Franklin Sonn made a rare public appearance this week – via a radio interview – to air his views on politics and the upcoming local government elections.
He made no secret about his ANC leanings, and of his intention to vote for the ANC in the elections.
But he also had harsh words to say about the organisation, especially about the corruption which is so rife within it. Inevitably, he drew a comparison between the ANC and the party ensconced in the running of the Western Cape: the DA.
In this respect, he was generous in his praise for the DA Premier of the Western Cape, Alan Winde.
This was, of course, typical Sonn – saying exactly what he wanted to say.
And so, it was not surprising that immediately, after his interview, two callers waded into him from two different directions….
The first, seemingly a supporter of the New Unity Movement, and therefore of the – Teachers League of South Africa described him as a ‘quisling’ for the leading role he played in the Cape Teachers’ Professional Association (CTPA), which many people believed had too cosy a relationship with the apartheid National Party.
The caller also put the former rector of the University of the Western Cape, the late Richard van der Ross, in the same category, describing him as a sell-out.
The second caller was more specific: he felt Sonn had sold out coloured people.
Of course, nothing is ever simple in politics, especially politics in the Western Cape….
I interviewed Sonn a few years ago and he passionately believed that the CTPA era – and his involvement in it was necessary at that time.
It was urgent, he felt, that coloured teachers be united in what had become a difficult period for the teaching profession.
As head of the CTPA, he had no problem having discussions on assorted topics with the National Party and indeed, with the coloured arm of those involved in the tricameral parliament.
But he also flitted in and out of United Democratic Front (UDF) discussions, having a particularly interesting relationship with Trevor Manuel, who would later become the national Minister of Finance.
He told me: ‘Trevor did not have what could be described as extreme views. In fact, at the beginning of his career in politics, he gravitated more towards the Labour Party, like his dad, Adam.
‘Trevor was bright. He skilfully used the base he was able to build for himself – and he and Brian Williams gave me hell. But do you know what? I took this as an opportunity to learn from them – and in the end I was the one who went to pick him up from a backyard in Kensington and set him up.
‘I was chairperson of the Mobile Foundation at the time and when I brought him in, I ran into a lot of opposition, but I said: “Either he comes in or all the black guys will move out and turn our backs on you forever. What’s more, we’ll make public why we’re moving out.” Then they said: “Okay, let’s give him a try.”
We gave him an office, a good salary and car – and we made it possible for him to rent a house.’
He proved to be a remarkable success.
In the 11 years Van der Ross was at its helm, UWC became a seething cauldron of anti-apartheid action.
His reasons for stepping into this cauldron were interesting….
It was, he said, because he believed in education and therefore cared deeply about the progress of those attending the university.
He knew he was walking a tightrope.
The way he saw it, he was seeking a compromise between those who wanted the university to be a platform to fight apartheid and the apartheid government who wanted someone in charge who could wield a whip.
It seemed an impossible task.
The word sell-out began following him around. He ran a gauntlet of raw eggs and rotten tomatoes more than once.
But during those traumatic years of the 1980s, during the ‘Hek Toe’ march of students, Van der Ross was often at the head of marches, with fellow academics such as Jakes Gerwel and Jaap Durand.
So, I could understand what motivated people like Sonn and Van der Ross.
But what has flummoxed me was how communities in the Western Cape have changed….
During the protests of the 1980s, the most important lesson our Cape Herald team – that’s Mike Doman, Tyrone Seale, Gary van Dyk, Jack Mhlangu and I – learnt was to build a good relationship with local communities.
In Thornton Road, Athlone, we became so good at this that we did not even bother to use the cardboard ‘Press’ signs that we carried in our yellow, box-shaped Ford Escort.
Crowds would frequently cheer us on as we drove up and down the road.
Local people fought apartheid security personnel with a passion that often made us gasp.
It did not seem to matter to them that they were taking their lives into hands.
Most protesters were young and, some would say, reckless.
They faced the guns of ‘riot’ police armed only with stones. They shouted ‘Boejongens, Boejongens’ at the coloured police, and then disappeared like ghosts every time the police pursued them.
It was a case of throw and move, throw and move – until the police started feeling their heart beats, throwing those whose hearts were beating too fast into yellow romaan trucks, to loud protests from mothers, aunties, and grannies.
But here is my question.
Why did the parents of those who egged on their children in Thornton Road, in Manenberg, in Bonteheuwel, in Mitchells Plain – in most townships – vote for the National Party when democracy arrived?
And why today, are the adults, who were children then, in most cases, the very children who had fought apartheid with such ferocity, voting for a party which has as little respect for them as the National Party had for them back then?