Snapshots of South Africa

Representing America in South Africa during apartheid wasn’t easy

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It would be hard for me not to think long and hard about South Africa as former President Nelson Mandela is mourned; I lived there two years, one of my sons was born there, and I headed the Office of Southern African Affairs at the Department of State for another three years.

I never met Mandela. The white-ruled apartheid apparatus was in full cry, and he was imprisoned on Robben Island.

I don’t want to exaggerate the pain the place gave me. For me and my family it was nothing like the pain and humiliation that South Africa’s majority nonwhite African, “colored” and Asian population endured. Nevertheless, I had come there after six years living in non-apartheid Africa — Nigeria, Libya and Burundi — and the strain of having the benefits of being white while knowing the situation of blacks in South Africa took its toll.

Fortunately for me, my assignment in the American embassy included keeping track of South Africa’s black opposition. My wife and I were encouraged to invite to our home blacks, coloreds and Asians, and to travel all around the country. We expanded that responsibility way beyond Washington’s policy of covering its bets with the majority nonwhites while playing ball with the white apartheid regime.

I was young, believed what I believed, and did not hesitate to act on those beliefs. I got tear-gassed during demonstrations in Cape Town, met with people I was not supposed to meet with and sent photographs of South African police dogs attacking demonstrators directly to Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., D-Mich, the black chairman of the House Africa Subcommittee at the time.

Mandela had been locked up for seven years by then and his party, the African National Congress, the principal African resistance movement, had been banned for 10 years. But there were lots of people around who knew him and word of his views continued to flow indirectly from prison. One of his characteristics, which he never abandoned during 27 years of prison, was that his close relationships included whites, coloreds and Asians as well as blacks.

Even though it caused the United States difficulty in trying to carry out a two-faced policy toward South Africa, Mandela also had no problems with the ANC including the South African Communist Party in its coalition and accepting assistance from the Soviet Union. This made it easy for America’s racists and right-wingers, including President Ronald W. Reagan, to label Mandela and the ANC as terrorists linked to godless communism, which they did long past majority rule.

I couldn’t meet Mr. Mandela, but I did run into Robert Sobukwe, the head of the rival Pan Africanist Congress, in the middle of the Karoo desert where the South African government had stuck him. Some embassy officers were in touch with Mandela’s then-wife, Winnie. She was overrated as a political leader but had credibility because of her association with Mandela.

In the end, my idea of South Africa is defined by snapshots in my mind. The first has been revived by the singing of the post-majority rule South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikhelel’ iAfrika,” (“God Bless Africa”), in the mourning ceremonies for Mr. Mandela, which I first heard sung by Xhosa political figures at a congress in Transkei, Mandela’s area of origin. I listened, choked up, then joined in the singing.

Then there was a visit to a stream in the Western Cape, near Citrusdal, where along the banks on the walls of caves were stick drawings of animals and hunters. The point was that people had been living in Southern Africa long before the Africans, as well as the fractious whites, who came in 1652. This gave me some reason to believe that South Africa would survive apartheid, and whatever came after it.

Then there was the visit to the battlefield of Isandlawana, where Zulu warriors led by their king, Cetshwayo, in 1879 cleaned the clocks of the British Army. In the 19th century, the British Army was supposed to be the best in Europe, having defeated Napoleon, but on the Zulus’ home ground they were no match in tactics or strategy for the African regiments.

Then there were the stories of white, Afrikaans-speaking South African army officers of how in the Anglo-Boer war the British had confined the families of Afrikaner fighters in concentration camps, where they died like flies of disease and malnutrition.

There were the trips to the African townships, where Africans were required to live, in every South African city we traveled through. When Americans visited, I drove them straight from the wealthy white areas to the townships so they might understand what it was all about. One of the wealthy white areas, Houghton, is where Mandela was living when he died.

As for what the white South Africans thought of me, I remember being told by a white South African friend at their Ministry of Foreign Affairs that there was a fat file on me, including transcripts of phone conversations, at the Bureau of State Security, which the government and the CIA unabashedly called BOSS. Its head told me at a cocktail party once that his hobby was raising pigs.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).

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