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The McRaes switched on the light. Is it still burning bright?
on 28 January 2014
The death of Mandela in December 2013 increases the glowing myth that he was a saint and he alone led South Africa out of the international wilderness and only his successors, Mbeki and Zuma, tarnished the image of the country and of the ANC. But did the revolution arise as simply as this because of one man?
This book, looks at the South Africa under White apartheid rule from John Vorster to Piet Botha and F.W. De Klerk, and shows the individual work of a single white family, the McRaes of Johannesburg in bringing about important permanent change to the life of all South Africans.
Donald McRae had a very privileged life first in Witbank, in south-west Transvaal, and later in Germiston, 10 miles from Jo'burg, living in a good home with African domestics and gardeners, and attending a good university. His father, Ian, had an important position in the state electricity company, Eskom. The family could claim to want nothing the regime offered.
Donald and Ian each travelled long dangerous parallel roads in their separate lives for long not realising their destinations were similar. Don's immediate adolescent rebellion was centred on his refusal to dutifully serve his term in the forces, and his Scottish parents unwillingness to listen. Over time this dissent hardened and intertwined itself with his growing hostility against the oppressive minority, the Arifkaans speaking Boers, in favour of the Black majority inside the country, around the squalid townships, and indirectly the exiled "communist" and Black "terrorist" led ANC abroad. His life was spurred on by the deaths of local martyred heroes, the Black Steve Biko and the White, Dr Neil Aggett. Before his own self imposed exile he made a brave leap by teaching in a Black school in Soweto. He understood he was producing something worthwhile for the nation's future.
Instead, for long Ian realised that the growth and success of Eskom was linked to its engaging a larger professionally qualified and experienced labour force, by training the unskilled demotivated Black workers, something which the ideology of the state was ultimately detrimental and oppressively stultifying. Slowly he and his wife, Jess, convinced the immovable diehards that risking change would bring expansion, modernisation, productivity, and satisfied operatives - the possible safety valve holding back the feared roaring insurrection, and transforming Ian into a South African Oskar Schindler.
When Don was gone, the McRaes took his crusade further as "Mr Electricity" and "the Little General". They persuaded the local underground leaders of the ANC that they wanted to bring electricity, and the future, to the townships, as a step to self improvement in South Africa, before linking the national grid to the power network of the entire continent. As Don, they sustained that whether White or Black, both were South African and no different "under the skin". Those words were the most convincing and powerful. Most surprisingly, however, the dreaded security services, known for violence and arrests, did not prevent their initiatives.
Interesting how the macho Donald came to experience the physical sensation of equality of Blacks and Whites - in particular the distinction between English and Afrikaans speaking girls. Interesting the role of the school as in Nazi Germany in preparing boys to march and fight, and for the girls to submit passively to traditional subordinate roles of wives and bearers of future cannon fodder. Interesting to read the experiences of school friends and cousins in the Army at the front in South-West Africa / Namibia, who chose not to stand by Don and oppose the call-up, preferring instead silent not felt duty and possible martyrdom for a lost cause. Frightening and nauseating were the descriptions of the cruel interrogation and torture practices carried against detainees by the police. Amazingly, the link between Don, Ian, Mandela, and the future of the country was new experiences through education.
All good things come to an end. Democracy arrived in South Africa, and Don decided that he had stayed too long away to go back.The book says nothing about his family in the post apartheis days. The book may appeal to liberal Blacks or "askaris", and to the more liberal Whites or "hensopper", obviously not for the natural politically incorrect. Those who lived the times may learn what they didn't see or know about those in the other communities. But is the "Rainbow nation"still the uniting force?
Today the question is who should be remembered? those who fled the country, or those who stayed behind? Like the liberation of Europe in 1944, the rebirth of South Africa was carried out by many small incidents, and many people, all together helped Mandela and De Klerk bring a fairly violent-free power change in 1994. The tales of the little people of the McRaes are just as important in post-apartheid South Africa as of the leaders of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and of Tambo. They are more than those of the returned exiles who are culturally lost, which explains the problem of Mbeki, too. This is something particularly recognised by those back home, and has become the seed of discontent and anger among those Blacks who feel that their leaders have not gone far enough, have betrayed the main revolutionary ideas of the ANC, including criticizing too many conciliatory measures proposed by the "Old Man" Mandela himself.
There are still many unexplained questions left unanswered none directly due to the author and concern the international, the national, the local and personal levels. Why were so many White and Black South Africans allowed to flee, and why were Ian and Jess not stopped so soon? Could they have continued so much without the arrival of democracy? Though Ian knew about the power of persuasion as a manager and CEO in business, did he realise his plan to provide light and energy to Black communities would be so revolutionary and so empowering? Questions, questions.
Robert Mugabe clad out in finery in neighbouring Zimbabwe continues to rouse feelings for the wars of liberation because that is what made him a leader and that still keeps the old flame alive for those who never heard it the first time round. Mbeki claimed the fighting, even the romantic tales of poverty and the reputation of the shanty townships as living battlegrounds, was little more than a sideshow. The real liberation and settlement was reached at the negotiating table. The answers will require decades before they are truly unearthed. Donald McRae here has taken future researchers to the right fields. He too has switched on that light to South Africa's past, but by stopping the story he refuses to say anything or comment about the present. Why? With or without the "Old Man", how long will it burn bright? That will depend on the present, won't it Don? I have a feeling that if he uttered anything he realised he would be branded a "white colonist" and a nostalgic of the old days. Better drop it, and let them now get on with running the country themselves.