Most of my diplomatic career was spent in the moral and policy jungles of post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe. However, from 1987 to 1991 I was in South Africa as First Secretary (Political) watching firsthand the final years of the apartheid system.
I recall peering excitedly through the window as the plane approached Pretoria airport. I was about to land! In Africa! I wittily mentioned to the lady sitting next to me that it was disappointing not to see any lions or giraffes, as I had been told that Africa was full of them. She gave me a stern lecture on the unlikelihood of such fauna being found near an airport runway.
In 1987 the British Embassy in South Africa was on the frontline of a global political struggle. Most of the planet clamoured for sanctions against the South African government and its immoral apartheid policies. British Prime
Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan pushed back, arguing that radical economic sanctions would make a difficult situation worse and be ineffective: plenty of states (including in Africa) would happily cheat.
In South Africa the mid-1980s had seen terrible violence in the black/African townships. Networks of radical activists and even children supporting the exiled African National Congress (ANC) had turned against local symbols of apartheid authority, burning alive (‘necklacing’) people in their own communities serving as town councillors.
Under intense international diplomatic pressure to do something, in 1986 Mrs Thatcher had sent Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe on a high-profile visit to South Africa. Senior Foreign Office diplomats fought like cats and dogs to get on the plane. But this visit had not gone well. It had been organised at short notice when key embassy staff were on holiday, plus (not surprisingly) anti-apartheid leaders from the African communities had been reluctant to meet Sir Geoffrey.
Unenthused by the Embassy’s performance in these difficult circumstances, Sir Geoffrey had ordered a new team to be sent out. Robin Renwick (now Lord Renwick), who had led the Zimbabwe independence negotiations, was the new Ambassador, supported by among others a bright-eyed First Secretary called John Sawers (now Chief of MI6). And by myself.
Robin Renwick was one of the supreme diplomatic operators of modern times. He knew that a British policy of aloof detachment from South Africa’s internal affairs was not sustainable (and, more to the point, wasn’t working). He arrived in South Africa a month before I did with a mandate to help end apartheid, bringing with him a few million pounds of British aid money for spending on township development projects.
This money created a new diplomatic art form: township diplomacy. British diplomats went deep into areas of South Africa where no sunburnt, pink-skinned people other than tough South African policemen had ever been, delivering micro-projects aimed at empowering local communities. Handicraft groups, new water pipes, a village hall, a new church roof. This work gave the Embassy a turbo-boost of access and credibility. We were on the ground where it counted, making lives a bit better rather than wearily defending British sanctions policies at smart white liberal Johannesburg dinner parties.
Many projects were directed at community organisations that supported ANC ambitions. The ANC did not ease up on its pro-sanctions demands, but it saw that the Thatcher government’s new, active policy had to be taken seriously. I was sent to Zambia to meet ANC leader Thabo Mbeki (later President Mbeki) to hand over a long list of different embassy projects far and wide across South Africa. He noted with whisky and satisfaction that many project leaders were part of the ANC’s networks.
My job in the Embassy involved engaging with both conservative Afrikaners and non-ANC anti-apartheid groups including the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The ANC was intertwined with the South African Communist Party and took an ideological lead from Moscow, whereas the ‘Africa-first’ PAC identified all non-Africans as ‘settlers’, its township supporters chanting ‘One settler, one bullet!’ Asked to explain its scary slogan, PAC supporters joked that the PAC lacked the decadent ANC’s lavish international support and so could afford only one bullet for each settler.
My attempt to visit the leadership of the Pan-Africanist Congress in Dar es Salaam was a total failure. My passport had a South African stamp. I made some doomed attempts to argue my case. The Tanzanian immigration officials sent me straight back to Zimbabwe.
During my years in South Africa, I made one other foreign visit, stopping off in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) to meet a colleague at the British Embassy in Kinshasa. He lived in a bungalow some way from the centre of town. His house came with a genial Zairian with no shoes who defended the property against intruders with his bow and poisoned arrows. A couple of years later during political disturbances, my friend’s bungalow was attacked by a crowd of Zairians. Mr Bow and Arrow wisely retreated. My colleague watched as the bungalow was demolished and everything in it removed. His was an impressive claim on the FCO insurance scheme.
In those days, President Mobutu was still running Zaire. The capital had elegant streets of decaying former colonial buildings. We went to look at the unfeasibly wide Congo River. In the far hazy distance we could see Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo. Amazing lumps of forest floated down the river. The wise thoughts of President Mobutu blared out from loudspeakers. Never had I been somewhere more utterly ‘different.’ This, I thought, was the real Africa.
Back in South Africa, a book called My Traitor’s Heart by a young Afrikaner called Rian Malan caused a stir. Malan cut into white liberal hypocrisy, gushing praise for heroic African townships matched only by extreme reluctance actually to enter them. He recalled his own adolescent liberation struggle, daubing anti-apartheid slogans on pristine walls in Johannesburg suburbs and then watching in embarrassment as African labourers toiled in the sun to whitewash them out. He wrote about magic potions used to make fighters invulnerable to bullets.
Malan was on to something important. A senior member of the Black Consciousness Organisation (AZAPO) told me that a little understood feature of apartheid was that it had created space for traditional African practices and beliefs to survive in a modern urban context. Post-apartheid South Africa would struggle to deal with this phenomenon.
Malan’s book concluded with the staggering true story of Neil and Creina Alcock. Neil Alcock was a white farmer in Natal who dismayed his family and neighbours by getting involved with the local Zulu community, to the point of abandoning his farm and going to live as a Zulu in a remote part of KwaZulu. His beautiful young wife Creina went with him. Neil was killed in a local feud, but Creina stayed in their small mud hut. Sometime after her husband’s death, some local people splashed her hut with animal blood – a respectful sign that Neil had died as a true African.
So I visited Creina Alcock myself. I found her deep in Zululand, far from any other ‘white’ person, living in a neat little mud hut perched high at the end of a sprawling dusty valley. A little stream served as her bathroom. Zulu drums throbbed in the distance.
Once she realised that I was not a snooty diplomatic tourist, she talked frankly about her life in the part of South Africa untouched by Europeans and modernity. The killing of twins to make magic mutu. Strange local wars fought with heavy weapons stolen from Mozambique that sprung from nowhere and then died away. Naked young men racing round the moonlit kraal trying to kill a bull with their bare hands. The rituals to bring home for proper burial the spirits of Zulu leaders killed a century previously by the British at the Battle of Isandlwana. All this right beneath the noses of white South Africans in their manicured gardens. ‘Real’ Africa was there in South Africa too – once you knew where to look.
Now, 20 years later we see Africans across the continent on their cell-phones, trading and hustling and making things happen, finally stirring from Africa’s ruinous experiments with imported ideologies (socialism, communism, imperialism and even Africanism). Let’s remember Creina and Neil Alcock, and Rian Malan’s humbling message: anyone from outside Africa who wants to become an African faces a long, painful journey to be accepted – and then will be accepted only on Africa’s own terms, and when Africa is ready.