S&R Honors: Ivan Toms and Lawrie Schlemmer – what we were we still are

Waiting for a miracle

“How long are you prepared to wait?” I asked.

It was 1991 in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth and I was in my final year of high school. Nelson Mandela had been released in 1990 with me hovering over the television, my camera on a tripod, in a futile and excited attempt to capture the moment.

Apartheid was not over but we could see its demise on the horizon. People, on all parts of the political spectrum, were alternately terrified, hopeful, delighted or angry. Far from seeing an ebb in violence, the final years of Apartheid would lead to numerous massacres and terrorist attacks.

Johnny Clegg would later put that emotion to music in These Days, off Heat and Dust and Dreams:

These days — blood in the heavens
These days — fire and ice
These days — burning streets and visions
These days — of the loveless child

But it was all to play for. The future was being written and I was just young enough to be on the wave’s crest.

My high school, the largest English day-school and also one of the more politically conservative in Port Elizabeth, had secretly invited the executive of the local ANC Youth League – just unbanned – to visit. Their chairman and a few Comrades were joining my mathematics class.

One of the ANC guys was talking about what would happen after black South Africans got the vote, that wealth would immediately follow. I didn’t realise that this was the moment that would define the next 20 years of my life.

“But it isn’t going to happen that way,” I said. “Voting and jobs are different things. If you get one it doesn’t necessarily mean you get the other. It will take time. Even elections are going to take a few years. How long are you prepared to wait?”

At that time, in that place, it was a shocking question. Mandela was free. What more would be needed?

“Why should they wait?” asked one of my classmate’s, previously only notable for being a racist prick.

It didn’t matter whether anyone wanted to wait or not, elections took place four years later on 27 April 1994 after much negotiation and bloodshed.

A world without narrative

There are brave people in the world. Often, in the best of all circumstances, they never get to find out.

When we are children we believe that we are the centre of the universe; that nothing can happen without our involvement. Stories, movies and games reinforce that self-centred vision of the world.

Any person who has played a modern first-person shooter is placed very much at the centre of events. Nothing can happen without the player. None of the non-player characters have any reason to exist without you. Your turning up shapes the story. Often, even though there may be an illusion of choice, there isn’t much. You can’t leave your defined roll. The narrative calls on you to be great and so you are.

In all the debate about violent video games causing violent behaviours is lost that the stories also call on players to be great heroes and leaders. For the period they play I am sure that the players really are visionaries and heroes; the story arc demands it.

In real life things happen whether you want them to or not, whether they affect you or not.

In a story your car fails to start for a reason. In real life, because it didn’t. Each and every living creature pursues its own ends for its own reasons. There is no story or overarching narrative defining life on earth; no higher purpose, no unifying objective.

For most people that’s absolutely fine. You live within a predictable social context of education, career, children, pension. You die within a few kilometres of where you were born. You achieve no more than the station you were born to. No great moral quandaries are likely to present themselves. No great challenges of the human spirit, unless you enter some half-marathon and test yourself.

Even within this humdrum, ordinary routine there are people possessed of principle, integrity and nobility. These are people who believe in certain truths not because of the law, or the religion they happen to belong to, or the way in which they were raised.

They are people of faith and nobility. When circumstances change and all about is chaos, these people become astonishingly obvious.

South Africa is such a place.

South Africa, where the revolution eats its children

You probably think you know the story. South Africa under Apartheid was a country run by white supremacists who dominated the local black population through violence and built magnificent modern cities for themselves around which the slaves lived in squalor. Eventually, a great man led his people to freedom and the black majority now struggle for economic liberty despite the depredations of the continuing racist holdouts who still own most of the economy.

Which has always been the problem of the South African story. The distinct racial groups have always confused a tale that is at turns much more complex and much more familiar.

South Africa is closer to Mexico, Brazil or even Russia in both context and history than it is to some racist outlier. An overly dominant state allied with large, monopolistic corporations has always been South Africa’s real problem.

Given the limited avenues to power and wealth, whoever comes to own the state will come to dominate its people.

In South Africa, power either comes from the state, or from violence. Or both.

Under Apartheid, the government had hit squads and massacres. Under the majority ANC, the government has hit squads and massacres.

No, I am not equating the modern constitutional South Africa with its Apartheid-era forbear. That would be both stupid and dishonest. I am simply pointing out that a world without narrative is far more complex than most people are comfortable with.

If you’re seeing a narrative in history then it is because you’re squinting real hard to leave out all the important bits and seeing only the bits that reinforce the story you want to tell.

People who, against this complexity and without any external pressure to do so, choose to act in purposeful and deliberate ways that run against the accepted narrative and without regard to anything but faith in the idea of justice are heroes.

I am fortunate to know two.

Ivan Toms and riding the wave of history

By 1994 I was already working for SHAWCO, a student-run development organisation which ran community health and welfare projects in the squatter camps around Cape Town. My particular interest was in bridging the informal economies which had grown up around South Africa’s “formal” cities.

Ivan Toms

Ivan Toms

SHAWCO was then run by Dr Ivan Toms.

Ivan was one of those people you would immediately describe as a force of nature. His personality filled every bit of space available without him saying a word. I remember him as this physically huge man but in reality he was stocky and trim.

Physically, close-cropped blond hair, an ear-ring in one ear and a massive grin under piercing blue eyes. I’ve read that Steve Jobs had a reality distortion field, “forcing” people to believe in his point of view.

Ivan’s was much more devastating than that. After a moment with Ivan you had an overwhelming belief in your own ability to change the world and the energy and determination to do so.

Over the next ten years I would develop my approach to micro-economic development and an understanding for how the informal economy actually worked. I would dedicate myself to economic and social development and I would have, no matter how small, an impact.

Maybe I would have done that anyway, but Ivan filled me with the faith that it could be done.

His life was a testament to non-violence, humanity and the belief that change was possible.

As in Syria and Iraq, the way a minority and undemocratic government remains in power is by co-opting its support-base, isolating them from the majority, creating fear across both sides, and then arming that minority. In Syria it is the minority Alawites against everyone else. In South Africa, it was the “whites”.

Ensuring that there was a constant supply of soldiers to suppress any uprising required conscription.

In 1978, Ivan was conscripted into the Defence Force. He had just graduated as a doctor and refused a combat role, working in a clinic in then occupied Namibia. Strangely, he may have been based in Walvis Bay, where I was running around before starting school for the first time.

In 1979 he returned to Cape Town and set up a clinic in Crossroads, then an illegal squatter camp outside Cape Town where 60,000 migrant workers were living.

You have to understand the period: Ivan wasn’t just a white male working in a black township; he was a deeply Christian, openly gay, white male offering medical support to black South Africans within a white Christian Nationalist police state.

In 1976, the government had massacred protesting school children in Soweto killing anywhere between 176 and 700 students. In 1977, borrowing from Fascist ideology, Prime Minister PW Botha declared that the nation faced “total onslaught”, gave himself emergency powers and introduced numerous States of Emergency, curtailing free speech and censoring the press. Protest movements promised to make the townships ungovernable.

The National Party government needed to justify their oppression and deliberately instigated uprisings in the poverty-stricken townships around cities filled with nervous whites.

In 1983, soldiers were sent to demolish shacks near Ivan’s clinic. The violence of the confrontation was a turning point.

Ivan joined a group of like-minded men and created the End Conscription Campaign. These white men rejected their privilege and demanded an end to an “unjust war”.

In May of 1986 the government sent covered flat-bed trucks into the KTC squatter camp at Crossroads. The truck was covered in pro-government slogans. A few bored and unemployed youths jeered it and threw stones. It was a trap. From underneath the tarpaulin emerged soldiers who opened fire. Riots followed. The government liked to act by proxy and sent in gangs of armed thugs – the witdoeke (white cloths). They terrorised the squatter camp for ten weeks. Fifty-two deaths reported and 70,000 people left homeless.

Ivan’s clinic was the only medical care available and it remained open throughout, tending to the wounded. After the massacre had ended, Ivan and other ECC members began a three-week hunger strike protesting against the use of soldiers against civilian protesters. “As a Christian, I am obliged to say no, to say never again will I put on that SADF uniform.”

That was too much for the state. They seized control of his clinic and demanded that he accept a one-month call-up to active military service. He refused and was sentenced to 21 months in jail, eventually serving nine months in Pollsmoor, one of the most evil and violent jails in the world.

The judge who sentenced him had no choice, owing to mandatory sentencing. Despite this, and clearly distraught, he said: “You are not a criminal. Our jails are there for people who are a menace to society – you are not a menace to society. In fact you are just the opposite, you have always been an asset to society in the services you have rendered.”

Such was the context of meeting Ivan Toms as a 20-year-old idealistic student in 1994.

Post-revolution reality hangover

Post 1994 and majority rule. Everything changed. Nothing changed.

The townships where I worked weren’t particularly safe. Alcohol, poverty, unemployment, boredom and political intolerance are a volatile cocktail.

A few memories which stand out: visiting a local councillor in Nyanga township and waiting as he was called away to a kangaroo court where a thief was executed by the community; assisting an HIV positive women’s centre to set up a small business program and all their tiny children queuing up before me to be picked up and swung; at that same centre being stopped by a nurse from picking up a crying child because the blood from her scrapes would get on my hands; sitting in a cardboard shack with the rain pouring down tutoring a man through the tests he needed to pass so that he could own his own telephone centre.

Politics was the breath of the townships and the ANC warred with itself for control. The Women’s League vied with the Youth League for celebrity. There were plenty of development agencies and charities running in and out. After decades of neglect almost the only services provided to the townships were through these organisations.

I spent a memorable day as the guest of the Youth League as they first invaded a Women’s League meeting to take over their hall, and then struggled to get a fire lit in the midst of highly-flammable cardboard shacks so that they could roast a sheep. In the end I was sent off with half an uncooked sheep which I donated to a crèche on the way out.

Until 2000, it was possible to imagine that South Africa really was the miracle “rainbow” nation. That was the year that the president, Thabo Mbeki, openly snubbed Nkosi Johnson at the 13th Annual AIDS Conference in Durban. Johnson – then 11-years-old, HIV-positive and only 10 months away his own death – pleaded with the state to take HIV seriously. Mbeki walked out mid-way through the speech.

Corruption, nepotism, racism all started to return in new guises. The development sector became a pathway to wealth for a favoured few. Apartheid’s toxic race-based politics had become “Black Economic Empowerment” and toxic race-based politics.

State-led statism was still state-led statism. People who couldn’t achieve wealth through patronage and the state attempted to seize it through violence. With proportional representation and the only way to political influence dependent on the rank on a list at Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters, it was unsurprising when some people resorted to assassinating those higher up that list.

I began to feel as if I were drowning; that I was stuck in an endless cycle where I treated the same patient for the same injuries, all self-inflicted. There wasn’t anything I could do to stop the cycle of violence, corruption and economic mismanagement and I was left with was treating the symptoms.

By 2004 I was looking for a way out. I needed to know whether my idealism could be commuted into something sustainable.

Lawrie Schlemmer and sustaining faith in justice


Lawrie Schlemmer

In 2005 I went to a dinner presentation by Professor Lawrence Schlemmer, a man who I knew only by reputation. RW Johnson, a long-time friend of his described Lawrie as, “a former dean of the social sciences at Natal, a professor at Wits, strategy director of the Urban Foundation, founder member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, vice-president of the Institute of Race Relations, president of the South African Political Studies Association, research associate of the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute (Germany), president of the Association for Sociology in Southern Africa, and the author or co-author of 300 publications and 15 books.”

A good twenty years older than Ivan Toms, Lawrie was already South Africa’s leading social scientist in the 1970s. He was always scrupulously neutral and along with his research, he also promoted political change.

In 1973 he joined efforts at promoting black unionisation. At the time, the connection between unionism and Communism went without saying. Yet he was no Communist. “As a sociologist, Lawrie was simply far too eclectic to be a Marxist, and as a libertarian he was instinctively wary of any creed – apartheid, communism or any form of religion – that would try to exercise authority over how he should live or what he should think,” says Johnson.

Lawrie was living in Durban at the time then, as now, the political stronghold of Mangosuthu Buthelezi. They became friends as Buthelezi sought to fight for black majority rule.

Buthelezi would say of Lawrie, “He did not deliver public speeches, ride around in motorcades of limousines, or attend State dinners, shaking hands with foreign dignitaries. He did not live in the limelight and his name may have remained unknown to the majority of our people. Yet, he spent his entire life amongst the people of this country, conducting social and political research which has been at the foundation of a great deal of the academic thinking which contributed so much towards our liberation.”

Like Ivan, Lawrie was soon in the sights of the Apartheid government. In 1978 an unknown assassin shot through the window of the home he was sharing with the family of Rick Turner, a fellow union organiser, killing Turner.

Life is more complex than having one big bad-guy. Lawrie’s friendship with Buthelezi had consequences, putting him on the wrong side of the ANC. Buthelezi separated from the ANC, founding the Inkhata Freedom Party, a liberation party without the ANC’s Communist associations.

Assassins from the ANC were soon out for Lawrie. “Trouble is,” he said to Johnson, “you can’t run your life on the basis of death threats. You get too many of them.”

Now he was under threat from both the government and its leading liberation party. When his office – along with all his research and books – was burned down it was hard to know who was responsible. Years later he would discover that the military arm of the ANC had been behind it.

It takes some doing to be so scrupulously neutral, while being so politically engaged, as to be loathed by all the competing factions in the liberation struggle.

In 1990 he was offered the position of vice-president of the Human Sciences Research Council, the state-led social science research body. By rights that job should always have been his but now, with the end of Apartheid on the way, the body was attempting to become truly independent.

It wouldn’t remain that way for long.

In 1994 the ANC took power and set about mythologizing its own history. To do so it needed to control all the levers of power. Independent thinkers were not required and Lawrie was unceremoniously fired and rendered unemployable.

He started from scratch creating Markdata, the survey company, travelling across Africa to investigate poverty, democracy and economics. Smoking as he went, no doubt. Friends say he put away 40 a day.

In 2005, I sat mesmerised as this energetic, hawk-like, leathery man, a halo of silvery hair and high forehead highlighting a gaze penetrating with intelligence, spoke about the risks for democracy in Africa. As I watched, I thought, this is me. Fifty years from now, this is me.

I felt shock. I wasn’t sure how that made me feel.

And so we met.

Putting aside idealism for something more sustainable

For me, poverty was a problem which I was looking to solve. I was not “picking up the White man’s burden”, felt no particular guilt over Apartheid and didn’t see social work as a convenient way of selling effort-free catharsis to teenagers looking for a Stop Kony cause.

I did not come at the problem in the patronising and infantilising tones of a lefty believing that collectivisation and outside intervention was the solution to a problem of too little government. Neither did I come at the problem in the patronising and infantilising tones of a righty, all religious missionary zeal as a solution to moral failures at the root of poverty.

Neither of these is true. I came to realise that poverty is the informed and necessary response to government mismanagement, corruption, political favouritism and alarming distortions of the rule of law.

Idealism can propel you for only so long. After a few decades, the incredible inertia and resilience of the status quo can start to drain that away.

Ivan and Lawrie went on. I thought they would go on forever.

When the politics of the day changed, so did they. They constantly reinvented themselves but they never lost their focus on their pursuit of social justice. Ivan went from running a clinic, to campaigning against conscription, to leading a student-led social working organisation, to challenging government HIV policies. Lawrie went from academic researcher, to union activist, to human rights campaigner, to research policy director, to independent researcher into social justice.

I couldn’t tell whether my exhaustion with social and economic development was as a result of too much political interference, or a more brutal change of heart.

Lawrie and I collaborated on a project in which we rated the interventions of NGOs working in small business development, HIV/AIDS and education. I wanted to see if they were effective. More importantly, I wanted to see if anyone cared if we discovered anything meaningful.

I would meet Lawrie for coffee near his home and my business partner and I would sit outside, winter or summer, so that he could smoke.

Discussions with Lawrie were always fun. He was a tremendous pragmatist with a penetrating ability to pierce bombast, rhetoric and confusion to see the world as it is. And then describe it to you in short, sharp strokes.

My project was cathartic. The charities weren’t particularly effective and their impact almost imperceptible relative to people who received no help. Corruption wasn’t any more endemic than elsewhere in the economy but donors didn’t care for the fraud we uncovered and refused to pay attention to our results.

I felt, if no-one cares, then I need to choose my approach more carefully. It needs to be more structural and more devastating. South Africa was not the right place for it.

Lawrie understood when, in 2008, I decided that I’d had enough and was emigrating. He brought me back a year later, in the run-up to the 2010 Football World Cup. He had been asked to research the economic dividends post the World Cup and wanted me to participate in a discussion group in Johannesburg.

We corresponded as much as we could and I enjoyed his insight, but the lesson had taken hold. If I wanted to have any meaningful impact I would have to reinvent myself entirely. I couldn’t wait on circumstance.

In 2009, he wrote to me of his fears for democracy in South Africa: “By and large the ANC government is more or less rational in its policies, but there are two massive uncertainties. One is that it does not have the capacity or authority over the civil service to implement most policies that require competent administrative and supervision functions. The second major problem is that all on the ground evidence is that whenever it sees that it is losing credibility it finds scapegoats to blame. Very few people, even among its own supporters, believe that it will accept a loss of its majority in elections, and will then try to destabilise the situation and use disorder as a cover for clinging to power. This may or may not happen depending on the way detailed events unfold. This is a major problem for long term fixed investors and our economy illustrates that in its sluggish greenfields performance.”

When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, Lawrie was his pragmatic self:

The “Arab Spring” is the beginning of a long and painful saga en route to “democracy”, and most of its interim consequences will, for the next three decades, be profoundly undemocratic if not murderous.

The kind of democracies that we admire most are not the result of “freedom” or “liberation” or any kind of idealism (which is usually almost as dangerous as the domination from which the Arab countries are emerging). If you want to find something close to a “pure” democracy don’t look for any political “system” but rather look for a country (usually small like Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, etc.) in which there is enough social, economic and lifestyle complexity to create natural checks and balances AND in which most people are bored with politics and could not really give a shit about ideology. Good democracies happen by accident in places in which people don’t really have to develop political “commitments”.

I once had to go to a cocktail party in Switzerland and I was standing around talking to some Swiss corporate executives and army generals when a nice little man joined us for a while. After he left to get a drink one army general asked who he was, and only one person had recognised him – he was the state president of Switzerland.

I then realised that I was in a democracy in which politics could do very little damage. That is the only kind of democracy that I would choose. All the others are power struggles and as a consequence, vicious and meddling.

The Arab Spring is a large step into chaos but this chaos is better in the long run than the kind of monsters who have run these countries up to now.

What we were for each other we still are

In 2008 I had been in the UK for only a few days when I heard the news. Dr Ivan Toms, at the age of 54, had died. He had meningitis.

In 1995, Ivan had moved into his true calling as Director for Health in Tygerberg and then for Cape Town. He was a pioneer in implementing antiretroviral programs to halt the spread of AIDS, despite outright hostility from central government.

Desmond Benn, who served with him when they were both conscript soldiers said, “I knew Ivan very briefly when we were both conscripted at the same time and started basic training in Pretoria in January 1978. I think he was the only one of us there with any real integrity and I admired massively the stand he took, but did not have the courage to share it with him.”

In 2011, only a few months after our last emailed conversation, Lawrie died. The smoking caught up with him but he worked right to the end, refusing diagnosis or treatment.

Buthelezi wrote movingly of Lawrie that:

Too often, on the way to our liberation we have elevated to the status of hero, if not the mythical status of icon, people to whom no specific deed, action or record could be attached. Too often we have equated a high-ranking position with greatness which ought to be remembered. This is natural, and should be expected of a young Republic, which tries to find its self-worth and dignity in elevating its own leaders. But it should not be accepted under all circumstances.

We need to avoid spreading honours and praises onto people who are merely associated with those who may have deserved them, because of being their parents or children. We must also stop believing that holding public office immediately translates into having done something good for the Republic, as has often happened in the past seventeen years, just as it did in the preceding season of history, and as is the case throughout the world. Often those who have held public offices have done little in concrete terms which deserves historical mention.

I say this because, on the contrary, somebody like Lawrie Schlemmer never held any public office, and yet made an immense contribution to making our Republic what it is now.

There were many beautiful obituaries for both men by others, such as myself, trying through the imperfect medium of words to capture something of importance. Something that says that history should remember these great souls, that they should be honoured, that their lives are no less epic than the heroes of the great sagas. Maybe more so, achieving so much through intellect and integrity rather than through force or violence.

The men who bracketed one of the most important periods of my life to date are gone, and I am bereft.

Monica, Lawrie’s wife and life-long partner, wrote to me shortly afterwards, including a poem by Aurelius Augustinus.

Words are imperfect. I think this comes closest.

Death is nothing
I am just on the other side
I am myself
You are yourself
What we were for each other
We still are

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