“I remember when Oom Blackie Swart died. When was that? In the sixties?” The frown on Servaas’ forehead says something about his uncertainty.
“No, he died in ’82, Servaas. I remember that procession down Church Street – it was such a solemn occasion. The whole country mourned. Everybody.” Gertruida smiles at the irony of it all. “He was a most interesting man, Oom Blackie. Imagine being the first president of a Whites-only government, and your surname is Swart? Still, he was a kind-hearted and honest man, and people respected him for that.”
“Wasn’t he interned in the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War? I seem to remember that.”
“Oh, he had an interesting life. Sure, him and his mother spent time in Winburg’s famous concentration facility, where his one brother died – the conditions were atrocious. And his father was wounded at Paardeberg, captured, and was a prisoner of war until 1902. Then little CR Swart went to a government school at the age of seven, and passed his final exams when he was13. At 20, he was a lawyer in Bloemfontein.
“But then his life took an unexpected turn, and he went to Hollywood, where he starred in a few silent movies! Imagine that? A boertjie in Hollywood? Anyway, he was back in Bloemfontein in 1919, and that’s when his political career started.”
“…To become Minister of Justice in the 50’s?”
“Yes. He believed that each nation must have the opportunity to develop independently, and that people should protect their heritage. Of course, that’s the background of Apartheid and South Africa became the object of much blame and criticism. Sadly, everybody conveniently ignores the fact that Nat King Cole had to use the back door to enter the theatres he sang in because he couldn’t use the ‘White’ door and all Americans could only vote in 1966.”
“It’s funny how the rest of the world targeted South Africa on this issue. I mean, racism and homophobia and gender inequality were world-wide phenomena. Of course, it is difficult to compare the philosophy of the Fifties with the current situation. It took independent America more than 230 years to get their first Black President. We did it in 30.” Boggel shrugs at this, knowing you can’t draw too many parallels, given the context of time.
“Yes, we’ll suffer the legacy of Colonialism for a long time. It’s wrong to say it’s all Britain’s fault, of course, but they sure as nuts established Apartheid in all their colonies.” When Gertruida points at her empty glass, Boggel shuffles over with a new drink. “But there is a reason why I’m thinking about Oom Blackie today. He was a special man.” She waits for the questioning looks before continuing. “He was humble. That. like with Nelson Mandela, was his most endearing characteristic. He used to drive his own car. Going to church wasn’t an official function, so the government’s Mercedes remained in the garage on Sundays. He hated corruption. And he always kept his word.
“In that sense it is interesting to think about the first White president of the Republic of South Africa, and the first Black one. Both of them had a history of being oppressed, interned, and unjustly treated. Swart acted in movies, Mandela was a boxer. Swart signed certain acts into law, Mandela approved the explosion of bombs that killed innocent people. And both of them believed vehemently in their cause, but remained almost unbelievably humble.”
Servaas, still rather conservatively right-wing in his mind, shifts uncomfortably. “You’re saying that Swart and Mandela will be remembered for the good they tried to do, despite everything?”
“Exactly, Servaas. When that procession moved down Church Street that day and all the flags hung half-mast, Swart was honoured for his personality and his service. No matter how history judges his actions today, he believed in his cause. Like Mandela, Swart tried to create a society where everybody could live in peace. Sure, we know how skewed it all turned out, but then again: do you think Mister Mandela would be proud of what he established – if he were to see what has happened to his dream?”
“Then, Gertruida, you’re telling me we should remember selectively? Forget the Apartheid laws and the bombs and the mayhem it all caused? That’s like telling me I must forget who I am, and become some kind of programmed robot.”
“No Servaas.” Gertruida smiles benignly. “I’m saying you can travel the world and try to look for one single country, one single nation, with an unblemished past. It simply doesn’t exist. Everybody makes laws and everybody makes mistakes. Sometimes, that very mistake is important to generate a new understanding of what it means to be a nation – and the importance of other people’s rights. After all, it only took the entire span of history to establish equal rights for women, gays, minority groups – and even now the world is filled with prejudice and misconceptions.
“What is important, my friend, is that our leaders remain humble. Oh, they’ll still make mistakes, and we’ll have to live with that. Society has become so complex, that there are no easy answers left. But…give me an honest, humble leader, and I’ll be prepared to journey with him.”
“The world will remember Nelson Mandela like that.” Vetfaan signals for another beer and sighs happily when Boggel obliges. “But you know? I’m not too worried about the past – in fact, we can’t change it, anyway. I’m worried about the present. Where is the honesty, the integrity, the belief in policy? And, sadly, where is the humility?”
This time, Gertruida doesn’t have to respond.
They all know the answer.