Silence of apartheid continued
A couple of events over the past week brought back powerful, almost visceral, reminders of the darkest days of apartheid, those brutal days and events that so many people would have us “forget and move on”. Or, they tell us, don’t look to the past, look to the future . . .
Last Thursday, I attended a book launch – Rhetorics of Resistance: Opposition Journalism in Apartheid South Africa –by Bryan Tabold.
The book was about the work I (and others) did during the early years of the repressive states of emergency.
The book focused on the work of the Weekly Mail, now the Mail & Guardian (my involvement was between 1985 and 1988), and the horrors of the National Party’s security machinery, headed by people like the late Magnus Malan and populated by people who walk among us, today, without any sense of compunction.
During that dark period, along with the New Nation and Vrye Weekblad, we exposed death squads, corruption, cruelty and the fomenting of violence within SA and on the sub-continent.
For our work, as journalists, we were arrested, detained, tortured, our homes were firebombed and, in one “burglary” my photographic negatives, film and prints were stolen.
The burglars left my cameras and other valuables.
Then on Sunday, another book hit the stores, The Lost Boys of Bird Island, by Mark Minnie and Chris Steyn.
It was about allegations of a paedophile ring involving highprofile National Party cabinet ministers, notably Malan, who was PW Botha’s minister of defence.
Writing about the paedophile ring on Sunday, journalist Pieter du Toit explained that the story was important because “it further exposed the depravity of the apartheid system”.
He cited the book’s commissioning editor Maryna Lamprecht, who said: “It dehumanised people in every possible way, even to the point of exploiting vulnerable children sexually to satisfy the needs of powerful politicians”.
At the time of writing this column, late on Sunday night, I recalled with a sense of loathing how some of these villains, those who served in the police force and the old defence force, are still among us.
I recalled how they were given a second life, and were now presented as respectable and indispensable, and how they, themselves, projected deep senses of innocence and self-righteousness.
So protected are this group of people that when I dared to criticise the original sin of Hendrik Verwoerd, one defender of the realm – he always reminded me of Milton Waldman’s description of Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister during the World War 1, as a “pretentious being, with a very high idea of himself” – questioned my judgment.
Both books were reminders of the worst evils that we exposed in the 1980s, and the veritable evils and cruelty of the white leaders of the time.
In an article published over the weekend, following the release of The Lost Boys of Bird Island, Lamprecht explained:
“Even after these revelations, many white South Africans refused to believe the NP government, whom they kept in power for decades, was in charge of a death-squad network to assassinate its opponents . . .
“It all sounded too horrible, too unbelievable and just did not match the image law-abiding white South Africans had of their leaders: Family men who sat primly in the front row of their NG churches Sunday after Sunday.
“Many found it hard to believe ‘their government’ would orchestrate incidences of gross human rights abuses, including a programme of biological warfare. It all sounded too horrible to be true.”
During last Thursday’s discussion, the ghosts of that period of cruelty were brought back to life.
I was reminded, over and over again, during the twohour discussion, about the silence, among us, of those who served in the police and defence forces of the previous era.
Their violence caused such silence, it banged on my eardrums over the weekend.
In Rhetorics of Resistance, Tabold cited Christopher Merret, who explained: “The State of Emergency sought to seal off the realities of apartheid from those who enjoyed its benefits . . . and covered up the truth about the methods used to sustain apartheid”.
At the time, JM Coetzee wrote: “If people are starving, let them starve far away in the bush, where their thin bodies will not be a reproach . . .
“If the black townships are in flames, let cameras be banned from them. (At which the great white electorate heaves a sigh of relief: how much more bearable the newscasts have become)”.
In some ways we are back then, to the silence of those days when I was a journalist.
Only now “our own” people insist on silence. We are all expected to hold hands, recite inanities, light candles, forgive and forget, and build a future on a charnel house that holds the remains of the people who lost their lives during those dark days of apartheid.