Bob Hepple’s candid account of events in the early Sixties is also rich with political and historical insight.
YOUNG MAN WITH A RED TIE
Bob Hepple (Jacana)
Arrested at Liliesleaf, Rivonia, in 1963 at the age of 29, detained without trial, and then charged with the icons of the political struggle for freedom, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada, Bob Hepple was subsequently released from incarceration and escaped to the United Kingdom.
Fifty years later, after a glittering career in which he was knighted, became master of Clare College, Cambridge, and gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s leading labour lawyers, Hepple has written an account of the events from 1960 to 1963 that were central to both South African political history and the life of the author.
Hepple provides the reader with a front-row seat to the events leading to the most important political trial in this country’s history. In particular, he reveals the startling naivety of Operation Mayibuye, the objective of which was to effect an armed overthrow of a regime equipped with the most powerful army on the continent. The document describing the campaign understood the ambition of Mayibuye: "The time for small thinking is over because history leaves us no choice."
Hepple writes that, although Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba and particularly Joe Slovo were enthusiastic supporters of it, Sisulu, Kathrada, Rusty Bernstein and Bram Fischer were opposed to its adoption. Hepple argues cogently that this strategy would and, with hindsight, did create hugely detrimental consequences for the construction of the trade union movement, whose key role in the overthrow of the apartheid regime would wait for another 15 years.
Much has been written lately about the role of the South African Communist Party and its relationship with the ANC. Most recently Stephen Ellis (External Mission: The ANC in exile 1960-1990) has prompted further intense debate on this question. Hepple’s book will doubtless add to the controversy, although his is an account of the growth of a political understanding of apartheid and the concomitant strategy to realise a nonracial society without the use of conspiracy theory and a "red under every bed" conception of the world.
As a result of the care that Hepple has taken to provide so clear a narrative, his text will enrich our understanding of political and theoretical developments at that time, which continue to shape our political ?discourse.
Ultimately, however, this book is a deeply personal memoir. Hepple was detained by the police under the then 90-day detention without trial law. During his detention, he made two statements to the police, the second of which, summarised on pages 124 and 125 of the book, admitted that he had been a member of the communist party, that he had, in effect, been a courier for Slovo and that he had been at Liliesleaf on more than one occasion, where he had met certain of the Rivonia accused.
Following this statement, Hepple remained in custody until the Rivonia prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar, decided to withdraw the charges against Hepple on condition that he became a state witness. Following his release, and with the assistance of Fischer, the lead counsel for the accused, Hepple and his wife escaped to London.
Yutar, a malevolent, ambitious and prejudiced man, who hated the idea that the white accused at Rivonia were also Jewish (Hepple is Jewish on his mother’s side), deeply resented that he was denied "his witness". He claimed, following Hepple’s escape, that the ANC had intimidated Hepple to refrain from giving evidence for the state. Yutar sought to draw a concession from Sisulu under cross-examination that Hepple was indeed a traitor.
Hepple’s statement hardly added anything to what the security police already knew. However, 50 years later, the pain caused by these events in general and Yutar’s conduct in particular seep from almost every page of this eloquently written book.
There is, of course, clear evidence that, contrary to Yutar, Sisulu never held an adverse view of Hepple. Reproduced in the book is a letter written by Sisulu to Hepple in 1964 in which Sisulu made it clear that Yutar’s conduct "did not reflect my views about you".
Second, Hepple documents his conversation with Mandela at the time of the trial about the possibility of escaping and hence subverting Yutar, which Mandela appeared to endorse. Significantly, neither at the time nor subsequently has Mandela ever repudiated or corrected this ?version.
Nonetheless, the trauma of this experience has clearly haunted Hepple, his many distinctions including his important role in the drafting of labour legislation for a democratic South Africa notwithstanding. Sadly, some mean-spirited critics (Mail & Guardian, July 12, "A treasure trove of detail, but some loose threads") have sought to question Hepple’s account of his incarceration. In his lucid account of his detention, Hepple makes no claim of the kind of torture that became standard police practice from the 1970s. His book reveals with great clarity how sleep deprivation and repeated threats by interrogators who hold detainees at their whim for an indefinite period can break even the most committed person.
Louis West, an American psychiatrist who worked initially with American prisoners of war, developed the concept of the DDD syndrome&ndashdebility, dependence and dread. All were induced by solitary confinement and meant that, without any physical torture, police could still&ndashand did&ndashcompel confessions from the most hardy of individuals. That the judiciary sanctioned this conduct by admitting this kind of evidence in many political trials remains a major blight on the institution.
Hepple’s description, which falls directly within this syndrome, is replicated in its essence by the description of Denis Goldberg of his experience of detention prior to his being charged at the Rivonia trial (The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa), including the way in which a notorious security branch member, Rooi Rus Swanepoel, used his revolver to strike fear into detainees.
Young Man with a Red Tie is a startlingly candid treatment, both of the fundamental flaws of the liberation movement’s political strategy during the early 1960s and of the author’s own role and how it altered his life. It is rare to read so honest an account of both the political and the personal.