Fred Hunter covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Christian Science Monitor in the early years of the ‘70s. Here’s the third of several accounts of a trip to Southern Africa before independence swept the region and everything changed.
To prove to my editors that I was doing my job I was eager to interview Gatsha Buthelezi, the Zulu leader and a crucially important African political figure. When we arrived in Durban, I undertook the arrangements. His people said that he would be available to meet me after a government ceremony a day or two off. I was all eagerness. I drove Donanne over roads to which no pregnant women in her third trimester should be subjected. We arrived in the one-street town of Nongoma in the God-awful-hilly-nowhere of the Zulu heartland. Nongoma was slated to be the capital of the Zulu “homeland” Kwa-Zulu. Buthelezi was the chief executive officer of the Zulu Territorial Authority, Kwa-Zulu’s limited governing body. He turned out to possess an African sweetness and courtesy, a gentle smile shining from his handsome, bearded face. Behind the smile lay shrewdness, canniness and a sense of irony. “Come along,” Chief Buthelezi invited when I presented myself. “They are making Zulus of us this morning.”
The ceremony involved advancing the highly ritualized minuet that Buthelezi and the Native Affairs people were dancing together. As Kwa-Zulu moved toward official status as a Bantustan, this ceremony conferred “certificates of citizenship” upon leading Zulus (who, obviously, had always been Zulus even without government certification). The certificates had no practical function. They did not supersede the identity papers or passes that all adult nonwhite South Africans had to carry. Buthelezi turned the non-event to African advantage, at least rhetorically. “To appreciate the significance of today’s event,” he said, “it is imperative to recall that white South Africa has never granted blacks full citizenship rights.” He went on to tell the seven white officials in charge of the ceremony, “We Zulus will now be in a position to speak to white South Africans as equals. They will no longer be able to ignore our voice about our rights and our future.”
Later, when we spoke privately together, Chief Buthelezi refused to discuss his role in making white South Africans aware of what separate development really involved. “We are not free agents,” he reminded me. His refusal to talk more openly disappointed me; there was little for a journalist in what he allowed himself to say. Returning to Durban, I regretted taking Donanne over such bad roads for what proved to be mainly a figure in a minuet.
On to Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State and a spiritual anchor of Afrikanerdom. There we drove through rain into the mountains of Lesotho, the anomalous, independent nation of the Sotho. There I connected with Desmond Sixishe, the vivid and amusing press secretary of Chief Jonathan, the Prime Minister. Sixishe was also director of Lesotho Broadcasting. A charming and sophisticated fellow he delighted in pushing the buttons of Bloemfontein residents. He enabled me to interview Chief Jonathan for even less time than I spent with Buthelezi. We had dinner with Sixishe and his wife at the home of the USIS press attaché.
Here’s how Sixishe was introduced to Montior readers in another Focus column titled “Black in whitest Africa,” datelined Johannesburg:
“Desmond Sixishe gets his kicks in an unusual way – at least for this part of the world.
“He drives to Bloemfontein, the very heartland of that part of South Africa that brooks no nonsense from ‘cheeky Kaffirs.’ There he challenges the system, defies it, to loosen up its preconceptions.
“He gets his shoes shined on a Bloemfontein street.
“Or reminds a white shopper that he was waiting first.
“Or ‘drops by’ to see an Afrikaner he has helped professionally.
“Or when asked by a white policeman to produce the pass that all South African ‘Bantu’ must carry, he does not volunteer the reason for his not having one. He waits until the policeman remembers to ask, which often takes quite a while.
“Then he explains that he is not a ‘Bantu’ at all but a government official from neighboring Lesotho. This disconcerts the policeman, especially if he had taken Mr. Sixishe to jail. Sometimes he apologizes.
“Mr. Sixishe delights in recounting these tales of combat.
“’You should see them stare when I get my shoes shined!’ he laughs. “’Even Africans. To think a black man would pay to get his shoes shined. And in Bloemfontein!’
“These little encounters are not simply games to Mr. Sixishe. They are victories. Blows struck for dignity.
“This is ‘black consciousness’ at work in a country where blacks have dignity only in tribal contexts…”
Returning to Bloemfontein from Lesotho, we found that the 2:45 p.m. plane to Johannesburg had only one free seat. Killing time to the next plane, we drove around for two hours and stopped beside a Free State farm where the shanties for African farm workers, visible from the road, were appalling. I left the car. Surreptitiously I scurried across fields and succeeded in getting close enough for photographs. Suddenly out of nowhere appeared a white farmer shouting Afrikaner epithets. I raced back to the car, hoping he was not carrying a shotgun.