. The extreme violence of those years before the elections still haunts us, along with a catalogue of other concerning issues that are almost certainly interlinked.

Just how we can heal this country is something not entirely clear to me. But acknowledging that we are traumatised by our past is perhaps one step in a direction. DM




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  • Carsten Rasch says:

    I agree with your sentiments in this story. We probably do need a Peace Day (just not in April/May). Certainly, our social fabric has all but perished, and as a nation (that is not truly a nation) we are traumatised. Like you I voted during the very first elections, for the ANC. For thát ANC. The last few years, the last decade in fact, it has been impossible to celebrate Freedom Day. Kristofferson’s song Me and Bobby McGee , a story about two lovers drifting apart on the road, comes to mind, especially the chorus lines “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”. Just like Bobby and his/her lover, we have drifted apart on the rocky road to being a nation. That’s what it feels like anyway, these days. And for us, too, there is little left to lose, in this country broken and bruised by our former liberators. How can we celebrate Freedom Day when the vast majority of South Africans have nothing to lose?

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Freedom from what?

  • Confucious Says says:

    It seems that there are many interpretations of the word freedom. Those that bought the ANC and other parties’ lies that with freedom would also come assets, and confused and angry. Freedom means that you are able to choose and nobody is able to stop you from doing so, which moves towards rights. Many of those same people who cry that they have no freedom aslo cry that they have various rights within their ‘freedom”. But with rights come responsibilities… and it appears that freedom and rights are in demand… without responsibilities.

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