From serving in the army fighting Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) to joining the ANC, is the path Oamaru man Philip van Zijl took during his life in South Africa.
He is among millions around the world now mourning the death of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, a man Mr van Zijl said was among the greatest people to have lived.
“I was shocked when I heard the news on Friday; it was expected but when it happened it was a shock,” Mr van Zijl reflected yesterday near a special display to the late South African president in the Oamaru Public Library.
After being a member of military forces which fought a war to enforce apartheid the Oamaru Library manager became a committed member of the ANC.
In making this decision he was ostracised from most of his family and friends and it nearly cost him his life. At one time both sides had him marked for assassination.
“I was prepared to put my life on the line to support what he (Mandela) stood for and without the gruesome details, my father disowned me and a brother won’t speak to me,” Mr van Zijl said.
It was through reading and learning about Mandela after years of censorship which made Mr van Zijl change his views on apartheid and Mandela, who he believed had saint-like qualities.
“Desmond Tutu said something along similar lines at the weekend. He paraphrased it saying he didn’t want to sound blasphemous, but Mandela was Jesus-like.
“If not for Mandela and Tutu, there would have been genocide in South Africa. Because of the terrible atrocities that had occurred, people were very ready for an eye for an eye.
“What Mandela and Tutu said is, ‘if you take an eye for an eye we’ll all end up blind.’ That’s why there was a peaceful transition into a new South Africa on a philosophical level.
“But such a lot of damage occurred over decades and decades of repression that things are in a huge turmoil now.
“There are left wing extremists who have called him (Mandela) a sellout because he compromised and there are right wingers who say he was a terrorist.
“Scaremongers predicted that when he died there would be blood on the streets but the opposite has happened. People are dancing in the streets.”
Raised a staunch Afrikanner and educated at Stellenbosch University, a stronghold of South Africa’s Afrikaans community during the apartheid era, Mr van Zijl had two spells in the South African military, in 1977 and 1981.
“I was conscripted twice. The first time was a lot of guard duty and vehicle patrols; it was quite tame.
“The second time it was a proper war. I came out of that quite traumatised. I was there because my number was called up. We were fighting people, the ANC basically and Swapo (South West Africa People’s Organization) and I came out of that with a very firm resolve not to remain neutral.”
Mr van Zijl struggled with words to describe this time.
“I was given a rifle; it was active service. After one battle we picked up dead bodies and that made the penny drop. They were there, not because they were called up; they believed in what they were doing.”
After this time in the military, he went to Bophuthatswana, which he called a “puppet state of the government,” but Mr van Zijl said it had political independence and compared to most parts of South Africa, less vigorous censorship.
“As a librarian I could read what I wanted. One book changed me unequivocably – No Easy Road to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.”
He was influenced too by the famous speech Mandela made from the dock at his Rivonia treason trial on April 20, 1964, before he was taken away to spend 27 years in jail.
“He stated those famous words, ‘I’m prepared to die for what I believe in for the freedom of both blacks and whites’.
“We were taught from our mother’s knee Mandela and the ANC were terrorists. I read that and the impression on me was that he was actually a reasonable, intelligent man who’d tried all peaceful means. With the clampdown on peaceful demonstrations, especially Sharpeville in 1960 when 67 were killed (South African police fired on a crowd of between 5000 and 7000), that turned him.”
After five years in Bophuthatswana, Mr van Zijl moved to Durban.
“I became involved in ANC initiatives which brought me into conflict with security police who attempted to arrest me.
“I also got placed on an assassination hit list by security police. I was warned by someone; I found out by accident.
“Later there was an assassination attempt. I was warned and survived.”
The latter assassination attempt came during a civil war between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party. Mr van Zijl “went underground” and resigned from his job.
On a trip back to South Africa he learned his personal assistant had been assassinated two months later at the spot where they had intended to kill him.
“Some people were very upset; they said I’d abandoned them. I was committed to the reconstruction of South Africa but I was tired.”
He took a different tack and ran a restaurant for two years until emigrating to New Zealand in 1997.The year before he had predicted difficult times ahead for South Africa.
“I predicted reverse discrimination would be rife as it is now and I took a stand based on Mandela’s philosophies and they’re not being followed now in South Africa.
“South Africa under the apartheid regime – nepotism, corruption – has been transferred to the new government. It’s not what Mandela stood for. I’ve taken a stance and it’s put me in the same category as a lot of my conservative schoolmates.”
Mr van Zijl considered New Zealand to be “paradise” and he made a point not to cling to the past.
“I focus my energy on the present and future and my family. I’ve got four grandchildren from my Kiwi wife and two of my own; they’re the main focus for my energy.”
A major regret for Mr van Zijl is that Mandela became the president of South Africa 50 years too late.
“A lot of his philosophies were formed in jail but if you read his speech from the (Rivonia) dock, the formation of that was there and reflected where he wanted South Africa to go. Nobody else could have pulled it off except him. He had the capacity to pull it off; he had the charisma.
“His philosophies of forgiveness and the rainbow nation embracing the strengths of everybody had the opportunity to flourish.”
Mr van Zijl said billions of dollars were spent establishing apartheid structures with each state having its own parliament, health and education systems.
“I went there eight years ago. At some of the universities there’s just goats grazing there now. it made no economic sense.
“Under Mandela it could have been so different. South Africa had been the economic powerhouse of Africa.
“It could have been an economic powerhouse in the world.”
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