Wilhelm Verwoerd, Nelson Mandela, and a Family Torn Apart

In Part One of this series I talked about Wilhelm Verwoerd and the legacy of his grandfather Hendrik. I left it off with Wilhelm leaving for Europe in the 1980s, where by virtue of being exposed to a more liberal worldview he became increasingly disillusioned with that legacy. Learn more about Verwoerd's life, his relationship to Nelson Mandela, and the atonement for his family's sins.


Have You Been in Prison?

Victor Verster Prison in South Africa

One of the best stories I got out of last year's reading of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari was the one told to him by an ex-prisoner in Ethiopia. The man had spent the better part of ten years in jail as a political prisoner and his experience was both heartwarming and harrowing. This made me think of some of my own observations about prisons and prisoners in South Africa.


Nelson Mandela

mourners visiting Nelson Mandela lying in state in Pretoria December 2013

I have a hard time remembering what sort of feelings I had about Nelson Mandela prior to our expat stint in Johannesburg, South Africa. I knew who he was, of course. That he had been a civil rights leader stuck in prison for a long time, and that he eventually became president, an inspiring leader who wisely navigated his country into democracy. And yet I knew nothing.


How I spent Mandela Day

South Africa. Nelson Mandela. You cannot think of one without the other. They often come up in the same sentence. Think of George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. combined, and you will have an idea of what Nelson Mandela means to this country. This week, July 18th, was Nelson Mandela's birthday. It's easy to remember for me because it's the day after mine.


This is Africa: How a Half-Day Errand Became a Month-Long Quest in Joburg And What I Learned from Nelson Mandela

This is Africa. Have I said that before? Actually, I’ve once been chastised by a reader for saying that (when complaining about inefficiency), because by extension I’m saying that all Africans are inefficient when of course there is no such thing as one type of “African.” But then again there are many things I love about Africa that I have raved about on this blog, and no one so far is complaining about my undifferentiated praise of Africa. So as long as I have “This is Africa” kind of days, I will keep saying it, thank you very much. Plus, it also makes for such good writing material.

So the errand I was so frustrated about yesterday started out with a Christmas present over a month ago. I wanted to get these canvas prints made for Noisette:



To go on this spot on the wall next to my insurmountable picture hanging project from a while ago, if you’ll remember:


When you read the chronology of what was to follow, perhaps you’ll agree with me that this project was a wee bit agonizing.

Dec 10: Emailed the pictures to QPhoto, an outfit I’d been very happy with previously, mainly for their prompt service. I mailed them to the same person I had spoken with before, and asked for the same size prints mounted in the same style. Then I left for our vacation at Island Water Villas, looking forward to the prints being done when we got back.

Dec 15: Received a voice message, asking all sorts of questions about size and style, exactly all the things I’d already specified, but still pleased that they seemed to be on top of things by calling me. I should mention here that in order to receive said message and make any outbound phone calls, my phone and I had to go on a hike up this hill behind our house, the only place near us with a cell phone signal:


I made about five trips up the hill, but to no avail. QPhoto could not be reached again.

Dec 19: Back home, contacted QPhoto again and actually reached someone, who promised she’d send me an invoice with the exact price so that I could make a deposit, after which the prints would be made. However, they wouldn’t be ready before Christmas, plus they could no longer be picked up at Design Quarter (close to here) but at their new location at Mandela Square (far from here).

Dec 27: No longer in a hurry because Christmas had come and go, I followed up once again to request the invoice. Made payment. Waited. Was very tempted to check “QPhoto” off my to-do list but knew better and left it on.

Jan 5: Called again to check status. Confusion over who was in charge, but promise to call me back “now now.” Waited in vain.

Jan 12: Found QPhoto still on my to-do list, called again, and lo and behold was told the prints were done and sent to Mandela Square. Asked when they were sent and was told “today,” so decided to give it a few more days.

Jan 13: Called Mandela Square location whether my prints had arrived but they hadn’t. Called QPhoto main line again and they now said the prints were “just now” being finished, to be sent the very next day.

Jan 18: Was in the vicinity anyway so called Mandela Square again and was told that yes, my two prints were ready for pickup. Drove there, had trouble finding parking, and squeezed into a semi-legal spot:


Took the elevator up to the 4th floor of the West Tower as instructed, and followed the signs:





Holy cow, how many more corners could I possibly  have to turn in this labyrinth of the West Tower? When I finally did find QPhoto, you will have already guessed what happened next: They DIDN’T have my prints. “We only have two prints for Tina, not for Sine – so sorry, you sounded like Tina on the phone.”

I think in my old life in the U.S. I would have been ready to strangle someone at this point. But This is Africa. Everything ended fine. The lady was very friendly and offered to have her driver deliver the prints right to my house as soon as she got them from the QPhoto head office. I was genuinely happy at such great service. I wasn’t even very upset about the time I had wasted. When in Africa, one learns to accept fate and let bygones be bygones. On the way back to the parking garage I discovered this really cool coffee place with a beautiful view over Mandela Square:


And I got to take this picture – something I’d been meaning to post on this blog – of one of Joburg’s (or, rather, Sandton’s) icons, the statue of Nelson Mandela:



And then it hit me: If Nelson Mandela could sit in prison for 27 years and not be mad at anyone afterwards, surely I should be able to chase after QPhoto for a month and not be mad at anyone afterwards.

I felt nothing but serenity the rest of the day.

Jan 19: The pictures were indeed delivered. The driver insisted I check them before he left, and wouldn’t you know it, they were not quite what I had ordered, the frame being deeper and the sides printed black instead of white. He offered to take them back to have them redone. I could see it all unraveling yet another time, like in the movie Groundhog Day. No thanks, I informed him politely, I’ll keep them.

But now I regret that the picture sourcing project is finished. Because what will be next?

The insurmountable picture hanging project, of course!

Long Walk to Freedom

I finally did it. I finished Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom. It wasn't a short hop for me either. I'd be lying if I said it was an easy read. I usually fall in love with books readily and am also not typically discouraged by very thick specimen, but this one did test my willpower. The story is fascinating, but the writing itself didn’t captivate me as much as that of other authors.


Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial

A place I had been dying to see, but knew I’d have a hard time convincing the rest of my family to visit, was Liliesleaf Farm. So when my sister in law, who is always interested in such things, was recently visiting, we took the opportunity to go check it out.

By the way, I always thought it was spelled Lilieslief, which somehow seems more Afrikaans, but I have since seen that it is spelled both ways. I’ll go with the spelling used by Wikipedia and the Liliesleaf Trust.


Liliesleaf Farm Museum today


Liliesleaf Farm in the 1960s


Liliesleaf Farm was where Nelson Mandela, after the founding of the militant arm of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also called MK), was hiding and plotting for a time before being captured. It is not a far drive from where we live, located in the suburb of Rivonia, which back then was more on the outskirts of town but of course now is surrounded by the city. It was only recently restored and made into a museum, in fact, I think it might still be in the finishing stages as some exhibits weren’t open yet. Therefore, it is one of Joburg’s lesser-known tourist attractions and we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

The Thatched Cottage where most of the arrests during the Liliesleaf raid were made

I’ve lately been laboring through Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. I say laboring because it is a long book, and a bit dry to read, what with all the people involved in “the struggle” that he mentions at one point or another and all the twists and turns of his personal story. It’s really another one on the South African must-read list, but I admit that I haven’t been making great progress. Going to Liliesleaf Farm gave me a good jolt and I’ve now resumed with more vigor, because it brought the story to life so well and provided me with the faces and life stories of the collaborators described in the book.

The faces of some of those involved with Umkhonto we Sizwe  and its secret operation at Liliesleaf Farm

There is Bram Fischer, whose name I’ve been intrigued with since we moved here because I kept driving along Bram Fischer Drive in Randburg on my various errands.He was a lawyer of Afrikaner descent who pretty much gave up his heritage and allegiance to fight alongside Nelson Mandela and others against the apartheid regime. Then there is Arthur Goldreich, who was instrumental in providing the cover for MK at Liliesleaf by posing as the white farmer overseeing black laborers, while in secret plotting with these very laborers how to commit acts of sabotage against the government. And there are all the other men who were arrested during the infamous raid at Liliesleaf Farm on July 11th, 1963. Goldreich, along with Harold Wolpe, another member of the South African Communist Party, managed to escape from custody, and I think one was acquitted, but the others were accused of treason at the so-called Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life in prison. The rest of the story, of course, is well known. Nelson Mandela was finally released in 1990 and was elected the first president of a free South Africa in 1994. To learn what became of all the others, visit Liliesleaf Farm!


Truck used to smuggle weapons into South Africa through Africa Hinterland Safaris

One entirely new piece of history I learned at Liliesleaf was the story of the Secret Safari (a documentary film telling this story, “The Secret Safari,” was made in 2001, directed by Tom Zubrycki). An actual truck is tucked away in a corner of the estate, which you can climb atop to watch movies about its history. It is the very same truck used by Africa Hinterland, a decoy safari company used to smuggle arms into South Africa to assist the armed struggle. The drivers, who were recruited from various countries, were in on the plot, but the participating tourists had no idea that the whole thing was just a charade, probably having the adventure of a lifetime. 

You can watch the story of the Secret Safari unfold here…


…and see where the weapons were hidden below.




Happy Birthday Madiba!

Photo from an exhibit in the Apartheid Museum

Nelson Mandela is turning 93 today, and along with all the other well-wishers here in South Africa I’d like to say “Happy Birthday!”

I’ve briefly mentioned Nelson Mandela and his extraordinary life before, like in Cape Town with Kids: Robben Island and A Trip Back into South Africa’s History. But I haven’t dedicated an entire post just to him, which is way overdue. I was going to do so when I finish A Long Walk to Freedom but unfortunately this is also proving to be “A Long Slug to the Last Page” for me, so his birthday arrived first to force my hand.

To be honest, when we first set foot in South Africa, I didn’t even know Nelson Mandela was still alive. I’d always been interested in the history of South Africa and probably knew more about it than the average American (admittedly my knowledge was gained not by poring over historical records but rather inhaling books such as The Power of One) but still, that whole transition from apartheid to democracy was always a bit fuzzy to me.

What I’ve learned since then, more than anything else, is that Nelson Mandela is beloved to all South Africans. Black, colored, Indian, white, whatever you may call yourself, if you live in South Africa, you idolize Nelson Mandela. His large bronze statue on Mandela Square is probably one of the most-photographed attractions in Johannesburg. The best way to understand this love is to watch the movie Invictus, if you haven’t seen it yet.