The Common Good

Echoes of Apartheid

The Cost of War

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I was conscripted into the South Africa military in the late 1980s. Still in my teens, I was shipped off to do two years of "service" for my country. This included not only military training, but also indoctrination about "the enemy." I was taught about the threat of communism, of the dangers of insurgents and the evil inherent in those who wished to destroy the "freedoms" we held so dear in our land.


South Africa was a country divided. Its history is reasonably well known to the world because of all we have since achieved. But the late 1980s were dark days, at the height of the apartheid regime's attempts to retain power in the face of growing international opposition and internal chaos.


One day, at home on leave, I was reversing my car out of our home's driveway in Randburg, Johannesburg. A knock on my window startled me. A young man, slightly out of breath, motioned for me to roll down the window. Slightly nervous, I lowered it a few centimetres. He asked if I could give him a ride. To this day I don't know why I agreed, as I am not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers. But, that day, I said, "Yes. Get in."


As we drove away, he calmly told me that he had just escaped from the police cells at the nearby magistrate's court. He was a political activist and had been arrested as a member of the ANC. He wanted me to take him to a nearby township where ANC cadres were known to hideout. But, he explained calmly, if I felt otherwise, I could take him up the road and hand him over to the police again.


Not many people are confronted with these sorts of choices. Not only was I under immediate pressure: Were the police coming down the road in hot pursuit? Had they seen me? But I was also being confronted with a mindset shift. Deep down inside I had a vague understanding that apartheid was wrong and that it should be opposed. But as a teenager, what chance had I to process these thoughts, or choose to do something about it? Now, what would I do? Whose side was I on?


It's difficult to explain to someone who hasn't lived in a propaganda state how much can be hidden from the citizens by the government and selective media. And how much apathy there is in those not directly affected by the violence such a state perpetrates.


I wish I had done more to oppose apartheid. I can claim that I was young, and that apartheid was almost dead by the time I came of age. But so many young people gave their lives for justice. There are no excuses. I wish that day I had done more than I did. I drove that young man about five kilometres away, and then dropped him off on the side of a busy road where I knew he would quickly be picked up and taken to safety. I should have done more.


Maybe I should be doing more now.


This may be an overly harsh assessment, but some of what has happened in America under the current administration in the name of a "war on terror" looks and feels remarkably like the workings of that apartheid machine I grew up in. And the most concerning thing is that, just as many South Africans

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