South Africa: Land of apocriphiars

The uniform of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring became greener as the victorious allies approached Berlin, according to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, until it began to look like that of a United States five-star general. In South Africa we’ve become so used to chameleon conduct that we don’t seem to notice it any more.

The late, great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn coined a graphic term, “apocriphiars”, for braggarts who tell tall stories about great events in which they played heroic roles (was she thinking of former husband Ernest Hemingway?). In South Africa today we have a world-class line-up: communists turned capitalist, unionists to tycoons, countless apartheid beneficiaries mutated into struggle heroes.

The patron saint of apocriphiars would have to be writer Laurens van der Post.
A Karoo farm boy, he was almost completely self-invented. JDF Jones’s biography, Storyteller, reveals Van der Post as a fabricator of epic proportions — including his famed intimate knowledge of “bushmen”. But he qualifies as a champion apocriphiar for two qualities: he fabricated with such brio that he convinced even himself, and he got away with wild tales because he told his readers what they wanted to hear.

A guru to Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles, he detested Nelson Mandela while consorting with far- right millionaire British backers of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Yet Van der Post apparently even finally believed that he was a crucial catalyst in our peaceful transition to democracy.

Most know someone (never us, of course) with such chutzpah. The elderly cousin of a friend remarked loudly, as if I wasn’t present, to the rest of her family: “Abandons us in hard times, but back now we’ve won!” Fair enough — except that her entire clan had obviously forgotten how ardently they’d supported the old order.

There are others who have, in that spicy French phrase, “reinvented their virginity”. Sol Kerzner, bribery allegations and propping up bantustan dictators forgotten, is a paragon of the new order. The brothers Solly and Abe Krok, having made millions out of skin lightening creams, bankroll the Apartheid Museum? And nobody laughs!

To ensure a serious contest politicians will have to be (as they say at the Cannes Film Festival) “out of competition”. President Thabo Mbeki calls alliance partners “ultra-left”, but no one mentions that at the seventh South African Communist Party congress in Havana in 1989 he co-authored the insurrectionary Path to Power policy. Mangosuthu Buthelezi has travelled a long way from Gatsha, appearing to believe the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a set-up intent on maligning the IFP, which was really an ecumenical peace movement. In February Tony Leon asked Mbeki, “Sir, what country are you living in?” That enquiry reached us all the way from Planet Privilege.

Kortbroek deserves a special certificate in the junior “trying hard” category. But Marthinus van Schalkwyk’s change is not a solo effort: he depended first on Leon, then Mbeki, to complete his mutation of uniform. The same applies to Gary Player, whose conversion to icon of the new order did not just take place in the privacy of his own conscience. Last year Player was awarded the prestigious Order of Ikhamanga. There’s nothing wrong with people changing their minds: many have, some with honest apologies. What is striking, however, is the growing category of those who complete a total somersault, then feel aggressively aggrieved if anyone is rude enough to recall their former obnoxious beliefs. Too many apocriphiars have been welcomed by the African National Congress: a painless conversion, with no consequences. We should honour this growing category with a new decoration: the Order of the Chameleon.

Such self-deception has a price. “After he died,” wrote the biographer of our apocriphiar supreme Laurens van der Post, “a doctor who knew him well, when asked the cause of death, replied that he had become ‘weary of sustaining so many lies …’”

Bryan Rostron’s novel, My Shadow, has just been published by David Philip

Bryan Rostron

Bryan Rostron

Bryan Rostron's previous novel, My Shadow, was commended for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He is the author of Till Babylon Falls, a non-fiction account of Robert McBride and the 1986 Magoo Bar Bombing, which Anthony Sampson described as, "of political and historic importance". Rostron has written for, among others, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The Spectator, The New Statesman, and Private Eye. Read more from Bryan Rostron

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