Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Political artist

The Bentley brothers and sister, five of us in total, got into politics during high school. Living in East London and seeing the impact of grand apartheid on black people, we soon hitched up with the Progressive Federal Party, the first "white" party to vehemently oppose apartheid. I remember how inspired I was by the message of non-racialism when I first heard the likes of Helen Suzman and Colin Eglin speaking at public meetings in the city. The Bentley brothers also became the linchpins of a very active PFP Youth branch in EL from about 1977 till the early 1980s. I was later to work for the PFP as a poorly paid organiser for three years in the early '80s. Anyway, it was therefore small wonder that I took to drawing the faces of some of our leaders, including these two, around about 1977.

Working in common old ballpoint pen, I would have copied this from a photograph of Colin Eglin, the leader of the PFP. I always had a subversive streak - which artist hasn't? - so after the painstaking attempt on top, I let rip with two cartoon-like drawings below.

When Van Zyl Slabbert was elected as a PFP MP in 1974, it gave the party a huge boost. An intellectual giant, as an Afrikaner his future would have been rosy within the ruling National Party or in one of its universities. Instead, the sociology professor threw in his lot with the small minority of whites opposing apartheid through the parliamentary process. The fact that he was a rather handsome young man probably didn't hurt the PFP either, and all his attributes led to him eventually taking over the party's leadership, before dramatically quitting parliament in the mid-1980s, as the country threatened to explode during the UDF-led uprising against apartheid. Sadly, Van Zyl died in May this year.

This is a much-reduced copy of a watercolour I made after dramatic events in the East London City Hall in about 1977. Defence Minister and soon-to-be prime minister and then executive president PW Botha was addressing a packed hall and as my brothers and I arrived, I thought how those cheers echoing from within were reminiscent of the sheep-like adulation afforded Hitler in Nazi Germany. We took up a standing position near the back of the upstairs gallery, from where I proceeded to heckle PW. A couple of heavies were sent around, and one started kicking me behind the legs, before I was manhandled out of the hall. The photograph below appeared on the front page of the Daily Dispatch, edited by the courageous Donald Woods who might by then have already been under house arrest and a banning order. The photographer was warned that his life would be in danger if the picture was used. It was used, I was traumatised and, tragically, a few years later long-haired, surfing photographer Roger Taylor died in a blaze in his Nahoon Mouth flat.

The caption on the picture is from the back cover of my first self-published book, "Apartheid's Child, Freedom's Son" (2003). I could write a book on trying to get a book published. But suffice to say after rejections aplenty, I was able to run off just 30 copies at a local printing firm, after laying the thing out on a PC, complete with numerous drawings and photographs. The original caption, which appeared on the Dispatch front page, read: "Daily Dispatch photographer Roger Taylor was threatened his life was in danger if this picture was published in the Daily Dispatch today. The heckler in the middle of this picture, Mr C. K. Bentley, is being manhandled by two National Party supporters. Man at the back is Mr Danie de Lange, a son of Mr Robbie de Lange, who chaired the meeting last night and who is a former NP candidate in East London. An eye-witness alleged he saw National Party supporters kicking Mr Bentley."

Those were heady days. After heckling another NP meeting, a group of NP thugs followed my brothers and I out of the Orient Theatre - we left during the national anthem. I was thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly, but suffered only a few grazes.

Having worked for Woods on the Dispatch for five months straight out of school in 1975, I knew Roger Taylor well, and believe had he not come up from where he was sitting - he can be seen shooting away next to the press table in front of the podium in my painting - I might have been badly assaulted. While my rendering of PW Botha speaking on the stage is perhaps not entirely accurate, I think the painting captures something of the mood of those NP meetings. I particularly enjoy the sheep-like appearance of the NP faithful, who would hang on to every word PW spoke. So when he praised the "homeland" leaders, they weren't impressed when I shouted things like "puppets!".

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