The Dutch Reformed Church was the bastion of apartheid in White River, and the church itself stood on extensive grounds near the new school buildings. As I recall, it was made of ochre face-brick in a style echoed in other small towns throughout South Africa – an architectural approach evolved as a bizarre local manifestation of the Art Deco movement and characterized by angularity, thrusting spires and over-pitched roofs that so eschewed the decorative and indeed the aesthetic, that it could never be accused of idolatry. It was to churches like these that the volk went to pray for rain, racial purity and sexual propri-ety, and from the pulpit of the church, as from the editorials of the Afrikaans press, there issued the thundering or lulling stream of ideology that was to stitch the entire project of apartheid together. The church’s presence extended right into the classroom, where we were taught about the wandering of the Jews towards the promised land in tandem with the Great Trek of the Afrikaners in history. When the Canaanites were smitten, we were reminded of the battle of Blood River, and of the pact the volk had made with God, signed in blood.
Throughout roughly the period when the Dutch Reformed Church was erecting these angular churches all over South Africa, a number of people who have come to be regarded as among the ‘finest minds’ of the twentieth century were busy with the design and construction of the first atomic bombs that would become the staples of the US armamentarium. One of these finest minds, though less well-known than Einstein or Oppenheimer, belonged to Leo Szilard, the discoverer of the neutron, a physicist of Hungarian origin, born in 1898 in Budapest. It was Szilard who first saw the possibility of uranium fission and of the chain reaction, and it was in his name and that of Enrico Fermi that the nuclear reactor was patented in 1955. They sold the patent to the United States Government for a symbolic one dollar. It was through his efforts and those of his peers, many of whom like him, came from Budapest, that the Regulus missile and its successors came into being. Szilard, to his credit, did circulate a petition opposing the use of the atomic bomb among the Manhattan Project staff. He was, of course, ignored. Like many other physicists, most notably Bohr and Einstein, he was later involved in the efforts to shut the door after the horse had bolted. After the Second World War, he switched to biology and founded the field of biophysics. He established the Council for Abolishing War in the early 1960s and was active in promoting disarmament at the height of the Cold War arms race. But like many members of elites, the original Bolsheviks, for example, his ideas were taken from him and turned to uses which he despised.
The resemblance many Dutch Reformed Church steeples bore to rockets at that time can hardly be coincidental, as the rocket was the age’s most powerful embodiment of heavenward aspiration. Like the rockets, their presence on the landscape also stood for rule by might, and ignored the testimony of the finest minds.