Over the years Pietermaritzburg’s daily newspaper, The Witness, was kind enough to publish my opinion pieces and the occasional feature article. For a while the former appeared in the series ‘New Ground’, along with the excellent writing of Nina Hassim, Suntosh Pillay and Chris Chatteris amongst others. Sadly, that arrangement came to an end in 2008 but by that time I had left the University of KwaZulu-Natal and was working in the editorial department of The Witness.

From time to time readers suggested that some pieces might warrant a wider audience. In early 2012 I was invited to talk to a group at the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity on a topic of my choice. The centenary of the ANC was in full swing and a couple of months earlier Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu had made an emotional attack on the party over its appalling policy on Tibet, reminding it in no uncertain terms of the role faith organisations had played in the liberation of South Africa.

Tutu’s memorable outburst and the growing hold of a bland, official version of the country’s recent history seemed good reason to highlight in my talk the contributions made by the many strands of thought, and organisations other than the ANC, that had contributed to the struggle. Having turned back to nearly a decade of contributions to The Witness to construct my talk, the idea of a publication emerged.

Its main purpose is to demonstrate that South Africa is in danger of accepting a monochrome view of the past, one dominated by a particular ideological tendency. The truth is very different. In the struggle against oppression of various types many people and groups of widely differing backgrounds and beliefs made a significant contribution. Whatever the ANC may want to believe, South Africa is a highly pluralist, diverse society. And if this is ignored, or suppressed, the country has an uncertain future. Since liberation, South African history has been treated by many just as certain Americans greeted the end of the Cold War: as if history itself had come to an end with one interpretation of the past and one version of the future.

The over eighty opinion pieces and feature articles reproduced here in 73 sections are identified by their original titles and dates of publication and edited lightly to account for the passage of time. Where possible, a reference or two provides an opportunity for those interested enough to follow up the topic. The arrangement is broadly chronological by decade; the hope being that the articles will follow a general historical progression regardless of when they were actually written and published. Some of the articles were jointly written with comrade and colleague Nalini Naidoo. I am as grateful for her permission to reproduce her work as I was for the original opportunity to work with her on significant historical topics.

Thanks are due. In particular I would like to thank Shelagh McLoughlin, features editor of The Witness who recruited me as a regular columnist in 2002. Five years later when I joined the staff of The Witness, the Editor, John Conyngham, was equally supportive and collegial. Consistent encouragement has come from Christopher Saunders, my thesis supervisor in Cape Town, Colin Tatz in Sydney and Douglas Booth in Dunedin, who over the years suggested that I should disseminate my writing more widely. Colin provided this book’s title. More recently I have received similar encouragement and support from Nithaya Chetty and Andre Odendaal with both of whom I have co-authored books. To them all, and readers who have provided me with feedback, I am indebted.

Christopher Merrett, Pietermaritzburg, December 2017



  1. 1 John William Colenso: human rights activist?
  • 2 Edendale: kholwa identity and survival


3 Natives Land Act: pariahs in their own land

PART TWO: THE 1950s AND 1960s

4 A charter for freedom

  • 5 New Age: two newspapers, same name, different times


6 State of Emergency, 1960: the onset of a police state

  • 7 Robert Sobukwe: intellectual and charismatic leader


8 Ruth First: martyr for a free South Africa

9 Tsafendas, Verwoerd and a tapeworm

  • 10 Dennis Brutus: beacon of the sports boycott


  • 11 Basil d’Oliveira: South Africa’s first genuine cricket captain and the politics of sport


12 Gary Player and Helen Suzman: dealing with power

13 Liberal Party: the persistence of principle


14 The Durban strikes: changing the face of industrial action

  • 15 Soweto: a grassroots uprising


16 Stephen Biko, Black Consciousness and individual empowerment

17 Unity Movement: puritans of the anti-apartheid struggle

18 Aurora: confronting apartheid on the cricket field

19 Richard Turner: philosopher activist


20 Neil Aggett: medicine, trade unionism and altruism

21 United Democratic Front: making history and leaving a mixed legacy

22 The Weekly Mail and the struggle for press freedom

23 State of Emergency, 1986: arbitrary arrest and detention

24 Mpophomeni: seeds of the Natal Midlands conflict

  • 25 Detention without trial: abuse of human rights as state strategy


26 Detainees’ hunger strike: the power of the powerless

27 Black Sash Advice Office: witness to racism and apartheid bureaucracy

28 BESG: working and building with and for the people

29 David Webster and the death squads: victim of his own research

30 Trust Feed massacre: securocrats and mistaken identity


31 Seven Day War: a series of unanswered questions and closing a painful chapter

32 Buthelezi, Inkatha and the persistence of censorship

33 Luthuli and Buthelezi : a tale of two books

34 Umkhonto we Sizwe: guns, pens and the rewriting of history

35 Cricket boycott betrayed

36 Chris Hani : enigma of the struggle

37 Stoking the myth of revolution

38 Liberals, liberalism and the exercise of power

39 Crimes against humanity and white amnesia

40 The denigration of history

41 Tony Leon, the Democratic Alliance and capital punishment

42 Pietermaritzburg’s dirty war and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

43 The Truth Commission: unfinished business

44 Mandela, secular sainthood and rugby matches

45 Mandela: the long walk ends


46 It’s all in the label

47 Political opposition: Chihuahua or watchdog?

48 Undermining the prospect of the rainbow nation

49 The re-racialisation of South African society

50 Fear and self-censorship: enemies of academic freedom

51 Street renaming and airbrushing of history

52 Legalism, bureaucracy and poor governance

53 Corruption: a betrayal of trust

54 Leaders, national institutions and moral decline

55 Sport, political agendas and racial quotas

  • 56 Athletics South Africa: tragedy and farce


57 Orwell’s Animal Farm in South Africa

58 Party, state and public institutions

59 Laugh It Off: taking on the corporates

60 Globalisation: re-engineered capitalism and the South African response

61 Targeting the Press in a democratic South Africa

62 Democracy under threat in the new South Africa

63 Revolt in the townships

64 Caster Semenya: real and imagined victim

65 ‘What is to be done?’: the rise of ethnic nationalism and the stalling of the two-stage revolution

  • 66 FIFA World Cup, 2010: colonialism returns to South Africa


67 Sport, community and the betrayal of the anti-apartheid movement

68 Standing up for the Constitution in the face of anarchy

69 Anger in the workplace and a widening wage gap

70 Public service and individual conscience: Wouter Basson and Sheryl Cwele

71 Heroism and a partisan history

72 A nation in mourning

73 COSATU and the revival of workerism