I have been ‘tagged’ by Iota to do a photo meme. In her post she mentioned I might post a picture of me with a gecko embroidered on my backside. So as not to disappoint, here it is. Nothing as radical as a tattoo, just an embellishment to my dress.
It was for our son’s school’s 50th anniversary ball in Sri Lanka. You had to wear something in the school colours (dark blue) Now I didn’t t have a dark blue ball dress & I wasn’t going to go & buy one just for this event, but I didn’t want to be a party pooper, so I decided instead to sew the school’s logo- you guessed it, a gecko on my ball dress. And I must say it was s a great conversation starter. I have never had so many comments about a dress before, even from complete strangers!
The meme asks you to talk about a favourite photo. Like Iota it’s hard to choose a favourite & mine wd all be family ones too, but I don’t post them on my blog either, so I decided to do it in the style of Desert Island Discs, i.e. to choose a photo that is not necessarily a favourite, but nevertheless is very significant & tells the story of part of my life. So here it is.
Can you guess what these 3 people are looking so happy about? A family get together? A reunion after a long absence? A joyous event?
Well all of these things really.
It’s a picture of the 20 yr old Charles Bester on his release from 2 years in prison on August 13th 1990 with his parents (taken by Kevin Carter of The Weekly Mail). He was a conscientious objector in apartheid South Africa.
So what’s my connection? I was at university in the days of boycotting South African fruit, picketing Barclays bank & of The Students’ Union campaigning to get people to boycott all things South African including Barclays (& take their overdrafts elsewhere) South Africa was a pariah. But I had always been interested in the country & was determined to see for myself what was going on there.
So after university I went, as an intern, to a multi-racial Christian organisation, which ran development, education & missions programmes in South Africa
It was in so many ways an amazing experience for me, & South Africa & friends & relationships formed there 21 years ago have remained a hugely significant part of my life to this day.
It was at Africa Enterprise that I met Charlie Bester. Only 18- just left school and about to face the issue that all White South African males dealt with- most without thinking about- conscription. A mandatory 2 years service in the South African Defence Force.
Charlie had been thinking through this issue & become convinced he couldn’t serve in the SADF. The trouble was no one had refused their call-up since the South African Government had changed the penalty for refusing to a punitive 6 years in 1983. Even on the grounds of universal pacifism you got 6 years community service. Before this only a handful of men had refused to serve & been imprisoned in the entire history of South African conscription. None for more than a year.
How did all this affect me? Charlie was my boyfriend. No one believed he would take this stand & no one believed he was serious. I did. He was an incredibly mature, thinking person with a passion for justice & a fierce love for his nation. He also had a determination & resolve I had never seen before. And of course he was young. The End Conscription Campaign said it helped that their campaigners were all young, all believed in making a diffeence & believed in taking risks.
He was also, though, of course, freaked out by the momentousness of the idea & its personal cost.
His conviction came out of his deeply held beliefs about the outworking of faith in daily life. He believed, as a Christian, that he could not in conscience wage war & oppress his fellow citizen & human being in the townships of South Africa which is what the conscripts were being used for; to maintain law & order & quash any resistance in the townships. And in these circumstances he felt his 1st obedience was to God not the State.
He also believed God was asking him to stand up & be counted; to push a door that hitherto few had even peeped through, to show others the way through (& in fact after him &
another guy called Dave Bruce, lots more young men felt brave enough to step forward & refuse their call up - 771 the following year, then over a 1000 the next. The flood gates had opened) & this was a significant lever in the dismantling of apartheid as resistance to the apartheid regime grew & people saw they could do something, take a stand & make a difference.
Magnus Malan, the defence minister at the time said the government had 3 main enemies, the South African Communist party, the ANC and, in third place, the ECC (the End Conscription Campaign) it was 21 years ago, on August 22 1988, that the government banned the ECC which actually added weight & kudos to their campaign.
Eventually as more people realised he really was going to refuse, his parent & others rallied round to support him. Both Charlie & I felt that me being in South Africa at that time was significant in that I was closest to him & so helped him work through the decision & helped him in a way that perhaps a South African wouldn’t have, simply because this just didn’t happen, people just did not refuse their call-up so people didn't really take him seriously.
My relationship with Charlie, & supporting him in making this decision, threw me into the melting pot of 1988 South Africa, under its State of Emergency & made me a part of it in a way I could never have imagined. I accompanied him when he went to officially state his intention to refuse, on speaking tours of university campuses explaining his refusal, experienced being followed by the police, coping with the malicious smear campaigns the government conducted against him, attending End Conscription Campaign ‘ meetings & so on.
It was heady stuff, but also scary. It ignited my passion for justice, & issues around this, which I have to this day. He was also doing something to ‘make a difference’, something I still strive for even in staid middle age!
But of course there was the emotional impact too. And our relationship. We both realised that we had to split up. How could he ask me, aged 22, to wait for him for 6 years? How could I promise to do so? What if I met someone else & had to tell him whilst he was alone in prison? Being very pragmatic, we felt now was the time to work things through & let each other go.
The other side to it was something I had hoped he would never find out, that I had gradually come to realise that, much as I had fallen in love with South Africa, its land & its people, I wasn’t in love with Charlie. I loved him deeply, but I knew he wasn’t the guy I was going to marry.
One of the things that made me realise this was that despite my love for the country I had also come to realise how much I loved England, how English I was & how I wasn’t actually prepared to give up family, friends & ‘home’ & make South Africa my permanent home by marrying a South African.
Somehow I felt I wouldn’t cope with having where I lived determined by the nationality of the man I married. Whether this closed me off emotionally to the possibility I don’t know, I just knew I couldn’t do it, & so clearly didn’t feel strongly enough for him to do this. In a way I was fortunate that this factor saved me even more heartache than I was already feeling.
So we broke up. But remained close. I went back to South Africa twice to attend Charlie’s trial. But the government kept changing the date (with 24hrs notice sometimes) A deliberate psychological ploy to undermine the defendant. it was a harrowing time.
On December 5th Charlie was sentenced to 6 yrs in prison, only the 2nd person to receive such a sentence, a few mths after David Bruce received his 6 yrs, but also the youngest. He also turned out to be the last to be imprisoned. There were simply too many followin gsuit to try & imprison.
He was allowed 1 letter in prison per month. I wrote regularly but never knew how many he received. He did receive sackfuls of letters but they were never given to him. However they were at least kept & he received the staggering cache on his release. I used to get letters from him, which were heavily censored in a bizarre & seemingly random way.
Happily, because of a general amnesty of political prisoners in 1990, Charlie was released after just under 2 yrs in prison. The photo above is the picture of his jubilant parents meeting him on his release from prison. I love this picture.
I would love to say that he survived the experience unscathed. Mercifully he did physically, pretty much, he was roughed up a bit once or twice, by the police, not prisoners, but emotionally & psychologically it really took its toll. He developed an inability to make decisions or find direction in life, (a fairly common post-prison experience). He spent years dabbling (successfully) in various things but not settling to anything. But he doesn’t regret it & still believes it was the only decision he could make. But I am proud of what he did at such a young age.
Shortly after his release he was sponsored to tour the States to speak about his experiences. He came via the UK & I got to see him again & introduce my ‘soon to be’ fiancé whom I had told Charlie about.
I am very fortunate to have married the most secure, unjealous man I could ever meet. He & Charlie did, & do, get on famously & my husband accepts our friendship & the significance he has in my life. he is godfather to our 1st born. In fact we stayed with him & his mum in South Africa this year. I know it’s unusual, but it's an unusual situation, & I know I’m very fortunate he is so understanding. But then my husband is Mr Rational. I chose to marry him; I chose not to marry Charlie. To my husband, that’s QED.
The other reason I wanted to write this is because 3 weeks ago Charlie got married for the 1st time. And so a whole new chapter of his life begins. One I have long longed for, for him. I’ve been married 19 years this May. On 19th December Charlie entered his 1st year of marriage. I am so delighted for him. I also think it is fitting in the rainbow nation that he played his part to build, that he is marrying a black South African, something that was actually illegal in the apartheid South Africa at the time he was imprisoned. Of course the important thing is the person he is marrying, & though I have yet to meet her, she is by all accounts, lovely. However you cannot talk about South Africa & not talk about race, & to me their marriage is also a great symbol of all that he was fighting for & believed in strongly enough 21 years ago to take a stand & do something.
She, like him, has great determination, resolve & conviction. She too, has risen to her own challenges. In her case to climb Everest. She is the first Black female high altitude mountaineer in the world.. I think they will make a great couple, & I wish them every happiness.