In 1988 at about this time of year, my wife Eppie and I were at our local shopping centre in Florida in the then Transvaal.
As we rode the escalator to the lower level, I spotted a man and a woman standing at the bottom engaging with people as they alighted, attempting to hand out a flyer of some sort, but being rebuffed, sometimes quite vehemently.
As we reached the bottom the man said: “Good morning, my name is Keith. Have you heard of the Independent Party?”
And so I met Keith Gurney, one of the tireless organisers who had played a key role in Dr Denis Worrall’s 1987 election campaign to wrest from the National Party’s the late Chris Heunis, the parliamentary seat for the Helderberg constitutuency.
Out of 18 000 votes cast on that fateful night, May 6, Denis lost by a scant 39, but he captured the hearts and minds of many white voters across the political spectrum, uniting for the first time liberal English voters and “verligte” Afrikaans voters.
The 1988 municipal election, politicised for the first time in our history, showed a frightening lurch to the right, and we’d already begun to plan for the family to emigrate, so meeting up with Keith and discovering that there was a possible political alternative that might make a difference, gave us new hope.
On Friday evening, over three decades after that pivotal encounter, Denis looked me in the eye at L’Auberge restaurant in Raithby Road, shook me by the hand and said: “Norman, I remember so well our time together and what happened in the Transvaal.”
The occasion was a local launch of Denis’s book, The Independent Factor, but it was also a reunion of the many people who had played so many key roles in Denis’s 1987 campaign and the groundswell that followed which saw the formation of the Independent Party and and its growth in so many parts of South Africa.
Sadly, some are no longer with us, like the irrepressible Jannie Momberg, Denis’s 1987 campaign manager and a powerful organising and strategising force in the Independent Party, and later in the Democratic Party, when we Independents merged with Wynand Malan’s National Democratic Movement and Zack de Beer’s Progressive Federal Party to form the liberal white party that would finally break the log jam in our white politics and force the National Party to speed up the pace of reform, before events overtook it and it lost the initiative.
Dave Gant spoke fondly of the excitement and anticipation that marked Denis’s 1987 campaign, and the hope that sprung in the hearts of so many South Africans who saw Denis’s principled stand as a ray of hope.
Denis resigned his post as ambassador in London, precipitated as he says, by his inability to continue to represent a government in which he had no faith, to take on the very party whose government he had represented for years.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, because I loved being a diplomat, but I knew that I could no longer continue,” Denis said when he spoke.
As story after story of that time unfolded, the memories came tumbling back of the people, the places, the events, the tragedies, the triumphs, the funny and the sad.
We spoke of the first Independent Party national convention in Stellenbosch, in the heartland of the National Party and conservative academia, an overt challenge to the then ruling party, and how it galvanised us all to make a real difference in our fractured, tortured country.
We spoke of the gradual coming together of the main three parties that came to form the Democratic Party, the cautious “toenadering” between white liberals who shared a common vision – a non-racial, free South Africa – yet approached the merger with a surprising degree of suspicion.
I spoke of the unstinting support Denis afforded me, and the role he played in the shaping of my political thinking, forged as it was at the feet of my late uncle, Donald Woods, during so many holidays in the Transkei in my teenage years.
Despite the passage of decades, the bonds forged back then are as firm and affirming now.
And as I sit and write this, I reach out and touch the badge handed to me by Koos Myburgh on Friday night, bearing the legend “Observer”, alongside the Independent Party logo, an open door with light shining through, the badge he wore as an organiser at that first convention in 1988, which persuaded me to put my political convictions to the test and make a difference.