Treachery and the quest for truth

Posted on March 14, 2015


A story of collboration and betrayal in the anti-apartheid struggle
by Jacob Dlamini
Jacana (305pp, R225)

Not wishing to sound derivative I was left grasping for fresh superlatives when I finished reading Askari. Earlier reviewers had already hailed this latest offering by Jacob Dlamini in terms with which I wholly agreed.

One reviewer, Nick Mulgrew, noted: “Askari is one of the most important, probing and virtuosic works of non-fiction published in South Africa this decade.” I concur. What Dlamini, a journalist become first rate historian and academic has done, is to break new ground at a time when the concrete seal of mythology is everywhere being applied.

But he has done so in a manner that highlights how difficult is the pursuit of that elusive concept, truth. In the process, he raises a welter of questions that beg examination, even if satisfactory answers may not be forthcoming. The book is also timely, coming only shortly before the release on parole of the apartheid state’s reputedly most effective assassin, Eugene de Kock who plays a significant role in the moral quagmire that Dlamini exposes.

Askari deals mainly with those who took the ultimate step of betrayal, becoming an Askari, a turncoat who went beyond verbal treachery — the role of the impimpi — to become a torturer and killer. But this seems almost incidental as Dlamini focuses on one particular South African collaborator, Glory Sedibe — Comrade September. His examination of betrayal also ranges much wider: he pursues the nature of betrayal, across countries and continents and points to the Tina Rosenberg definition of the states of Eastern Europe being “criminal regimes” that tried to incorporate its citizens while those of Latin America were “regimes of criminals” that gave not a fig about the citizenry.

So far as I am aware, he is the first writer to clearly — and, I think, correctly — categorise the apartheid state as a hybrid of these two, a criminal state that depended largely on collaboration by the oppressed citizenry. How this was achieved, whether by coercion, bribery or the presentation of only limited choices in order to survive, is a major area of debate that Dlamini opens.

He also acknowledges, as do all too few historians who rely on oral testimony, on the unreliability of such sources, especially those with undoubted personal agendas. Much the same applies to the dry, official timelines sketched by police officials that are useful in terms of dates, but which seldom contain anything of the substance of the person described or the actions undertaken.

But what should be frightening clear to any reader is that this is not just a well-written, absorbing history; it is a description of aspects of the world in which we now live. It is a world where state agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the USA produces manuals on how best to torture and “turn” victims. It is a world in which the compromised, whether trained spies or resisters turned informers or Askari torturers and killers, all too often become absorbed back into the mainstream. As Dalmini notes, “South Africans seem to have let apartheid collaborators slip seamlessly into the new order.”

However, he also reminds us, using the words of former Czech president Vaclav Harvel, “That really means that we didn’t cut out the abscess that was infecting the whole body.” And so the poison of the past continues to course through the veins of the body politic, spreading the virus of corruption.

Throughout this absorbing narrative however, I think Dlamini successfully demolishes the cardboard cutouts that parade in so many narratives about the past — and he challenges the simplistic concepts of hero and villain. But to me, the impression that comes through most clearly is that the Askaris, and their ilk in other regions, emerged when state forces appeared all powerful.

In the South African context of the 1980s, captured revolutionaries were quickly made aware that “their side” was hopelessly compromised. And the state and its security apparatus seemed totally in control. The level of infiltration, both by the (sometimes competing) Special Branch of the police, Military Intelligence and the National Intelligence Service, also made an apparent mockery of the hardships the captured cadres had endured — and sometimes resisted — in the camps of exile.

Also alluded to here is the inequality that existed between the leaders and the led and the level of corruption within the exiled movements. These aspects are touched on and should trigger considerable concern and more questioning from anyone with any knowledge or interest in the experience, especially of the ANC in exile. This is no way excuses, justifies or fully explains the motivations for betrayal, but all of this has implications for today.

When it is realised, for example, that the critical ANC appointment of security head for Europe, later chief representative in London and then Paris was a full time apartheid state spy, it is no surprise that the amount of information available to the police torturers and interrogators in South Africa was extraordinary. Some of the detail of the life of “chief rep” Samuel Khanyile (“Solly Smith”) and his fellow London exile and impimpi, Allan Wellington Madolwana (“Francis Meli “), an executive member of the ANC and central committee member of the SA Communist Party has been been dealt with in more detail elsewhere.

However, so much more remains hidden and constitutes an ever present danger to the fragile parliamentary democracy of South Africa. In this regard, I could do no better than to quote the final sentences penned by Dlamini: “True, Sedibe’s is but one story. But it complicates how we think about apartheid and its legacies, and reminds us of the stories that still refuse to be told. As a nation, we would do well to examine the taboos, the secrets and the disavowals at the core of our collective memories.”

A book to be treasured, read and re-read. The one serious criticism being that it has been so sparsely promoted and distributed.

Posted in: Book Reviews