It is important to name our current political experience a crisis, for that is not always what it is called. We should also be considering the type of leadership needed to rebuild the country. Some say South Africa cannot be in crisis because its press is vibrant; there are opposition political parties operating with little restriction and independent institutions like the judiciary and the Public Protector; it has a healthy civil society, including citizen-based organisations, social movements, faith-based organisations and a range of individuals in communities who take brave stands in defence of their beliefs.
This may be exaggerated. Civil society has a range of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) engaging in various social causes, but many social movements – that is, organisations with a membership base – are weak and lack support from organisations of the left and often have insufficient funds to do their work adequately.
The judiciary and the Public Protector have come under attack from the ANC, SACP and government, threatening their capacity to perform their independent, constitutionally defined roles.
The crisis in South Africa does not lie in the absence of constitutional institutions and openings for democratic activities. It lies in a range of obstacles to remedying problems and achieving democratic and transformatory goals.
The character of the obstacles lies precisely in the steps that have been taken or not taken by organs of government. These undermine paths that ought to provide remedies to social problems. This is not peculiar to ANC-run authorities but is also found in aspects of governance under DA rule.
In other words, if there were due performance of obligations many more people would be living in conditions fit for human existence.
No problem of government or social life can be put at the door of a single individual. They need to be located within the context of a range of institutional functions and relationships, including the role of opposition political parties in the political arena, to the extent to which they, too, contribute towards a democratic environment.
But the question of leadership – considered as a relationship between office bearers, institutions and the public – is crucial. Where there is a breakdown in leadership or a failure of leadership to serve the interests of democracy, clean government and transformation, then a crucial element of a crisis is there. The leadership crisis lies in an erosion of integrity, insofar as there is conscious evasion of duties to advance the goals and aspirations outlined in the constitution.
It is not intended to revisit the array of well-known attacks on constitutionalism currently experienced. Instead, this article unpacks the leadership qualities that will be required when we surface from this period of crime and decay – a leadership that can manage a process of transformatory democracy, and will embody qualities that evoke respect.
Good leaders listen. If one looks at the giants of South African liberation history they were all distinguished by their willingness to listen. It is said that Chief Albert Luthuli would listen for hours, whether at national meetings or as an elected chief in Groutville. He would only offer advice once he understood precisely what the problem was, not only from his own observations but also through hearing it from the mouth of the person experiencing the problem.
This is an important distinction for democratic leaders to understand: no matter how wise they may be, they cannot understand a problem in the terms of those who experience it. One may have a very clear idea of what the problem is and how it needs to be resolved. But one still needs to hear people out. In current politics one has the impression that not only the ANC but most political parties are reluctant to do this listening.
If those burdened by a problem are to be satisfied with the answer they request, it is important that their problem is addressed not only in the most professional and efficient way but also in the terms in which they experience and understand it. Or if it is not possible to accede to their request they must see that the process leading to that decision has nevertheless taken adequate account of their understanding of the problem.
Consistency is a conditional virtue. In a situation of leadership disarray many long for consistency. It is a virtue to be consistent, to treat like cases in the same way and not offer special treatment to family or friends or engage in other irregularities. But consistency is not a virtue if one sticks to a way of doing things even where conditions have changed. What stands out with Nelson Mandela is that he repeatedly changed his political understanding over time. This was notably in his attitude to the use of force, taking up arms when it was necessary and working to build peace when possible. A leader must have the capacity for introspection and consequently be able to re-evaluate modes of operation.
Leadership does not necessarily mean acting speedily. One may have to postpone the moment of action until the time is ripe in the sense that those who form one’s support or organisational base also see that it is necessary or that one has demonstrated that alternative ways of dealing with a problem have failed. This can be illustrated with regard to armed struggle. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Flag Boshielo are among those who believed in the early 1950s that the apartheid regime would not relinquish power voluntarily, that the people would have to “fight back”, and that they would in the end have to take up arms.
But they did not act on this until 1961. Logically the reasons for taking up arms were there in 1951 but abstract logic alone does not determine how one relates to a situation.
One may “see” that factors make a certain action the only viable way to resolve a problematic situation but one needs, as a leader, to act with one’s followers or with comrades/colleagues in an organisation, and take them with one.
There are many who “always knew” that there had to be armed struggle or “always knew” that the struggle would result in negotiations and had “told people this for years” before either of these courses of actions was carried out. But it is no virtue to know something at a purely abstract level in politics. An idea can only be viable if one has a body of people willing to implement it.
Against this, one has to confront the part of Mandela’s life where he engaged “the enemy” and consciously chose not to consult because he saw the possibility through such actions of paving the way for a negotiated settlement. He was proved right in the sense that his actions were crucial in unlocking the deadlocked situation.
But does that justify his acting, consciously, without seeking approval of his organisation, even saying that he knew that had he asked he would have been stopped? Personally, it took me a long time to accept that Mandela was justified, for I do believe in acting collectively and that was what Mandela recommended to others. But one has to ask whether collectivity has to be absolutised, especially where it may, in a specific situation, be a barrier to resolving a problem. Can this episode not perhaps be best understood as Mandela risking his own reputation in order to put the needs of the country – for peace – before that of his collective responsibility to the ANC?
Leadership and service. The notion of public service being associated with leadership is widely discredited, not only in South Africa but also in other countries. But it is necessary that every effort be made to revive it. A culture of service is not simply a matter of the ethic that people should serve according to the duties of their office and not for personal benefit or to provide patronage. It is required in order to have effective government. Government cannot be effective where goals other than those prescribed for the office are served. Irregular tenders enrich some but also deny benefits owed to the poor, thus obviously rupturing a relationship of trust between leaders and “followers”.
Leadership and dialogue. Democratic leadership entails dialogue. This is not simply taking questions from an audience or informing them of this or that. It refers to politics as a continuous engagement between leaders and their constituency.
It also affects bureaucratic action, insofar as performing the tasks that are needed entail a dialogic element. Providing a particular service needs to have input from those who are the recipients of state action. They need to be consulted on where water taps will be located because they may have reason to suggest alternatives. They need to hear how problems are resolved because they may have reason to suggest alternative priorities.
Democratic leadership is relational. Democratic leadership has a relational basis; that is, it depends on mutuality, on an interaction between leaders and followers, embedding the aspirations of followers in the vision and actions of leaders. It is precisely that notion of relationality that has been ruptured and needs to be recaptured in any emancipatory path that may be developed in order to rekindle the democratic prospects that have been displaced.
One of the most troubling features of contemporary South African politics is the retreat of the ANC from its liberation past. That past was often one where the organisation, its leaders and members came from oppressed communities and embraced their sorrows and hopes as their own.
Under apartheid it was obvious that the government and state lacked legitimacy. Both were founded on violence and represented only whites. The apartheid regime operated under a racist constitution and perpetrated acts of discrimination and violence against the majority of the population. In the words of the Freedom Charter, “our people have been robbed of their birthright to land, liberty and peace by a form of government founded on injustice and inequality”.
White rule over blacks took a range of forms over the centuries, including colonial and then apartheid rule. What was common was that they always lacked consent and wreaked considerable damage on the wellbeing and life chances of black South Africans.
Many of those who joined the struggle for liberation did so because they witnessed violence and harm perpetrated against their family or experienced it themselves. Many describe their political awakening in relation to having witnessed the humiliation of their parents or harm done to a child or a sibling by apartheid authorities.
The promise of liberation entailed a pledge to remedy a situation where black people were denied the range of freedoms owed to any human being by virtue of being a human person. Liberation promised a commitment to create a state where all could stand tall, without humiliation, and proudly enjoy their rights and realise their talents.
In joining the struggle for liberation those who committed themselves as cadres, those who sacrificed the most, joined their fate, their consciousness and their understanding of selfhood with that of all oppressed people. In their minds they fused their own future as individual human beings with that of the rest of the people of the country. They did not lose their character as unique individuals, but they enlarged their understanding of their own humanity by taking on, as the burden of their life, that of all.
They did not try simply to remedy individual problems, as one might do by embarking on litigation or through an individual appeal against a bureaucratic decision, or by talking to some person in authority. These were not eschewed. But it was recognised that apartheid did not simply comprise individual experiences of ill will against particular people, though it was individual human beings who suffered greatly as specific human beings. Apartheid also had a systemic effect on the life experiences of all oppressed people.
In trying to bring apartheid to an end, freedom fighters connected their own fortunes with those of all oppressed people, aiming to remedy the injustices they experienced because of being black people.
In some cases those who joined this liberation movement were from the poorest of the poor, like Walter and Albertina Sisulu, and Chris Hani. There were also some who were trained as or later became professionals, like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, or later received university education like Chris Hani. And there were whites, some of whom were trained as professionals like Joe Slovo, Bram Fischer, and Ruth First.
All decided to merge their own lives with that of the majority of the people of South Africa, even though they knew that they would potentially suffer harm and even forfeit their lives, as happened in the case of First, Fischer, Hani, Steve Biko, Johannes Nkosi, Ahmed Timol and Dulcie September, amongst many others.
There is little doubt that the living conditions of the majority of South Africans have improved substantially since 1994. But the trajectory of democracy and transformation have come to be conceived in at least two ways. In the first place, through state action, there has been redress and development aimed at the poor, who have seen improved housing, health care, water and education, albeit in uneven degrees and sometimes unsustainably. The provision of social grants has lifted some people above absolute poverty and there have been various other improvements.
But there has also been a resort to individual and community redress. Though the constitution and law of post-apartheid South Africa is no longer a rights-denying, but now a rights-bearing law, many have been forced to achieve their rights through the courts. Important gains have been made through litigation and these must be safeguarded, while we should note that court action by its nature is expensive and hard to access.
But for those with power and wealth there has been a rethinking of their relationship to social improvement and their conception of what post- apartheid South Africa ought to mean. Individuals who may or may not have had a significant record in the struggle have come to act as bearers of that legacy and deploy that in a quest for improvement in their personal conditions. In doing so they now interpret the goals of political activity of the previous liberation movement, its one-time communist party and once proud trade union movement not as being to benefit all but rather to enhance the life opportunities or increase the already transformed life chances of the few who are close to power or derive benefits from those who hold power.
Insofar as this interpretation of liberation encompasses a very limited range of people – though they may derive from oppressed communities – it excludes large sections of the oppressed population from benefitting sufficiently.
It fails to adequately remove the legacies of apartheid from the shoulders of the most oppressed, even where such action is within the power of those in authority. This happens through diverting funds intended for the many to the benefit of the few, as was the case with the Nkandla expenditure, and other instances of redirection of resources away from the poor.
We need to unpack what it means when the very same cadres who sacrificed (along with some who did not but now link their fates with them or claim to have “been there”) vote in favour of irregular expenditure. When they do that they benefit the people who have the power to secure their own future advancement for the moment. That is a patronage relationship, of course.
But the people who do this often derive from the poor. They perform these acts at the expense of those for whom and with whom they joined the struggle in the first place.
What we see happening is a break in the trajectory of the lives of those whose previous self-conception was or purported to be connected with the fate of the majority. Insofar as resources were intended to benefit their parents or the equivalent of their parents, their children, their siblings or those like them, that money is now diverted from those who were once their own or considered as that.
This rerouting of resources in the interests of those who hold power over the majority of people who live in abject poverty represents not only a rupture. It also represents a continuity of the dispossession and marginalisation of the poor.
Any substantial programme of social transformation needs “buy in” from capital. Where the government of the day diverts funds in this way, it does not itself have the integrity to question the accumulated wealth and indifference to the plight of the poor on the part of big capital. If government is not prioritising these people, what right does it have to demand that of the private sector? One of the tragedies of the present is that the ANC-led government has become a part of that which they purported to want to change.
When people protest against the failure to meet their basic needs or, more recently, for equal access to education, they meet violence. These recipients of violence, encountering stun grenades, rubber bullets and clubs could well be the parents or the children of MPs.
Now it is no longer the apartheid state that is meting out violence. But it matters little when one looks on the ground and sees that those who are dead or maimed come from the same section of the population who were killed or injured under apartheid.
Normally we would attribute unquestioned legitimacy to a state and government that has been duly elected in free and fair elections and one needs to act with care before one impugns such legitimacy. Yet, even as this government is elected by universal suffrage, can we shrink from questioning whether its anti-popular actions undermine any claim to legitimacy, whether or not it enjoys an electoral mandate?
There is a sense in the minds of many that there is no viable alternative to the present rule by violence and looting. But this year has seen some important movements for change, notably, though their character and results have been diverse, the student protests. Whatever its problems, this movement has initiated a process that has reopened important debates and is still unfolding. It is important that we try to build on this momentum to develop a common vision that can guide us towards recovering a humanistic vision embracing freedom for all.
ON TRIAL AND SENTENCING 40 YEARS AGO (PART 3)
CHAPTER 9 of Inside Apartheid’s Prison (slightly edited)
The judgment: “Conduct reprehensible”
AT MY first court appearance on August 3, 1975, the state announced that I would not be allowed bail. Under the Terrorism Act, it was not for the courts, but for the Attorney General, to decide whether to permit bail.
One month before the trial, it was announced that Lawrence Kuny and Jennifer Roxburgh were being held under the Criminal Procedure Act. “They are not to be charged with allegations of participating in terrorist activities. They are being held in custody as witnesses in the trial of Mr Suttner.”
The indictment was broadcast on state radio. It tried to create an atmosphere of alarm, by referring to the revolutionary aims of the ANC and SACP, which it claimed were “…to overthrow the government of the Republic of South Africa by means which include violence, strikes, economical and industrial disorder or guerrilla warfare and sabotage.” The indictment stated that I had printed, published and disseminated literature to further these aims. Furthermore, I had recruited and trained Kuny and Roxburgh to assist in these tasks, by forming an underground cell.
My trial began on November 3, 1975 and I was sentenced on November 13. There was no chance that I would be acquitted. I decided to plead guilty, though I provided a justification for my actions in my unsworn statement from the dock (see previous posting).
The state, however, wanted to build up an atmosphere that would justify a heavy sentence. They went through a laborious process of proving every element of the evidence, even though these points had already been admitted by the defence.
Kuny testified about the training he had received. He referred to small pink slips of paper, which were notes I had used during this training. The Daily News of November 5, 1975 reported Kuny as saying that I had instructed him not to cooperate with the police in the event of his being arrested. It also reported that Kuny was told how to resist possible police beatings during interrogations.
The Daily News said: “Referring to his arrest in June, Mr Kuny said he believed that he was to be beaten up but, on the contrary, the police had acted like gentlemen and had not laid a finger on him.”
During cross-examination of Kuny, my advocate, George Bizos, asked him if anyone were to interpret his evidence as being that of a young, ignorant, stupid man who had been pulled in by a much cleverer and intellectually superior man, would it be the impression he wanted to create?
Kuny responded: “I don’t suggest that someone stood with a gun and said, “You must do it.” I am not trying to create the impression that I was misled.” Kuny admitted he was interested in Marxism before he met me, although he hadn’t read any of the revolutionary books that I had given him in the course of his training.
He said that, when first arrested, he had protested his innocence. But, after the Security Police were “so nice to me, I decided to show them where the pamphlets were.” (As reported in the Natal Mercury, November 5, 1975.)
Roxburgh’s evidence was very straightforward. She explained how she came to accept the use of violence. According to the Natal Mercury (November 5, 1975), she said: “I had previously held ideals of anti-violence. The books (which Suttner had given me) reconciled my ideas regarding the use of violence. I read that the cost of revolution need not be as high as maintaining the status quo in a country.” [The book referred to is Herbert Aptheker’s The nature of democracy, freedom and revolution]
Roxburgh said she had translated the Freedom Charter into Zulu, in order to distribute it in a pamphlet.
As was conventional in these cases, an alleged ANC defector also gave evidence about being trained as a saboteur. His name was allegedly “withheld for his own safety.” The rest of the evidence was technical – showing typewriters and duplicators that were used, copies of the pamphlets and evidence about where various items were purchased.
Then it was my turn to respond, which I did through my statement from the dock (see previous posting).
THERE IS a legal saying to the effect that every person has his or her day in court. If convicted, a criminal usually presents a plea in mitigation and tries to explain why the crime has been committed and to plead for leniency.
There were some cases in which political prisoners had followed this course of action — in line with conventional legal cases — possibly, to obtain a lower sentence, or because they were motivated by bitterness towards their comrades. In a well-publicised case in 1975, one of South Africa’s foremost Afrikaner poets, Breyten Breytenbach, threw himself on the mercy of the court, pleading for the minimum sentence, with the prosecutor and security police investigator adding their voices in his support. (It did not work. The judge sentenced Breytenbach to nine years. I did not know if this until much later and had limited indirect communication with Breytenbach when we were both at Maximum Security Prison, and I looked forward to being with him. He joined the other white political prisoners for one day and then was moved to Pollsmoor, apparently at his request)
In general, however, or in most cases, political prisoners avoided the mode of legal defence used in conventional cases. Their court appearances were part of a wider ideological battle. And by standing up against the state, the political fighter was ranged against the authorities in a way that was quite different from an individual offender, who had simply fallen foul of laws that are generally accepted as being in the interests of society.
The individual offender tried to escape punishment in terms of the existing norms of society. Unlike the political prisoner, he or she is not challenging the wider social order or the norms upon which it is based.
Different judges might cast varying glosses on the law, but in their oath of office had undertaken to administer justice according to the law. But the actions of political prisoners were directed against that very law — or, at least, those parts of it that we regarded as unjust and could not accept for wider moral reasons.
Thus, it was not surprising that judges and magistrates did not embrace our concept of justice. Instead, they described our actions as ones that no civilised state or authority could tolerate – equating our challenge to, and disregard of, the apartheid laws with a challenge to the very idea of law.
A politically motivated defence tended to be prejudicial to the personal interests of the accused. It made it harder to get out of jail and may have increased the length of our sentences. It tended to make certain types of legal defence impossible. In some cases, in order to safeguard our organisations or security, we had to conceal some of what might have freed us from jail.
There were some things I just could not say, even if they reduced my sentence, because they may have reflected negatively on the liberation movement. I first experienced this while an accused person; and then again in the 1980s, when applying for release from detention during the state of emergency. To some extent, we sometimes aided the process of legal conviction or continued detention because we were unable to advance arguments to free us.
Appearing in court as a representative of our movement meant we had a duty to engage the courts and challenge the system under which we were tried. That meant attempting to get the lowest possible sentence, or to be released. But the courtroom was also a place where we could be heard, albeit to a limited degree — a place where we could make a public statement in defence of the liberation struggle.
Therefore, I could not align myself with the liberation movement to just a limited degree, and dissociate myself from “less tasteful” policies, such as the use of force.
Some people, in the loneliness of their prison cells, might have found this course attractive — and selectively rejected liberation movement policies that were harder to explain in court.
When you do have your day in court, you want people to at least understand why you acted as you did.
This meant, in the case of people involved with the South African liberation movement, rejecting the labels that the regime wanted to attach to us — such as “terrorists,” and so on. We also wanted the fact of torture to be acknowledged, and that we had experienced various other losses, while undertaking political activities that had brought us no gain.
In many cases, people went to jail without the truth ever emerging. Deploying a maze of legalisms and moralizing, courts often de-legitimised what freedom fighters had done.
We knew we had broken the law, but many judges denied the reasoning behind our actions, and thus allied themselves with the reasoning of the apartheid regime.
I WAS dissuaded by my lawyers from raising the matter of my own torture in court. They said it would not be credible, since there was not a confession before the court and I was not going into the witness box. I accepted this reasoning at the time. But I now think it was wrong. I should have described my torture. Even if the court had not accepted my account, the public would have known the truth.
The judge in my case gratuitously implied that the security police had surprised state witness Kuny with their “politeness.” In case anyone were to imagine that terrible things happened in detention, here was Kuny giving state evidence, having found that he was dealing with gentle people.
As an academic, I had researched the ideological role of the South African judiciary, and how, in their judgments, they provided “authoritative” rationales for apartheid repression. (See, for example, my paper, “The Judiciary — its ideological role in South Africa” (1986), in the International Journal of the Sociology of Law, pp. 47-66.)
Twenty-four years [now forty years, of course] after the event, when I read the judgment given in my own case by Mr Justice Neville James, Judge President of Natal, it is clear that he went beyond the call of duty, in the words he used to convict and sentence me.
It was correct, in terms of the law of the time, that I should be found guilty. But James (like many others of his colleagues) also tried to assimilate moral and legal guilt. Thus, when considering the evidence given against me by Kuny and Roxburgh, James found I had manipulated my friendship with them, in order to induce them to take part in illegal activities. Thus, in regard to recruitment of Roxburgh, the judge stated:
“I have no doubt that the accused, as a result of his fairly close friendship with her, decided that he would be able to persuade her to enter his political orbit, and thus to make use of her skills for the purposes of his organisation. And that he did so without paying any heed to the perils and anxieties which she would endure by joining into activities which he knew were completely illegal (even though, at the beginning, she did not). I consider that the accused’s conduct in persuading his good and trusted friend, Miss Roxburgh, to help in his subversive activities was reprehensible and that he imposed upon her because of her regard for him.”
Regarding Kuny, the judge said:
“In passing, I should say that Kuny appears to have co-operated with the investigating police almost from the moment he was taken into custody. This apparently happened because he was quite unprepared for the politeness with which they treated him…”
In sentencing me, the judge said: “…he was prepared to allow his friends to risk their future for his cause.”
The judge depicts this cause (for which I had risked my future) as some selfish venture belonging to me. The judge also uses the language usually deployed to convict someone for fraud, as if there was some gain involved. In reality, underground work entailed risking my professional career and the ordinary comforts of home life. The judge also ignored the prospect of Kuny’s release, as an inducement for the latter’s cooperation. Instead, police “politeness” is given the credit.
In passing sentence (seven and a half years, taking into account almost 6 months in pre-trial detention) on me, the judge continued:
“There is no question of his succumbing to sudden temptation or pressure… I consider that his reasons for breaking the law, even if sincerely held, afford little basis for mitigation of sentence. I have no doubt that many terrorists all over the world who have killed innocent people by the indiscriminate use of explosives claim that they were morally justified in so doing, but such conduct cannot be tolerated in a civilized community. And the motives of the terrorists are of minor importance when deciding upon an appropriate sentence, because the requirements of law and order are paramount.
“Similarly, a man like the accused, who promotes revolutionary change in South Africa and urges others, by means of widely distributed subversive pamphlets, to support that change by using every available means, including violence and guerrilla warfare, cannot lay claim to special consideration from the Court because he asserts that he has acted from the highest moral principles. Although the accused has not himself detonated a bomb, he had endeavoured to light a trail of gunpowder, which he believes will cause a bomb to explode…
“While it is true that he never disclosed to his colleagues, students and friends, or to his family, that he had embarked on an illegal course and, as far as we know, only recruited two assistants, that does not redound entirely to his credit. For it seems to indicate that he possessed the fanatical dedication of a resolute man who had embarked on a secret subversive course and had disciplined his life to prevent any sort of suspicion falling upon him.
“I am acutely and sadly aware of the fact that in sending the accused to jail, as I am obliged to do, his brilliant academic and legal career will be blighted and that his incarceration will bring distress both to himself, his distinguished mother and her family. But for the reasons I have already given these matters, although relevant, cannot be carried too far as a basis for mitigation of sentence. I am therefore not prepared to pass the minimum sentence permitted by law…” [The minimum sentence was five years].
As I left the dock and gave the ANC clenched fist salute, people in the gallery, led by Winnie Mandela, responded by raising their fists and singing the national anthem, Nkosi sikelele i Afrika.
IN MY trial, Kuny and Roxbugh gave evidence for the state and, for that evidence, received indemnity from prosecution. For many years, people who did this were shunned within the democratic movement, particularly in the black community. Some who repeatedly gave state evidence were executed by Umkhonto we Sizwe.
While Jennifer Roxburgh tended to restrict herself to the evidence, Lawrence Kuny went out of his way to exonerate the police from any suspicions, both in court and after his release from custody.
In the Natal Mercury of November 14, 1975, Kuny is quoted as saying:
“My attitudes, both to politics and the Security Police, have changed drastically since I was arrested… I now realize that violent struggle is not the way things are going to change in South Africa…
“When I was picked up by the police, I thought all sorts of dreadful things were going to happen to me but, to my surprise, discovered the Security Police are very warm, kindhearted people. During my time in jail, they were an enormous comfort to me and took pains to cheer me up whenever they saw I was depressed.”
But Kuny gives a different account in his unpublished manuscript, written in 1975/6.
“…I’d been in my cell, quietly thinking. Now, I was surrounded by all these men. The suddenness and formality of their actions threw me into confusion and panic.
“In the middle of this muddled state, Raymond walked into the room. For a split second our eyes met. Was that the man I knew? Gone were the twinkling blue eyes; they were tired eyes; dark rings contrasting with pale flesh. And the pale cheeks were puffed out; his lips hanging open showed his teeth. His hair was disheveled; but the eyes were the worst; they stared blankly, unaware of where they were, there was no reaction in their bright colour. There was no mistake about his eyes; they were the eyes of a man who’d been to hell. He slumped forward like a lifeless doll; the men grabbed him by the shirt collar and dragged him out of the room. Raymond was too dazed to react.
“I looked at that face with naked terror.
“Since that night, I have wondered just why Raymond had been brought into the room where I was being kept. Did they want to show me what happened to people who didn’t cooperate with them? Was it to show me that those who didn’t talk were tortured? If this was their plan, then it succeeded. My terror was such that my whole body ached with fear. I will never forget that night, and those eyes; it was then that I understood what was meant by the word fascism.” (Kuny’s emphasis.)
While I still deplore the fact of anyone giving state evidence against freedom fighters, Kuny and especially Roxburgh were quite unlike some of the more notorious, professional state witnesses of the time. And, in Roxburgh’s case, it was the last that anyone heard of her in public, as far as I know.
Kuny and Roxburgh had worked with me for only eight or nine months. They did not have time to assume the level of commitment and discipline needed to cope with detention, or to resist the threats, torture and blandishments of the police.
In the past, I would not have anything to do with former state witnesses. Now, however, I think we need to give these people a chance — to reintegrate with society, and contribute towards the building of the new South Africa.
[I was released on May 11 1983 and gradually returned to political activity, this time mainly above ground. But I had to go underground during the first “short” 1985/6 state of emergency. Shortly after that State of Emergency was ended I was re-detained in a fresh State of Emergency, from June 1986 until September 1988 (18 of these 27 months in solitary confinement), when I was placed under house arrest. I defied that house arrest in August 1989 to attend the session of the Organisation of African Unity in Harare. I stayed out of the country for five months until the end of January 1990, not knowing that the ANC would be unbanned and restrictions would be lifted a few days later]
ANC of no politics votes out KZN Chair
Senzo Mchunu has been voted out of the post of Chair in KZN. Continue reading
Statement from the dock
After the prosecution has spent some time blackening one’s name and attempting to portray what the accused in a political trial has done in villainous terms, there is a limited opportunity to hit back. Continue reading
According to reports of the presentation of the Acting Police Commissioner to parliament, the students, according to his assessment, without leadership structures, could not have mounted the protests. Must have been a ‘third force’, though they are still investigating
Personally, I do believe that there was foul play at the Union buildings when a group started pelting the riot police with stones when the police were quite restrained. The same group also started breaking the fence and burning toilets etc. But that group does not appear to be what the acting commissioner has in mind.
The acting commissioner appears to be assisting the powers that be to avoid analysing what has happened, to avoid grappling with the questions that are being thrown up about how we understand current SA social realities and the forces for change.
I don’t believe that it is only the ANC and government who must be asking themselves hard questions, but all of us who want to see democratic and transformational developments in this country. We all need to revisit our understandings and paradigms. Only with such willingness to be open to uncomfortable truths, will we be able to progress
I was listening to 702 and there was discussion of how the police and parliament had not expected students to protest at parliament and that there was a failure of “crime intelligence”. Is this the type of language used in supposedly democratic South Africa to describe legitimate student and workers’ demands in universities? Even if that is the name of the department should there not be some self-consciousness on the part of news commentators and MPs about intelligence regarding protests as opposed to intelligence relating to crime . Can the police also not use a different department to monitor democratic activities?
Forty years ago on 3 August 1975 I was charged under the Terrorism Act after 6 weeks of detention during which I was tortured. This is the account, from my book Inside Apartheid’s Prison, of my trial, in three parts.
I HAD never seen a door as massive and heavy as the steel one that shut behind me in Durban Central Prison. It shocked me in a way that the loudly crashing doors in detention had failed to do. There was something very final about the way it closed.
This door was at once a physical barrier to movement and symbolic of a change in my life. My previous life was now excluded, part of the “outside.” In the years that lay ahead, my life now belonged to the “inside.”
Normally, we close doors to provide personal security, comfort and safety. Behind the door of one’s home there is usually warmth, harmony and contentment. A prison door, in contrast, locks you into a world that strips you of your dignity. Here, comfort is absent and there is no personal privacy. There is also a constant barrage of unwelcome sounds.
Although I did return through this door in 1975, it was only to be taken to court or another prison. My next opportunity to open a door for myself, away from prison sights and sounds, was not until my release in 1983.
At the same time as I was shut out from one life, I was, in a sense, publicly connected to another, that of the liberation movement. What was lacking in my period underground, when I had to hide my beliefs and connections, was now publicly known and asserted.
I felt relieved about this, and a sense of pride in being seen for what I truly was. The courts might rule that I had acted disgracefully, but I could now declare myself — and be seen to be by those who shared my beliefs — a part of the struggle to provide a better life for all South Africans.
The prison door had shut me out of the privileged life of a white South African. For the first time, I experienced some of the discomforts that are the normal lot of the black majority. I was now shut out from privilege, and from my relatively esteemed position as a professional and university lecturer. My identity was now that of a prisoner, removed from society.
There were, I knew, people who held me in high esteem as a freedom fighter. But they were far removed from the interpersonal relations that I experienced behind prison walls. The prison authorities saw me as a person who threatened the state and had to be held in secure prison conditions, away from other prisoners who might be influenced by my “terrorist perspective.”
Being in prison does not come naturally to anyone. The concrete floors and walls and steel surroundings are alienating, and a cell is quite unlike the home of any person, rich or poor. Although one is “inside” one always feels like an “outsider.”
That is why, at first, I experienced prison life as if I were an outsider looking in. On one level, I accepted that I was a political prisoner. In fact, I was proud of it. But part of me could never accept the “prisoner” tag, or having been thrown in jail because of what I stood for.
I had thought a lot about the political context of what I had done. I knew I was one of many people imprisoned for their beliefs. But I had now to deal with the reality of spending years inside. And I had not really understood what that would mean.
How does one describe the physical conditions of a prison? Much has been written about them, their peculiar atmosphere, and the impact they have on inmates. One thing I have been trying to understand is the symbolism, and psychological legacy, of their constrained spaces. I have thought a lot about what prison meant to me and continues to mean in my life.
My experience of prison is still with me, more than 10 years after I was finally released. It is something that makes me want to get out of claustrophobic, overheated rooms, to have access to fresh air and light, to avoid dark and dingy rooms and have a sense of space. It also resurfaces when I am forced to be with people with whom I have little in common.
What I found most oppressive was the absolute denial of everything I really wanted to do. This not only involved being confined to a physical space, but the imposition of sights and sounds that were unwanted and unwelcome.
Just as in the police cell, there was no raised bed in the prison cell. I slept under blankets, on a mat placed on the cement floor. But the cell did have a basin and was clean. I was also permitted, under South African law, to have reading matter, and soon collected a lot of literature.
Obviously, the prison authorities had never encountered anything like this before, for they had no bookcases or were very reluctant to supply anything to house more than a Bible. I was supplied with very makeshift containers to accommodate my books.
I was the only political prisoner in the prison. Most of the other prisoners were awaiting trial. As remains the case today, many of these people waited months in jail before their cases were settled.
The prison was all grey and steel. These two words define the textures, the materials and colours I would have to deal with for a long time. In prison, there is little you want to touch or look at. The mat was rough, the blankets uninviting. There was nothing comforting or homely about what was to be my home. There was no garden and there was little time to see the sky. I was allowed out into a small part of a yard for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon. If I had a visit, it substituted for exercise. The rest of the time I stayed in my cell. And I could see nothing outside of it.
The prison officials, however, treated me satisfactorily. Only one of them had had any previous contact with political prisoners. He had briefly guarded Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg, who, he said, was in for “sabotation” (an adaptation of the Afrikaans word for sabotage).
In fact, at this time Denis Goldberg was serving a life sentence in Pretoria, where I would later join him.
I was charged under the Terrorism Act on August 3, 1975. But this was merely a formality. The actual trial would start two months later.
Just before the trial, I was given fresh clothes and taken for a haircut. I also decided to have my beard shaved off, since it might make me look more respectable in the eyes of a white South African judge. I also wanted to appear as dignified as possible, as I was a representative of the liberation movement.
Two things changed after I was charged and returned to Durban Central. I now had access to lawyers and could see visitors for 30 minutes, twice a week.
Although aspects of my conditions were better than I had expected, I was impatient to have my trial settled and know my sentence so I could adapt to the life that lay ahead.
It was pleasant, as well as unsettling, to be visited by friends, and for them to send me food and fruit, which was allowed prior to sentencing. This made life easier, but I kept on thinking that I should not get used to such “luxuries.”
At one point, I told people not to send special food because I had to get used to prison food. But I had a relapse after experiencing Durban prison food for a few days and rescinded the request. It was wonderful not to have to eat prison food for all three meals a day.
Although not yet a sentenced prisoner, I started to get a glimpse of what lay ahead of me. I saw the various ways in which prison rules try to rob prisoners of their individuality. There were constant invasions of privacy and attacks on the dignity of prisoners. One little thing that immediately struck me was the “Judas hole” on the door. Any passer-by could look into my cell whenever it took his fancy and sometimes other prisoners would do so, and shout obscenities at me. I felt, then, a peculiar sense of powerlessness. I could not see much of the outside from inside the cell, but anyone looking in could see as much as they liked and deprive me of any semblance of privacy. It was sometimes quite intimidating to have a person I could not see shouting threats at me from outside the cell.
From early on I noticed the prison noises, the occasional silences, broken by terrible noises, the banging of steel doors, jingling of keys, shouting and swearing of warders. No prison official speaks softly. Officers would shout at warders and warders always shouted at prisoners.
Sleep was difficult, since the young warders on patrol did not bother to be quiet. When they looked into my cell at night, they would switch on the light long enough to wake me and then go away. Sometimes a young warder would just stand around, apparently aimlessly, but lightly jingling his keys, enough to cause considerable irritation and make me realize how frayed my nerves were.
There were no direct-contact visits, and you had to speak through a glass panel. Sometimes other prisoners had visitors at the same time as I did, although they generally tried to keep us separate. I preferred it this way, because it was hard to hear above the shouting of other prisoners and their visitors.
At this time, I was preoccupied with preparing my statement from the dock. There was not a lot I could say in my defence. Purely in terms of the law, the case against me was cut-and-dried.
In a letter to my grandmother, which was dated August 18, 1975, I wrote:
“Generally I do not feel very depressed here. It is a great waste to have to spend this time locked away and conviction for a minimum of 5 years will mean that — but I cannot pity myself in this context: there are others who have far longer sentences and also went to prison around my age. Though I do not want to go to gaol, this does not mean that I have any regrets for what I have done — I would do everything, but more again. That I have done insufficient is what I regret.”
This passage is written in the tone of the revolutionaries I studied and tried to emulate. It is also a good example of my tendency to deny my own pain precisely because I knew others were experiencing worse. Nelson Mandela had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Therefore, I chose to say nothing about my own suffering.
At the time, I really did not understand what it meant to be put away for years — or know what depression really meant. I wrongly equated depression with unhappiness. I knew how to act, and how to take a defiant and unrepentant stance. But I did not foresee the real suffering that lay ahead, nor understand the toll that long imprisonment exacts. I am not sure that I fully understand it now, outside of recognising that many of my present habits are conditioned by my prison experiences.
But perhaps my behaviour was right at the time. Denying my pain was at least a strategy for coping, and perhaps an effective one. And I honestly did feel ashamed of complaining, especially when others had much heavier sentences. Complaining — as distinct from protesting — might have only wasted time, lowering my own morale and that of my comrades.
We live in different times now, and I am able to look back and be honest about how terrible it was.
The letters I wrote at the time [some of which appear in the book] , typical of my attitude of the time, now seem a little naïve. But I was forced to draw on some basic beliefs to survive those difficult times. And my convictions were, in many ways, the key to my survival.
I took a defiant stance, made no apologies for what I had done and stood with the liberation movement.
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