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White heroes of the Anti-apartheid struggle

Updated on March 27, 2011

Whites against apartheid

The death this past weekend of anti-apartheid cleric Dr Nico Smith, coming so soon after the death of another anti-apartheid struggle veteran, Sheena Duncan, has made more urgent for me the writing of a series of Hubs which I have long planned. These Hubs will be about those whites who put their lives, often quite literally, on the line in the struggle against apartheid and for human rights within South Africa.

Some of them are well-known, like Dr Beyers Naude, others less known, like the Reverend Bernard Spong, but all of them were powerful witnesses to the possibility of a free, non-racial and truly democratic South Africa.

For me it is urgent that the story of the whites who struggled against apartheid be told, as there is a common misperception that the the anti-apartheid struggle was exclusively one of blacks against whites, and, as the white struggle veterans die, we are more and more likely to forget their immense contribution to justice and freedom in South Africa.

Bernard Spong. Photo by Tony McGregor
Bernard Spong. Photo by Tony McGregor

Apartheid and the National Security Ideology

The apartheid ideology was a racist ideology, an ideology which promoted the idea that some people were of more value than others because of the colour of their skins. However, it is important to understand that apartheid stood firmly rooted in the national security ideology.

National Security Ideology (NSI) is the belief that the security of the state comes before the rights of its citizens. NSI is, from a Christian perspective, idolatrous, as it makes the State into a kind of idol before which all must bow, a god whose every command is to be unquestioningly obeyed.

A State founded on the NSI is able to abrogate the rights of citizens who dare to question its authority as they are, by definition, “enemies of the State” and therefore don't have rights. So they can be imprisoned without trial, tortured, even executed, without legal challenge as the rule of law is subjugated to the demands of State security. The rule of Habeas Corpus is almost always either limited or completely done away with in such a State.

David Webster (right) with musician Chris McGregor in Johannesburg in 1987. Webster was assassinated by apartheid goons in 1989. Photo by Tony McGregor
David Webster (right) with musician Chris McGregor in Johannesburg in 1987. Webster was assassinated by apartheid goons in 1989. Photo by Tony McGregor

Their contributions should not be forgotten

The apartheid State was such a State and in it even whites were unfree.

This lesson was forcefully brought home to Dr Nico Smith in 1963 when, on a trip to Europe, he met famed Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who asked him: “Are you free to preach the truths of the Gospel in South Africa?”

Smith told Time Magazine journalists Otto Friedrich and Peter Hawthorne in 1988: “Barth asked me the question three times, almost as Jesus Christ asks Peter, 'Do you love me?' I found that I could not really answer the question truthfully. I thought I was free, and yet I was not sure.”

The whites who stood against apartheid in the more than 40 years of its existence as official policy all came to that conclusion – they were not free while their black brothers and sisters were not free.

The list of white heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle is long. I will be covering just some of them to give readers here an overview of them, their lives in brief, their beliefs, their participation in the struggle. I hope readers will find these Hubs interesting.

The people I will cover will include some of the well-known people like Dr Beyers Naude and Dr Nico Smith. These two were clerics of the Dutch Reformed Church which was called “the Nationalist Party at prayer” because most of that party's leaders and members were drawn from that denomination. The fact that they broke away from that Church and became principled opponents of apartheid caused them great hardship and torment of spirit.

Then there were the less-known ones like academic David Webster, union leader Helen Joseph, politician Margaret Ballinger and lawyer Bram Fischer, missionary Bernard Spong and of course, the legendary “troublesome priest” of Sophiatown, Trevor Huddleston.

These people all made, in their own ways, a lasting and valuable contribution to freedom in South Africa, and their lives are inspirational to a new generation of people. What the ruling African National Congress (ANC) said of Dr Smith this week: “He fought with distinction the apartheid regime for all of us to achieve the freedoms we now enjoy,” could be said of all of these wonderful people.

They were, each of them in their own way, sources of hope and encouragement when times were dark and there seemed little evidence of any basis for hope. The apartheid regime, especially in the mid to late 80s, became a cruel, heartless engine of violence and hate, with people dying and disappearing in ever-increasing numbers, and de facto martial law ruled over much of the country. In that situation these brave men and women served the cause of freedom and justice, putting the welfare of others way above their own. For this they should be remembered with gratitude by all who love freedom, especially in South Africa.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


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    • galafani1 profile image

      galafani1 6 years ago

      ANC And South Africa Are An overwhelmingly Black Majority Entities. It might Seem sometimes That The Majority Have Disregarded Those Great White People Who Sacrificed A Lot, But We Are Grateful. Some Are Known, Some aren't . Some Are Living , Others Have Passed On. As #Anc100 Celebrates, You Will Hear Harsh Tones Condemning That White White Minority Rule, This Mustnt be Confused With All Whites. Thanks TONYMAC For This Piece, I'm Currently Linking It On Anc 100 Celebrattions Tweeter Followers.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 6 years ago from UK

      I am so glad to have clicked a link from someone else’s hub and found this. I will read the whole series for sure. I think it is so important to highllght those who work for peace, whether past heroes or current. I have linked to this hub from a one I have written on Peace Direct, a charity that supports present day heroes and heroines working for peace.

      Thank you for writing this.

    • ixwa profile image

      ixwa 7 years ago

      Hola Tony:

      It is very important to let the world know that were white people who were concerned for and fought alongside the oppressed in south Africa. Most of these white people are well-known amongst the formerly oppressed Africans in South Africa. You are also right in mentioning that a monument need to be built for them so that they do not fade into obscurity. Thanks for bringing this better side of White South Africans, of which many are there, and to me you are one of the many 'good-peoples' of that country. Thanks Tony and great work.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Indeed! Thanks for the visit and the comment.

      Love and peace


    • ExpandYourMind profile image

      ExpandYourMind 7 years ago from Midwest USA

      Interesting article. Thank God, good men are willing to fight against injustice.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Christine - sorry I'm responding so late. I have been a bit out of touch with myself for a few days, but back againn now!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. The South African church was mostly very conscious of the German "Confessing Church" and the bravery of those in it who opposed nazism.

      And wouldn't it be great if we indeed could all have such vision and bravery!

      Love and peace


    • mulberry1 profile image

      Christine Mulberry 7 years ago

      Thank you for this ongoing lesson on the events in South Africa that brought an end to apartheid. The details are important for all of us to know so that we can better understand, be aware, and learn. It stands to reason that there are those in the white minority that saw what was right and needed, and were willing to take great risk. Even in Hitler's Germany, there were those who didn't fall prey to the mob mentality and acted as their conscience dictated. If only we could all have such unclouded vision and bravery.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Flightkeeper - thanks for the visit and the comment. Indeed the concept is simple but it seems very difficult for some people to grasp. Why, I don't know?

      Thanks again.

      Love and peace


    • Flightkeeper profile image

      Flightkeeper 7 years ago from The East Coast

      Wow, tonymac, it's such a simple concept, freedom cannot be experienced by one if it's not experienced by all, and so powerful especially when linked to Jesus's simple question of Do you love me? Thank you for the hub.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      HS - well the NSI is not a political party but a political philosophy, or stance, really. I think the present government is, after some years of relative freedom from that ideology, starting to move back to it. Which is understandable as the African National Congress is a nationalist party. The nationalist leaning has been kept in check by being in an alliance with the union movement and the Communist Party for many years, but there are now very powerful voices within the ANC arguing for a more nationalist line, which makes me very sad.

      Racism, while now illegal, is still unfortunately very prevalent. At least it is no longer given the legal mantle it had before and it is also now frowned on by most, so it's not seen as OK by too many any more.

      The biggest rift in South Africa now is between rich and poor, a rift that is growing daily. That is a major cause of concern which I don't think the government is doing enough to deal with it. Instead excuses are made and other issues are given more attention to try to divert attention from the rich/poor divide, which is going to cause us major pro9blems in the very near future.

      Anyway, I remain, as a friend of mine once said, a "prisoner of hope" and knowing the resiliance and innate intelligence of the people of this country, who have, after all, already overcome so much, I believe we will overcome this also.

      Thanks for your interesting comment.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 7 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Hi Tony, Great Hub. I never knew anything about the white citizens who fought apartheid. Very informative. I look forward to hearing more. How prevalent is the NSI in South Africa now that they have been out of power for so long? I ask this because I know that here in the U.S. racism of course is still prevalent after the Civil Rights bills passed in the 1960's. With each generation it fades more and more as we all assimilate better. Unfortunately it's a slow process but it is visible. I trust the same is happening in South Africa. I never thought we would have a black president. It was a great day when Obama was elected.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Teacher - thanks for stopping by. In general in South Africa it is true that black people were victimised by the whites. There were, though, some whites who stood against the victimisation of blacks. There were whites who did what they could to oppose apartheid, whites who recognised that freedom is not divisible and so sided with their black brothers and sisters. They cared and they made a difference.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      Love and peace


    • green tea-cher profile image

      green tea-cher 7 years ago

      There are two sides to every story and I would have to say that most of my knowledge of the apartheid tended to make the black people look victimized by the white. I find your information very interesting and it is good to read about the care and compassion of such great people. Thank-you for sharing. You do your country and it's people great justice.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Ethel - thanks so much for visiting. They were indeed brave and we owe them!

      Love and peace


    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Look forward to reading the hubs that are tofollow. These people were very brave to stand out against the regime

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Dimitris - they were indeed, and they definitely made a difference.

      Parrster - it is indeed sometimes the small details that illustrate the great themes.

      Equealla - I feel humbled by your comment! It was a pernicious system which stifled us all in various ways. Like you, I believe in this country and its wonderful people, all of them. We are resourceful and have already overcome much. We will certainly get through whatever problems we have and emerge better people.

      Thanks all for visiting and commenting.

      Love and peace


    • equealla profile image

      equealla 7 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      Tony I am proud of you for taking on another prickly pear in our history. It is not sufficiently known that white, black, indian, asian, coloured and every other minority group of immigrants in our precious country, were all "un-free".

      It was indeed a stiffling system. We still have a lot of learning, growing and adapting to do, I agree. But we will get there. In spite of a lot of negativities still existing, I believe in the future of our land.

      These people were just stronger than the rest of us. They had the courage, like you, to stand up against evil, no matter what.

    • parrster profile image

      Richard Parr 7 years ago from Australia

      Whether dealing with difficulty between two people or an entire population, there always remains the untold and lesser known details that shed new light on our understanding. Thanks for retelling this one.

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 7 years ago from UK

      Brave, brave people who risked everything for a just cause. Look forward to learning more Tony

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Charlie - you warm my heart, friend, with your kind and perceptive comments. I have been privileged to know some great people and I am eternally grateful for their presence in my life, however brief it might have been.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      ralwus 7 years ago

      BTW, love your new picture too. I will read more then. thanks

    • profile image

      ralwus 7 years ago

      You seem to have known some giants in your country, I admire you for that and for this piece of history. I see that the photos were taken by you, so this is self evident. Once again you have moved me Tony. Is that NSI still alive there? I hope not. Kudos to you and much peace and love as always. Charlie

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      CC - thanks for the comment. I hope I do justice to the project! The first Hub on Beyers Naude is now up and working on more.

      Thanks again for stopping by and commenting.

      Love and peace


    • profile image

      chasingcars 7 years ago

      Sounds like a very worthwhile project. I will follow it with great pleasure, and, indeed, until all people are free, none of us is free. In this age of extreme self-centeredness, we need to be reminded that freedom also includes responsibility like that shown by the great people in your country and in the US who have fought for and continue to fight for the rights of others.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Nellieanna - thank you so much for your, as usual, perceptive comment. Eternal vigilance, as someone once said, is the price of freedom!

      Ruby - thanks to you also for visiting and commenting. The struggle in South Africa is indeed, and has been for centuries, about access to resource and most especially land. I am preparing a Hub on some other aspects of South African history which I hope you and others will find interesting and which will deal with some of these issues. Clinton is indeed here - just saw him on the news at supper time. I think that the kind of support he, through his foundation, and others are giving, especially in the campaign against HIV/AIDS is indeed very helpful.

      Thanks again for the kind comments, good people.

      Love and peace


    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 7 years ago from Southern Illinois

      Hello Tony,

      I must admit that i,m as dumb as can be about the struggles in your country, but i always thought it was caused by the whites taking over the black people,s land, is this not true, i really don,t know. I will read every hub you write, so i will understand it better.I know that President Clinton is in Africa now, i received a video from his staff this week, telling of all that they are doing to help, are they really doing good? I know he must be, my heart tells me that he is, but you would know better than i since you live there. my how i ramble on lol

      God Bless and keep you safe

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 7 years ago from TEXAS

      Tony - this is inspiring. From so far away, these crucial facts and details - truths - can be too hazy and distant, but the principles these people fought for and the human dignity they upheld as the right of all human beings is too important to be lost in mist.

      This statement you made gives me chills, as it is too easily set into motion anywhere there are people and power differences:

      ". . . it makes the State into a kind of idol before which all must bow, a god whose every command is to be unquestioningly obeyed."

      How we all need vigilance to see this coming or to recognize and to oppose it when it's wedged its way into the reality.

      Thanks for writing this, Tony. An admirable work!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Micky - thanks, bro!

      Love and peace


    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      God bless these people Tony! And -God bless Tony!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Coolmon - thanks for the cool comment!

      Dame Scribe - ikn a sense the new, free and democratic South Africa is their "Hall of Fame', their monument, but I agree that something could be done to enshrine the memory, that's why I am writing these Hubs!

      Maxine - they were indeed great and empathic people.

      Holle - they were and are great and I was really privileged to know some of them personally (but more on that later!).

      Thanks everyone for appreciating what is for me a labour of love!

      Love and peace


    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Great tribute to great human beings. I enjoyed the lesson!

    • jandee profile image

      jandee 7 years ago from Liverpool.U.K

      'They were not free while their black brothers and sisters were not free'.

      That says it all tony and people with such principles

      and empathy placed even before their own life deserve to be remembered and thank you tony for doing that.I am looking forward to the next writing from you,m

    • Dame Scribe profile image

      Dame Scribe 7 years ago from Canada

      I think these people should have a monument raised or join Hall of Fame or something to immortalize their supporting roles and costs paid to better humanity. :) Great article! :)

    • Coolmon2009 profile image

      Coolmon2009 7 years ago from Texas, USA

      Good article didn't know about these guys. Thank you for the anti-apartheid history lesson.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Mick - thanks so much for your discerning comment. We have indeed come a long, long way. The new flag was so hated by many whites after 1994, so to see it folying from almost every car now is a joy! The new flag is a symbol of the distance we have travelled, and perhaps of the long, long road that still lies ahead. Apartheid lasted for more than 40 years and it would be naïve to think it can be undone in just a few years. But we are getting there, I have no doubt.

      Love and peace


    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 7 years ago from South Africa

      Valerie - thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comment. The National Security Ideology is powerful and insidious indeed!

      Love and peace


    • MickS profile image

      MickS 7 years ago from March, Cambridgeshire, England

      Good stuff Tony,

      I'm English, in the 60s I worked with a number of black and white South Africans who were over here to get away from apartheid, horrendous time.

      I think it was interesting yesterday to watch the SA fans, black and white together, next to each other on the terraces, cheering on THEIR team.

      I know that SA still has problems, but it looks to me, from news reports, that the country has done a better job on integration than the other African Nations, especially that one led by Mugabe.



    • valeriebelew profile image

      valeriebelew 7 years ago from Metro Atlanta, GA, USA

      I look forward to these writings and will probably bookmark this series. Too often white people are treated by journalist with contempt, as if we are all bad, and have no part in movements for equality. Slavery and injustice have been around forever, and are not recent, nor are white people the only ones who have owned slaves. This is a timely and important subject. I look forward to reading each part of the series.

      I think our country was gettng too close to the concept of the individual giving up his or her rights for the safety of the country under the George Bush terms, so I voted for Barak Obama, for that and other reasons. Thanks for bringing that subject up, as many in our country would blindly follow that idea themselves, never assuming they could be negatively impacted by it. (: v


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