The past is a foreign country: South Africa does things differently now

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The Independent Online
SOUTH AFRICA, as everyone knows, is about to become a different place. How different, or indeed how many different places, we cannot tell. But the events since the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 have not changed South Africa alone. They have made Britain a different place too.

Over the last two years, we have begun to understand what the Cold War meant to us. At the time, it seemed to mean nothing but uncertainty: the danger of nuclear war, the miseries of those on the other side of the barbed wire. Now it is clear that the Cold War made the world seem simpler than it was. Even those who rejected the black-white moral division - the Evil Empire versus Democracy - knew where they were.

For more than 40 years, the British nestled down in an old- fashioned armchair: hard to hoist oneself out of, but reassuring. One arm was the Cold War. The other arm was South Africa. Not the country itself, but the wrongness of what went on there, became a prop to the mind. One British generation transmitted to the next its disapproval of the South African regime which began with the Nationalist victory in 1948.

The name for the wrongness was 'apartheid'. As a description of white supremacy in South Africa, that was always inadequate. It was not just racial discrimination - trains and beaches and benches for whites only - which underlay the system, but a whole apparatus for shoring up a monstrously unjust distribution of wealth and power. Few people in Britain grasped that. Public opinion concentrated on surface injustices, on the flagrancy of measures such as the Immorality Act which made sexual intercourse between races a criminal offence, and on their bald statement that blacks were eternally, biologically inferior.

For decades, the struggle went on. One student generation taught the next to march and protest. South Africa House, in Trafalgar Square, became one pole of this campaign: a besieged 'powerhouse of evil'. An opposite pole, in those early years, was Dennison House in Vauxhall Bridge Road, a warren of shabby offices whose threads of contact reached down across the Equator. The Africa Bureau was there, and the Anti- Slavery Society run by the indomitable Tommy Fox-Pitt. In that building, now pulled down, operated the Rev Michael Scott, that lean and lonely fighter who became famous for his campaign with the Herero chiefs at the United Nations against the transfer of South-West Africa (now Namibia) to South African administration.

Many of the first leaders were clergymen, expelled from South Africa for their work in the black shanty towns around the cities. They were Quakers and Catholics and Anglicans; Trevor Huddleston, who later became Bishop of Stepney, was only the best-known of the missionary priests from the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield who became political soldiers. Soon the South Africans themselves began to arrive in Britain as exiles, some from choice and others fleeing from arrest. Many were intellectuals. People like the novelist Dan Jacobson or the great biochemist Aaron Klug (now Sir Aaron, and a Nobel Prize winner) gave this country some of the stimulus brought before the last war by the Central European refugees from Hitler. In the late 1950s, blacks began to reach London too, like the young journalists who had worked with Anthony Sampson on the Johannesburg magazine Drum. Lewis Nkosi, Tennyson Makiwane and Bloke Modisane brought with them from Sophiatown their merry, furious greed for life. Miriam Makeba sent kwela music round the world.

We boycotted South African grapes, apples and wine. One of my colleagues, when younger, was arrested for pouring glue into the deposit hatch of Barclays bank in Cambridge. The liberal press, whose pages were always rich with South African news, revealed how many UK companies in South Africa were paying wages below the subsistence line, but Britain's huge investment in South Africa remained almost unaffected by the decades of protest. Every few years, fresh tragedies renewed the movement's energy: the Sharpeville massacre, the treason trials, the Soweto rising of 1976, the fate of Steve Biko. In some corners, an orthodoxy of righteousness arose. 'No dogs or white South Africans' said one advertisement for lodgings.

For most of those years, this was a British concern (the American public was not stirred until the 1980s). Decent people in Britain felt that apartheid was 'down to us', a responsibility and a load on the national conscience. We, after all, had let this happen. We had betrayed our colonial duty to protect the blacks of southern Africa, and handed them to the Boers.

In that attitude, there was more than a trace of imperial arrogance. The British anti-apartheid movement played an honourable part in bringing down white supremacy in South Africa, but a minor one. The decisive factors were the black struggle itself led by the ANC, Soviet support for the ANC which effectively made South Africa an international problem, and the political and economic pressure of the United States. But imperial arrogance in Britain has always had two faces. One was Union-Jack triumphalism. The other was the sense of a mission to raise up the weak, to teach and defend them until they were strong enough to resist the predators and enslavers by themselves.

That second tradition goes back to Livingstone and the London Missionary Society, to the Congo Reform League, to the old Movement for Colonial Freedom and the Labour and Liberal friends of the cause of Indian independence. Personally, I do not share all this self-congratulating, self-pitying nostalgia for the British Empire. I am old enough to have seen it, in Asia and Africa, and it stank. But this other imperial strand was nothing to do with Government House and tobacco auctions and yelling 'Boy]' at the Club. It accepted Britain's world- guiding destiny, which was unreal. But it understood the agents of destiny as the naval lieutenant who captured the slave-ship, as the young man from Manchester who trained peasants how to sell cotton through a co-operative, as the teacher who let a banned independence movement hold meetings in her schoolhouse.

The campaign against apartheid, in short, preserved a continuity with older British certainties. So did the Cold War, which kept alive the sense of Britain as a great power. Both certainties were illusions, although the first was noble and the second was merely absurd. Now both are gone. The Cold War has melted, and been replaced by a bewildering lava of possibilities. South Africa is no longer a source of British liberal identity - a half- mythical place of wicked 'otherness' which was made to represent all that we did not wish to be - but an unfamiliar country stumbling towards its own uncertain future.

The comfortable armchair that supported right-thinking people has been suddenly removed. They have no alternative but, stiffly, to stand up and look about them. They will see a new world, but also new things for Britain to do in it.