I had never seen television in South Africa. It wasn’t introduced until 1976, three years after I fled the republic when my name was placed on a list of “undesirables” deemed to be a threat to the apartheid regime. We were all in imminent danger of being charged with belonging to banned organizations and consorting with “enemies of the state.”
Among those opposed to the introduction of television was then Prime Minister Hendrick Verwoerd, frequently referred to as “the architect of apartheid.” He was stabbed to death in 1966. Earlier he’d survived a bullet to the head, which, to my mind, was proof enough that white supremacists have heads of granite and brains to match.
He compared TV with atomic bombs and poison gas, saying:
They are modern things, but that does not mean they are desirable. The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical.
So the first time I clapped eyes on an actual TV set — I’d only ever seen the contraptions as props in movies — was when I settled in London in 1973 in a north London apartment. My neighbor, David Smith, was a teacher at a local comprehensive school and was left speechless when I told him that TV was verboten in SA.
After digesting this fact, he paused and said “well, you’ve not missed much.” Having earlier learned of my background and my involvement with proscribed organizations such as the Anti-Apartheid movement, the African National Congress and the Communist Party, he said I would find a great deal of racism in the UK.
He threw in an example: If I were to watch a sitcom called Love Thy Neighbour, one of a minuscule number of programs featuring Black actors, I would be appalled. So I did and I was. Seeing a racist and his Black neighbor trading racial insults such as “sambo”, “nig-nog” and “honky” was not my idea of comedy.
David then asked whether I would be willing to give a talk to his class about apartheid. I readily agreed but, before getting into details I asked the class how aware they were of Sidney Poitier. Hands flew up, and one youngster said he knew that Poitier was the first US Black actor to receive an Oscar in 1963 for his role in the comedy-drama Lilies of the Field.
There were gasps when I said that very few South Africans had the faintest notion that he existed because most of his best-known films up to the sixties had been banned. In one year alone, 1968, the Publications Control Board (PCB) placed Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, In The Heat Of The Night and To Sir, With Love on the banned list.
The bans encouraged me to learn all I could about Poitier, and the more I learned the more I got to admire him — especially for the work he did in the American civil rights movement, which is why I chose him to kick off my talk.
Poitier got his first taste of South African segregation when he was allowed to enter the country in 1951 — not as an actor, but as a “servant” — to star in Zoltan Korda’s Cry, the Beloved Country, an adaptation of a banned book written by Alan Paton. The film was banned too, but only temporarily. The censors decided that the film version was too anodyne to pose any real threat to the apartheid system.
In a study entitled “Sidney Poitier and the Cinematic Fight Against South African Apartheid,” Frank Jacob, of Nord University, Norway, wrote:
He had to enter South Africa as a legally indentured servant of Korda and the black actors were not allowed to live in hotels, because the black population was not allowed to use such a service.
They had to live in farmhouses far away from the towns, which meant a load of traveling between the sets in Ixopo, near Durban, and their ‘dormitory’ …
Due to this experience, Poitier and the others recognized how cruel this country really was. South Africa was ‘dangerous and brutal’ and on returning to the United States Poitier frequently mentioned in interviews that the black population of the country was suffering from hunger, poverty and racial suppression.
One kid said angrily, “well things ain’t much better here. If I spot a Black man on the screen, I shout out to my family, ‘Hey look, there’s a Black man on the TV!'” He glumly added, “That doesn’t often happen.”
While they knew Poitier was a great actor, the kids knew very little of his groundbreaking efforts to get Black people better represented in Hollywood. So I provided them with a potted history of the star, saying that if he could smash barriers in America as effectively as he did, they could do the same in the UK.
In that classroom at the time was a lad called Brian Bovell. Brian had ambitions to make it as an actor. A few years later, he came to my home to gleefully announce that, thanks to the encouragement he’d received from David and me, he’d landed a part in a TV show.
The first classroom discussion I led convinced me that Poitier provided an ideal intro for future talks, peppered with anecdotes that left pupils in stitches. For example, I told them of the day I was sitting on a “nonwhites” bench in a park in Johannesburg with my Black chauffeur, John Dlamini (in those days newspaper reporters were not trusted to drive company cars, as they were frequently drunk) when we were approached by a policeman, who demanded to know what we were doing.
I replied that I was on a lunch break, having a sandwich. “Look,” I said, waving the remain under his nose. “Ham and cheese, between two slices of bread. F o o d.” John airily said that he was reading “a book of Chinese poetry.” The Afrikaner cop stood galvanized. I could practically hear the faulty gears in his just-past-his-teens head grinding. Then he grabbed the book and tried reading it — upside down.
He then declared he’d be failing in his duty not to arrest us.
“What for?” I asked.
“You, for sitting on a bench reserved for kaffirs, and him for reading communist literature.”
A sergeant at the police station we were taken to sighed, glared at the gormless young constable, and said “I’ve got no time for this shit, let them go.” At me he barked, “get your bloody hair cut!”
My next brush with the law took place in a suburb of Johannesburg. I was hauled into a tiny police station and accused of assaulting a member of the Master Race, an obese stationmaster.
It wasn’t an assault, as such. I simply called him an effing idiot, grabbed him by the lapels and shook him. How was I to know that his loose-fitting dentures would jet out of his mouth?
The altercation began after I stepped off a “Europeans only” carriage of a train (featured in this collection of apartheid photographs) and noticed one other passenger do the same. He left the “non-whites” section and stood pondering whether to use the “nonwhites” bridge over the tracks or risk the “Europeans only” bridge, which was far closer.
I linked arms with him and said that, as it was a Sunday, and that no one else was about, the two of us could safely cross the tracks on the “whites” bridge.
I was wrong. When we got to the other side the stationmaster galumphed out of his office and pounced on the passenger. He grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and ordered him to walk back over the bridge and return on the one designated for Africans and people of mixed race, called “Coloureds.” That’s when I stepped in. “This man,” I declared “cannot use this bridge. It’s against the law.”
The stationmaster blew a gasket, and took up a stance that I took to indicate an imminent attack. That’s when I grabbed him. Get your retaliation in first, I was taught as a kid.
I explained this all at the police station. After much deliberating a sergeant let me off with a warning. And he ordered me to “get a bloody haircut.”
John, a few weeks later, had to drive me to a gathering, in a ramshackle barn in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere where a group of fascists and Dutch Reformed Church members and ministers were having a heated discussion about the direction the ruling National Party was traveling.
From outside the venue, I gathered that their main gripe was that government was going soft and putting up with too much crap from outspoken “liberal” Jews who were trying to undermine white supremacy.
Silence descended as I entered the barn, festooned with swastikas. “Who are you?” barked a man with a mike in one hand. “Reporter from The Star,” I replied. “I’m here to cover your meeting.”
First, there were roars of laughter when he pointed out that the English media were reduced to sending a “Jew jockey hippy” to write “satanic” communist propaganda. The “jockey” was a reference to my diminutive stature. My shoulder-length hair prompted the “hippy” remark. Where “Jew” came from is anyone’s guess.
Then it turned nasty. Someone yelled that the barn was “surrounded by kaffirs.” The only nonwhite nearby was John, leaning nonchalantly against the company’s white Mercedes. Weapons suddenly materialized. Rifles, handguns, pick handles, pitchforks, and a variety of other pointy things. The crowd started advancing on me, and I legged it.
When I got to the car I screamed at John, “get us the fuck out of here!” He responded by saying “don’t panic, boss, I’m holding a knife behind my back.” So I panicked more. “Drive,” I shouted “or we’re both dead!” So he did. He hit the accelerator so hard that the car spun a full 180 degrees on a rain-soaked surface, splattering the murderous mob with mud and clumps of weeds.
They gave chase. Of course they did — in beat-up old Ford pick-ups and even tractors, but within seconds we were way out of their reach.
We stopped for a breather when we came to a nearby village. “I need a cigarette … and a large drink” I told John. “Me too,” he replied.
And with that, we smoked, guzzled brandy from my hip flask, hugged one another, and laughed so hard that we cried.