The Reverend Sam Buti saved Alexandra from apartheid’s bulldozers. Then he became mayor of Alex and his troubles started. But he’s come full circle, and is again sought after by Alexandrans.
He was eventually threatened by his wife and children. His wife said: “I’m going to leave you!” His children said: “We’re going to burn you!” He gave in, and resigned as mayor of Alexandra.
He had been elected mayor of Alex in the mid-1980s but this move was interpreted by Alexandrans as siding with the apartheid government and betraying their interests. His family came under enormous pressure, and begged him to give up his mayorship, hence the threats.
It was a tense time. His wife, Mary, heard a bang in the middle of the night, and woke up to a smoke-filled house. In 1985 his house was bombed and razed to the ground.
Buti told the Vrye Weekblad of April 1991 that he turned to drink under the pressure, almost destroying himself in the process, being saved finally by his faith.
“It was very difficult. It gives you strength. God is gracious,” he says.
The Vrye Weekblad records that Buti said three things were saved from the fire that reduced his house to ashes: his wedding picture, his dress suit, and his wife’s church dress. He says he saw the hand of God in the remains from the fire, and decided it was time to quit politics.
But before he did, he consulted with Nelson Mandela, then still in prison. “He advised me to resign from the local authority,” says Buti now.
Although it must have been hard, he gave up his mayorship, and got more involved in church matters. In 1987 he was elected head of the Nederduitse Gerformeerde Kerk in Afrika, the breakaway black arm of the white-dominated Dutch Reformed Church.
He had been very involved in municipal politics and the future of Alexandra. He had initiated and drove the Save Alex Campaign in the late 70s through the Alexandra Liaison Committee, and his appeals to Minister of Co-operation and Development Piet Koornhof eventually halted the government’s removal plans.
And once Alex was saved, he fought for Alex to be an independent municipality, was voted on to the Alex council, and was eventually elected mayor of Alex – but that was when his troubles started.
So, the man who was loved for saving Alex, then hated for becoming part of the despised local apartheid authority structure, had come full circle. These days his status in the community is restored - those who spoke out against him in the 80s seek out his advice and help now.
Buti’s connection with Alex, a township 12km north-east of Joburg’s city centre, goes back to 1959. He was born in Brandfort in the Free State, and is a third-generation minister. He was sent to Alex in 1959 at the age of 25, after completing his theological training. He has lived there ever since.
Buti is of medium build and height, with a serious and unaffected manner. He is modest about his role in saving Alex from the bulldozers. He describes it now as having been a “tough time”. A major part of the work of getting Alex saved was convincing his fellow Alexandrans, that, firstly, he was a genuine anti-apartheid activist despite being a Dutch Reformed Church minister, and secondly, that they could stand up to the system.
The first issue was serious: the apartheid government and the Dutch Reformed Church were virtually synonymous, and yet here was a black minister from that church wanting the community to take him seriously.
In Alexandra I love you (Published for the Alexandra Liaison Committee, 1983), Buti explains how he got around this one: “I bumped into Mr Khoza [LC Khoza, health inspector] on the way to the shops on 7th Avenue. We spoke about the threat of removals that had hung over us for so long and now looked like becoming a reality. He, like many other people in Alexandra, treated me with some reserve and perhaps a little distrust. I was after all a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church.”
He continues: “I told him that although I was a priest in the Dutch Reformed Church, I was oppressed like every other black person. ‘I feel the pinch just like you, just like every other black person,’ I told him.” This was sufficiently convincing for his fellow Alexandrans.
The second issue was just as tricky. In Alexandra, I love you he says: “People were suspicious at first. They didn’t believe that we could ever reverse the decisions of Parliament.
“But what we did bring home was that these were issues that would affect lives . . . lots of lives . . . and that we were trying, really trying, to save Alex. We preached resistance tactics first through the churches and then at the schools. We were trying to get the residents to believe that they shouldn’t go, that they should stay and fight. Some didn’t, but a lot did.”
And that meant on-the-ground action. Officials would remove furniture onto the streets, in preparation for the removals. “We would take the furniture back inside.” The same happened with windows and doors – they’d be removed from the houses, to be promptly put back by residents. “They didn’t know how to arrest us.”
He has sobering things to say about politics and politicians. “Everything is politics but politics is not everything.” He says there’s a need to get people - in other words, politicians - to focus, to come to their sense, to force politicians to talk development, “if you want people to vote for you”.
In the early 70s he started the fight to get electricity in the township, for decades referred to as “dark city” because it had no electricity. “I went to the officials, you’ve got to be strategic in dealing with officials.” He obviously was. His was the first household to be electrified in Alex.
Buti ministers to his congregation of 1 300 at the large church on the corner of Selborne Street and 5th Avenue. He was originally a minister in the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk in Africa, a breakaway branch of the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1974 a further breakaway group including the NG Mission Church (for coloureds) was formed by the amalgamation of the two groups, calling themselves the Uniting Reformed Church.
He says his congregation has suffered a lot while he has been involved in community work. He has spent time on training church elders, and of course, in helping to ensure Alex’s survival.
”The church is not a church for itself, it’s a church for others, it has to serve others.” And, as proof of this, during the two-hour interview, there’s a constant stream of people at the door to see him.
One thing Buti is not modest about is his grey hair. I remarked when I sat with him in the lounge of his modest Alex house that at 69, he still looked youthful, with no grey hair. He responded quickly: “I get rid of the grey,“ with a smile.
He met his wife Mary while studying and they were married in Senekal in the Free State. He has four children (but raised his niece with his children) and 10 grandchildren whom he dotes on. He enjoys reading and writing, and is working on his autobiography, progress of which is “very slow”.
He loves climbing mountains – he’s visited Lesotho to climb mountains there.
His hobbies used to be football and snooker. “I used to be a good soccer player, I was picked to represent Free State, in the team called the Bantus.”
He completed his masters degree in theology, from Princeton in the US, critiquing apartheid as heresy, as his thesis. “My theological outlook is liberation theology,” he says, “not blacks but people, white or black.”
Buti was president of the South African Council of Churches from 1975 to 1981, and in 1984 he obtained membership for the NGKA with the SACC.
Buti’s conversation is sprinkled with religious references like “I thank God he has spared me”, or “I don’t see myself as a leader, I am a servant of the people, a pastor for the folk”.
He is still clearly driven to continue working for the community of Alex. He says he gets frustrated at the living conditions of people in the township.
He’s has just had his business plan for an environmental theme park approved by the city council, a R70-million private investment initiative that involves a waterfront development on the Jukskei River, a recreational area and a community centre. He expects the first brick of the first phase of the project, to be laid early in 2004.
Another project is the opening of a factory in Alex to create jobs for the disabled. Old wheelchairs are being imported from the US and Europe, and at the factory they will be repaired and re-assembled.
He is involved in the Alex Alive Campaign and the Alexandra Book of Personalities. The former has the aim of “bringing a new spirit of revival and reconciliation to the township”.
But, in a switch of mood, he says he’d like to retire. “I want to ask my congregation to release me to allow me to retire.” He’s not too optimistic that they’ll agree.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, he recounts a story about a Zulu prince who wanted his name to be remembered by his people. He wrote his name on stones, on trees, and on a mountain.
In time it was decided to build a road through the area – the trees and the mountain were removed, together with his name. He was disappointed and went into the village. He wrote his name on a board and placed it on a big tree in the village square.
But the wind blew over the tree. His father was called. He cut up the tree for wood. He called his son and said: “I realise you’d like your name to be known but don’t write it on stones or trees. Write your name in the hearts of people.”
Buti stops for a moment, then says: “I would like my name to be written in the hearts of people.”
[Sam Buti died in August 2010]