South Africa – Twenty-five Years On

The Independent 27-04-1994

Twenty-four years ago Christopher Long was interrogated, abused and thrown out of South Africa. Today, like thousands of victims of political repression, he is at last free to return if he chooses... [Written for The Independent but unpublished].

It was in Durban, in 1970, at the high-water mark of apartheid, that I was asked, quite innocently, to give Thursday evening talks to teenage black girls at an American mission school near Qua Mashu.

This school taught some of the brightest Zulus in Natal whose only future seemed to be disappointing lives as grossly over-educated menial labour in squalid townships.

What could I, then a 21 year-old marketing executive, possibly tell them?

Thanks to a lot of help from the Lever Brothers' picture library and slides from the British Consulate's cultural section, I armed myself with scenes of green English landscapes, Troopings of The Colour, Sixties fashions and diagrams of how Britain's democracy was supposed to work. It was all that was available.

Left: The author in c. 1966, three years before his arrival in South Africa.

Things started well. For two consecutive Thursdays I drove out to Qua Mashu blissfully unaware of the dangers involved – and without a pass into the township – spending several happy hours being questioned and challenged by the liveliest and most appreciative audience any speaker could wish for. The slides were soon abandoned and the questions flooded in: Was it really true that everyone in England had a television (then unknown in South Africa)? What did we see? Did English girls sleep with their boyfriends like the films said? Did I know Princess Anne?

Perhaps it was on my return from the third evening visit that I first noticed a white saloon car following me back to the Belgica Hotel in St George's Street where I was then living. I do remember that Cicely Courtnege and Robertson Hare were dining there at the famous Rubenshof restaurant on the first night I suspected I was being watched.

The following week the same white saloon tracked me again – this time to the very doors of the hotel. I was worried but kept reminding myself that I'd done nothing wrong – the pass apart – that I was British, that the British consul, like my employers, knew where I was supposed to be and that in any case I was 'home' again.

With some relief I headed for the bar and ordered a Cane-and-Coke.

Sitting beside me on a bar stool was an Englishman. We quickly started chatting. He had, it seemed, just arrived as an immigrant and was looking for a job in marketing with Alfa-Laval or Lever Brothers.

What a coincidence! That's just what I was doing – with Lever Brothers. I could give him some contacts.

What had he been doing in Britain, I asked. Oh, he'd been a senior civil servant in the Kent fire brigade, he replied. I told him that I too came from Kent.

Then he asked me what all this apartheid business was about. I told him that (in those days) the first thing you needed to know about apartheid was that it wasn't a subject for discussion with anyone but the closest friends – and even then...

But purely between him and me, he said in a lowered voice...

I sympathised with his dilemma. I too had felt like this when I had arrived in 1969. So, I presented both sides of the argument. I asked him if he felt there was any chance of democracy succeeding among the then 18 million blacks divided into fiercely loyal and eternally warring factions. I suggested that another two or three million Cape Coloureds and extremely prosperous Indians would be very vulnerable, that the 'English' would never see eye-to-eye with the Afrikaners and they in turn would never get along with any of the rest if it meant sacrificing one inch of soil or one ounce of the power they had won so hard during three centuries.

And I offered some practical, economic and commercial considerations as well.

The former fireman listened carefully. Then, at half-time, I switched positions and presented the opposing case. The indignity of separate townships, pass-books, men forced to live eleven months of the year away from their families and in squalid all-male labour camps, the brutality meted out to those who broke the slightest rule and the hopelessly inadequate health, education and welfare facilities.

I told him there was no chance of a black South African owning property, setting up in business or improving his position in any prosperous part of the country. All prosperous areas and all hope of betterment or freedom were to be found in Whites Only territory.

And, with half a thought to the white saloon car outside, I reminded him that anyone who seriously criticised the system, slept with someone of the wrong colour or otherwise upset the status quo, was in the gravest danger of being arrested. Under BOSS law this was thirty or sixty days' imprisonment without charge, often without the police even acknowledging the arrest.

After thirty days you could walk out on to the pavement and immediately be arrested for another thirty days or end up incarcerated in the Robben Island prison while the authorities denied any knowledge of your whereabouts.

Incarceration for political reasons, I told him, was the only fate which, blacks and whites could share equally.

Again the former fireman listened attentively.

Just then one of the two brothers [Beisterveld] who managed the hotel came in to tell me I was wanted outside on the telephone. I left the bar, went to the phone booths and found no call waiting for me. So I returned to my fireman friend and we talked about England – and Kent in particular.

It seemed he was already homesick and missing his home town of Canterbury, where I had been at school.

But surely he must have been at the Fire Brigade headquarters, I asked. Oh yes, of course, he said airily.

To many people who have not lived in Kent it probably seems probable that Canterbury is its county town. In fact, the fire brigade has its headquarters in Maidstone.

I began to feel suspicious and uncomfortable.

The manager again called me out to the telephone and when once more there was no call waiting for me I asked what was going on.

Very embarrassed and ill-at-ease he asked me if I knew who I was speaking to in the bar. Did I realise it was a senior officer in Durban's security police?

My heart thumped, my mouth went dry and I suddenly felt very, very scared. Immediately I rang my [Gilson] cousins in Pietermaritzburg, asking them to ring me at the hotel and at work several times a day and to contact the British consul if they couldn't get hold of me. I also rang good friends [Mr & Mrs Malcolm Partner] in Durban asking them to join me for dinner immediately. I didn't explain why. Presumably they turned up, but I was not there when they arrived.

Then I returned to the bar. The head of Durban's security police may not have known a lot about Kent County Council but as an ex-London CID officer, he recognised a pale-faced and frightened man when he saw one.

He ordered me a drink and very calmly gave me a warning.

It seemed, he said, bearing everything in mind, that it would be a good thing if I started to make plans to leave South Africa. No great hurry, he said, as I might need two or three days to arrange a transfer to Lever Brothers in Britain. In the meantime it would 'wisest' if I stayed in Durban, didn't travel outside the main town, made immediate travel arrangements and told absolutely no-one why I was leaving.

If none of this suited me then he was well aware that I was well aware of the probable consequences of stepping out of line. Furthermore, my passport would be held by him until I reported to collect it – along with evidence of my travel arrangements.

With a pleasant but terrifying smile he shook my hand and we walked out, leaving the bar-bill unpaid. According to the Indian barman no-one was expected to pay it either. Indeed, I was regarded as a dangerously contagious leper at the Belgica thereafter.

Upstairs in Room 203 my belongings had been searched, the day's mail had been opened and there were cigar butts floating in the lavatory. My passport and other personal documents were missing. Among the envelopes – the letters themselves removed – were the first of a few enchantingly innocent 'fan-mail' missives from the mission school. I remember wondering how the girls would have felt if they had known what had happened.

I was locked up and officially accused of not having identification – my passport – while mention was also made of my having entered a black township without a pass. Verbally I was accused of being a communist agitator. Clearly there was deep confusion among the police but the consequence was three nights and four days of squalid discomfort and fear behind bars until the man who held my passport sanctioned its return and my freedom. Until he did so I was assured that I was 'finished, man' and subjected to a lot of verbal and some mild physical abuse.

I still have nightmares resulting from that brief experience – of being able to hear but not see my neighbours. There were several men and at least two women who produced deep grunts, heaving groans and almost whispered pleas for mercy whenever the black police visited them with their lengths of rubber hosing and bottles further down the corridor. I could see only empty cells. I was, I suppose, waiting for them to get round to me. My memories of that period are now vague. But, amazingly, they hadn't removed my watch and couldn't remove the childhood scars on my bare knees which reminded me who I was and that I had, or had had, a proper life elsewhere.

A few days later I moved hotels, made travel arrangements to leave South Africa and was observed frequently if not constantly and lived in perpetual fear that I might be arrested indefinitely. I took all the 'advice' I had been given.

To this day South African accents have sometimes induced mild panic attacks and I have often wondered what exactly the white South Africans I meet in London were doing there in the Sixties and early Seventies.

Shortly before I was due to leave South Africa I met my future wife, the 19 year-old yachtswoman Patricia Reinsma, who had sailed an epic voyage in a 34 ft catamaran from Darwin in Australia to a heroine's welcome in Durban.

Surrounded by so many journalists and cameramen our fears for my safety were slightly eased – so much so that it now seems extraordinary that we breached instructions and took the train for a long weekend in Kokstad, 100 miles away. True, safety only came as we cleared the gang-plank of a Lloyd Triestino liner, the Africa, when the sickening feeling of impotence against an all-powerful and quite ruthless police-state began to diminish.

Today, those 'over-educated' African girls from Qua Mashu will be in their late thirties or early forties. They will have experienced the fears I had for all of their lives – not just a few days. For them there have been no useful friends [Bruce & Patricia Holford-Walker may not know how much their presence helped me then!], no gentlemanly advice and no escape route. We would always have been equals if I had felt safe to return to see them. Today, thanks to the elections [the end of apartheid and the birth of a new South Africa under President Mandela], we are equals whether we meet again or not.

I look forward to the day when I return to see what future the girls from Qua Mashu will make for South Africa.

Above: Patricia Reinsma on the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean in 1970, shortly before she sailed on to Durban, South Africa.

Above left: Patricia Reinsma at Westerham, England, in 1971, after recovering from the rigours of her voyage from Darwin (Australia) to Durban (South Africa) in a 34 ft catamaran.
Above right: The author and Patricia Reinsma shortly before their marriage in April 1973.

© (1994) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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