Memories of terrible times in South Africa

VICTOR Gordon was a young boy of 11 growing up in a middle class white neighbourhood in South Africa when Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, branded by the government of the time as a terrorist.

Saddened by the imminent death of the iconic leader, Mr Gordon penned a poem in tribute to Mandela and it evoked strong memories of his years living in what he says were frightening times in South Africa when blacks and whites were segregated.

As a child Mr Gordon could never have imagined that many years later he would be standing in the same prison where Mandela had been incarcerated for many years and Mr Gordon’s paintings would be hanging on the walls of that same prison.

Mr Gordon’s paintings, eventually donated to the South African people as part of an art project to depict the importance of the struggle against apartheid, have since travelled the world.

As the son of a Jewish father and fundamentalist Methodist mother with black servants who lived in a shed at the back of their house, Mr Gordon believed he was living a completely normal life forming a strong bond spending many hours with his beloved family servant Elias Sophesu in the servants’ shed.

“At the time there were many differences - the servants were never allowed to use the front door and were only allowed to eat off enamel plates and cups.

“The female servants were forced to be separated from their husband and children for most of the year - but as I child it was all I knew.

“It wasn’t until I grew older I became aware of the injustices,”said.

At the age of eight he was shattered by an experience of brutality against black farm labourers which has remained with him all his life.

It was during a school holiday visit with his sister to the farm of their Afrikan cousin where, as was the case on most farms owned by the whites in South Africa, black workers squatted and lived in feudal subjugation on the farm.

“We were just driving along and all of a sudden my cousin stopped the car took out a sjambok [whip] and began beating these black people who were on the side of the road.

“He beat those people so hard they were like mince meat - I was so terrified I wet my pants.”

The young Victor and his sister were so distressed by their experience they called home to their parents who came to collect them.

The sjambok to this day is associated with the brutality of the South African regime during the time Mandela was imprisoned as it was regularly used by police to beat and brutalise the black population.

It appears in some of Mr Gordon’s work which he illegally painted years later during the most oppressive time of the apartheid regime.

With Mandela behind bars and the black South African population continuing to be oppressed, and with a growing sense of social justice, at the age of 15, the teenager found himself the subject of police brutality himself when he tried to fight off a policeman who had set his vicious dog on a defenceless black man.

“I just couldn’t stand by and watch and do nothing, so I tried to beat the policeman off,” he said.

Mr Gordon was thrown into a two-man cell with 25 other men who were systematically taken away to be beaten during the night.

“There was one journalist who tried his best to protect me,”said.

This experience would come back to haunt Mr Gordon in more ways than one in the years to come.

“When I applied to Australia I was really concerned that would go against me and it would come up as a criminal record, but fortunately as I was under 18 it was considered an offence by a young person with no conviction recorded,” he said.

After being drafted into the military in South Africa Mr Gordon decided he wanted to leave his native South African when faced with the prospect he was to be sent to towns and villages to brutalise young black men which was considered to be ‘part of the job’ for anyone in the military during the apartheid era.

He headed for Australia managing to sneak out the illegal paintings of the vicious police brutality, death and destruction during the years Mandela was incarcerated.

Those paintings today have been exhibited all over the world after Mr Gordon donated them to the South African government.

Mr Gordon wasn’t in South Africa when Mr Mandela was released from prison but soaked up the emotion of the historic event in Sydney.

“While the whole world was there to watch him I shared that special moment with my niece,” he said.

Mr Gordon said Mr Mandela’s ethos of passive resistance will install him as one of the greatest leaders of the last century.

“He will be remembered like Ghandi,” he said.

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