37. That great future behind me

By Peter Fraenkel

Was it really ever a future on offer? Perhaps. But it was not a future to which I aspired. My aspirations were different from those of Sir Roy. He was a minister and set to become prime minister. I was a second year student.

He was the chief spokesman for white settler interests in Northern Rhodesia and later became chief protagonist of the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland. I, on the other hand, sympathised with the aspirations of the black masses.

I had met him at our friends, the Mohrers. I saw him there frequently when I was home from university. Perhaps he had not yet been knighted at the time. He was then a member of the Legislative Council – Legco – our embryonic parliament. He helped me get me a vacation job in the government secretariat, so I was grateful to him.

One day I was waiting for the bus to take me home when he joined our queue. This was a time, shortly after the war, when it was a patriotic duty to travel by bus. Even those entitled to petrol rations avoided using their cars. He came to wait with me and quizzed me: I had just come back from leading a team of three South African students sent to debate at British universities. He wanted to know whether I had felt my British opponents had had a better education.  I  could see what he was leading up to. Was there any justification for the expensive subsidies given to children of U.K.-recruited civil servants to be sent to British universities? Locally recruited staff, such as myself, were not entitled to such subsidies. I had debated against students from eight British universities. Had I considered the education provided at South African universities markedly inferior? But before he ever got to the crunch question we were joined by one of the top civil servants – a rather foppish type. He, too, was waiting for the bus. He immediately engaged Welensky in a conversation on some issue that must have come up earlier that day in Legco. Welensky turned away abruptly, put out his large paw, pulled me into their circle and introduced me.

“I want you to meet a friend of mine. He tells me at the universities in South Africa….”

This was not just the baby-kissing politician. His interest in people was warm and genuine. He sensed that being ignored would hurt even an insignificant youngster. Of course it also ensured that he was re-elected regularly – usually without contest. In his constituency married couples brought their disputes to him to arbitrate. That’s the kind of man he was.

He described himself jocularly as “half Lithuanian Jew, half Afrikaner, 100 % British.”

He was a huge hulk of a man – tall, broad-shouldered, strong. He had started his career as an engine driver and an amateur boxer. He became heavyweight boxing champion for central Africa and, I believe, he exercised with punch-ball or sparring partners for several hours a day. He became leader of the Rhodesia Railways (European) workers’ union. This soon led to a political career. This took off and he no longer had time for that daily exercise regime. He gained weight rapidly. But he was broad-framed and muscular so he carried his great bulk without effort.

The Mohrers, our hosts, had a large collection of records, mainly of operatic music. Welensky liked to come to listen and to relax. Hosts and visitors studiously avoided political discussions knowing he needed time off. One evening a commercial traveller from Southern Rhodesia, unaware of this unspoken rule, started on about the issue of voting qualifications for Africans.

“I suppose some way must be found to give some Africans the vote but I reckon the minimum qualification should be a matric. Some have suggested Standard VIII but, my God, when I see my driver….”

“You’re probably right,” smiled Sir Roy “but even with that Standard VIII minimum, I‘d be disqualified. You see, I Ieft school at the age of fourteen. I only got as far as Standard VI. “

Once he said to me, “I wish I’d had an education like you. How much better I might have done!”

I demurred: “I wonder. Don’t you know the story about the American millionaire?”

“Tell me.”

“The man had pulled off a great business takeover and was expected to sign the contract but he only scrawled two crosses. The lawyers were puzzled.

“But didn’t you know?” he said “I never learnt to read and write.”

One of the lawyers shook his head. “Amazing! God alone knows where you might have got if you’d had an education!”

“Not only God. I know. I’d be the shammes at Przemysl – the synagogue verger. I applied for the vacancy but they wouldn’t have me ‘cause I couldn’t read. That’s why I emigrated.”

Sir Roy laughed though I suspect he had heard the story before.

Shortly after my return from that debating tour of Britain he buttonholed me. “I need a private secretary …. a sort of personal assistant. Would you be interested, Peter? You’ll realise – it’s the sort of experience that could lead to a political career.”

I was taken aback and made excuses. I didn’t have the guts to tell him that my political views were entirely antagonistic to his.

However, even if I had sold my soul and joined him it would never have become a great future.

Sir Roy was prime minister of the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland for seven years but was eventually outflanked by more extreme white supremacists and replaced. The long suppressed Africans asserted their political rights increasingly. A long and bitter civil war followed, with Soviet and Cuban aid for the African cause. Eventually the white-dominated Federation that Welensky had helped to create collapsed and black governments took over.

Had I had accepted his offer, my future would not have been a long one.