Salient. Victoria University Students Newspaper. Vol. 38, No. 4, 1975
Neville Curtis escaped from South Africa using a friend's passport. He was under a banning order as a result of his activities as a student and was unable to carry on any of his former work - even playing cards with friends was against the banning order. Neville is now based in Australia and continuing his fight against apartheid.
A white student with all the privileges of a South African white he found he could not ignore the oppression of the non-white people in South Africa. Eventually he found that the oppression of apartheid applies both to black and white when he himself found himself under the foot of apartheid repression.
Neville is touring New Zealand as part of his continuing resistance to Vorster's regime and while in Wellington granted an interview to Salient reporter John Henderson.
Salient: How did you come to leave South Africa? How did you get the passport which enabled you to leave?
Curtis: My own passport was confiscated by the South African government so I borrowed the passport of an American friend - he booked a ticket for the passage and then we evaded the security police who were keeping me under observation then he went through customs and I went on board the ship - and then it was plain sailing.
Now that you are out of South Africa how do you intend to carry on the struggle against apartheid?
Well the major problem with apartheid at the moment is that apartheid has become an international issue - the white government can't continue to govern without the support of gifts from western companies, their government and the company corporations who operate in those countries. I feel that the only way this can be changed is by the people in those countries putting pressure on the corporations and 4heir own governments and they can't do this until they are well informed about the situation in South Africa. My major job is simply talking to people, putting out exactly what's happening and counteracting the South African propoganda which is pumped into this country by the South African Consulate.
And turning now to the banning issue, what is it like to be banned?
It's enormously frustrating because a banning order restricts you to the company of only one person at any time - it is illegal for you to attend any meetings or gatherings or anything of that sort. Banning also makes it illegal for you to set foot on any university premises or any school premises or any factory or any place where anything is printed or published and it makes everything I've said illegal in South Africa - it can't be circulated or commented on or discussed at all. The newspapers, for example, will print a report of a meeting I've spoken at and say 'Neville Curtis spoke' - blank space - they can't print any more than that. The banning order completely cripples you as an organiser of any sort and it also makes you very vulnerable to police arrest because the police can arrest you if you are with more than one person so in my case I was arrested eight times in 18 months for breaches of the banning order. This is what happens to most banned people. And then you go to gaol for an offence like, in my case, having dinner with my family or playing cards with friends.
How many people in South Africa would at present banned?
A total of over 700 banning orders have been served on people but not all of these are enforced at the moment. I'd say that there are about 200-250 banned people at the moment.
Getting now to the sports issue, do you see the cancellation of sporting tours and especially the 1976 rugby tour as a blow against apartheid? How will it affect the political situation in South Africa?
There are two ways in which New Zealand is at present giving support to apartheid - one is through international trade and the other is participation in sporting events with South Africa. I think the most important thing New Zealanders can do is stop the '76' tour and to cut down their trade with South Africa. Stopping the tour will have the effect that previous demonstrations and boycotts have had on South African sportsmen - to make them realise that countries like New Zealand are seriously opposed to racism. Most white South Africans don't believe this - they look on Australia and New Zealand and countries like that as a refuge for white people - as the last 'white man's countries' in the world.
There is an enormous emphasis on sport by white South Africans-it really does get through to them if people are prepared to point out to them that they are not prepared to play racist sport with them.
The latest move is this multinational sport. What is it?
It's a farce. The basic situation with sport in South Africa is that it's illegal - you can be arrested and sent to gaol - for trying to play mixed sport at school level or club level or provincial level. Only with the special permission of the Minister of Sport are people of different racial groups allowed to play against each other - not in the same teams, only against each other and only in special matches designated "international competitions' by the Minister. So in fact what the Minister of Sport is doing is taking more control over sport. They've done nothing to remove the dozens of laws that govern multi-racial sport and prevent it from being played and make it a crime at all other levels.
Are multinational sports teams actually considered as not being of South African origin?
The theory the government works on is that there are eight nations within South South Africa - coloured nation, Indian nation, white nation and all sorts of African nations and they allow these Nations' to play against each other but they won't allow people from different groups to play in the same team. It's like for example saying that each of the provinces in Australia is a single nation and it would be illegal for Victorians to play with Tasmanians in the same team or Queenslanders. It's that sort of thing - it's quite ridiculous.
There's been a lot said about the appalling conditions under which the black people have to live. I wonder if you could give your viewpoint on this?
Well conditions are appalling - the first thing is that they haven't improved much over the years. The main reason for this is the government policy of apartheid itself which forces blacks to accept incredibly low wages. The other main reason is the enormous restrictions which are placed on the freedom of black people to sell their labour or move about the country and there are also apartheid laws that restrict them. The worst hit districts you will find in the rural areas where the average wage for black workers is under $20 cash a month and where in some areas the malnutrition and starvation figures go as high as 50% rates for children under the age of five. In the urban areas things are not much better. Wages are higher - up to an average of $60 a month but still well below the poverty line which is the so-called starvation line calculated at $75 a month. So blacks are being paid grossly inadequately - their wages are between one-fifth and one-sixth, sometimes even less, of white wages and in the mining industry, for example, the wealthiest industry of all, black miners are paid one-seventeenth of what white workers are paid.page break
And the coloured people - what is the official government definition of a coloured person?
There are seven different categories of coloured people - the last of which is simply called 'other coloured' - basically they are people of mixed black and white descent and the government has chosen to regard them as not pure whites. It's in fact a false racial category because coloured people aren't a nation of any sort and the range of ethnic differences within the coloured people is far more than that of simply one group of people.
They are actually treated much less harshly then than the black people?
Well they're treated much less savagely - pass laws don't apply to them but all the laws which distinguish between whites and non-whites do apply to them. They have to live in separate areas, go to separate schools, they get inferior jobs, inferior education and their careers are frustrated by segregation in wages - the best jobs are closed to them, things of that sort.
Southwest Africa: now South Africa has disobeyed several United Nations rulings by continuing to occupy that country. What do you think are the chances, in the near future, of independence for this country?
South Africa is in complete military occupation. The northern half of the country is zoned off and it's impossible to get into it. We only know two pieces of news: they've reintroduced public floggings of political opponents and over 5000 refugees have left in the last six months. The South African government at the same time has invited in enormous numbers of American and South African corporations and fantastic profits are being made from mining, from diamonds and in South Africa revenue goes only, of course, to whites. They're trying to set up eight separate black nations inside Southwest Africa as well but these are totally rejected by the black people themselves. They also have a very large military base - the largest in Southern Africa and I can see them intending to use Southwest Africa as a military base, a striking point to future attacks on black movements. Whether the UN can successfully pursuade South Africa to leave the territory or not I don't know, but I'm very sceptical.
In other words, only military intervention would pursuade them to leave.
No, the major solution to the problem both of Southwest Africa (Namibia) and South Africa itself is to stop the white western governments and the white corporations from supporting the racist government and racist policies. If this happens, whites in South Africa will be forced to negotiate with blacks in South Africa and you might well get a peaceful settlement, but as long as the west goes on supporting the white government they're not only supporting the violence inflicted upon blacks every day, but they're building up a situation that can only lead to further violence.
What do you honestly think of the prospects in the near future of black majority rule?
This depends largely on the western governments and western corporations as I've said. It depends on what people do internationally to support the Southern Africa struggle. It also depends on whether the whites are going to be totally committed to destroying the country in war or whether they'll see the light of day before this has to happen. The present policy is becoming more and more repressive rather than less repressive - in the last 12 months they've entirely smashed the student movement, both black and white, and taken action against the churches, the press and the trade unions, and in the last two years they've doubled their military expenditure so the future from the white point of view in terms of what their intentions are, does not look very good. The struggles in each of the western countries goes on - sometimes battles are won, sometimes battles are lost. One such battle will be the battle over this 1976 tour.
You say that the student movement has been smashed. I understand however that it was pretty hamstrung anyway. What is the situation?
Over the last ten years the student movements have provided the most significant opposition to apartheid in the country at great cost to the student leaders and the organisations themselves. The government has now banned the majority of student leaders and they've detained another 30 African student leaders and ex-student leaders, and they're bringing through legislation to cut off finance for the student movement to stop it sending information overseas, they're busy making it illegal for students to demonstrate or leaflet at all and putting fines on the universities for every student arrested for demonstrating or leaf letting, and a government commissioner's just reported back, calling on the government to ban the National Union of Students altogether.
And there's not likely to be much opposition from the South African Progressive Party?
The Progressive Party will probably register token opposition but it certainly won't do a great deal to help the students.
And now for something completely different. Just to satisfy my own mind, if nothing else, I've heard a lot about the Rothman's empire. Just how extensive is it?
Well, Rothman's claims to be the first of the multinational corporations. It started off as a company called Rembrandt Tobacco, who's slogan was: These cigarettes are untouched by black hands,' and has grown to be a huge multinational corporation, but it's wholly South African owned and based in South Africa. The directorships, the interlocking directorships, might attempt to disguise this fact but this doesn't alter the fact that it's a South African corporation. Most of the tobaccos come from South Africa or from Rhodesia and in this respect they disregard UN sanctions as well. The people who buy them in this country are putting money into the pockets of white racists in South Africa.
Therefore you would urge us not to buy Rothmans or Pall Mall cigarettes. What about Benson and Hedges? I've heard heard rumours that there is some African blood in there somewhere.
Not as far as I know. Dunhill do.
What do you think of the New Zealand anti-apartheid movements so far. I know you haven't seen much, hut what do you think of at least the working base of these operations?
The working base seem to be very good - Trevor Richards has obviously put in vast amounts of work and he's got a good team of people working with him. A movement like this cannot succeed unless it has the broadest possible base of support, so I'd urge people to work with and support the anti-apartheid movement in this country.