When will the right learn?

History repeats itself, but South Africans never learn the lessons.

This week a large group of Afrikaans rightwingers forced African National Congress deputy president Nelson Mandela to abandon his address to a student meeting at the University of Pretoria.

Led by, among others, well-known elderly rightwinger Hendrik Claasens, the group disrupted the meeting by burning the ANC flag, waving Vierkleur flags, singing Die Stem in a provocative response to calls to sing Nkosi Sikelele i’Afrika, and shooting out taunts like “Terug na ons volkstaat” and “ANC scum”.

In the audience was retired Professor of Political Science Willem Kleynhans, a maverick Afrikaner who could have predicted the trouble. In August 1958 Kleynhans had organised a meeting of rebel Afrikaners who wanted to hear Nobel Laureate chief Albert Luthuli then president of the African National Congress.

As Luthuli was about to speak, the same Hendrik Claasens entered with a group of 24 young NP supporters, who proceeded to beat Luthuli about the head and halt the meeting. Claasens mounted the stage, shouting “kaffirs kan nie wit mense toespreek nie (kaffirs cannot address white people), and struck Luthuli on the temple.

Police were called and after order had been restored, Luthuli decided to carry on with his address. Nine of the perpetrators were subsequently charged and Claasens was sentenced to 10 months in jail for disturbing the peace.

Kleynhans had been a member of the NP until the mid-1950s, but he was outraged by government moves to disenfranchise coloured people. With 13 fellow rebels, he circulated a petition which was published by the English press, and as a result of which he was expelled from the NP.

The rebels subsequently formed the Pretoria Political Study Group, which promoted discussion among people with differing political views. “We were called kaffirboeties, commies and liberals,” Kleynhans told The Weekly Mail. “But we were the original Afrikaners who started reform and dialogue, not FW de Klerk.”

So, said Kleynhans, he knew what would happen when he saw Claasens appear at the stadium Mandela was to have addressed. Claasens mounted the podium and tried to get to the microphone. With the ensuing pandemonium, Mandela eventually had to abandon his talk.

“Black marshals tried to shoulder Claasens, but he is older and more sobre-minded now and he held back,” said Kleynhans. “There is no hope in this country. It’s amazing how little people have learnt. “It’s all very well the Nationalists suddenly preaching freedom of speech and of the press, but these incidents show how the same NP has brain-washed us all so successfully.”

  • The university authorities have said they will take action against those who disrupted the meeting.
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    Pat Sidley
    Guest Author

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