“Knowing but not knowing”

JVL Introduction

The author, Yuli Novak, is a political activist, former executive director of Breaking the Silence, the organisation of soldiers who have chosen to speak out about what they saw and did while serving in the Israeli army of occupation.

Here she relates the story of a white South African living under apartheid, “knowing but not knowing” about the realities of the world she lived in.

As she explains: “You have to understand, the story we were born into was that if the Black people took over it would be a disaster…”

She recognises that it would be more comfortable to reinvent her past and say she was one of those who joined fully in the struggle against the evil that was apartheid. But she didn’t.

She realises, too, that there is a lot to learn from how people like her got on with their lives – and by so doing allowed the apartheid regime to flourish.

This article was originally published by Ha'aretz on Tue 12 Oct 2021. Read the original here.

'For Us, Mandela Was Just Another Terrorist'

A white South African on her experience during the apartheid regime, and the moral failure of progressives to challenge the racist system

On the southern edge of Africa, facing the ocean, with Table Mountain behind us, she tells me: “I only heard of Nelson Mandela years later. You probably wonder how it’s possible for an educated and socially involved South African woman to have never heard of one of the people who, at the time, in the mid-1980s, was one of the most famous people in the world. Well, the truth is that for us, the whites in apartheid South Africa, he was not much more than one of the many terrorists serving a prison sentence.”

“You know, I often think about life experiences – mine, those of my community – under apartheid. Nobody focuses on us, the working and lower middle class liberal whites in apartheid South Africa, and rightly so. After all, we didn’t do anything special to oppose it or to end it. Back then we just tried to live our lives, and to be the best people we could be, at the same time. We always knew we were nothing like the racist Afrikaners who hated Black people. On the contrary: My parents, for example, both of them Holocaust survivors, always taught us to treat people everywhere with respect, regardless of their skin color.”

“In hindsight, I think that being progressive in apartheid South Africa was mainly a matter of consciousness and less a practical thing. In our house we had a saying, which was said half in jest: We vote for the Liberal Party, but thank God the National Party is in power. They, the Afrikaners in the government, were ultra-nationalists and racists, but at least they had a clear program as to how to keep a minority of whites alive in a mainly Black continent.”

“The Liberal or progressive Party, for which we voted in elections and which reflected our values, had no alternative political program that sounded realistic. The possibility of living together, in one country, in which everyone would be equal? Don’t make me laugh; that wasn’t an option that anyone took seriously.”

“You have to understand, the story we were born into was that if the Black people took over it would be a disaster. In the ‘80s it even got worse: Those were terrible years in South Africa, with violence and hatred everywhere. Mainly, the areas in which the Black people lived, the townships, were on fire. So imagine this situation, for example: We’re sitting in the living room in the evening and listening to the news about the riots in the townships. And then someone from the family remarks: ‘Look how they’re killing one another and burning the schools we built for them.’”

“You understand, the whole story was that the violence of the Black people is always unfocused and irrational, and the conclusion was that that’s just how they are – violent. We didn’t think of it as racism; there simply was no other way for us to understand what was happening around us. We knew that if the Black people rose to power in South Africa they would probably throw us into the ocean. And the truth is that as a progressive – what you today in Israel would call a ‘leftist’ – I couldn’t blame them.”

“I think that in terms of politics, my strongest experience of apartheid was of ‘knowing and not knowing.’ This was like living in a kind of gray area of consciousness: a situation in which knowing and not-knowing clashed, and you had to navigate between them, to push aside what was impossible to comprehend and to integrate the things you were capable of dealing with.”

“So we, as liberals, were the opposition to the National Party. And yes, we definitely considered ourselves to be the good guys, the good side in the system. But we never thought about the possibility that the entire system was bad, and that the fact that we were part of it was what enabled it to exist. Those were overly radical thoughts, which were reserved only for those who came out against the regime, who were imprisoned.”

“Ah, you actually asked about Mandela, didn’t you? So I think that even the political prisoners – whom we didn’t call by that name, and didn’t think of them as such – were in a sense part of that same knowing and not knowing. For us, the only way to think about all those who were imprisoned for decades was via the discourse of terror. That was also backed up by laws, because it was forbidden to express identification with the African National Congress, Mandela’s organization, which was considered a terrorist organization.

“So that’s how it happened that over 20 years after Mandela was imprisoned, and after he had already become a symbol of a freedom fighter – across the world – for us, he was just another terrorist, whose name didn’t even deserve to be remembered. I lived in a very liberal environment, and still, I didn’t know anyone who supported terrorism. We were good people, really. There are simply things that are outside the boundaries of our thinking. I believe that most of the people who live under regimes of that kind, the privileged ones, are good people.”

“Sometimes I would like to reinvent my biography, to say that I was one of those few who realized already then that apartheid is evil, who joined the struggle, who were imprisoned, who went into exile. But thinking about it now, perhaps there is also importance to this unheroic experience, of ‘knowing and not knowing.’ Because it can teach us something profound about the way in which such regimes shape the daily perceptions of all the good people, so that they can continue to exist – without understanding that we are in effect those who enable evil to flourish.”

The writer is a political activist, the former executive director of Breaking the Silence. Her book, “Mi At Bikhlal” (“Who Do You Think You Are?”) is forthcoming.

Comments (11)

  • Margaret West says:

    From the 1960s and before we in the West read about the treatment of political prisoners .. and life in the townships. Some of us in fact met those who had been expelled from the State during the 1960s.

    It is therefore hard for us to realise what it was like to live there for people like the author – what an honest article ..

  • Tessa says:

    My cousin worked as a gynaecologist in Soweto. Yet when we went to the Apartheid museum in Joburg he came out saying he didn’t know all that had gone on in the apartheid era

  • John Noble says:

    And on it goes, Assange is imprisoned by “Good people” we each have a lot to answer for, good lawyers find reason to acquiesce with the political leaders thrust.

  • Ruth Appleton says:

    Very good reflection on what was possible & the belated guilt. The children of Nazis must feel the same. How do we plan for the future?

  • Allan Howard says:

    I’d never stopped to think about the media’s part – the S African media – in shaping and influencing what people thought and believed, so I did a search, as such, and came across some very interesting and informative articles, including the following piece:


  • Margaret E Johnson says:

    The article resonates with repressionist regimes down the ages and I am sure that not many people will need to be told which ones are uppermost in my mind. Most people in most ages simply want to provide for their families and they tend to believe the people, the elite, who are in power, who tend to hide the worst of their atrocities in a blame culture from Witch hunt to Witch hunt in successive persecution of those who oppose their regimes. when the tables are turned the witch hunt begins again in reverse and it is the minions who suffer the most.

  • Richard Hobson says:

    There’s a parallel here between the SA liberals and the neoliberals that are now dominating the Labour Party. The latter turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed in Israeli, “knowing and not knowing”. There is no alternative to the two state solution, despite the fact that the land which would constitute the Palestinian state is steadily being absorbed by the Israeli state.
    “The possibility of living together, in one country, in which everyone would (will) be equal? Don’t make me laugh; that wasn’t (isn’t) an option that anyone took (takes) seriously.”

  • Maureen Lacey says:

    A very thought provoking account indeed! It identifies so clearly how good people can be manipulated, kept in the dark or so taken up with their own lives that they enable, without understanding their role, the very evil they deplore.

  • Roshan Pedder says:

    Very reflective article indeed. However I still struggle to understand how and why so many ‘good’ people, some of whom are friends of mine, can simply turn a blind eye. Or is it a deaf ear? I am not implying that everyone has or should have the capacity of a Joe Slovo, a Dennis Goldberg, Ruth First and so many other brave white activists against apartheid. Simply, why is it possible not to “tremble with indignation at every injustice” (Che). I’m afraid I can’t buy into the excuse of the “story we were born into”.

  • Kuhnberg says:

    There is knowing and not knowing, and there is refusing to look. My sister, who lives in Italy, is convinced that the Palestinians and the Israelis can never live together in peace because their ‘stupid religions’ prevent it. When I put it to her that Iraelis might be motivated less by religion than by the ancient evils of blood (race) and soil (land), she decided that I was an antisemite with whom she could no longer communicate.

    My sister has always held vaguely left-wing views, but her refusal to accept that Palestinians might be entitled to live as free and equal citizens in their own country – much as apartheid-era South Africans thought of the indigenous Africans they ruled over – looks disturbingly like anti-Arab racism. There are some of course who who!ld put that bias down to Islamophobia, but that also seems like a deliberate avoidance of the issue. The Palestinians have been robbed of their land, stripped of their rights, and rendered homeless and stateless by a colonizing force that uses the Holocaust as a pretext for their continuing abuse of a people who had nothing to do with that vile atrocity. Why is that so difficult to understand?

  • Victoria Malcolm says:

    I can relate to this experience, having moved from London in 1967 aged 10 to live in Capetown until l was 17 and returned to London ; the white kids were wholly subscribed to the fearmongered lies about ‘separate but equal’, which was the foundation of ‘apartheid’. This was made possible by heavy censorship and the unavailability of television. Whites employed black people in their homes and businesses but never went to the offlimits townships, let alone the schools where 1/10th was spent per black pupil,compared with white. It wa a bittersweet time, struggling to fit in with perfectly nice white classmates whilst failing to persuade them of the iniquity of their situation.

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