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Gordon Oliver
by Tom Wooten, Harvard WorldTeach volunteer
Formative Years
Gordon OliverGordon Oliver still vividly remembers the night in 1948 when the National Party swept into power. He and his bunkmates at the Catholic boarding school that he attended were awoken by a priest, who flipped the lights on and exclaimed "the Nats have won the elections!" The priest was distraught, but news seemed positive enough to nine-year-old Gordon. After all, the National Party had promised to bring back white bread to South Africa. This was certainly welcome news, because nothing but coarse brown bread had been available for years due to war rationing.

At the time, Gordon didn't realize that the promise of "white bread" implied a great deal more than giving South Africans tastier food for lunch. The full meaning of the National Party's promise didn't become apparent to him until three years later, when the nationalist government took away the right of colored (mixed race) South Africans to vote in national elections. "I was horrified that the government would declare people voteless," Gordon recalls, "and from then on I read the newspapers avidly and took a very young interest in politics."

Gordon would drift away from the Catholic Church during his teenage years, but his devotion to politics would stand the test of time. In 1961, the nationalist government floated a referendum asking voters to dissolve South Africa's ties with the British Commonwealth. The referendum's passage would mark an even greater shift away from moderate British politics and towards racist Afrikaner nationalism, and for Gordon, such a shift would push South Africa across an unacceptable racist threshold. The referendum spurred Gordon to join the left-wing Progressive Party and devote himself wholeheartedly to political pursuits. He didn't shy away from political grunt work, walking door-to-door in Cape Town to mobilize voters against the referendum. Ultimately, the referendum passed, but Gordon hadn't wasted his time; he had laid down a firm foundation for a life devoted to fighting for justice and racial equality in South Africa.
Cape Town City Council
For years, the City Council representative from Gordon Oliver's ward had been an old-guard United Party member. Gordon recalls that "he was a good man," but that he "didn't have a lot between the ears." The representative had become increasingly nationalistic over the course of the early 1970's, and when he went up for reelection in 1976, Gordon and his Progressive Party colleagues searched in vain for a candidate to oppose him. This experience was quite frustrating for Gordon, so much so that he decided to run for the seat himself in the next election cycle. Gordon's affinity for hard work and his passionate devotion to his political beliefs paid off; he canvassed his ward for ten months before the next election, and won the vote easily.

Once on the council, Gordon immediately set to work on his anti-apartheid agenda. Luckily for him, the council was already one of the most progressive political bodies in South Africa. During the 1970's, for example, the City Council vowed to openly oppose the national government's decision to strip coloreds of their right to vote in municipal elections. Naturally, Gordon felt right at home among his progressive peers. While the council's day-to-day proceedings were focused on administering the city, this administrative business frequently presented the council with opportunities to make political statements. For example, the council's approval was required whenever the national government attempted to reclassify the racial designation of a residential area within Cape Town. Every time such a reclassification attempt occurred, the council would not simply vote it down quietly. Instead, they would drag out proceedings on the issue for hours, engaging in speech making and inviting in the press, before ceremoniously defeating the measure.

The council's liberal tendencies did not win it universal favor among Cape Town's black and colored populations. Many of Cape Town's disenfranchised residents pointed out the hypocrisy of anti-apartheid politicians sitting on a white-elected body. Gordon acknowledges that he and his fellow progressive party members faced a "difficult dilemma" in this regard. His decision to continue to participate in the unjust system reflects his firmly pragmatic personality. "We would have had the option of resigning en mass as a council," he recalls, "but [nationalist politicians] would have taken our place." Indeed, the importance of maintaining a progressive City Council becomes thoroughly apparent upon considering the groundbreaking reforms that the council undertook.

Up until 1984, the Cape Town City Council did everything it could to resist South Africa's apartheid system within the framework of national law. Then, at the beginning of Gordon's second term, the council made an unprecedented decision to actually defy the law. Specifically, the council took issue with South Africa's Separate Amenities Act, which required municipalities to maintain separate facilities for whites and "non-whites." The council unilaterally declared Cape Town to be an open city, stating that all municipal libraries, public transportation, beaches, and swimming pools were to be open and available to every race group.

Gordon still wonders why the national government didn't intervene to counter the council's action, but even without federal interference, the council still had its hands full. In spite of its liberal tendencies, for example, the city's white population was furious. Black children from Khayelitsha and other Cape Flats townships came to the city's beaches in droves, and many of the city's white "liberals" vehemently objected to being forced to share "their" waterfront with blacks. The council weathered two years of heavy criticism from city residents, but acceptance of Cape Town's "open city" status finally took hold among its white population.
The Road to Mayor
During the 1980's, the Mayor of Cape Town had very little tangible power. "The Mayor's role was purely ceremonial," recalls Gordon with a chuckle. "It was a life of attending cocktail parties, receiving diplomats…and patting babies on the head." Because the Mayor's role was merely that of a "First Citizen," not that of a chief executive, the City Council elected the mayor from among its own ranks. Tradition dictated that councilors would run against each other for Deputy Mayor, and once elected, would run unopposed for Mayor two years later.

Gordon was elected Deputy Mayor in 1987, after promising several of the council's more conservative members that he would not use the post for political ends. During his two year term as Deputy Mayor, clashes between government police and black demonstrators intensified, becoming an almost daily occurrence. Cape Town's vast townships were the sites of much of this violence. As his term as Mayor drew closer, Gordon felt an increasing desire to "make [his] mayoralty relevant to the times." Gordon's promise to stay out of national politics fell by the wayside, and he began to meet with leaders of Cape Town's black community. At the beginning of each meeting, he posed a simple question: what things could he do as mayor in order to assist the black and colored communities in their struggle for racial equality? "To a person," Gordon recalls, each one of them asked him to simply "be with us in our struggle." Thus, during one of the most tumultuous periods in South Africa's history, the up-and-coming mayor of Cape Town made up his mind to openly defy the national government.
The Mayoralty
Several days before Gordon's inauguration, seven "terrorists" were shot by government police in the Cape Flats township of Guguletu. An outpouring of grief and anger from the black community ensued, which culminated in a massive memorial service held in downtown Cape Town at St. George's Cathedral. Gordon had been inaugurated that morning, and left his own reception luncheon early in order to to attend the service. He sat down quietly in the back of the packed Cathedral, but was soon recognized and brought to a seat of honor at the front of the congregation. As the service concluded, Archbishop Desmond Tutu encouraged the mourners to join an illegal protest march that was to occur the following week. Gordon didn't give this request much thought until he was approached by a reporter, who asked him if he planned to join the protest. Gordon quickly and confidently made up his mind, replying that he would indeed join the march. "It wasn't an issue of 'should I' or 'shouldn't I,'" he remembers, "it was just the right thing to do."

Gordon Oliver in the Mayor's chamber at the city hallThe next day, the Cape Times newspaper ran a huge front-page headline reading "Defiant Mayor to March." Gordon's phone rang nonstop all day. Even some of his fellow progressive City Council members were appalled that he planned to openly break the law. Nonetheless, Gordon held his ground. "I'm merely upholding council policy," he told his fellow councilors, adding that council members "must stop being armchair politicians." He confidently assured the council that the march would be peaceful, although truthfully, he had no basis on which to give this assurance When the phone calls subsided, Gordon set to work ensuring that the march would be as peaceful as possible.

First, he met with Cape Town's Chief of Police, a gruff no-nonsense Afrikaner whose orders came directly from the national government. Gordon pleaded with him not to break up the march, insisting that the demonstrators would remain peaceful if left unprovoked. The chief listened to Gordon, but made no promises. Then, Gordon met with the ANC's march organizers, and ensured that they would deploy uniformed marshals to keep the crowds under control. Gordon had done his best, but the march's outcome remained far from certain.

Gordon was overwhelmed with joy when tens of thousands of demonstrators poured peacefully fourth from St. George's Cathedral and for once, the government riot police merely stood by and watched. Gordon walked among the marchers, and the crowd parted ways for him as he made his way to City Hall. When he arrived, Gordon addressed the crowd with a megaphone from his office balcony. "Today," he exclaimed, "you all have the freedom of this city!" From the crowd, Gordon heard overjoyed cries. "He's our Mayor!" someone shouted. Another one called out "This is our city!"

The importance of these sentiments cannot be underestimated. Blacks and coloreds had been completely disenfranchised during apartheid, and as a result, most had lost any sense that anything in the country was theirs. Many Cape Townians, for example, never appreciated Table Mountain's beauty because of a strong feeling that the beauty somehow belonged only to the whites. It was thus truly momentous for black and colored Cape Townie's to feel as though they once again enjoyed collective ownership of their city.
The Winds of Change
As his term progressed, Gordon frequently found himself working as a liaison between the ANC and the national government. Marches and confrontations continued unabated, and change was clearly afloat. No one, however, expected reforms to come so quickly. On February 11th, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years in detention. During the days leading up to his release, the ANC had wavered over where Mandela should make his first speech. Some argued that he should make the speech from his home in Soweto, Johannesburg's giant black township. Ultimately, though, Cape Town was chosen, in part because of its progressive stance as South Africa's "open city."

Gordon listened intently to reports from traffic police as Mandela's motorcade made its way towards City Hall. The crowd surrounding the building was swelling to enormous proportions, and it would be critical for Mandela to move quickly into the hall in order to avoid being overwhelmed by swarms of enthusiastic Mandela at Cape Town city hall with Gordon Oliversupporters. When his procession finally arrived, Mandela was pushed from the vehicle by his aids, and Gordon greeted him with a big hug before rushing him into the hall. The two men had never met, but had written to one another during Mandela's years in prison.

Mandela made his way immediately to the same balcony from which Gordon had addressed the rally months earlier. He began his speech by sending greetings and thanks to many groups and individuals who had participated in the struggle against apartheid. Among those he mentioned were the residents of Cape Town. "I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners." His speech went on set the reconciliatory tone that would ultimately save South Africa. "The need to unite the people of our country is as important a task now as it always has been," he declared. "The overwhelming demand of our people for a democratic, non-racial and unitary South Africa."

Thus, in the twilight of his political career, Gordon Oliver was able to witness the beginning of a new chapter in South Africa's history. His decades of hard work had directly contributed to the miracle that was now unfolding before his country's eyes.
The Unitarian Church in downtown Cape Town is a friendly, welcoming place at 9:30 on Sunday mornings. Service doesn't begin for another half hour, but on this particular sunny late-August morning, parishioners are already filling the small sanctuary. The churchgoers chat happily, greeting one another and catching up on the previous week's events. Their minister, Gordon Oliver, moves among them. He inquires about family members, laughs at his congregants' jokes, and recruits people to read the passages that he's prepared for the day's service. When the pipe organ begins to play, he gently chastises his talkative congregation for not fully appreciating the music.

Gordon, who is now well into his seventh decade, is clearly happy and at peace with his new life. The bulk of his congregation is aging, but new members are trickling in. "We can't change everything right now, but we're on the threshold of big opportunity," says Gordon. "Unitarianism is so right for this country…there are millions out there seeking something other than orthodoxy." Indeed, new black and colored faces have begun to appear among this traditionally white congregation, testimony perhaps to the faith's widening appeal.

Gordon says that he became a Unitarian "for the wrong reasons, I suppose." As Mayor, Gordon needed to appoint a chaplain. He was friends with the Reverend Robert Steyn, Cape Town's Unitarian minister, but he had never been to Steyn's church. Only after Gordon appointed Steyn as chaplain did he begin to attend Unitarian services. "I found it was where I really belong," recalls Gordon. When Steyn Gordon with visiting US studentspassed away in 1997, Gordon took it upon himself to fill his shoes. He volunteered for three years as the congregation's unofficial minister, before beginning official schooling in England. Today, Gordon is a full fledged minister. By his count, it's at least his fifth full-time career. He shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

© www.capetown.at 2008. You may print this article for personal use; if for reproduction please acknowledge 'www.capetown.at'. You may not use this material for any electronic media except with written permission. www.capetown.at accepts no responsibility for inaccuracies or the work of service providers.


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