“Don’t Cry for Me”…O Africa!
Laslo Medyesy – Hungary In my experience as a UCC pastor, obtaining a visa in the 1980’s (the closing years of the South African racially prejudiced, Apartheid system) for that stunning country was almost unattainable. At the time the Calvin Synod, (my American- Hungarian Conference of the UCC), tried to establish closer ecumenical relations with similar -background churches worldwide. This ambitious effort included extensive good-will visits to some forty countries situated virtually in every corner of the world.
Laslo Medyesy – Hungary
In my experience as a UCC pastor, obtaining a visa in the 1980’s (the closing years of the South African racially prejudiced, Apartheid system) for that stunning country was almost unattainable. At the time the Calvin Synod, (my American- Hungarian Conference of the UCC), tried to establish closer ecumenical relations with similar -background churches worldwide. This ambitious effort included extensive good-will visits to some forty countries situated virtually in every corner of the world.
Extensive preparation preceded each journey, especially the one to South Africa, because at that time very little was known about the Hungarian Reformed Community in the ostracized, internationally isolated realm. The visa application required not only letter of invitation and an affidavit for “good behavior” from the church being visited, but long interviews with embassy officials who tried to justify the indefensible policy of their government. They also wanted to know if, behind the visit of my kinfolk, I might have a hidden agenda inspired by our denomination’s powerful anti-apartheid position.
Apparently the answers were not what they were hoping for, so the visa was issued with a peculiar stipulation that the final acquiescence to visit would be decided at the point of arrival, in my case at the airport of Johannesburg. This asked for expensive risk-taking because at the end of a long journey one could have been turned back from the gate of that land.
Due to punitive UN sanctions, most European and African airspaces were closed to the South African Airline. On leaving London, the huge plane was forced to fly over international waters and make probably the world’s longest nonstop fly around the African continent. But after some anxious minutes in the wee hours of the arrival permission to enter was finally granted.
It was easy to fall in love with the magnificent South of Africa. The sights of Kruger National Park, proud Zululand, the Kingdom of Lesotho, Table Mountain at Cape Town, Victoria Falls, the Kalahari desert, the Zambezi River, would have convinced anyone that such an immense land not only possessed enormous physical wealth but rare natural beauty as well.
At that time, however, the grandeur of the land unfortunately did not elevate the mood of the people living in it. The all permeating presence of the evil Apartheid made everyday life look like the deep South in the USA before the civil right’s movement. It meant separate and unequal existence to both the huge black majority and to the tiny white minority. Great fright gripped both communities. They knew that change was inevitable but the cost of that change in human life might be horrendous.
Wherever I met with either “white folks” like church members, seminary students, professors, civic leaders, or “blacks” like patients and doctors in the largest SOWETO hospital (thanks to a physician from Budapest working there), or activists at Bishop Tutu’s house, it seemed that the prospect of a coming bloody upheaval was on everybody’s mind.
During my short stay I only heard of but didn’t see actual encounters between the races of South Africa. It seemed that on the surface everyone, for the time being, was trying to keep the unjust laws. My host, a fellow Hungarian clergy, repeatedly begged us not to challenge the rules or the authorities, because, “You will return to America but we have to live here.”
Once, however, the evil face of the system fully revealed itself to me in the treatment of an old, innocent black man, the custodian of my host church. The all white suburb of Johannesburg, where the congregation was located, was a long distance from the nearest black ghetto. The elderly caretaker walked daily back and forth between the two communities, separated from each other by a tall wall. From sunset to sunrise a one-sided curfew was in force; no black person was allowed to be on the streets of the segregated neighborhood during that time.
My visit took place in August, the coldest month of the South African winter. The days were short, the sun set fast, and the temperature plunged quickly well below freezing.
Apparently one day the old janitor misjudged the time. He stayed too long at the church, and though he was hurrying home the sun set before he reached the wall of separation. His trouble started when a police cruiser picked him up, took him to the station and he was charged with curfew violation.
His interrogation lasted for hours before it was decided that he could go home, but not without “first teaching him a lesson”, to remind him of his place in the future. He was not technically hurt but something worse a-waited. Two policemen took him outside the warm station and using a water hose completely soaked him and his shoes and garments in the cold winter night. Now he was “free” to go.
It was the beginning of hypothermia that first slowed him then stopped his frantic scurrying. As his arms and legs went numb and the wet clothing froze on him, he realized that he was in great danger and his neighborhood was still too far. If he awakened a house for help he could have been shot as an intruder by alarmed whites, or handed back to the police, but stopping meant certain demise.
He had only one chance to survive. He had to get back to the church without being noticed. We do not know, nor dare to guess the intensity of the fear this aged person had to endure or the tiring effort he had to make to avoid detection and to stay a few steps ahead of the cold breath of death looming nearby.
By God’s grace he reached his destination where, in the middle of the night, kind and certain dry clothing, hot tea and a warm bed countered the inhumanity that poisoned his country.
Today South Africa is free, a place where the color of skin is no longer a sin. There is a collective effort to affect reconciliation by preserving the remembrance of those who suffered under Apartheid. It is my strong belief that memorializing the anguish of even one innocent person does contribute to the healing of wounds in that magnificent land.
Laslo Medyesy is a missionary with the Reformed Church in Hungary, based in Budapest, Hungary. He serves as professor of theology in the Department of Theology of the Gaspar Karoli Reformed University in Budapest.