Africa Notes: Why Racial Reconciliation Is Possible in South Africa - March 1990
March 2, 1990
It was 1976, a year that appears on every chronology of South African milestones. A 14-year-old, bespectacled and intense, undertook to convey the feelings of the township students with whom I was discussing the significance of the Soweto and post-Soweto riots of that troubled period. Reaching for words that would leave a lasting impact, the youngster stood up, paused for effect, and then said: "The tree of liberty shall be watered by the blood of black South Africans." What the young black evolutionary did not realize was that he was echoing, almost word for word, the declaration attributed to Afrikaner nationalist hero "Jopie" Fourie just before his death by firing squad in 1914.
Fourie had been part of a short-lived revolt by Afrikaners bitter about the Boer War and opposed to any form of cooperation with the British. The revolt was sparked by the commitment of South African troops to the World War I campaign in the neighboring German colony then known as South West Africa (now Namibia). Several of Prime Minister Louis Botha's fellow generals from the Boer War had balked when the invasion was ordered at British request. They fomented a rebellion of some 12,000 Boer War veterans that ended in hundreds of deaths and detentions. Most of the survivors joined the newly formed National Party, and the incident stands in Afrikaner mythology as one of the great moments of nationalist fervor.
The lesson to be learned from this vignette is not in the prediction of bloody resistance in both cases, but in what these strikingly similar statements of 1914 and 1976 say about their propounders, so far removed from each other both in time and, seemingly, ideology and aspiration. Or are they?