In the apartheid era, and even before that, many thousands of South Africans who were barred from voting in national elections because of the colour of their skin, nevertheless contributed to the lifestyle – via various taxes – of those who believed the National Party was right to ensure that only whites received whites-only benefits in perpetuity.
It was a lucrative existence for the privileged, with the US writer Bill Johnson observing: ‘At some point around 1970, white South Africans overtook Californians as the single most affluent group in the world.’
The vast majority of black people whose taxes indirectly helped to underwrite this affluence, were livid about this. They would have been angrier still had they known then that some of their contributions to the treasury were bankrolling an alleged paedophile ring in which, according to the new book The Lost Boys of Bird Island, Defence Minister Magnus Malan, Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister John Wiley and another cabinet minister were prominent participants.
The Lost Boys of Bird Island claims that during the 1980s, young ‘coloured’ boys, barely in their teens, were picked up by a prominent Port Elizabeth businessman named David Allen, and possibly others, and flown in SA Defence force Puma helicopters to a small island off the Eastern Cape coast – where they were used and abused by these powerful cabinet ministers and their hangers-on.
While the authors, former journalist Chris Steyn and former police officer Mark Minnie*, deserve praise for outing Malan and Wiley, and for their persistence in trying to open the whole ‘can of worms’, troubling questions have been raised following the publication of the book.
Chief among these are: Why did newspapers refuse to carry reports pointing to the alleged involvement of Wiley and Malan in paedophilia? Was it simply cowardice by editors or proprietors? Or were there other, yet-to-be-explained reasons?
Was the South African police force ‘captured’ by the government of the day? And why hasn’t the South African Police Service of today acted with urgency to begin an investigation into what happened on Bird Island – especially since there is a surviving member of the trio of Cabinet Ministers against whom these accusations were made?
The story of ‘Lost Boys of Bird Island’ is a modern-day example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
What happened on the guano-rich island off the Eastern Cape coast is an example of a particular, and still rife, type of mentality – a mentality that says there is nothing wrong with representing black people as non-persons.
Taken further, it is a mentality that makes it possible for these ‘non-persons’ to be regarded as private possessions and playthings, making them easy to control, open to abuse, expendable, and simple to get rid of.
It is a way of thinking that runs deep in the psyche of significant numbers of South Africans. The seeds of what turned far too many South Africans into power-drunk ogres were sown as far back as the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652 and continued into the 1980s when, among others, thousands of white right-wing Portuguese and ‘Rhodesians’ fled Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe to escape black-majority rule.
The notion of white baasskap was built and spread – by Afrikaners initially, but later by whites from other backgrounds – in a number of ways and over a number of periods. From about the 1840s to the 1870s, bands of Boer commandos scoured the Southern African interior in search of ‘black ivory’.
There was no secret about what was meant by the term: they were searching for young boys, and to a much lesser extent, girls – inboekselings (apprentices) – to work as ‘unpaid’ servants in their households.
They were prepared to kill to get them.
With some missionaries, serving as the eyes and ears for the British rulers of Southern Africa, the Boers preferred not to use the term for what an ‘unpaid’ servant really was: a slave, who was treated the way slaves had been treated since time immemorial.
But hypocrisy was a small price to pay to create a way of life they believed was their God-given right.
Thus, MW Pretorius, the first president of the SA Republic, was more than happy to condemn the trade in children – even as he was buying them six at a time.
The records show that significant numbers of inboekselings tried to escape even though punishment for those subsequently recaptured was harsh.
In many instances, inboekselings who reached adulthood – ‘adult children’ in Boer parlance – were denied permission to leave areas in which they had served their apprenticeships.
In a South Africa under both British and Afrikaner rule, the power dynamics on which the relationship between white and black was built in rural areas changed little over time.
But under the benevolent eye of the National Party, farmers – many of whom had no regard for the welfare of their workers – were fed a steady supply of labour by the state’s prison system and labour depots.
In the 1950s, it was not unusual for Pass Law ‘offenders’ to be given a ‘choice’ by these labour depots – along the lines of three months in jail or two weeks working on a farm.
It was as a result of one of these ‘deals’ that the New Age newspaper unlocked the story of a Bethal farmer named Potgieter, who made his workers wear potato sacks as clothing, forced them to dig up potatoes with their bare hands in 12-hour shifts, sjambokked them whenever they showed signs of exhaustion, and murdered them when he felt he could get nothing more out of them.
In dorps and cities, power was wielded by whites over blacks in more subtle ways. As has been the case in the horrific story of The Lost Boys of Bird Island, the wielding of power, built on sexual gratification, led to the bastions of Afrikanerdom having to explain the participation of their own in a number of sex scandals.
For example, one of the first people to fall foul of the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950, which outlawed sexual relations between white and black, was a Dominee of the Dutch Reformed Church in Barkley East, in current day Eastern Cape. He was ‘caught in the act’ in his garage, which had been next to his house by his parishioners. He received a suspended sentence for his indiscretion, while his black partner, although probably coerced into having sex with him, was jailed.
The Dominee’s angry parishioners, were less forgiving than the magistrate: they bulldozed the ‘offending’ garage to the ground.
One of South Africa’s biggest ‘sex-across-the-colour-line scandals and yet another example of white male bosses wielding their power over vulnerable black women, occurred towards the end of the year in 1970, in Excelsior in the Orange Free State.
It brought infamy to the tiny dorp from across the world.
Involved were enthusiastic supporters of the National Party, the party of apartheid and the architects of the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950.
On 2 December, seven white Afrikaners and 14 black women were arrested and charged with contravening the Immorality Act. In the dock were some of the most prominent men in the dorp, including a town councillor and a butcher. Journalists came from far and wide to cover the case. One of the accused 51-year-old Johannes Calitz, couldn’t take the pressure. While out on bail, he shot himself.
Newspapers reported “gasps of shock” when the women, aged between 18 and 40, appeared in court. Seven of them carried light-skinned babies on their backs. Some of the charges they faced under the act dated back five years.
“If an atom bomb had been dropped on our town, it could not have had a greater impact,” an elderly farmer was quoted as saying at the time.
There can be little doubt that the story of ‘The Lost Boys of Bird Island’ would have had a similar impact on South Africa and South Africans had it been published when these events occurred almost 20 years ago.
But the story was killed off for various reasons – including, in the case of the Sunday Times, that its editor, Tertius Myburgh, was almost certainly a government spy.
Steyn and Minnie make it clear that there is still one person – a Cabinet Minister, who was powerful enough to be regarded as a strong contender for the presidency – who can shed light on all that happened on the island.
The question is: why has he chosen to remain quiet? And why is his identity being kept secret? Surely an official investigation should be an urgent priority – for the sake of the ‘lost boys’ who survived their ordeal, and those who did not.
* Mark Minnie was found dead shortly after ‘The Lost Boys of Bird Island’ had been published. Police said they did not suspect foul play.