1989 Peace March: apartheid revisionism or memory playing tricks?

FOR  Desmond Tutu, the 1989 Peace March was a “tipping point”, for Allan Boesak, it “wasn’t about getting permission, it was about marching for peace come what may”. Those who were in the front of the 30 000 gathering which became the last “illegal march” under apartheid, at least in the minds of the majority of people who were there — a supreme act of defiance against the regime of FW de Klerk — appear to contradict today’s revisionists who at once focus on the failure of the government to suppress the march as evidence of the president’s noble intentions (which had yet to manifest in tangible policy) while writing off an act of insurrection by Cape Town’s Mayor at the time, Gordon Oliver.

Oliver is a Unitarian and thus his views are not readily given the kind of credit they deserve, at least so far as the Anglican Church is concerned. I attended today’s commemorative event hosted by St George’s Cathedral and was swept up in the highly emotional interfaith service which appeared to unite various strands of the Abrahamic tradition. From a Call to Prayer by Yusef Ganief which utilised the supreme acoustics of the venue, to the closing hymnal of Birkat Khohanim — a Judaic paeon to Peace sung by Jessica Thorn — the whole event struck a raw nerve. I was simply and elegantly brought to tender tears by the Cape Cultural Collective, this after a candid speech by the Cape Flats’ Cheryl Carolus who surely embodies the youthful rebellion of the time?

It is easy to forget the kind of political will which exemplified itself in People’s Power and which made the United Democratic Front (UDF) such a revolutionary force in South Africa. One can always slip into neat semantics of the kind which gets people Nobel Peace Prizes and forget the fortitude and determination which marked the crowd of “students, business people, domestic workers, civic and political activists; of every race, faith, age and class”, some of whom had witnessed the Purple Rain debacle ten days earlier and the chaotic start of a defiance campaign spurred on by the problematic all-white election — a velvet revolution was also occurring in Eastern Europe (which would result in the End of the Cold War and fall of the Berlin Wall).

South Africa was thus in the midst of its own purple revolution when progressive religious leaders and activists got together and realised they had better do something or we would end up with yet another tragedy, the likes of which South Africans are all too familiar. Soweto 1976, Sharpeville, Boipatong. This country has its share of massacres.

In fact, an online biography written by Tom Wooten details the circumstances in which Oliver became involved in an ‘illegal march.

“Several days before Gordon’s inauguration, seven “terrorists” were shot by government police in the Cape Flats township of Guguletu. An outpouring of grief and anger from the black community ensued, which culminated in a massive memorial service … as the service concluded, Archbishop Desmond Tutu encouraged the mourners to join an illegal protest march that was to occur the following week. Gordon didn’t give this request much thought until he was approached by a reporter, who asked him if he planned to join the protest. Gordon quickly and confidently made up his mind, replying that he would indeed join the march. “It wasn’t an issue of ’should I’ or ’shouldn’t I,’” he remembers, “it was just the right thing to do.”

“The next day,” according to Wooten, the Cape Times “ran a huge front-page headline reading “Defiant Mayor to March.” Gordon’s phone rang nonstop all day. Even some of his fellow progressive City Council members were appalled that he planned to openly break the law. Nonetheless, Gordon held his ground. “I’m merely upholding council policy,” he told his fellow councillors

Oliver apparently assured the council that the march would be peaceful, although truthfully, he had no basis on which to give this assurance.

“When the phone calls subsided, Gordon set to work ensuring that the march would be as peaceful as possible. First, he met with Cape Town’s Chief of Police, a gruff no-nonsense Afrikaner whose orders came directly from the national government. Gordon pleaded with him not to break up the march, insisting that the demonstrators would remain peaceful if left unprovoked. The chief listened to Gordon, but made no promises. Then, Gordon met with the UDF march organizers, and ensured that they would deploy uniformed marshals to keep the crowds under control. Gordon had done his best, but the march’s outcome remained far from certain. “

Wooten says: “Gordon was overwhelmed with joy when tens of thousands of demonstrators poured peacefully fourth from St. George’s Cathedral and for once, the government riot police merely stood by and watched. Gordon walked among the marchers, and the crowd parted ways for him as he made his way to City Hall. When he arrived, Gordon addressed the crowd with a megaphone from his office balcony. “Today,” he exclaimed, “you all have the freedom of this city!” From the crowd, Gordon heard overjoyed cries. “He’s our Mayor!” someone shouted. Another one called out “This is our city!”

Gordon Oliver is really the man in my mind who deserves a peace prize. Although present at the commemoration, he was out-gunned by Dan Plato the current Cape Town Mayor, and thus no words of deep reassurance of historical reason emanated from the lofts, but surely it was he who single-handedly liberated the streets of Cape Town by refusing to comply with the State of Emergency which outlawed public gatherings? I dare say the state would have been at a loss to explain what occurred when Oliver gave the go-ahead for the march and the state security forces found themselves unwilling to countermand the Cape Town police services which as we all know, would have fallen under the Mayoral aegis.

At least this is how I, as one of the 30 000 secular rabble who marched, wish to see the event. Not “faith in a trusting president” as true believers such as Mary Burton, chairperson of the Black Sash would have it, which makes it all seem like a quaint Saturday morning picnic, an outing in which an all-seeing and all-knowing politician, casually gives the go ahead to a bunch of compliant lackeys one of whom happens to be the liberation theologian Allan Boesak, and the rabblerouser for peace, Desmond Tutu?

Saying FW did it, “because the people trusted him”, makes the struggle and defiance campaign all too easy. The tension between white officialdom and black clergy way too trite. The apartheid state was never that trusting nor pliable. No it was resilient, fortified by kragdadigheid and the certainty that God himself was on the side of the Afrikaner and nothing short of a revelation from on-high, or as some Jews might have it, a burning bush suddenly appearing in Adderley Street and talking truth to a modern Moses, could sway such conviction.

No, Ms Burton, doing so relegates not just our sense of the period but our strength of conviction to the puerile and adolescent. Perhaps somebody needs to give the Unitarians and the former President a call to find out exactly how different Christian perspectives influenced events? Again, there were more than one or two Jews and Muslims (as well as other faiths) involved in the picture. The historical record will surely support such conjecture.

In Tutu’s version, the defiance campaign made the Peace March go-ahead on Gordon’s authority, a fait accompli, an act of skilful defiance which lead directly to the events which saw the release of Nelson Mandela. In Mary Burton’s mind, as well as the minds of more than a few participants at the ceremony, FW de Klerk waved his magic wand in order to make things happen, as if the President was some kind of Hollywood producer bankrolling the struggle and paying for his share in the proceedings with the Nobel billions. Is this theological point/counterpoint or simply product placement of the worst order? Some might see the ruckus as mere wish fulfilment in a canon of popular memory that is slowly disappearing, but I doubt whether the truth of the matter is likely to be revealed without considerable chest-beating and bleating about necessary “sacrifices” and humility in the face of so much which is evil.

NOTE:: De Klerk waved the prohibition against illegal marches during a press conference held the night before the event, allowing the march to proceed unimpeded by security legislation. The point is moot, since there was no attempt by the organisers to gain permission, bar the personal intervention and pleading of the mayor, which can be seen by subsequent arrangements made to accommodate future “illegal marches” so organisers would not have to “ask permission”. There’s your flaming gun. The government capitulated. Slaves do not ask permission from their masters to be free.]


1 comment
  1. Hello

    I’ve just uploaded two rare interviews with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. One was made for the Christophers [1971]–i.e., Christopher Closeup– and the other for WCVB-TV Boston [1974].

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues with Catholic Worker homes in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable lay minister.

    They may be located here:


    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

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