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The effect of the fall of Tobruk on my life: Reflecting and remembering

Opinionista • Paul Hoffman • 31 March 2020

After only three days of the strangeness of isolation brought on by the nationwide lockdown to counter the Covid-19 pandemic, I find my thoughts wandering into corners of my psyche seldom visited during the workaday routine of normal life. The unaccustomed stillness is conducive to reflection.

My parents were both born in 1920, the last year of the 1918-20 Spanish influenza pandemic that took an estimated 300,000 lives in South Africa. This tragedy occurred after SA’s WWI servicemen brought that virus home with them from the war zones of Europe upon repatriation at the end of that Great War, the war to end all wars that didn’t end all wars. 

So here I am a century later, wondering whether a 21-day lockdown is a sufficiently appropriate response to the current pandemic.

The census of the entire population of SA conducted in May 1921 revealed a population of 6,928,580. The current population of South Africa is 59,111,901 as of Saturday, 28 March 2020, based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data. On the, admittedly most dubious, assumption that Covid-19 will prove to be as lethal in SA as Spanish flu was a century ago, the arithmetic tells us to expect 2.56 million deaths of fellow citizens in the current crisis. Current estimates are about a tenth of that startling figure due to advances in modern medicine which may bring this figure down; on the other hand, the incorrigibility of the virus may take it higher as a proportion of the population when compared to the effect of Spanish ‘flu, the last major epidemic to hit our shores apart from the HIV/Aids epidemic which, in theory, is no longer lethal if properly treated. Aids took 280,000 SA lives in 2005 at the height of the Mbeki madness. Let’s cling to the modern estimates which suggest our death toll will, in real terms, be a tenth of the Spanish ‘flu toll of 1920.

This is the war-torn, ‘flu-wracked world into which my parents were born in Johannesburg a century ago: my father the second son of a municipal motor mechanic living on the wrong side of town, my mother the daughter of a printer, employed by The Argus, whose wife died while my mother was a teenager. Their education was blighted by the Great Depression and the size of the families into which they were born; my father had six siblings, my mother five. Neither of them got as far as matric at school, my mother being obliged to take on the maternal role for her younger siblings.

When World War II broke out in 1939, my father was an 18-year-old private in the Royal Durban Light Infantry; he volunteered to fight the Nazi scourge. My mother stayed home and became engaged to a paratrooper who also went off to fight Hitler – he did not return after his parachute failed to open over France. Throughout the war my father carried with him a photograph of two of his sisters with their friend, whom he hadn’t yet met, my mother.

He saw service in East Africa before being taken prisoner at Tobruk by Rommel’s victorious Afrika Korps on 21 June 1942, along with 10,721 of his countrymen in the “biggest defeat ever suffered by SA’s armed forces” as Andre Wessels puts it in Jan Smuts. 

After a daring escape in Italy, and an ignominious recapture while attending Mass, my father was, for punishment, sent to Krakow in Poland to work in a coal mine for the rest of the war. His captors gave him the option of staying put at the end of the war to be liberated by the advancing Russians or of fleeing with them in a trek westwards to where the American forces were to be found. Everyone opted for what became known as “The Long March” during which dogs were eaten to keep body and soul together.

After the war, back in SA, my parents met, married and had four children, starting with me in 1950. The trauma of life as a prisoner of war and of my mother’s loss of her first love did not dissipate magically. Post-traumatic stress disorder was unknown and untreated; the courage of the afflicted was assumed. “Keep a stiff upper lip”, “onward and upward” “everything’s gonna be alright” were the memes of the day. When the debriefing medics in the army asked my father if he wanted compensation for his suffering, he said: “No, I just want to go home.” He seldom spoke of his war experiences, preferring an attempt at burying the horror of it all. “Shell-shock”, as PTSD was known, was perceived to be a sign of weakness.

Each year of my childhood, 21 June was marked by a reunion of those captured with my father on that date in 1942. They had made a pact to do so if they survived, and those who did stuck to it for many years. This deal exposed me to exotic playmates and different cultures as well as to an olive green Morris Minor which one of the survivors drove for many years. My father’s coalmine nightmares became fewer and further between over time, but the mental scars of that defeat at Tobruk never left him.

Given the “get on and get over it” healthy sense of purpose at home, I grew up with a strong impulse towards the need for justice and fairness. Surely, my parents’ negative experiences, courageously borne, would not be for nothing if a fairer and more just world could emerge from the ashes of their blighted youth. An Anglican high school education reinforced this sentiment as did my mother’s habit of sternly reminding her offspring that “nothing is fair in this world”. This admonishment struck me as being fundamentally wrong. After all, the baddies lost WWII and the world was a better and fairer place for it. Wasn’t it? The sacrifices of war had to be made worthwhile by the sweetness of the victory won. I set out to prove my mother wrong about fairness and to make my father’s personal sacrifices worth his while. A career in law beckoned me so early in life that I chose Latin above my favourite subject, Geography, when I went to high school at St Martin’s in Rosettenville, because I knew it was a subject I would need at university level for law studies at Wits.

Cynics have been known to observe that there are only two kinds of lawyers: those who learn the differences between right and wrong so that they can sail as close to the wind as possible; and those, equipped with the same learning, who strive to ensure the triumph of that which is right, good and fair.

The conversion, during the 1990s, of the authoritarian apartheid-era parliamentary sovereignty to the supremacy of our current liberal Constitution and the rule of law in the new order in which politicians are constrained by the parameters of constitutionalism in all they do was manna from heaven to the latter category of lawyers. A non-racial, non-sexist order with guaranteed justiciable human rights, respect for the separation of powers and proper checks and balances on the exercise of political power. 

These values gave SA the chance to secure the triumph of that which is right, good and fair: dignity, equality and freedom had won at least a theoretical toehold in SA.

The advent of Covid-19 challenges the new order in SA. Indeed, it challenges our world order that allows persistent poverty, inequality and lack of access to healthcare in times of plenty and of hardship. Economic activity permits a system in which greed and thoughtlessness concerning the sustainability of life on the planet are endemic. 

The tendency towards hateful nationalism instead of the healthy patriotism of our parents is found worldwide in times of adversity, especially due to the setbacks brought about by imported diseases. The Afrophobia in SA will most likely be exacerbated by the plague. Populists will seek to make political hay out of the baser sentiments that bubble up during a crisis of the kind currently abroad in the world. Authoritarians will undermine freedom. Panic ought not to replace courage in times of crisis. 

It pays to remember where we have come from since the last slightly similar crisis of 1920 and to strive through disciplined and participative good citizenship to keep alive the ideals which spawned the constitutional order under which we should live and could thrive in SA. Dignity, the achievement of equal rights and freedom for all can win the day. Now is a good time to review allegiance to negative nationalism, identity politics, centrist ideology and authoritarianism. It is preferable pragmatically to consider the more lasting value of all that is good, just and fair in the aims of our constitutional order.

For me, it means remembering the valiant sacrifices of a previous generation that fought hateful nationalism to establish, patriotically, a fairer and more just world order. I do so sitting at home for at least 21 days, fighting an unseen viral enemy by staying well out of its way and remembering 21 June 1942 in Tobruk: a dark day for SA, though that steadfast bravery was eventually avenged by defeating the Nazis. Now is a good time to remember the qualities and values that should come to the fore in a crisis. DM

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