Sunday, 26 February 2017

Memories of things that never were.

I know it's a cliché but it's true; it's the things you didn't do that you regret, not the things you did.

Anyway, many of the things I did do I can't talk about, not least because I often did them with other people and it wouldn't be fair on them.

But one of the things I didn't do does occasionally fill me with regret, even though it wasn't my fault it never happened.

I was, for much of my life involved with the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, which was an affront to the whole of humanity.

Like so many people, I marched and protested and picketed - I did other things too, I'm happy to say!

In my travels I got to know someone who I'll call 'Joseph', which obviously wasn't his real name. He was a senior figure in the African National Congress's London Office and a member of the South African Communist Party too.

At that time he was someone who lived his life knowing that he was only one step ahead of a killer from the South African government.

If he had one problem it was that (like me) he was full of boyish enthusiasm, which meant that people didn't always take him seriously enough.

Anyway, by accident we ended up on the same committee and were having a chat after a meeting, sometime at the end of 1993 or early 1994 which was just before the first multi racial elections were due to take place in South Africa at the end of April.

Joseph wanted to make a last, big gesture for the struggle and asked me to help him.

I leapt at the chance. 

Every election, the South African High Commission used to have an 'open house' for white South Africans to have a few beers and watch the racist National Party win the fixed elections.

Not this year - this year was going to be like a funeral supper, as the white South Africans drowned their sorrows in Oranjeboom; the ANC was going to win.

For Joseph, this was an opportunity - we were going to con our way in to the election social and at a suitable moment make our excuses and get up to the roof where we were going to exchange the flag of the old South Africa with the flag of the ANC which we were going to smuggle in.

I was up for that!

Except, as I pointed out to him, the only problem was that Joseph was black.

I was slightly less impressed with the plan he'd come up with, which was to pretend that I was an Afrikaans businessman and naturally I needed to have my manservant (Joseph) with me at all times. He assured me that this would not seem at all out of place in the High Commission or amongst the guests.

I got the 'Jeeves and Wooster' analogy; Joseph was a brilliant Phd, a doctorate he'd obtained while trying to organise a revolution at the same time. Clearly he was intelligent enough to be the 'Jeeves' - my problem was how I was going to morph into an arrogant, racist businessman?

I just couldn't see how I was going to pull off being a South African Bertie Wooster.

Worryingly, Joseph didn't seem to think that was going to be that hard for me.

We started making plans - the first problem was that in addition to an Afrikaans accent I was going to need to acquire a false South African passport. Joseph probably already had one for himself. Pre 9-11 this was not such a serious problem as it would be now, but it would take time and money to arrange one for me.

And it was at that point that the plan fell apart - more senior and sensible people at the top of the ANC killed the idea dead, which was a huge shame.

The elections came and went and we weren't there to blag our way into the social; the ANC coalition won 62% of the vote and the rest is history.

We would clearly have got photos of our prank onto all the front pages of the world's press the next morning.

That would have been priceless.

And the cost?

We knew we'd get a thorough beating up from security but as long as we had a chance to destroy the fake passports first, we couldn't think of any obvious criminal offences we'd have committed.

But it was not to be and I still regret it.

Not least because so many Anti Apartheid marches ended on Trafalgar Square and there was a continual picket of 'South Africa House' which lasted for years and which I'd supported many times in the 1980's.

Even now when I see the building, a feeling of wistfulness comes over me.

As for Joseph it may be just as well it didn't come off. We never spoke again but it was easy enough to keep track of what was happening to him. He soon got a job at the very same London High Commission we had been planning our exploit against.

I can't begin to explain the joy I feel at the thought of him sitting at his desk, looking out onto the square below and thinking of all the struggles he'd fought to get there.

Then (inexplicably to me) he began a career in the diplomatic service, ending up as South African Ambassador to a major European country.

These days he's a bit corporate and it worries me that the changes we fought for haven't done enough for ordinary South Africans.

But that's an argument for another day.

In my mind's eye I see us on the roof changing over the flags and just wish it had happened.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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1 comment:

  1. That's a good memory of something that never happened. You were such a rebel.