Towards the end of June 1918 in Johannesburg, approximately three weeks before Mandela was born, the Governor General of South Africa (representing the United Kingdom) and his wife had a son. This boy’s name was Patrick Duncan and he was to be my maternal grandfather. Much like his father, Patrick grew up to work in the Colonial Service. However, he became increasingly frustrated with the brutality and injustice of apartheid. In 1952 he defected to become a political dissident and decided to fight the system. This was two years before my mother was born, which made for a tumultuous and peripatetic childhood, often on the run.
Some years after my Anglo-Saxon mother took my brother and me to her childhood home in South Africa in 1994, I was going through a family album in which I found pictures of my cousins visiting a few years before she had taken us. I hadn’t fully articulated in my mind, until then, that my mother did not have the luxury of taking us before 1994, as that was the year Mandela came to power and apartheid came to its long-overdue end. She married a Pakistani, which meant that her noticeably brown children would have had a considerably different and unpleasant experience there, being subjected to the humiliation of enforced segregation under apartheid. This was not a concern, however, for her siblings’ white children. In the wake of Mandela’s death, I was reminded of the personal impact his achievement of peaceful racial reconciliation had on my mother and, by extension, my brother and me.
Mandela and my grandfather led parallel lives, in many regards, working together only spasmodically. They were born within weeks of each other, both into patrician families, where there was the expectation of leadership. The two placed a huge emphasis on education and used their time productively. They went on to devote most of their adult lives to racial reconciliation in South Africa, greatly venerating Gandhi and initially ascribing to his pacifist resistance, satyagraha (Patrick went on to work with his son, Manilal Gandhi); yet the early ’60s proved to be a liminal period for Mandela and Patrick, as both men became disillusioned with non-violent opposition and changed tactics.
Mandela and Patrick were members of the African National Congress (though my grandfather later switched to the Liberal Party and then the Pan Africanist Congress – the first white person to be accepted), fighting the same fight but from opposite sides. The white experience of active dissent was, indubitably, dramatically different from that of a black South African. This manifested itself in, for example, lighter prison sentences for whites. My grandfather served two weeks of a three month prison sentence for entering a “blacks only” area without a permit (the reason cited was ill-health as he had a lame leg). Unlike his black counterparts, he was allowed to run as a candidate in elections. He stood as a Liberal Party candidate in Cape Town’s provincial elections but his career as a politician was short-lived as he publicly declared “whites and coloureds” should be allowed to swim in the same swimming-pool.
In 1958, Patrick took his family to Cape Town and started a newspaper entitled ‘Contact’, to which Mandela contributed. Patrick fiercely opposed Communism (his fears that it was influencing the ANC is why he left the party), often writing about it in his publication. Acquiring sources for his articles led him to be in contact with various members of the then-outlawed, underground Communist party. His engagement with communists was, ironically, the cause of one of numerous arrests. The writings were red-flagged by police in 1961 who arrested him and presented an ultimatum: he would only be released from prison if he disclosed all of his sources (Mandela was most likely one). Much to my admiration, despite his abhorrence for the cause, he would not comply. This went on for three weeks and, tired of the stale-mate, the police released Patrick and charged him with publishing “subversive literature.” Patrick denied the charges, giving a passionate speech to the court. He argued that the government’s policies and regulations were unlawful because they were “…lacking in two essential ingredients of true law… firstly, the legitimacy of parliament, and, secondly, the morality of the law.” He went on to declare, “In this trial, I am not the accused though I appear in the dock. On the contrary I am the accuser.” Suffice it to say, he was found guilty.
[quote]This was a journey of epic proportions that my mother, eight years-old at the time, remembers vividly[/quote]
This affair was shortly followed by a “banning order” in 1962 — the same year Mandela received his “life” prison sentence — because of which he was not permitted to leave the magisterial district of Cape Town or meet with more than 1-2 person(s) at a time: an attempt at quelling his political activities. Unsurprisingly, this did not stop him. He planned his escape, one that involved his wife and four children. This was a journey of epic proportions that my mother, eight years-old at the time, remembers vividly.
The plan involved Patrick going ahead to what was then Basutoland (now Lesotho); his wife and children were to follow later. In the middle of the night, Patrick drove from Cape Town to the Orange Free State in a car with fake license plates. From there he had a friend smuggle him across the border into Basutoland, while he hid in the boot of the car. My grandmother recalls how once he had arrived she received a telegram from him that simply said: “Bring collapsible canoe [stop]” (clearly a romantic at heart). My grandmother, a woman of wonderfully good-humour, says of the note: “I had enough to do without having to try to find a collapsible canoe in Cape Town.” Unable to do anything atypical, lest it rouse suspicion, they only sold their car before fleeing. My grandmother put a pithy ad in the evening paper: “Green Fiat Multipla. Rattles a bit, but so would you if you had carried us faithfully for 27 thousand miles.” She proudly says with the most nuanced air of pride: “And do you know — the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.”
[quote] “Well, I’m going to be grumpy about my difficult things” [/quote]
My grandmother, my mother and her three siblings then began the journey with nothing more than a few bags, the first phase of which was what felt like an endless train ride from Cape Town to Maseru. As they ensconced themselves after boarding the train my grandmother looked at her children. Rather firmly she said, “Now we’re going to have a very long journey and it will be jolly tiring but we all must make the most of it and try to be cheerful.” My aunt, no more than three at the time, rather deflated the pep talk by recalcitrantly declaring: “Well, I’m going to be grumpy about my difficult things.”
After arriving in Maseru, the five of them waited for a tiny plane. When the time came, they piled in and it flew to a small field in the mountains. There they finally met my grandfather, though the journey was far from over. My aunt, the defiant three year-old, was too young to travel on horseback, which is where this famous collapsible canoe featured. My grandfather and his oldest son (14 at the time) took her up the river in the boat while my grandmother, my mother and her other brother went by horseback. It was a relentless eight hour journey, with no breaks. My mother clearly remembers riding down a steep ravine, the evening sun beating down on her back and neck, her lips chapped and bleeding, falling off the horse from utter exhaustion. Told to get back on, she had to cling to the horse as it swam across the river. Once they had reached the other bank, back up the ravine they went, and their new home wasn’t far from there.
It was a small village by the name of Kubung with no running water, electricity, school or medical facilities. A little trading station was all it could boast of, which sold the most basic of items, such as blankets and matches. There they lived for a year, from where my grandfather continued to be politically active.
[quote]In 1963, he corresponded with Robert Kennedy in the hopes of getting the United States to recalibrate its policy on South Africa[/quote]
In 1963, he corresponded with Robert Kennedy in the hopes of getting the United States to recalibrate its policy on South Africa. Not long after Patrick went to America to meet with members of the Kennedy administration. Unfortunately, however, around this time, the Resident Commissioner of Basutoland (still a British protectorate) had his eye on a knighthood, I am told. Suspecting that my grandfather would be seditious, the Commissioner took the opportunity to brand Patrick a “prohibited immigrant,” in an attempt to obviate any potential trouble. This meant that, once again, the family had to relocate.
The last of these relocations was to Algeria; Patrick was appointed the Pan Africanist Congress representative to North Africa, where they provided military training to recruits. My grandfather died a few years later, in 1967, so he never got to see the end of apartheid. I imagine it was beyond the scope of his imagination that South Africa’s racial reconciliation would be a peaceful one.
After Mandela died my mother called my grandmother to ask her what she remembered most about him. Without a sense of irony, she responded: “He was a very, very nice young man. But there were plenty of others like him.” Plenty of other anti-apartheid political dissidents, yes; but hardly anyone else like him. His capacity for forgiveness and compassion was remarkable, particularly given all he was forced to endure. Thanks to the continued, persistent efforts of Mandela, South Africa became a place where a shared vision was actualized and my mother could take her children.