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Raam en Rigting in die Politiek en die Storie van Apartheid

Paul Murray

Kaapstad 2004

This is the first of Japie Basson’s memoirs, the second having appeared under the title Politieke Kaarte op die Tafel; Parlementêre Herinneringe (Politika 2006). The third, Steeds op die Parlementêre Kolfblad is scheduled to appear in 2007. The trilogy will provide an invaluable bank of political knowledge and writing covering a lengthy period in the half a century of the country’s history during which Japie Basson experienced South African political life first hand, contributing to it in no small measure.

Basson trained in law, which qualified him well to act as a political party organiser. He worked as a political journalist on Die Suiderstem, followed by a term as provincial youth organiser for the United Party (UP) in the Cape and finally as chief secretary of the United National South West Party in Windhoek. Basson paid allegiance to Smuts during the Second World War, after which he joined the National Party of South West Africa, having transferred to Windhoek in 1947.

He became the Member of Parliament for Namib for the National Party (NP) of South West Africa. His views were too liberal for the party under Dr H F Verwoerd, which led to his departure from the NP and the inauguration, with his influence paramount, of the National Union, a pro-republican, reformed, political group. After the proclamation of South Africa as a Republic in 1961, Basson felt the time right for the National Union to unite with the United Party in its opposition to the NP’s racial policies. His work as a politician proceeded unabated from the political bench of what must certainly rank as one of the noblest of all positions, as a member of the Opposition. The Bassons – Danie, father of Japie, Hein, Japie’s brother, and Japie himself – have made a considerable contribution to the South African politic scene.

Basson’s book Raam en Rigting in die Politiek en die Storie van Apartheid is a testimony to a polychromatic career in politics, amid the turmoil of cross-currents from reactionary to more liberal political manifestations in a country where the dynamics flowed like a strong river, meandering left to right, down waterfalls, and seldom quietly along the plains. Possibly the strongest area for the writer was when the UP was disbanded and the Progressive Federal Party established, becoming the country’s official opposition in 1977. Basson’s elegance as a speaker and thinker saw him fill the position in the Opposition as the country’s shadow Minister of External Affairs, and as a specialist in this matter as well as in matters constitutional. His training in law served him well in this department.

A position on the country’s President’s Council was the culmination and recognition of a lifelong contribution to South African politics. Basson’s voice against injustice echoed through the halls of South African politics for half a century. The memoirs in the form of this book tell the story so clearly and so vividly, and make for interesting and dynamic reading.

The fourteenth chapter of the book has part of the title in it: “Raam en Rigting”, and opens with an apt quote which says of Confucius that he “would never sit on a mat that was not straight”. The reader will gain a better understanding of the adroitness which political parties need to survive; such was the case for the NP, intricately yet clearly described by Basson. As a nationalist, Basson explains the belief in Afrikaner nationalism at the time. The purpose was never to operate or act alone for one’s own sake, as it was for “Sinn Feiners”, but rather in context of being part of a multinational country. Coalition and fusion politics is explained in the chapter in broader context of co-operation with English-speaking South African politics. Basson keeps the explanations lively and at the same time the dynamics and information come across vividly in his writing.

Sanctimony is not Basson’s style. He explains in another chapter that it is human to err. The example of initiation in the boarding houses serves as an apt example of his broad Weltanschauung of respect for the other, a bastion characteristic in the author’s psyche. These ideas are a testimony to the same broad view that he espoused as a politician. Is it perhaps that the one came out of the other? Praise is bestowed on the current rector of Stellenbosch University, Professor Chris Brink, for contextualising so aptly the place (or no place) for initiation ceremonies, which he terms a form of violence.

Great respect is shown by Basson for people. This remains a strong characteristic of the man. He remembers with affection his roommate, who later became a prominent academic in the field of psychology. Basson’s university training and experience are vividly recounted in the chapter entitled “Akademiese Afleiding”. There is a strong formative connection with this period in his life. Whilst there is no doubt he possessed a keen mind from the outset, it was sharpened through study, especially under fine teachers such as Dr JC de Wet of the Law Faculty.

The antipathy towards Verwoerd’s policies is felt strongly when one reads Basson’s sentiments and experiences in this field. Resistance politics is a strong feature in the Basson family, played out much earlier in the 18th century when a forebear formed part of an uprising against injustice at the Cape, executed by Arnoldus Basson et al. The forward-looking nature of the Bassons is aptly illustrated by words by Napoleon: “I conquered, rather than studied history; that is to say, I did not care to retain, and did not retain, anything that could not give me a new idea; I disdained all that was useless, but took possession of certain results which pleased me.” Basson welcomed the opportunities to debate important, topical issues that required rebuttal, such as Hitlerism and Fascism. He was active in South African politics at the time. To record these memoirs with a clear mind in the book is an asset to the reader interested in that period of South African and world history. The well-researched and well-recalled accounts remain an asset to history.

“To think, reason, weigh, sift, decide and act – this is life”, a saying by an anonymous person, illustrates the thinking energy of Basson, who was responsible for establishing a UP student branch before other prominent politicians such as BJ Vorster went and did the same. His intense involvement and interest in student politics is borne out by the role he played as a student in that society at Stellenbosch during the latter half of the 1930s, when the Western world had to begin facing serious onslaughts from Europe.

The numerous chapters serve as separate yet interconnected essays describing, debating, analysing and explaining the exigencies, manifestations and intricate connectedness of the South African political scene at the time of Basson’s political life. There is a chapter that explains for the student of political history the difference between segregation and apartheid, a difficult task in anyone’s books because it is so conceptual. The close involvement for the NP with the coloured people and the effects on the political situation in the country is a topic of discussion in the chapter entitled “Onreg op ‘n Galop”. These issues are not straightforward and so Basson’s explanations serve the student and reader well.

Basson, the polychrome of South African politics, in his writing has demonstrated without doubt his liberal status in the fifty-year period he operated in politics. The current publication is a valuable addition to the existing canon of political writings on South African political history. It brings with it a personal narrative of intense involvement at the time when our history was most closed off, and the voice of a broad-minded South African comes through strongly in the story.

The volume is an attractive book with the front cover bearing the author’s picture, and it is well illustrated with photographs in black and white as well as with Ivanoff cartoons and copious footnotes. The book is indexed, thus presenting the student with a user-friendliness also found in the accessible prose, neatly written, with sensitivity and in a fluid and pleasing-to-read style. It reflects, above all, Basson’s ability to tell the story of apartheid in Raam en Rigting in die Politiek en die Storie van Apartheid in such a way that personal history and official history are inextricably intertwined, covering a period in the country’s history that will never be forgotten and in which Basson played no small part.

LitNet: 30 August 2006

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