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Interview with Rev. Michael Weeder
South African Citizen
Q: How do you feel about the word "colored"?
Weeder: If I think I have a love/hate relationship with the word...because on the one hand it defines negatively my being ... it's a way I was legally defined.... People who have no love or understanding of me...that was their bureaucratic attempt to define me. On the other hand, I see within my own being a meeting point of so many different racial and cultural influences that so narrowly define me, or any human being. I see myself as not only South African, I see myself as one of a global majority.
Q: Can you remember the first time you felt negatively defined by someone else?
Weeder: I can clearly remember when I was about 6 years old... I encountered a white fellow about 13 or 14, and I had just purchased for my grandmother a little necklace, a cheap 25 cent necklace, and he cheated me out of it as we were playing some game in the park. When I went back to claim the necklace he called me a houghtnot, which is a pejorative, an insult, and that was my first encounter where I was identified negatively by another human being...it was my first experience.
Q: Did the things you were being told about who you were, based on your skin color, sink in and affect how you saw yourself?
Weeder: In our church, which had a strong liberal tradition of occasional resistance in the liberation struggle, we were taught that we were all made equal in God's image, but that was never contextualized...that was never given greater meaning than what you had from the pulpit. At that point, the black consciousness movement that said "Yes, we are all made equal" and at the same time reaffirmed my whole being didn't really exist yet. I was defined as colored, with all its negative connotations that you were of impure blood, that your skin color had no meaning, that there was no beauty in you. The black consciousness movement actually reaffirmed your God-given beauty as a created person. And it did that by affirming aspects of your being and not of your skin color. It would say that whether you are colored, Indian, or African, you are a black person and hence you are beautiful. It wasn't anti-white, but it was pro-black and very pro-the shattered part of your being...
Part of the hurt was not that they classified you negatively, part of the hurt was that the super culture...the dominant culture...rejected you. White people had rejected you because of part of your blood was their blood, and so you aspired in many ways...within the African-colored community you wanted to be black, but you also aspired to be white. You used various devices to appear white, you lightened your skin, you straightened your hair... It was not so much what I did to myself, it was more what I felt inside. It was more that I felt ashamed of my skin color, that I wanted to be white. I felt an inadequacy. There was a certain joylessness about my being due to the fact that I could not be white....The inversion of that is the movement away from the self-hatred and to the point of the tragic mulatto, you don't belong here, you don't belong there.
The point at which one's healing began, one's self-redemption, was the exposure to black pop culture. I was very surprised when I discovered Stevie Wonder was a black man because he had this beautiful voice, and it played on Spring Box Radio, which at that time was playing mainly white music. And then to discover this wonderful voice, that white people also loved was a black man.
Q: So, did the black culture in America strongly influence your view of yourself?
Weeder: For us in the 70's, American pop culture came our way...the Jacksons with little Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and after that was the America of Stokeley Carmichael of "You're on your Own". That was the America we got to know and love... The message that came for us was that blackness is positive, that it can be celebrated...blackness need not be just gangsterism, drunkenness, and despair.
To discover Harry Belafonte, to discover he looked like my mother's brother, and to discover that within Black America there were these shades of variation that I saw in my people - the colored people of South Africa - there in black America. I saw them in the Stevie Wonders, the Harry Belafontes, the Poitiers, the Bill Cosbys. We saw ourselves - that was the entry point into changing our ideas.
We knew there was the reality of Black America, but we also saw the examples of Martin Luther King...the examples of triumph. And you must remember I'm a church person, and so when you start thinking of justice and you start hearing these recorded cassettes coming into South Africa and you listen to the sermons of Martin Luther King saying "I have a dream" and that dream addresses your own pain...you start listening more to the pain because the despair is there, but there is a positive voice arising out of that despair...
I think that was the attractive part of Black America. There was a black person of mixed race with slave ancestry and they looked like us and spoke English, there was a commonality of culture that allowed us review our own blackness and made us more susceptible to the more political form of blackness that came with the black consciousness movement. It was the pop culture for me that made me a bit more positive initially about my own browness. It gave me guts, and it made my soul much more fertile ground for the stronger political message that came later on in the mid-70's..'77 and onwards....So, for us, who were not very politicized or organized politically, those little glimpses of Black America were a very positive and powerful impression on our lives.
Q: Tell me about the first time you met a white person.
Weeder: I was about age 17, when I first closely, physically met a white person. A young white woman had come from Univ. Of Cape Town - she was part of a volunteer work corps that had come to work in our parish...that was about 1972.
Early in the 70's it was quite a common thing for young white people to start reaching out to different communities. She was representative of that. She was what one would describe in South African terms, a liberal white English speaking person. And we felt very special that she had come to spend time in our impoverished community, to work amongst us...that was my first impression of her, the goddess who has come down to live among us.
That was one's impression of white people. When they were benevolent, they were god's gift to you. For many of us, we were so grateful that she had come to be among us. This was like a young goddess who had come to our part of the ghetto, and at that point, the fact that somebody from the master race had come to us - the black untouchables - was a very affirming thing.
Q: What was your opinion of Steven Biko, and how did his death affect people there?
Weeder: When the ANC and the liberation movements were banned in the 60's, there was a whole period of just total non-activity. And then in the 70's, we have Steve Biko and the black consciousness movement arising. For us at that point in the early 70's Nelson Mandela was an abstraction, and so Biko was our dream incarnate, he was our vision, he was our black president. He presented all the possible bestness of black ability....
When Steve Biko died, for those of us in the Cape, even those of us on the periphery of organized Black activity...it had a tremendous impact on us because we often said that there is a black president in the making. Before there was a Nelson Mandela, before there was an Oliver Tambo, or a Thabo Embeki, there was a Steve Biko. At that point he represented for us all the goodness of a possible alternative to apartheid, in the way he articulated and the way he represented that clarity of thought and black ability. And so when that was cut down like that, for me, there was a lot of hopeless despair.
When that life comes to an end, particularly in the way that it happens when he is tortured and brutally murdered the way that he was, for us all hope of change at that point, we just fell into a short period of despair, but also anger. A strong rallying cry that surfaced and would take us through many years after, "Don't Mourn, Mobilize!" And I think that, for us, was a turning point of the resistance also...the death of Steven Biko.
Q: What kinds of events most affected you personally?
Weeder: I remember as a young person in the mid 70's, listening to my mother...we were in a bible study group and she had come from her place of work and she was telling us how she was walking after work to the station to catch the bus home and she heard a soft sound and she turned and there was a young boy shot dead next to her. The police had shot him dead. And the realization that the Soweto uprising of June had come to us in July/ August in the Cape, and to see our young people being murdered like that, being shot down, and it was always white men with guns, always triumphant, and it was a sort of frustrated anger that surfaced, that helped one to move in a greater political direction
There were so many things happening at that point. It wasn't only the children dying in Belgravia, the wars had been also been going on in the squatter community, in Yanga, in Boogeletu, and so forth. I think one was angered by the way they'd been killed. They'd been lured into coming out into the street, and once they'd become visible they were there like little rabbits in the sun, and they were just blasted apart like that. The fact that people who were trained in warfare would devise the status of warfare and bring it home to ordinary citizens...to young children...and make war on young people...I think it angered even more those in the church, in the religious community, and we finally said enough is enough....
I think there were very few of us who did not cry, whether publicly or privately. There was one particular death which moved me tremendously. It was the death of a young MK soldier by the name of Ashley Kriel. We had known him in the United Democratic Front days in the 1980's as a very militant, very bright, handsome young boy, always sloganeering and leading young people in the chant "Action, Action, Kommandante! " (a kommandante was often the commander of a unit...so they were urging the unit to military action). He had gone and been trained militarily in Angola, and had come back...we had not obviously known it. He had been arrested or the policemen had gone to arrest him...and Ashley was killed, but it wasn't so much that. It was listening to his mom, Auntie Ivy. She was coming home that day, you know, on the bus, and her neighbor next to her was reading the story of this terrorist who was killed, and she turned and looked and it was her son. That is how she had learned about the death of this young boy who was her son.
Q: Was there any moral conflict for you, as a member of the clergy, surrounding the use of violence during protests?
Weeder: The question of violence did present, not necessarily a moral problem for us, because we had here an example of a bishop, Bishop Burnett, who was a war hero of the second world war. Now he didn't get that by handing out daisies - he was a war hero...he was a prisoner of war in Italy. So the history of the church with the Crusades and its involvement and its blessing on the Allies in the second world war gave us an example...
The ambiguity for me arose when the leaders of the church did not come down on the side of the armed struggle and young clergy like myself had no example to seek...to embrace...to lead us. So we decided that if it was wrong for us to be involved in activities supporting armed struggle...if it was a sin...maybe it was a sin that God could forgive. We wouldn't want to be caught up in the rightness...when you become so conscious-stricken that you end up not doing anything. So we decided that it was the right thing, the proper thing. We had exhausted all forms of non-violent activity.
Q: Can you give me some examples of events that made you feel that non-violence wouldn't be an effective tactic to employ?
Weeder: In my own life in the 80's, I couldn't sing "We shall overcome". I just found it impossible to sing because to sing "we shall overcome some day", while today I saw the poverty, today I saw our women had been raped, I saw how men had been abused in prisons. I couldn't sing that song because we had a protest march in 1985 - it was a march to free Mandela. We never got far.
We were clergy leading the march. We were given 2 minutes to disperse and we knelt down - there were thousands behind us, and we knelt down to pray and we were singing the "Our Father"...They came with their dogs, their teargas - they beat us up... "Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name" - we didn't get beyond that. We were about to sing "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." They were amongst us, and you know, they were laughing. I saw a nun being battle charged. The policeman was grinning when he hit her across the breast. The outcome of that, our peaceful protest was there in tatters. And out of that, a lot of our young people took up arms. There was one young fellow, Ashley Forbes, he went from there...he had been part of the peaceful march...he joined the Umkhonto We Sizwe - he took up arms.
That was a dramatic example, there were other examples. We felt that we should be leading by example, we should not always be preaching justice. And when the young people take up the call for justice we say to them "Turn the other cheek"
For a while I was a courier. I went to Botswana, to Cameroon, to bring back arms. I stored arms in my house. It was neither with pride or with shame, but was of necessity. It was something we believed at that time, that it was something that ought to be done.
Q: Did you ever fire?
Q: Would you?
Weeder: You know, I believe when one is confronted with that reality, then the choice is made.
Q: What was the release of Nelson Mandela like for you?
Weeder: When we heard the news of Mandela's imminent release, I was out in a village about an hour's drive east of here called Ashton, and the Afrikaan's weekly "The Report" was the only paper to carry a picture of Mr. Mandela and it was the first time we had seen him.
I remember there was a lady who looked after our children, also a colored woman. And she told me "Oh Father, Mr. Mandela, he's a handsome man." I said "I agree with you, why do you say it?" And she said, "Oh, he looks just like a colored."
We got into the car that morning and we rode straight through to Cape Town, it's 2 hours south of here, from Ashton. And we were on a parade the whole day waiting for him. And eventually we left, 20 minutes before he actually spoke. But I think for me that was one of the most glorious moments of my whole life - to see somebody who had epitomize so much of our desire, walk free and to hear his voice again - when we had never heard his voice live.
Q: What can you tell me about the struggle for equality in voting rights?
Weeder: ...I think when I became more politically conscious in the 1970's. We were very comfortable with the term "one man one vote" but in the 80's we were compelled to say "one person, one vote"...there has always been the question of equality of franchise as being a consistent call throughout the years of resistance.
The struggle for universal franchise we always saw as the pinnacle of the liberation struggle. We did not see it as the end of our desire or the end of our struggle but as the beginning. The achievement of that was the beginning of a new beginning, but the matter of our achieving universal franchise was a very important stepping stone - a foundation stone into molding the architecture or contraction of democracy in our country....
Q: Once voting rights were won, what was the next step for you?
Weeder: I'd been doing election education - I often saw it as another phase in the liberation struggle. But when I discovered that being the educator I was also taught much more than I taught. For example, in this very remote part of Northern Cape called Namakoland, I remember at the end of the first day of one workshop, one old man stood up and said "Father, I want to say something," and I started getting nervous. Whenever old religious men get up in a meeting you always expect trouble. He said, "This thing about elections is very important because apartheid is dead." And I said "Yes, apartheid is dead." And he said, "But its corpse is smelly. The elections is the day we bury the smelling rotting corpse of apartheid."
And what I discovered in the ensuing months and weeks of election education, was that people weren't so interested in how to make the cross, or where to put it - they knew where they wanted to put their cross - but it was more for them to talk about the insolence, the attitudes that kept them away from this great day of the elections. They were interested in demystifying the voting day. They wanted to know would it be safe for them to come out. Would the police be there to protect them, or would the police be there to handicap them? And those were the practical concerns - would their vote be secret, would they be able to exercise their right to vote? We had to deal with and communicate to people, giving them a step by step account...
One woman would get up in a workshop and say "You know, my husband is voting for this party, and he is saying as his wife I should also vote for the same party. What do I do? " Then we explained to her that Mama your vote is a secret, your husband will not be coining with you into the polling booth, he will not know where you make your cross, it is only you and God who will know who you are voting for on the day, unless you tell somebody."
"If I make my vote for a party and that party wins will the losers be able to extract vengeance from me?" Again, we always needed to emphasize, that their vote was a secret...
People would often come to us and say, "You know we've been offered bribery. People said that if you vote on my party, we'll pay you. What do we do?" So we said, "Well, take the money. You need the money, but you can still vote with your conscience.
Q: What was the tone of the first election in which the colored people were allowed to vote?
Weeder: A lot of people had different reactions. For some it was an event that they celebrated with big laughter. One man had told me afterwards, he had gone into the booth and he stood there for a long time in front of the ballot paper and just wept, quietly, silently, the tears flowed down his cheeks. And for allot of us it was that, it was a great victory but there was a lot of sadness in, it also because we had achieved, but at so mush cost.
The elections were such an emotional watershed in the lives of so many people, that one man said "When I go and vote on election day, I am also going to vote for those who could not be there. My father who died, my grandparents who lost their land, I will be exercising their revenge."
In this one village in which I was a priest, there was this old man who said to me "You know, our people are like monkeys who had been used as watch dogs by the farmer, and the farmer had tied a chain around the monkey's middle, and this monkey, when he grew old and of no use to the farmer - he can't be a watch dog- and so the farmer decides to untie the chains. But the monkey does not know in his mind that the chains are off and so he still moves around in the space he was previously allowed by his chains. And what he explained to me was that a lot don't actually totally understand the freedom that we had gained by the vote, by the election. It would take a long time for us to get to that mental understanding of what we had achieved.
Election day captures a very popular image: Long queues before and the joyful abundance after people had voted. For me, going to the voting booth was like going to a very private chapel. There was elements of great joy of knowing that this is a victory, this is a burial of something very evil, and that was my joy and my private satisfaction. What was also an element of great sadness was knowing that I was doing something which my father couldn't do. He couldn't vote...he couldn't exercise the very basic right. Knowing that there were so many of our people who had gone on beyond without tasting, without savoring this simple thing, I think I'll always carry that.
It was a great feeling of sadness, that this victory has been achieved at the cost of so many lives. There was so much human talent lost, and a wastage of humanity that had taken place in our lives and in our country. And it was that...that's why we always told our people that this was the first election...that there will never be an election like this one, so come and vote. We said the second election will never be like this one.
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