Friday, January 22, 2010

Living in a Silent War and the Miracle of Peace - Natal South Africa

by Wenda Dottridge

When I was twenty-four I moved to South Africa where I lived for two intense, incredible years. Since then I've been back often enough and racked up enough cumulative months as a visitor there that even if I was an otherwise eligible donor, I would be refused by every blood collection agency in the western hemisphere. South Africa is part of our daily lives even though we live on the opposite edge of the globe.

At the time I moved there I was a recent university graduate in a developing romance with a South African physician completing his conscripted national military service. I had already visited (my now husband) Andrew in South Africa in 1989 and it didn't take me long to fall in love with that beautiful, broken country.

We had the luxury of expendible income and time (something we didn't fully appreciate until we had kids!) and we enjoyed the benefits of South Africa's elite, white, privileged society that combined a generation or two of wide-spread family wealth and cheap domestic labour. In many respects, we were free.

Our weekends were spent flying in a private plane to Sodwana Bay for scuba retreats or to other exotic locations such as the Wild Coast in the Transkei. When we weren't flying somewhere, we were hosting or being hosted at family cottages located at beaches and in the mountains. We made trips to game reserves that cost the equivalent of $3/4 a day per person (and that included a cook to prepare our food). We hiked the Drakensburg and jetted to Cape Town. We flew ourselves and friends to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and drove to Johannesburg for weekends. We sampled beaches from the cold Atlantic waters off Cape Town, to the warm Indian Ocean all along the Garden Route from Hermanus, George to Port Elizabeth, to the Wild Coast where there were more goats roaming the miles of unbroken sand than people, to almost-the-Mozambique-border where coral is healthy and the abudant sea life phenomenal.

As I shiver through another Canadian winter, only the photographs remind me that life was once that amazing.

And yet we left Pietermaritzburg, Natal, South Africa in 1992 to live in a rural-Canadian exile we shared with four other young South African physicians and their wives. Together, we missed the climate, the domestic help, the vibrant culture, the amazing foods, and the beaches.

And together we recovered from the cumulative shock of fear, violence, crime, corruption and the pervasive grinding poverty among the vast majority of South Africans. We all had personal experiences with crime, and our husbands all had shared miliatry experiences and stories from the trenches of black hospitals. For the born-and-raised South Africans, they struggled with the need to revise the largely fictitious history they had been taught in white South African schools. They read for the first time books by banned writers such as Alan Paton (Cry Beloved Country) and Joseph Lelyveld (Move Your Shadow).

In addition to the above-listed chronic South African problems of poverty and crime, my husband and I lived in Natal (now called Kwa-Zulu Natal) at the epicentre of a low-grade war simmering between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) led by former ANCer Mangosutho Buthelezi and the African National Congress (ANC) under the direction of Nelson Mandela.

In the 1980s, while the ANC operated from exile and Mandela languished in prison on Robin Island, Buthelezi - a Zulu - renounced violence and the IFP - based in the heart of Zululand, Natal - became a legitimatized organization that enjoyed some self-governing rule in Natal. The irony is that in the late 1980s and early 1990s while the white government under FW de Klerk dismantled Apartheid and made peace with the ANC, warfare erupted between the two main black parties, the ANC and the IFP.

I worked for the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg. This public museum had recently moved from the attics of the City Hall to the Old Supreme Court building on the main road through the small provincial capital. Located between the new court buildings, City Hall, the provincial administration, and The Natal Witness independent newspaper, we sat at the heart of Natal. And at the heart of the war being waged by the ANC to gain a foothold in IFP/traditional Zulu chiefton ruled territories.

Each week brought that war close.While the average white South African never set foot in a township and lived mostly untouched by the war, we were nevertheless aware of the bloodshed. I supervised black security and cleaning staff. Each week there would be a new crisis in their lives. Nelson, my cleaner, was late to work. As I started his reprimand he told me, head shaking and eyes sad, "It is very bad. Tsth, tsht, tsth." After much prompting I learned that his street had been overrun by armed ANC cadres the night before and he and his neighbours, IFP loyalists, were driven from their homes. He spent the rest of the night building a cardboard house in a nearby squatter camp and insisted I call the army. After two days of repeated calls to the local Komandant, I had arranged an armed escort for him and his neighbours to return to their homes to collect their possessions and livestock. The homes were lost to them, given to ANC loyalists.

Then, it was two security guards who missed a shift. When they returned to work, we learned they were rounded up by the ANC and given weapons and sent on a mission to clear another neighbourhood. They complied because to resist was futile.

And then there were the marches and protests that always ended up in front of City Hall with demands to speak to the mayor or provincial officials from the province's adminstration building a block away. At times the protests were comical, like the day black nurses demanded wage parity with white nurses. As I sat at my desk I heard angels singing. As I followed the sound to my window, I looked out into the building's gardens to see heavyset black nurses being lifted into the back of a yellow police truck, what we called a bakkie. They were singing hymns in beautfiul Zulu harmonies and toi toing (dancing). As one bakkie after another was loaded and pulled away, the vehicles swayed in rhythm with the remaining protesters' songs.

The ANC organzied many marches that involved much singing and shouting. As their leaders set up their portable sound systems in front of City Hall, across the street from my office, each point was punctuated by a fist raised to the air and a shout of "Amandla," which means power. The crowd would echo the shout and gesture over and over again before the dancing would begin anew. One would think it was a party, not a protest, if not for the scattering of protesters hoisting a tire with each shout of "Amandla!"

A tire represents a form of tortuous execution used against ANC detractors. Set around a dissident's neck and set on fire, the "necklace" served as a punishment and a reminder. The sight of those tires reminded me to not pass judgement on staff for their political alliances or their involuntary after-hours activities.

Not all protests were benign. One march on City Hall brought the tension and conflict to our door. It was a Monday morning, the one day the museum was closed to the public. I dropped my husband in the township at the black hospital where he worked and arrived at work early, before any other white/professional staff had arrived. The phone rang. It was City Hall telling me to leave. An ANC protest had formed and it looked ominous. Other staff had already been warned to stay home or had been cut off from the main area of town by police roadblocks. By the time I reached the front door to leave, I was greeted by a SWAT-type team who needed access to our roof and balcony. I escorted them to the access points and by the time I re-collected my bag and keys the street swarmed with silent, angry men.

With police and their militant german-shepherds stationed on the museum's portico guarding the front door, the security staff and I retreated to the upper floor to watch. There was no toi-toing. No singing. Just a long line of black faces somberly marching to City Hall. The parade was lined every four or five feet by a man carrying a tire. Police blockaded all the streets feeding to parade route and formed a line across the street, blocking the way to the front of City Hall. Young, clean-shaven white officers in blue uniforms, arms crossed, semi-automatic weapons at ready lined the route and manned blockades with dogs at their sides and yellow bakkies at their back. On the balcony in front of our windows and on the roof above us, snipers hunched, all in black. All it would take was one young officer to respond to the threats being thrown at him, one breach of discipline from a police-dog, one mishap in the crowd, and pandemonium would ensue.

The Mayor emerged. Discussions were held between the leaders, police, and city officials. Eventually, the crowd dispersed as silently as it formed. I never knew the substance of so many of the protests but we all understood the purpose. A show of strength for the ANC. Intimidation for IFP.

We saw the war played out in dozens of ways that impacted us. My husband's work at the hospital saw an upswing in gunshot wounds relative to the more traditional machete and knife wounds. One day the Orthopeadic ward was shot up in front a friend's eyes while a group of ANC militants liberated an injured colleague from police custody. Another friend received a death threat from an ANC-affiliated nursing sister for challenging her unethical patient care. A friend in family practice in a rural farming community where the fighting was especially bad reported their hospital conducting 20-25 post-mortems a week on gun-shot victims. There were open gun battles between the ANC and IFP on the streets in that same town.

Along with this backdrop of daily violence, we experienced a personal crisis and faced our future in South Africa. We didn't see one for ourselves and so we left in late 1992 for rural Saskatchewan. As Apartheid gave way to the certainty of a new South Africa, negotiations began in earnest for the creation of a new constitution. Rather than alleviate tensions between the ANC and IFP, the crisis intensified and this time came to national and international attention.

The world, in love with Nelson Mandela and the righteous cause of the ANC, remained largely ignorant of violence in Natal. While the warfare was definitely perpetuated by both sides of the ANC-IFP divide, the aggression, in my opinion, came from the ANC. However, as is often the case, history is written by the victor. In Nelson Mandela's brilliant autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he whitewashes this period and sanitizes the ANC's involvement in Natal. I want to believe Mandela wasn't aware of his party's less savory tactics, which is possible considering his long imprisonment and statesmanlike distance from certain elements of ANC leadership.

Talks between Mandela and Buthelezi invariably ended rancorously. Rhetoric intensified and the body count on the ground in Natal increased. Agreement on the consitution seemed impossible. With an election date set for April 27, 1994 and Buthelzi refusing to ratify the constitution, expectations were poised for a bloodbath in Natal.

In hindsight, we know the elections were peaceful, but in 1993 and early 1994 outright war seemed a reasonable possibility. Most other African colonial transitions to self-rule were accompanied by protracted civil wars. In early April, 1994 the Rwandan genocide erupted and Buthelezi and the IFP were boycotting the upcoming South African election. All the pieces were in place for an African debacle. Mandela and the ANC had its roots in the Xhosa tribe. The IFP and Buthelezi were Zulus, a proud, warrior nation that colonized much of southern Africa before the British put an end to their expansion.

International diplomats, including Henry Kissinger, had already come to South Africa and failed to negotiate an agreement between Buthelezi and Mandela. Washington Okumu, a Kenyan political advisor, former Harvard student of Kissinger, and former classmate of Buthelezi, came to South Africa as part of the negotiation team at the behest of Christian evangelist Michael Cassidy. Dubbed by some as Africa's Billy Graham, Michael Cassidy, a long-time friend of my brother and sister-in-law and my nephew's godfather, believed there had to be a way to broker peace in South Africa. While Kissinger and the other international diplomats packed their bags and left the country just twelve days before the elections were scheduled, Cassidy convinced Okumu, a fellow Christian, to stay behind and try again.

In the meantime, African Enterprise (AE), a Pietermaritzburg-based evangelist ministry headed by Michael Cassidy, was working to bring South Africa's Christians to their knees before God. AE scheduled a prayer rally for April 17, just ten days before the election. On April 14 and 15 Okumu met with IFP consitutional negotiators and created a blueprint for a solution, but despite efforts to keep Buthelezi in Johannesburg, his plane lifted off before Okumu reached the airport to present the new plan. Shortly after take-off a faulty gyro in Buthelezi's plane forced it to turn back. Buthelezi later attributed the airplane malfunction to God's intervention. He agreed with Okumu's plan, freeing Okumu to fly to Cape Town to approach the ANC.

On April 17, 25,000 Christians crowded into King's Stadium in Durban while others across the nation and world committed themselves to praying for a peaceful resoluation to the standoff. During the Jesus Peace rally, while the crowd prayed and sang hymns, Okumu and Buthelezi met in the stadium's VIP lounge with ANC leaders. The Okumu plan received assent by all the parties and was ratified in a special session of Parliament on April 18, just nine days before the election.

My sister-in-law sent me an editorial newspaper clipping from The Natal Witness, April 20, 1994. The writer, a cynical, atheistic reporter I knew from my work at the museum, related the events brokered by Michael Cassidy and Washington Okumu and orchestrated by God. He declared it a miracle. A miracle of peace.

I wish I could report that South Africans live in constant peace and security now. I can't. AIDS is ravaging the country and violent crime is a daily constant. But the lesson we learn from this situation isn't that God will create lasting perfection in our lives or world through one miracle. He can't. We are still fallen people in a fallen world. What we see through this situation is that if we humble ourselves and pray when we come upon or live in the midst of war, be it between nations or tribes or families or churches or colleagues, and then we respond by seeking God's will ahead of our own and bend our will to His will, peace is not only possible, it is probable.

This year two events spotlight the best of South Africa. The world's eyes will be on South Africa as it hosts the 2010 Football (Soccer) World Cup, the first time an African nation has hosted the world's biggest sporting event. And through the Clint Eastwood movie Invictus, a slice of history at the advent of a renewed and freely governed South Africa is revealed. This film, the story of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup, portrays a man humbled by his life and willing to forego bitterness for the sake of peace. When you see this movie, and I encourage you to do so, remember there is more to the story. Mandela's peaceful ascention as the first black president of South Africa was made possible by a miracle in 1994.

I apologize for this especially long post and thank you for your patience.

Right now, another nation beset by chronic problems is in the midst of a crisis. Join me in praying for a miracle for Haiti. Christian agencies at work in Haiti are committed to rebuilding the country and the lives broken there through chronic poverty, corruption, and now the earthquake. My family supports the work of World Vision, Compassion, and Samaritan's Purse.  I invite you, if you haven't already done so, to commit to praying for the people of Haiti in their grief and struggle to rebuild. And to pray for aid agencies at work in Haiti, that they might be agents of God's grace, mercy, and peace in that troubled land.


  1. This has been an interesting week. We've visited some of the lovliest places in the world, but also been made away of the hardships much of the world endures. Thanks for sharing your story, Wenda.

  2. Wow, Wenda. You've given me shivers and put tears in my eyes. You've experienced so much in that short amount of time. I can't even begin to imagine how it has impacted you. Thank you for sharing this with us, and I'll be looking forward to viewing this movie, knowing there is much more to the story.

  3. What an incredible story, Wenda! My early 90's were spent in the house with three babies, so I'm just now learning some of the history that happened while I was doing diapers, etc, especially in the African nations. But I especially loved this "story behind the story." I suspect that there are many of these tales behind historical events that we won't know until we get to heaven. I'm glad I know this one now!

  4. What an incredible story, Wenda! My early 90's were spent in the house with three babies, so I'm just now learning some of the history that happened while I was doing diapers, etc, especially in the African nations. But I especially loved this "story behind the story." I suspect that there are many of these tales behind historical events that we won't know until we get to heaven. I'm glad I know this one now!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Wenda!

  6. Thanks for sticking with the long post. Reading Dina's post earlier this week and then revisiting our time in South Africa reminded me that much of the world does not live in the relative peace and security we take for granted. Thank God we can take it for granted!

  7. Wenda,
    Wow! You have experienced so much and seen way too much violence. The tire torture is just horrible. I don't think this world will ever have peace; man's inhumanity to man rages on. I'm looking forward to seeing Invictus and am praying for Haiti.

  8. Sometimes when I think about those horrors, man's inhumanity to man, I believe that this earth is Hell. We are truly living in Hell. Then, I am reminded of the glimpses of Heaven. I just wrote in my journal this morning, Where do I see beauty, generosity of spirit, God's love? I'll keep looking. Thank you for your words today.

  9. As always Wenda you move me in ways I never thought to be moved.

    You write this with emotion and humility and strength, and it proves just what kind of amazing woman you are.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. Wenda, another beautiful post. Your words and stories pierce my heart. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I join you in praying for Haiti and for the Christian relief agencies already in place there, especially Compassion, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, as well as churches and other ministries.

  11. Wenda, I worked for awhile with a woman from South Africa, an Italian Jew. She told me once that Americans would all do well to have to spend time in a third world nation, because we are so far removed from what is 'normal' for much of the world. She lived through the same times you mention. I wish there was some way we could have our eyes opened that would make a long term impact.

    I appreciated this post and I don't know how you could have cut it down in length. It's a fascinating story as I look in from my sheltered life.

    And you've pointed out the amazing beauty of the country. Thanks so much!

  12. Thanks for the history, Wenda. What a revealing, mournful, and yet beautiful revelation. The length didn't deter me. I enjoyed every word.

  13. Thank you all for your generous comments. I agree with your friend, Debra. Time spent out of our own context brings our every day life into sharper focus.

    I hope, through this post, I've taken you a short journey into antoher time and place. And in doing so made home that much more precious.

  14. Wenda, This is amazing. I feel like I just read a riveting novel! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. And yes, I too love World Vision. Thank God for them. Bless you!

  15. What a poignant post, Wenda! God has gifted you incredible experiences.

    I SO loved Invictus's portrayal of the man, the country, and rugby, giving me a portal to three new worlds.

    Do you know of a good bio of Nelson?

    Thanks ever so much for this.


  16. Patti,

    His own autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, is a great, great read. Very illuminating about the man and the nation. His description of his early life and eduction reminded me of a gentleman we hired to paint our house. Curious to know why such a distinguished man was a house painter, I learned he had been an accountant in the early 1960s with a firm in Johannesburg. When the Apartheid laws banned him from his profession, he became a laborer and then finally a painter.

    But, re: Mandela's biography, I felt he didn't reflect the Natal I lived and worked in when he discussed the ground war. While we were very much "outside" the world of the average black, through my husband's and his medical colleagues' (one of whom spoke Zulu fluently and whose wife was professor of Zulu at the Univesity of Natal and who the cleaner Nelson described by saying, "that is not a white woman, that woman is a Zulu in white skin" which is incredibly high praise) work in the township, my job, my sister-in-law's long-term involvement in a nearby rural township we had more exposure to the lives of the average Zulu than most. Everything we heard, saw, and experienced pointed to ANC agression and intimidation in Natal.

    To Mandela's credit, when the peace was finally reached with Buthelezi, peace was held.

  17. Wenda, WOW. Your story reads like a screenplay! I, like D'Ann, spent most of the '90s with little ones at home, concentrating on diapers and nursing and pregnancy, and we didn't have much in the way of TV. This was an interesting lesson in history, as much of what occurred in South Africa is a mystery to me. Thank you for sharing!


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