Shades of Difference
Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa
The inside story of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, told through the experiences of its unsung hero
The struggle in South Africa to destroy apartheid was one of the great moral crusades of the last century, and Mac Maharaj played a pivotal role in the liberation movement for nearly four decades. A South African of Indian descent, Maharaj suffered brutal tortures and twelve years of imprisonment on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. It was Maharaj who smuggled out the manuscript of Mandela's autobiography, and he later served in his government. Based on extensive interviews with Maharaj over the last eleven years and hitherto unavailable documents, Padraig O'Malley's vividly rendered tale will enthrall anyone interested in a true story of heroism and the story of a people's struggle for freedom.
In the late 1980's, the apartheid regime in South Africa lurched uncertainly from one reform to the next, but I could not face the ultimate step: abolishing what it could not reform. Only dismantling the entire apartheid apparatus and enfranchising the black masses would suffice.
States of emergency in 1986 and again in 1987 had failed to stop township violence. Moreover, the external climate was rapidly changing; Mikhail Gorbachev's doctrines of glasnost and perestroika opened up the Soviet Union to change, and as the cold war wound down, the utility of the South African government dried up. At one time it could portray itself as the principled ally of the West in the war against Soviet expansionism, which had funded so many anticolonial struggles and postcolonial states. As such, it could count on the covert support of the United States and a tacit tolerance for apartheid; during the cold war, the United States found “constructive engagement” with South Africa more expedient than outright condemnation of apartheid.
When the foundations on which these relationships rested began to crumble, changes in South Africa became necessary—an inevitable outcome of the changing world order. The economy was veering toward bankruptcy, the bite of financial sanctions was viselike, and the prospects of things getting better were remote. South African President F.W. de Klerk bowed to reality. On 2 February 1990, he unbanned the ANC and other political organizations, and on 11 February, he released Nelson Mandela. Thereafter he entered into negotiations process with the ANC and all other political parties claiming to have a stake in a new dispensation. It was a process of uncertainty; no outcome was guaranteed and none ruled out. All parties committed themselves to non-violence, yet the process unfolded in a climate of endemic violence.
I went to South Africa in 1989 to record and study the impending transition from apartheid to a post apartheid era. I had no idea how it would unfold, how long it would take, or what the outcome would be. And, I would learn, neither did the men and women who became key players in that process.
I met Mac Maharaj by accident in the early 1990's. I was visiting Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) and the party's chief negotiator, at ANC headquarters, on Plein Street in Johannesburg. On the way to Cyril's office on the ninth floor, we passed an Indian man—in his fifties, I would have presumed, silver haired, with a small white goatee. He was working the phone, punching at the keyboard impatiently with his fingers, and furiously smoking a cigarette. I remember, for some reason, that the desk had no papers on it, perhaps because the desks around him were piled high with haphazard stacks of paper. The man on the phone talked vigorously and quickly, with an air of urgency—again in contrast to the rather languid pace of things around him. The calls were short, Each ended the same way: “Thanks, pal.” I would become used to that phrase.
“That,” said Cyril, “is Mac. He is someone you should talk to. Come, I'll introduce you.” We walked over to Mac, who gave me a quick once-over and nodded his head between puffs. We made an appointment to meet on 18 August 1993—as it turned out, three months before the establishment of the November 1993 interim constitution that would pave the way for the first democratic elections in South Africa's history.
I knew who Mac was. Indeed, it would have been hard not to. In July 1990, when talks between the ANC and the South African government were already under way, he had been arrested and jailed, allegedly for trying to overthrow the government by violence. For a couple of months it was a big story—James Bond stuff, men in disguises using false passports, caches of arms being secretly transported into the country, an army being trained in secret locations, underground networks and a computer generated communications system that emitted encrypted messages, a Communist plot. And then the story simply disappeared. After charges against him were dropped several months later, I had tried to reach Mac but failed to make contact. I knew he was important, but just how important I did not know.
During our first interviews, I confined myself to questions about the current state of negotiations. Since my intent was to gather history in the making, I did not dwell on the past. I adhered to the boundaries I had used with other interviewees in my study of the ongoing transition, so there was a certain formality in my interview style. And Mac was, I believe, “sussing me out”. He had been burned on a number of occasions by writers, so he was, not surprisingly, a little wary. But in the course of our conversations, certain things began to emerge: his formidable analytical abilities, his phenomenal memory, his capacity to contextualize events and to view outcomes not in the context of present circumstances but in terms of a continually changing environment.
During Nelson Mandela's presidency (1994-1999), Mac served as his minister of transport. We got closer. The range of our conversations became wider and deeper, and he began to address more fully matters he had hitherto brushed aside. The tone of our conversations also changed. The formality fell away.
When Mandela stepped down as president in 1999, Mac stepped down with him. Thabo Mbeki became president, and Mac entered the private sector. At the age of sixty-seven, he turned his thoughts to earning some money. In late 2000, I told him I wanted to write a book that would draw on his life narrative as a guidebook for understanding the culture of the struggle against apartheid. Mac, as was his democratic way, consulted his family: his wife, Zarina, and his children, Milou and Joey. After a family indaba, the matter was settled and the book was on.
His narrative stretches across six decades, from the 1930s through the first years of this century; from struggle to liberation and from liberation through participation in South Africa's first democratic government. But his engagement in the affairs of South Africa did not end there. The “miracle” of April 1994, when black people went to the polls for the first time, soon lost some of its magic. Which was perhaps inevitable. When too much is expected, the anticipation of more always dilutes the benefits of the present.
And Mac would face his own travails—some, it should be said, of his own making. And he was pushed—or jumped, depending on your point of view—from the pedestal of struggle heroes because he dared to stand up for what he believed was right when his integrity was questioned. But in pursuing things in his own way, he found that in the new South Africa the new ANC had little time for the kind of behavior that had served the ANC so well during the struggle.
In the new South Africa, the ANC was quite willing, in the interests of enforcing the hegemony of the party, to rewrite its own history. Being a loyal and disciplined member of the ANC became an ideology in its own right, perhaps to fill the void that opened when the movement that had been the voice of a people's victimhood became the ruling party, the government, with all the instruments of state power in its possession.
Questioning his integrity is a surefire way to trigger a Pavlovian response from Mac—an explosion of ferocious anger, hard edged and cold with menace. He will repulse you, no matter what the cost to himself or others. You have dared to question his core understanding of himself, and he will not tolerate it.
Certainly, living as he chose to, deceit carefully woven into the fabric of his personality, coexisting with that of a moral being for whom personal integrity was the sine qua non defining his sense of self, created inner tensions that must have sometimes been hard to reconcile. A man who could look death coldly in the eye, yet fearful of revealing personal feelings, largely impervious to the impact of his actions on others. Voluble, engaging, and a raconteur who can command rapturous attention, he is emotionally distant within.
Through this book, Mac's sense of his own integrity and his willingness to go to any lengths to vindicate it wage a fierce struggle with each other and often leave him with the debris at his feet—but just as often with triumph. Selflessness and selfishness drink in equal measure from the same cup. His life and the struggle for South Africa ran on parallel courses for five decades.
We had our rules of engagement: I sent Mac the raw transcripts of his interviews and the subsequently edited interviews. Frequently, questions for follow-up interviews had their origins in previous ones, as answers begged further elaboration, clarification, or were at odds with other published accounts of events at that time. And, of course, he received the final versions that I wanted to include in Shades of Difference so that he had the opportunity to correct and have a say in what went into it.
Each chapter is also made up of an introduction. This consists of my independent investigation, interviews, and analysis. Mac has had no say in this. Indeed, he had no sight of anything I wrote until the final text had been agreed between my editors at Viking and me. Only then was Mac shown the full manuscript. In this part of the book Mac could correct only facts and spellings.
And we kept to the deal: two parallel paths, one resonating with Mac's voice telling his story, one preceding his, in my voice, my critical assessment of the context in which his life was unfolding at that point in his life. These two paths converge and crisscross, but remain distinct throughout the book. The end product, I like to think, is both a portrait of Mac and of South Africa, intertwined yet singularly apart."[Shades of Difference] is exactly what O'Malley set out to achieve: 'a portrait of Mac and of South Africa.' It is a striking success."
-The New York Times Book Review
"[O'Malley] is knowledgeable and sure-footed as he recounts this story . . . making a complex narrative on the whole quite clear."
-San Francisco Chronicle
"A groundbreaking biography of a central figure in the fight to end South African apartheid."
-Library Journal (starred review)
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