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Book Excerpt: 'Mr. Ambassador'

'Mr. Ambassador'

As much as I had read about South African history, nothing prepared me for the story that author Alan Paton told me about the Great Trek. In 1938, to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Blood River, Afrikaner leader Henning Klopper called upon all able-bodied men to reenact the trek of independence. The journey from Cape Town to a hill outside Pretoria, a distance of about one thousand miles, would take five months. They built nine ox-carts, a powerful Afrikaner symbol of determination, and named them after nine Afrikaner heroes. Thousands joined in along the route, coming from all corners of South Africa. When they reached the mountains near Pretoria, the leader said, "Unhitch the oxen and use your own brawn to pull the carts to the top." The Afrikaner women said, "If the men cannot do it, we will." That is the steel of the Voortrekker women backing up their men. The men dismantled the ox-carts and carried them on their backs over the mountains. Lucy [the author's wife] and I visited those steep mountains, and looking up at them I wondered how the Afrikaners did it -- how they pulled ox-carts straight up toward the sky. Such is the strength of the Afrikaner character. The Voortrekker Monument that now sits atop the hill is a national shrine to Afrikaners and a patriotic shrine to Afrikanderom as "a nation of heroes."

Alan was on the trek and gave me an eyewitness account. He was an Englishspeaker, of British descent, but he had allied himself with the Afrikaners out of a sense of justice, he said. He empathized with what the Afrikaners had suffered at the hands of the British. Like many of the men on the trek, he grew a huge beard for the march. Once they reached the pinnacle of the Voortrekker Hill, Alan said, the leader delivered an impassioned sermon about preserving the Afrikaner Volk and being masters of their destiny. Alan said that the men were crying, shedding tears of thankfulness that Klopper had led them through the wilderness the way Moses had led his people out of Egypt. Alan shed tears, too, he said, but his were tears of frustration because in that sermon he heard a doctrine of hatred. "They were determined to build a nation based on hate," he said. They hated the British, and they hated nonwhites, and when they came to power they would discriminate against all nonwhites. "Then I turned around and walked back down that hill," Alan told me. "I went back to my home in Diepkloof and shaved off my beard and there I began to write Cry the Beloved Country." We were sitting in his backyard when he told me this story, and I was in tears, too. I was learning something totally new to me. I was in a milieu that I never knew existed.

In 1938, the Afrikaners began to take their destiny in hand. They established their own bank, the Volkskas or People's Bank, and urged all Afrikaners to deposit their money there, even if it was only shillings. The Volkskas grew into an important economic institution. They created Afrikaner businesses that catered to Afrikaners; Sanlaam, one of the world's most successful conglomerates, emerged. They infiltrated the civil service, starting at the lowest level, and the school system. Eventually they decreed that only Afrikaans would be taught in the schools. In protest, a significant number of young black students left school, an action that would have dire consequences because it created a generation of uneducated citizens. The Afrikaners' intent to gain control was based on their belief that they were God's chosen people. By 1948, their political party, Herenigde [Reunited] National Party, campaigned on a platform of complete racial separation and won the elections. It became known as the National Party. For the first time in the history of South Africa, every minister of state was an Afrikaner. One of the first actions they took was to oppose missionary schools in the black townships. Then they took the Coloured people off the voter rolls. (The blacks had never had the right to vote.) Mixed marriages were prohibited, and sexual relations between whites and non-whites were banned. Hendrik FrenschVerwoerd, who later became prime minister, developed a diabolical scheme of a multi-racial and segregated society with whites at the top of the pyramid, Asians (Indians) next, followed by Coloureds, and with blacks at the bottom. Verwoerd was the architect of complete apartheid, one of the most evil social experiments in the history of the world, and he did it with the Afrikaners' fervent belief that God favored them and their racial supremacy. Few things in this world are harder to combat than homeland patriotism and religious belief. In South Africa, the two were intertwined in Afrikanerdom. This is what I was up against.

Presenting Credentials

My first order of business was to present my credentials to the president of South Africa. Until this protocol was recognized, my activities were limited. It was rumored that President Botha would keep me waiting for two or three months before receiving my credentials, but someone talked him out of it. Within a day of my arrival, I was invited to take my credentials to the foreign minister, which is procedure. He also invited news reporters and television cameras to publicize his reception of the black ambassador. A week later, I was asked to present my credentials to the president. The ceremony was lavish and formal.

I wore a gray top hat, black morning coat with swallowtails, striped pants, a pearl vest, and a four-in-hand silver tie. Lucy looked smashing in a long dress with hat and gloves. We rode with a motorcycle escort from the residence to the Union Buildings, the administrative center of government. The Union Buildings, magnificent, towered, and built with local red sandstone, were designed by the celebrated British architect Sir Herbert Baker. I was accompanied by my deputy chief of mission and the next senior officer, who was the counselor for economic affairs. President Botha, similarly dressed in formal attire, was waiting outside on the stairs, flanked by an honor guard consisting of two military companies, one white and one black. As I stepped out of the car, the band played the South African anthem, "Die Stem," and then the United States national anthem. I had been thoroughly briefed by Allen Harvey, chief of protocol, and as instructed, I removed my top hat and handed it to an attendant on the first step. I was then to proceed up three steps to where Botha stood. With him were two governmental officials who, like South Africa itself, were radical contrasts. One was the director general of the Foreign Affairs Department, a true professional who was a pleasure to work with. The other was General Jannie Roux, minister for presidential affairs, a fiendish despot of black South African prisoners.

President Botha was standing one step above me. I suspect that the ceremony was choreographed so that he would tower over me and I would look up at him, but he is a short man and we stood looking one another straight in the eye. I was determined not to avert my gaze until he did. Tradition called for me to deliver a short set speech as I handed him my credentials. As I did so, he had to look down to avoid dropping them. When he did, he lost the staring contest.

One of the formal photographs taken after the presentation appeared in Time magazine. A polite little ceremony of conversation followed in an antechamber. On this occasion, the politeness was all mine. The air was electric, and I could feel an immediate dislike emanating from the president. My officers were not allowed to accompany me, but General Roux and the director general joined us, sitting on either side of Botha.

I began the conversation. "Mr. President, I am delighted to be here. Our two countries have a lot in common..." He stopped me.

"What do you mean, 'a lot in common?' How can you say that? Your Congress just declared economic warfare on my country. But not your president. He's a good guy."

"Mr. President, Congress represents the people of the United States."

"No people could be represented by such a stupid group," Botha said.

"Nevertheless, Mr. President, they are the representatives of the people." I could see that my remark made him angry, the first flash of raw anger. I was not surprised. Despite the institution of apartheid, the Afrikaner leaders before him had been well-educated men. Botha was not, and he distrusted academics. He ascended to his position as a ward politician, wielding bicycle chains to make sure that the party people obeyed. He was a toughie who wanted to be respected as a leader.

"I am glad to be here," I continued. "I expect to travel a lot in South Africa. I want to get to know all of the people."

"I don't want you getting involved in our affairs," Botha said.

"I represent the people of the United States to the people of South Africa. Until I get to know them, I don't think I can adequately represent my country."

He stuck his finger in my face. "Didn't I tell you that I don't want you to get involved in our affairs?" His two aides were shaking because they realized he had gone beyond the norms. When he put his finger in my face, it was like putting his finger in Reagan's face. He ranted on before he finally caught himself and ended the meeting. "Well, Mr. Ambassador, welcome to South Africa. Thank you very much. That is all." That was my first encounter with him. As I left I said to myself, "This is going to be a very unpleasant tour of duty." I had come face to face with the Afrikaners, their government, and their determination to keep their system of apartheid.

I did not see Botha for another two months, until we were in Cape Town at a banquet for the opening of Parliament. Botha was in the formal receiving line, and when I reached him, he turned baleful eyes on me and said, "Hello, Ambassador. How are you finding our country?" I had begun to make good my word to make my presence known in all walks of life in South Africa, and he knew it.

"I am getting to know the people of South Africa, Mr. President," I replied. I said nothing else and took my seat.

After the presentation of credentials in Pretoria, my first outing was a walk around the neighborhood. I met no whites. I later learned that some of the neighbors had circulated a petition trying to prohibit black people from coming to the ambassadorial residence or from using the swimming pool, the tennis courts, or the barbecue pits. They were prepared to treat me as an honorary white -- as long as I did not abuse the privilege. Despite arthroscopic surgery, my knees were in terrible condition and walking was difficult. Still, every day I increased my walks farther out of the neighborhood. I never met a white. Except for the Afrikaner head gardener, the entire staff at the residence was black -- the butler from Malawi, the cook, and the two stewardesses. The white people had mysteriously disappeared from the neighborhood.

I had grown up in a country that had a hard time overcoming racism, so I was not unfamiliar with separateness, but this was new to Lucy. More than anything else, she was concerned for me. She knew that I was in the spotlight, and she expected harm to come to me. Although she was never fully at ease with my actions, she knew, perhaps better than anybody else, that I had to do it. Never once did she suggest an alternative course. She was always there supporting me.

From Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace by Ambassador Edward J. Perkins with Connie J. Cronley. Copyright © 2006 by the University of Oklahoma Press. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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Edward J. Perkins