I have recently returned to my motherland after 12 years of unplanned self-imposed exile. As a coloured child of the 1980s, attending Wynberg Senior Secondary (not to be confused with the white Wynberg Girls’), I grew up knowing some things that I would never want my own children to have to know. Always wear a scarf to protect yourself from teargas; carry Vaseline because it helps to alleviate the burn; how to scale a fence; when you see the police, throw whatever you can at them; run and hide. Know that you may have to die for your beliefs and freedom.
The 1990s arrived and my life was transformed when I received the Nelson Mandela Scholarship at the end of that decade. The award promised to fully fund a postgraduate degree at one the best universities in the United Kingdom, with the belief that living abroad would also accelerate the development of leadership. The day I was honoured with both the award and meeting our great leader in the flesh is indelibly inscribed in my mind. Handing me my award, Madiba asked me to promise that I would return to South Africa after my studies because “your country needs you”.
In the 12 years that I spent abroad, I felt increasingly like a sellout as these words echoed in the back of my mind. When Madiba died, I went mad with grief. In the intervening years I had the privilege of getting to know the man behind the public persona thanks to the work I was doing to first manage the scholarship that bore his name and then to raise funds for his legacy trusts. I felt as though my grandfather had died, and I had reneged on my promise to him.
So I had to come home and pay back the money. I returned in July last year to a country that, in spite of annual visits, I barely recognised, for the pessimistic national mood and rampant racism, especially in Cape Town where I began to live and work.
This weekend, I attended the Franschhoek Literary Festival, in itself a controversial act. The festival has been volubly attacked, notably by writer Thando Mgqolozana, for not transforming sufficiently. But I don’t know that boycotting it will necessarily change anything.
My mother, Dianne Case, was a speaker at Franschhoek because she has recently launched her latest novel for teenagers, The Rules, which is about Manenburg and therefore obviously also about gangs. We were having lunch in a pretty garden where the writers gathered. The day was beautiful, the sun was out and sitting at a table behind my mother, I saw Eugene De Kock. I told my mother that Prime Evil was sitting behind her and clandestinely took a photograph of him with my phone.
Then along came Palesa Morudu, my mother’s publisher. When she saw De Kock, she began to shake uncontrollably. Struggling to maintain her composure, Palesa asked me to join her for the impending session that would feature De Kock’s biography by Anemari Jansen (Eugene De Kock: Assassin for the State) and If We Must Die, an autobiography by former uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) commander, Stanley Manong. The session was moderated by Redi Tlhabi, who did an admirable job as it turned out. But what an intense, fraught debate and a true reflection of where we are as a nation today.
On the way to the venue, Palesa explained to me that her 19-year-old brother had been “disappeared”. After the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), her mother had visited De Kock in prison to try to find out what had happened. De Kock helped the family, but what had happened to Moss Morudu was too heart-wrenchingly abominable to bear repeating. Abducted, tortured, murdered then tied to a pole and bombed to leave no body behind for the family to reclaim and bury.
I was horrified to see Prime Evil among us, so I couldn’t even begin to imagine the trauma being visited upon Palesa on such a fine day in picturesque Franschhoek. The venue was a school hall and we stationed ourselves in the media benches right at the back, with Palesa closest to the door. As the audience seated itself, De Kock came in and placed a chair next to the door. He sat down, next to Palesa.
The proceedings started and there were a few tears from De Kock. His biographer did a good job in humanising him. He was a soldier who had seen himself as following orders. He was scapegoated by the very leaders he served so faithfully. The fallout included the end of his relationships with his children.
Manong spoke about life in the ANC camps, the murder of his mother and the extent to which askaris (turned fighters) undermined carefully planned MK operations. He was open about abuses in the ANC camps and prisons, as he is in the book.
When the question was raised about the disappeared, Palesa began to sob quietly. She said that she had always wondered what, if anything, she would say to De Kock if she ever happened to meet him.
The whole thing was surreal, Palesa tweeted. The other panel members had met De Kock in the garden before the session and here he was, hiding in plain sight at the door. No one seemed to notice him; one audience member asked: “Is Eugene De Kock safe today?”
What can I say about the De Kock/Manong debate and the Franshhoek festival as a whole that would shed any light on where we are as a country? Manong quoted Madiba, as many people are doing these days: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” He also spoke about the primacy of ANC policy over individual leaders.
An audience member commented that the work of the TRC was incomplete. I think that it’s more than this. With something of an outsider’s view, I see a country struggling with memory and forgetting. We have tried to repress our past so much that it sometimes ruptures into our present. Then the pus and miasmic matter come bubbling to the surface. We are living with post-traumatic stress and other disorders of our violent, inhumane past. Some of us have not yet laid down our arms; we are still fighting our civil war. Is it possible to forgive the unforgivable?
When the session was over, Palesa approached De Kock and told him that her mother had visited him in prison to find out what had happened to her brother. It seemed as though they had a civil chat. Palesa remarked afterwards that she feels sorry for him. She is clearly a struggle hero with more grace than I could ever muster.
Where is our beloved country headed? So much has been said about our president, that I don’t feel I have more to add except an anecdote that Tlhabi told to close the session. Referencing the book, she spoke of when Manong arrived in Mozambique with the princely sum of R500. He had the luck of running into a certain Jacob Zuma, who said that he would exchange the R500 for Mozambican escudos. He is still waiting for his money.
A change must come. A change will come. The people have spoken. The struggle continues.
Bonita Case is a Nelson Mandela Scholar and founder/director of Baobab Communications