Friday, November 16, 2007

Piet Promises

He was an Apartheid politician who knew that Apartheid was wrong – but enjoyed its benefits too much to actively work for its destruction.

Piet Koornhof was very bright. He began theological studies at Stellenbosch University before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. He was so bright that in 1953, on graduating with a doctorate, he was offered a permanent senior post at Oxford’s Institute of Social Anthropology. But he chose to return to South Africa to work as a researcher for Hendrik Verwoerd. And from this point on we see the struggle between what he knew to be morally right, and the lure of being powerful and important.

Koornhof had spent 10 months living in a kraal in rural Kwazulu-Natal as part of his doctoral research. Here he discovered the deep anguish suffered by black South Africans – an experience that led to a doctoral thesis that argued in favour of a united South Africa. But he chose not to publish it. “I knew that they would cut off my neck if I published it” he said in an interview with journalist John Scott. Instead he became secretary to the Afrikaner Broerderbond, was elected to Parliament for the Primrose constituency in Germiston, and went on hold the Cabinet portfolios of mines, sport, and co-operation and development - the portfolio formerly known as Bantu Affairs. He was known as “Piet Promises” because he was forever promising that things would get better for Black people, only for things to get worse.

At his memorial service today people paid tribute to his struggle to achieve change in South Africa. While in some very limited way he may have been a dissenting voice in the Cabinet, the reality is that he allowed himself to be part of the system that perpetrated immense suffering on the same black people who had welcomed him into their kraals in the early 1950s.

It is so easy to put personal moral scruples into one’s back pocket when tempted by power and privilege. I know. I have been there. And it is very hard to relinquish one’s creature comforts for the sake of moral principles. I constantly struggle with the authority and influence offered by my position in the religious organization I work for – and the integrity of action that is demanded by conscience and moral integrity. Pray that I might be more honest and less powerful.

At the end of his political life Koornhof left his wife and lived with his 36 yr old lover, Marcelle Adams and her children in Cape Town. 12 years later Marcelle left a sick and elderly Koornhof for a 56 year old German. Amazingly Koornhof’s wife Lulu (who had refused to divorce him) fetched him and cared for him as he suffered a number of incapacitating strokes "I have sworn an oath before God. I feel sorry for Piet. He is a sick man”. Perhaps Lulu understood the difference between satisfying personal desires, and doing what is morally courageous.


Gigi said...

much good food for thought here....thoughts that need to move to action...THANKS

digitaldion (Dion Forster) said...

Thanks for this Pete, I concur with BJK... there is a lot to think about.

However, it strikes me that all of us are a combination of light and dark, success and failure, blessing and curse.

But, the one thing that we all need is love, care, and acceptance.

Blessings friend!


Steve Hayes said...

He was the one who changed the name of the Department of Bantu Administration and Development to Department of Plural Relations and Development, leading to jokes about "rural plurals" and "singular individuals".

He is also have alleged to have told a joke about himself. His nickname was not Piet Promises, but Piet Wolf, "want net Rooikappie sal my glo."