81. Capricorn.

By Peter Fraenkel

Don’t blame me. I didn’t volunteer. The boss sent me.  I would, I have to admit, have gone voluntarily and been happy to do so.  I had no gift of prophesy.  At the time, “Capricorn” had not yet become the swearword among Africans that it became later. And the founder of the Capricorn Africa Movement, Colonel David Stirling, undoubtedly had glamour. I saw a TV programme about him recently and that proved it. Winston Churchill greatly admired him though among Britain’s professional generals many had reservations. Some thought Stirling a pain in the neck. But then, these generals held equally scathing views of Churchill’s own military skills.

Stirling had led raids deep into the German-held Libya, circumventing German strongpoints by driving deep in the desert. Some of his trucks carried only fuel. These were abandoned once they had refuelled his raiding vehicles. Thus he could mount attacks further from base than the Germans had originally thought possible. On remote landing strips Luftwaffe aircraft were surprised and blown up. Rommel, the German commander, did, however, not take long to learn lessons.

What I never knew at the time was that the Germans captured Stirling and that he spent the last years of the war in a POW camp of theirs. He must have been securely-guarded because the ‘phantom major’ –as he had been called earlier in his career –never succeeded in escaping. I don’t remember that even his capture was ever mentioned in British media.

But that TV programme about Stirling stirred memories of my own. Hadn’t I had slept in a tent, two or three away from the colonel’s?  This had been at Salima on the shores of Lake Nyasa, in 1956.  I shared my tent with Sylvester, an African colleague. That was almost unheard of in those parts at that time.

We queued in one single queue, black, white and brown, in a big mess-tent. That too was unusual.  Elsewhere in British Africa there were separate queues for whites and non-whites. The first, being well-staffed, moved rapidly. The second, for non-whites, was ill-staffed, and moved far more slowly. It was similar in every post office in British Africa even though Britain’s policy was purported to be the “paramountcy of native interests”.

Some participants at this Salima Conference had flown down from Kenya, piloting their own planes. They brought with them women from the “White Highlands”, some very glamorous. But even those who were not gorgeous, most had a certain je ne sais quoi… Was it the great altitude of the Kenya highlands or the gin-and-tonics that gave them this sparkle they had?

Even more remarkably, a drove of white men danced attendance on a black woman – Noni Jabavu. At that time very few African girls got even as much as a primary school education.  Noni, however, came from a prominent South African family. Her grandfather, already, had been the editor of a newspaper. She herself had been educated at a posh girls’ school in England. She was married to an English film director. She seemed to exude self-confidence. She had written books which had been well reviewed.

This Capricorn Africa movement that Col. Sterling had founded, had political aims. It was to make Africa a continent without racial tensions. They advocated a single voters’ roll irrespective of colour, though some citizens could qualify for more than one vote – up to six for voters with higher education, property holdings etc. That would have greatly advantaged whites. It was meant to be attractive to the white minority who feared being swamped by the far greater numbers of Africans.

Africans at that time had virtually no political representation.  A mere handful of ‘representatives for indigenous interests’ were white – all white. They were not elected but nominated by the colonial administration. So what Col. Sterling was proposing appeared, to me ‘progressive’ at the time. Wasn’t half a loaf better than no bread?

But that was not how African nationalists saw it. To them this was yet another device, invented by those cunning whites, to preserve white supremacy for years and years to come.

Things also seemed to go very wrong within the Capricorn Africa Movement. I never really discovered how or why. Perhaps too much ‘white’ money had flowed into their coffers. I heard of one of their African recruiters. He sat in a Lusaka beerhall, offering free beer to anyone who would sign a document supporting ‘Capricorn’. ‘Ba-Capricorn’ became a swearword.

The uncertainty caused by these political stirrings had puzzling and unfamiliar effects. Myths spread, and rumours. Suddenly shopkeepers noted that purchases of sugar stopped.  On the other hand, white householders discovered their own sugar was being stolen – apparently by servants who had earlier been honest. Strange.

When I got home I found Senti, my parents’ cook, squatting on the floor. He should have gone home an hour earlier.  He seized my hand and begged me to drive him home. Normally he cycled.  He was scared, he said.

“Sure, Senti,” I said, “I’ll drive you home. But what has scared you?”

“Kamupila!” he said “Banyama …Vampiremen!”

I had come across these myths before.  A vampireman seizes his victim, injects him or forces a rubber ball into his mouth, the victim loses all willpower and becomes the slave of the vampire. He can then be sent to seize further victims. Anyone could thus become a vampire.

Sugar on sale in shops, they said, had also been tampered with to turn anyone who consumed it into a munyama (the singular). Of course, if you could get hold of the sugar sold to Europeans, you would be safe.

From sugar the myths turned to tinned meat. A few weeks earlier a new brand of tinned meat had come on the market labelled “For African consumption”. What this was meant to say was that it was of poor quality, unsuitable for consumption by the ‘master race’. But rumours spread that this was human meat, poisoned to break African opposition.  A District Commissioner held a public demonstration.  He and his senior African clerk opened some such tins and braved the inferior cuts normally reserved for blacks.   The spectators saw but remained unconvinced.  The D.C. obviously had strong magic.

Capricorn members became particularly suspect.  How could they support this movement … unless they had been deprived of their own willpower?

My colleague Sylvester and I never again spoke about having been at that 1956 Salima conference of the Capricorn Africa movement.

Don’t blame me. I didn’t volunteer.  My boss had sent me.