Letters to My Mother from Apartheid South Africa

From 1974 to 1978, Gosport-based writer and planetary modeller David Angus lived in South Africa. Here he shares the letters he wrote to his mother relating his experiences of hard labour, riots and the appalling apartheid regime.

In 1976 I was renting a part of a house below Table Mountain. When I got back from a quick outing to nearby Cape Town in 1976, I was told my mother had just phoned because she was worried about the riots in Johannesburg. I’d recently returned from there and they thought I was still there.

The 1976 Soweto riots involved children rebelling against compulsory Afrikaans taught in schools.  The police shot hundreds including children. Truly evil.  This was a landmark in South African history, as the rebellion led to nationwide protest and repression and the eventual unravelling of the apartheid regime.

My account of the event as I understood it then in a letter back home is as follows:

The riots – which started on Tuesday and ended last night – were certainly serious enough.  About 100 people have been killed and 1,000 injured.  However, since the trouble was confined to several black townships such as Soweto and Alexandria, the casualties must be practically all black and the arson and looting have not spread beyond the suburbs immediately adjacent to the townships, so by far the most of Johannesburg including the city centre was untouched.  The beerhalls and buses in the townships were a target for arson which also spread to adjacent offices and business premises and a Dutch Reformed church. (This latter item I feel is no loss, as the Dutch Reformed Church helped bring apartheid about including the ‘Immorality Act’ which I loathed.  It supported apartheid and was an obstacle to reform.) Cars were stopped and robbed for petrol on the main road near Soweto which has been severely damaged; many black residents were seen running away from the rioters.  Soweto is an enormous township, practically the size of Johannesburg.  Police roadblocks have been set up covering all approaches to this area southwest of Johannesburg.  Louis Botha Avenue – the old main road to Pretoria and one I have travelled on – has also been cordoned off in the northern suburbs near Alexandria.  

Then I was going back to Johannesburg again, as paid help to an exhibition designer and friend.  My letter describes that:

We were on the road at 2.45am on the 20th.  My job was to keep Tony awake by playing my tapes including the ones you’ve sent me – we were listening to ‘2001’ while driving into the dawn in the Karoo. We watched out for cops and speed traps en route and kept an eye on the speedometer.  All went well and we reached Johannesburg at 7.15pm.  Quite an experience – practically 1,000 miles of road in one day!  It must be inconceivable in Britain as it’s similar in distance to driving from Paris to the Orkney Isles.  Lack of traffic and long straight roads help.  It gets very monotonous though and seeing so much empty space in one day while crossing the Karoo and the high places of the interior impresses one with a feeling of awesome loneliness.

I had wondered what Jo’burg would be like.  After June’s eruption of violence, it was simmering beyond the northern horizon like a dormant volcano awakening; its tremors triggering subsidiary shocks throughout the country.  Just before I left there were minor riots in the Cape Town townships and trouble at the university.

Externally it hasn’t changed.  The same orange lava flows of traffic curving inward towards the glittering facade marking the centre of the vortex which reveals itself by day to be a central grouping of stylised metal termite hills.  The same warrens of back street factories in which the Bantu are as numerous as a nest of black ants.

If it gets too lousy here though, I’ll leave.  Quite early on I realised that I must ignore certain things before they depressed me: the racialism, the narrowmindedness, the shabby little dorps (small towns) in the veld accentuating the feeling of physical and cultural wilderness.  Journeying through the highveld & desert here has been exciting but also the emptiness gets to one; it invades one’s soul and reflects any loneliness or emptiness there.

I wrote more about the riots:

Like you Mum, I have wondered how much to put into a letter or tape about the political situation here.  As you know, the Soweto riots sparked off subsidiary ones throughout the country which have died down now or are just smouldering.  Overall, the situation has worsened.  Many of the rioters, especially in Soweto, are the younger generation, even schoolchildren.  I’ve heard since arriving in Johannesburg that many people here were very worried in June when it happened.  The feeling is more pronounced now.  The sale of guns has increased.  Life still goes on as usual.  But just after I sent you a card we heard of another riot. Black workers were stopped from coming into town with the result that there were no newspapers and washing was not cleaned.  This lasted for about 2 days.  I’ve noticed that the Bantus here are often either surly or worried; there’s often intertribal fighting and this is a good excuse for it.  The latest thing seems to be that the Zulus are fighting the rioters, which must benefit the police.  The most worrying thing I’ve heard is that there was a newsreel interview with Credo Mutwa, the Zulu witchdoctor and writer whom you know about.  The man was practically in tears and he should know what’s going on.  Not only that, a lot of stupid bastards started laughing at him: ‘Look at this guy in a state!’  We also heard from Tony’s friend that there have been shootings and other ugly incidents on the main road to Kimberley running past Soweto.  

Then while we were in Johannesburg riotsripped through Cape Town.  They missed me both times.  When I returned I wrote home thus:

This is to let you know that I’m back safe and sound in Cape Town having arrived here last Friday evening; it is now Sunday.

Tony and I listened to all the news of the Cape Town riots in Jo’burg.  Tony was worried and I felt that this was all we and you at home needed on top of everything else.  These were particularly nasty as they occurred right at the centre of Cape Town.  No one was killed although people have been in the black and so-called coloured townships in the Cape Flats east of here.  We also heard of arson in these areas and stoning of cars on nearby roads.

Tony and I set off at 1 o clock in the morning from Jo’burg on Friday; dawn came up at Bloemfontein and we had breakfast in Colesberg.  Tony was swerving under all the flyovers in the ‘Free State’ in order to practise for any stone-throwing on the freeway coming into the Cape.  Eventually we descended into the ‘Shangri La’ of the Hex River Valley and before long were coming over Du Toits Kloof where we should have had a great view of the Cape. But we could see nothing because there was cloud moving up the western side of the pass.  We wondered what we would find.  Eventually the freeway climbed around the foot of the Tygerberg Hills near Bellville offering a good view and we saw nothing; no fires, no incidents on the road.  It’s all so peaceful and the people we’ve met so far seem to be so unconcerned that it has been difficult to believe that we are in the right place.

After that my own affairs grew steadily worse towards Christmas.  An all-important work contract with Readers Digest kept being delayed while my financial situation worsened, while I received a surprise tax bill.  Despite bureaucratic trench warfare lasting years my permanent residence still had not been granted and I received a threat of deportation.  As a friend put it, ‘Pay up and f**k off.’

They were attacking on all sides.  My motorbike got stolen at a party too.  My contact with Readers Digest became more difficult to the point of being hostile.  My builder landlord threatened me with eviction that was only avoided by him taking me on as a ‘coloured’ labourer.  So I found myself hacking out a trench with a pickaxe in the terrific heat of a South African summer while on starvation rations.  It seemed as though I was refighting a Boer War seige because the only thing that seemed to be misssing were dum dum bullets flying overhead.  I tried to hold on to morale by thinking of Rudyard Kiplings’ poem ‘If’ and General Douglas Haig’s address to the weary British Army being battered by the crisis of the last German WW1 offensive:With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.’

My first break came when I was awoken by the dreaded South African police at 2am!  They had recovered my bike.  I really didn’t care about the time – the result was good.

Meanwhile I’d made a model for Readers Digest on spec in a ‘to hell with the flanks’ mood, namely payment for it.  That got me a meeting with the head of the project.  It was like taking a tactically vital hill.  And it broke the siege of Cape Town!  When they sent an advance in the form of a cheque it was like the relief column breaking through!  The day was saved and the contract was mine.

Not long after that the permanent residence papers arrived which looked comparable to the Armistice.  It reminded me of that.

I celebrated all this on Christmas Day in style with 2 memorable parties.  One in a garden with turkey and champagne in the sunshine, the other with venison and wine after dusk, after I’d dried out enough to ride my bike over a mountain pass.

By that time though I’d come across something in a bookshop that seemed to qualify my victory for a regimental role of honour.  It was a book about the Siege of Ladysmith titled, Thank God We Kept The Flag Flying!  They were the words uttered by the commandant of the town when Bullers’ relief column finally broke through.  I was left thinking, ‘My God!  I know how that guy felt!’

Now I look back on it from old age.  Recently I was discussing some of this in a pub with a friend: the stunning juxtaposition of living in extreme penury while living in luxurious surroundings.  The garden of the place I was living in below Table Mountain was on the edge of a forest almost filled by a swimming pool with a spectacular view.  To succeed against the odds I’ve just described certainly was one for my regimental roll of honour.  And all done on an unstable combination of naivety, ignorance and courage that I couldn’t match now.  But the apartheid?  If if there’s a multiverse I wonder how an alternative version of me would have done in Canada? I’d had a choice between there and South Africa.  Apartheid was an appalling injustice to those it was directed against.  Looking back on it now, it seems an extreme form of right-wing politics, a curse to be avoided along with certain others right here in the UK today, such as Brexit.


Image entitled ‘Cape Town City Bowl as seen from Signal Hill in 1897’ re-used under a public domain Wikimedia Commons licence.