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After his capture, the Xhosa prince dons tribal regalia for a court appearance. (Cullen Library)
After his capture, the Xhosa prince dons tribal regalia for a court appearance. (Cullen Library)

How South Africa moved my soul Add to ...

Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison on Feb. 11, 1990, to redeem the South Africa that I had encountered just a few years before – one consumed with hate and stress.

That first evening, he stood on the steps of Cape Town’s baroque City Hall before 50,000 of his fellow citizens and proclaimed a country of reconciliation and salvation, a country of liberty for blacks. “We have waited too long for our freedom,” he said. “We can no longer wait. Today, the majority of South Africans, black and white, recognize that apartheid has no future.”

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Amandla!”– power, he roared.

I had arrived six years earlier as The Globe and Mail’s first correspondent in Africa since the early 1960s. The continent was my domain, but the main assignment was South Africa’s last race war, its civil war over apartheid.

By then, Madiba – his clan name was Mr. Mandela’s title of respect – had spent two decades isolated behind bars for treason, first on Robben Island and then in Cape Town’s Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison; he was an icon of hope few had ever seen.

By the time I left in late 1987, barred from South Africa by its white-supremacist government, Mr. Mandela’s fortunes had risen significantly. He had been moved into a private house at minimum-security Victor Verster amid the vineyards of the Western Cape and had, in fact, turned down an offer of release. It came with a condition – that he reject violence as a political weapon – and “only free men can negotiate,” he said in a statement made public by his daughter.

I was there when Zindzi read it to a cheering crowd in a Soweto football stadium – the first words South Africans had heard from Mr. Mandela since his 1964 trial.

Then on Jan. 18, 1989, P.W. Botha, known to Afrikaners as Die Groot Krokodil (The Big Crocodile), suffered a stroke that eventually forced him from the presidency. His successor, F.W. de Klerk, soon announced that anti-apartheid groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) would be legal again – and that Mr. Mandela would be released.

But the darkness had to come before the dawn.

During nearly four years as The Globe and Mail’s correspondent, I witnessed South Africa’s slide into bloody chaos. The ANC’s 1985 call from its headquarters in Zambia to make the black townships ungovernable triggered uprisings, riots, bombings and the violent, at times lethal, overthrow of municipal authorities accused of collaborating with the apartheid state. The government retaliated with a series of states of emergency that unleashed a savage and deadly counter-assault by the army and police.

It was a compelling story, and one difficult to cover.

State-of-emergency regulations required journalists to leave the scene of any “unrest” immediately. Subsequently, the government imposed censorship, barring the media from reporting “subversive statements” deemed, among other things, to encourage foreign economic sanctions or weaken the public’s confidence in government actions. Filming or recording the work of security forces was prohibited.

But the government’s biggest hammer was held over journalists whose employers adhered to a Commonwealth resolution not to base correspondents in South Africa, but instead park them across the border in Zimbabwe.

The downside to this principled stance was that Canadian correspondents in Harare had to apply for a new visa and work permit every three months rather than once a year. If the government didn’t like what we wrote, the renewal took longer and longer until, in my case, I was told there would be none. There was nothing to do but go home.

I returned to Canada with memories of battle-zone black townships and clouds of tear gas and oily smoke from burning tires and the terrifying roar of armoured troop carriers, of mass funerals with white coffins for children, of mothers too angry to weep, of Desmond Tutu and his Anglican priests kneeling as military vehicles bore down on them.

While covering all this, I drove wounded children to get help, one little boy with his face half torn off by a police shotgun blast (the police fired at random whereas soldiers stopped and took aim). His mother and I got him to a doctor, but his nurse, standing arms akimbo at the door, said to take him elsewhere.

I was tear-gassed, detained and even kidnapped by a gang of teens who had firebombed a liquor store in the middle of a riot and commanded me to drive them away from the police. When they got out of my car, they raised their fists and shouted, “Amandla!” So did I. In fact, I would have saluted anything – they had threatened to kill me.

I went to funerals, sometimes as the only white in an ocean of black faces, and was escorted courteously by marshals to a front-row seat. I had rocks and a gasoline bomb (fortunately it didn’t explode) thrown at my car as police pulled me to safety.

I watched Anglican Bishop Simeon Nkoane, fierce like a biblical prophet, stride into a crowd preparing to “necklace” a suspected informer (by igniting a gasoline-filled tire around his neck) and pull him from harm.

In this civil war, journalists knew both sides equally well. One day, I’d be sitting in an anti-apartheid leader’s living room having tea and, two days later he’d be gone, whisked away by the security police, disappeared for months.

Then I’d be meeting a cordial public servant responsible for enforcing apartheid’s high creed: the pass laws controlling the movement of blacks (“blecks,” as they’d say) in the country.

The anti-apartheid opstoker, or troublemaker, was Curtis Nkondo, vice-president of the United Democratic Front – the legal manifestation of the banned ANC. He vanished into jail 48 hours after I interviewed him in 1984 and didn’t reappear until the following year, when he became chairman of the newly formed Release Mandela Committee, which was soon banned.

The public servant was Wilhelm Fourie, the distinguished-looking commissioner of suburban Cape Town’s Langa influx-control court, which enforced the laws on where blacks could live and work. Five days a week, he pulled his blue Audi up to the yellow one-storey, barracks-like building behind a high steel fence just off the freeway leading into the city, went inside, donned a black robe, acknowledged the greetings of “Good morning, Your Worship” and began dispensing justice. Before the laws he administered were repealed, almost 20 million people had been arrested, fined, imprisoned or deported to so-called independent homelands.

The clergy figured prominently in my South Africa. It was on the doors of priests, Anglican and Roman Catholic alike, that I knocked when I went into townships then burning and bloodied by “unrest.” They knew it was against the law, but they still opened up, introducing me to their communities and letting me use their churches or homes to interview people.

The fierce Bishop Nkoane couldn’t remember my name, but he never forgot my nationality. Once he hid me from security police in a church basement in Soweto. After the thumping of the boots overhead had faded, a door opened and he bellowed: “Come up, Canada. Come up into the sunshine of the Lord!”

Foreign correspondents were required to report regularly to South Africa’s capital to be lectured by the bureau for information (the censors) on objective and balanced reporting.

Sitting in Pretoria one day, I had an epiphany: How, I asked myself, could reporting about apartheid possibly be objective or balanced? Unable to come up with an answer, I soon noticed I was waiting longer and longer for my permit renewals. Brian Mulroney also may have been to blame; as prime minister, he spoke forcefully in favour of sanctions, and was the only Western leader to visit South Africa’s ANC-friendly neighbours.

The authorities were no happier with my successor. Oakland Ross waited six weeks for his first visa, then wrote something the regime didn’t like, was barred for two years, then allowed back in for only two weeks. Before long, he, too, had to return to Canada, and The Globe closed its bureau – until the amazing Stephanie Nolen reopened it in 2003, this time in Johannesburg.

All of which meant the paper had no staffer in the country when Mr. de Klerk turned South Africa upside down and Mr. Mandela walked out of Victor Verster. But to my surprise, the government let me back in, so I could report on the remarkable wake of the release: the period in which hope struggled against fear.

The nightmare – total social breakdown – failed to materialize, of course, but South Africa’s new dawn didn’t break for everyone once Mr. Mandela was free. People like young Livingstone Zuma had to wait a while. Police shot him twice in the stomach in April, 1990, during Natal province’s bitter war between ANC sympathizers and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, which the regime nakedly backed.

When paramedics refused to rescue a Mandela supporter, I helped another volunteer drag Mr. Zuma, under fire, on a blanket from his house to our car, then drive wildly through the dark to Pietermaritzburg in search of a hospital. He lost consciousness, slumped against me and bled silently down my pants but lived, I think.

Years later, the ANC’s Jacob Zuma became president and I realized that, like Livingstone, he too came from Natal.

As well as my journalism, South Africa indelibly touched my soul and my ideal of humanity.

When I went to Africa, I had ceased being a churchgoer. And then for nearly four years I saw people like Simeon Nkoane and many others commanded by their beliefs to put their lives at risk. I resumed attending church.

And I was struck by how a society under stress can produce greatness – great human beings such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, along with the children who confronted police in the townships, the writers, musicians, lawyers, doctors, priests and sometimes ordinary people like the women of anti-apartheid Black Sash and bus drivers and teachers and librarians who set aside safety and comfort to serve social justice.

I was angry at being home in comfortable Canada.

For better or worse

The most remarkable wedding I have ever attended took place on June 19, 1986, in a courtroom in Delmas, a farming community 75 kilometres east of Johannesburg.

Lazarus More, 27, married Golda Maphisa, 25, his childhood sweetheart and a weeping bride.

Mr. More was on trial for high treason. He was one of the “Delmas 22,” charged with carrying out an alleged call from Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to “make the townships ungovernable” by igniting violence that had left 2,000 dead in the Vaal Triangle, a region just south of South Africa’s biggest city.

It was the most important political case since the trial more than two decades earlier that led to Nelson Mandela being jailed for life. Once again, all of the defendants faced the death penalty, although in the end none of those convicted was executed and most went on to play major roles in post-apartheid South Africa.

One of the accused, Geoffrey Moselane, was an Anglican priest and assisted in the ceremony. The best man, Patrick Lekota, was also a defendant, which meant that even his wedding speech could not be reported. Known as Terror (for his soccer prowess, not his political activism), Mr. Lekota went on to become a cabinet minister.

Terry Waite, representing the Archbishop of Canterbury, global Anglicanism’s titular leader, carried the wedding cake into the courtroom. (Seven months later, he was kidnapped by the Islamic Jihad Organization in Lebanon and famously held captive for almost four years.) Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then Anglican primate-elect of South Africa, carried the bride’s bouquet.

Rev. Simeon Nkoane, assistant bishop of Johannesburg, married the couple. Then he announced that they’d be apart on their wedding night because authorities wouldn’t let the bride into Modderbee Prison, where the groom was confined. When they were pronounced man and wife, Archbishop Tutu broke into song and boogied toward the cake.

The police videotaped the entire event. When the audience stood to sing a hymn, they did, too, and they didn’t object when the Archbishop sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), the black nationalist standard that is now South Africa’s anthem.

Referring to the surveillance, a woman guest said: “It would be sweet of them to present the couple with a copy of the video as a wedding gift.”

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