Imraan Coovadia on ‘The Poisoners’ and keeping science honest

Imraan Coovadia was born in Durban in 1970; he is the author of seven novels, including High Low In-between and Tales of the Metric System, and three works of nonfiction, most recently, Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela. His writing has also appeared in numerous newspapers, journals and magazines, including Chimurenga, N+1, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Mail & Guardian sat down with Coovadia to talk about his most recent work, The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past (1973-2020); a book that considers the political life of poisons in South Africa, from the apartheid state’s covert chemical and biological weapons programme to former president Jacob Zuma’s accusations of poisoning. It is an unsettling read, awash with “stories of what was done in this country and what was never supposed to be revealed and what will never be atoned for”.

Bongani Kona: There’s an obvious connection between your last book, Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela and The Poisoners. Both books are dependent on extensive archival research and, to put it crudely, the former is about saints and the latter is about mass murderers. These are books that meditate on the question of good and evil. What led you to write the book on Mandela, and what lessons did you think it held for our time?

Imraan Coovadia: Well, I’m not sure if it holds any lessons for anybody, but what do I think is very valuable about those three figures? Firstly, for them, writing and acting in the world were kind of inseparable, you know. They were so deeply linked to each other. And when you start thinking about Mandela as a reader — as in, how did his reading shape his statesmanship? — he was an extremely original human being. 

How can we understand his originality partly from how he worked as a reader? In literature departments they’ll tell you can never read for the content; you don’t read for an argument or an idea: you read on some sort of second order level to understand fictionality or whatever, but Mandela read to find out about the world. He read Tolstoy to understand how war worked. He read Menachem Begin to understand: How can I run a guerrilla movement? 

This is someone for whom books aren’t an option. They aren’t a luxury: they’re as essential as breathing. To say that nowadays seems bizarre because we have so many different forms of information but to think about Mandela in that context really gives you an insight into how powerful books were for him.

But Tolstoy, Mandela and Gandhi are also interesting because they were kind of evolving imperfect people; clearly imperfect versions of masculinity. In Gandhi’s case, imperfect in terms of his understanding of Africa and Africans. And, in all of their cases, imperfect in terms of their marriages, but evolving towards something better and very interested in self-improvement, and also very interested in improving the world. 

And I think when we try to understand why revolutions go wrong — why do they put us back even worse than where we were in the first place, or often, in just as bad a place? — I think this is a very good place to begin. To ask ourselves, how do we have leaders who let go of this need to improve themselves? And how do we keep that desire to improve ourselves alive in us as individuals in our everyday interactions? 

Mandela inspired people in their personal lives, and I think when we see people at the top behaving badly, it does the opposite thing. It inspires people negatively. I also have to say, reading through those three archives, thinking about them, piecing together whatever I pieced together from them, was a very moving experience. It’s moving to see people trying to be good in a country like this, which in some ways, teaches you to suspend the need to be good.

Revolution and Non-violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela is an academic text. But the invitation of that book — to imagine the world without you in it — in many ways goes beyond politics. It’s quite spiritual in that way. The Poisoners, by contrast, is very dark. What led you to look at poison, or rather, how poison has seeped into and shaped the political affairs of Southern Africa over the past 50 years or so? And why do you think it necessary to tell these stories now?

Look, the specific intuition that led me into writing this book was trying to understand: Why do we live in a society with such distrust and suspicion? And I realised that ethnic identities are constituted by a kind of corrupting storytelling; that people bind each other into hostile groups by circulating certain kinds of stories between themselves. 

I suppose I wanted, in a way, to understand: What does it mean that our society, which is filled with very many wonderful and lovely people, nevertheless, doesn’t seem to be controlled by an ideal of good and evil? In fact, it loses its way around issues of violence, of telling the truth, of being accountable to people. 

So, I think underlying this, my intuition was here is a way into this very troubling moral fact about ourselves. We are kind of disintegrating because we can’t keep a hold on what’s right and what’s wrong, and how did our framework disappear? 

With Mandela and Gandhi and Tolstoy, they were trying to assemble a framework of ways of being good in personal life, and in the imagination, and in societies that were very troubled. But here we have a democracy, and we seem to be going the other way: we seem to be dismantling our framework of goodness and morality and decomposing our ways of coexistence. So that was particularly why this story, this set of stories, seemed compelling to me. 

I don’t always buy the argument that everything’s about apartheid. Everything now has to do with what happened then. But there clearly are these weird links that happen, often below the level of conscious argument or political events between what happened then what happens now, how we treat each other. And I thought this [The Poisoners] was one very compelling way into that continuity.

I’d like to ask you about process. How do you plot your nonfiction projects? The Poisoners is divided into five chapters. Was the structure set like that in your mind when you started out, or was it guided by the research? 

The Poisoners was definitely guided by the research. I mean, it was an accidental book in the sense that I first kind of stumbled on to Robert Symington, the Rhodesian poisoner; a man who masterminded the poisoning of thousands, who was hired by the University of Cape Town (UCT) and died in the UCT swimming pool in 1983. 

Members of the British South Africa Police on patrol in Rhodesia in 1973. (Grant-Parke/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

My first thought was: these Rhodesians are really mad. I mean, look at the things they did that have never really been discussed or dealt with. And then I realised, well, when they arrived in South Africa, look what they did in South Africa. Those chapters just appeared as actual material. 

Having said that, writing nonfiction, you collect the facts, and you report on the facts. It’s much more like being an advocate trying to make a case. It’s a very different process of composition compared to writing fiction. It’s probably more congenial to me. I think I have a more rational mind than a creative one. So, in some ways, the writing came very easily. 

I was just like: let’s try to understand what’s happening here. Let’s set out the facts and establish the chronology and let’s see what we can know. What do we know for sure? What can we say probably happened? What can we infer if you set out the different categories of knowledge and try to put it all together? 

And from there, it became very interesting, because obviously, it’s a case of facts and evidence, data, court transcripts, but it’s also a question of storytelling. What stories weren’t told? What about these stories Zuma is telling about poisoning? Why is this such an interesting thing to tell stories about? What stories hold a society together? So, in the case of this book, I feel like being really grounded in facts and data let me think about things I wouldn’t have been able to think about as a novelist, in imagination.

As is well documented, the apartheid security establishment incinerated many of its records, but this is a book that relies so much on archival research. What challenges did this pose for you? You also write about the difficulty you had getting your hands on documents relating to a court case involving Wouter Basson. May I ask you to elaborate?

I have to say that just reading through the Basson court case, which is 25 000 pages in Afrikaans, was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I am amazed the South African public doesn’t have a nice account of exactly the kinds of decisions that were made in that courtroom. If you call up the Gauteng provincial division, those transcripts are missing, of the Wouter Basson trial. I looked around for them and I thought I was at a dead end. 

Wouter Basson, aka Dr Death, in court. (Photo: Madalene Cronjé)

And then someone told me they think that Maggie Davey, a publisher and playwright, has them. So, I called up Maggie and had a long conversation with her and she sent me these one or two gigabyte files of Basson material, which is, as far as I know, you can’t find any other way. And then I was faced with 25 000 pages in Afrikaans, in a PDF, which is way too big for my computer to handle. 

But from there, one thing led to another, and then I started realising I could follow this thread through all kinds of different texts, novels, nonfiction, narratives of special forces, soldiers, et cetera. But then I also realised that the archive I was looking at was very, very compromised. 

You know, the most important work on Rhodesian chemical weapons is written by Glenn Cross, a man who seems to be an FBI or CIA agent of some kind and is very mysterious. He was very friendly at first but was very reticent afterwards. And if you look at the details of what happened between him and the suspected anthrax poisoning in the US in 2001, then you know you’ve got to treat that source, as well as many of the other sources with some care. But it’s incredible what’s out there.

Imraan Coovadia’s The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past. (Umuzi)

The Poisoners makes a surprising turn midway, shifting focus from the paramilitary use of poisons during apartheid to Thabo Mbeki’s administration catastrophic response to the HIV/Aids crisis. ‘Life expectancy in South Africa [then],’ you write, ‘fell more than in any other place on Earth that was not engaged in large-scale combat operations.’ This is a subject you’ve explored twice before in your fiction, in the novels High Low In-between and (briefly) in Tales of the Metric System. May I ask you to expand on why this is a subject so close to your heart?

Well, I mean, anytime you lose two million people, you wonder: Where did they go, and what happened to them? When I was an undergraduate, I took a class on the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The professor said in the year of the Cultural Revolution — or sorry, it was the Great Leap Forward, so, it’s like 1957 — Mao Zedong told people that they needed to convert their backyards into mini steel smelters so that every peasant would help industrialisation. 

And what, in fact, happened was that millions of people starved to death because they didn’t plant their crops in time. And the professor said at the Chinese Communist Party congress that year, even though 11 million or 14 million people had starved to death, there wasn’t a single mention of what had happened. Now, that’s not absolutely true in South Africa. 

But what’s very interesting is that there are so few political consequences, or memories of what happened, and how we let all these people down. Many of our heroes, who are in the cabinet now or in the political system of the state-owned enterprises; they lived through a government that denied and delayed treatment for hundreds of thousands, let’s face it, probably millions of people. We probably have a million young people growing up without their parents because of that. 

Protestors demanding the provision of antiretroviral treatment in 2001. (Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

So, you know, yes, it’s something that’s very close to me, and understanding that disaster is not something I’ll ever get to the end of, even though it maybe seems repetitive. There’s the old Indian story of the elephant. Eleven different people touch it in a different part, and every part of the elephant you touch, you see something different. So, this is one of those great and terrible events. You try to find lots of different ways to think about it, and it needs to be thought about in different ways.

You’ve spoken about how writing Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Mandela changed you as a person. How did this book affect you?

How did it change me? Look, we are all faced with the question of how does good come about in the world? How does evil come about in the world? And I think, in some ways, it’s always mysterious; you know, as a writer, you always wonder: Why did this thing come to be? 

It’s very interesting to me to have been able to sketch for myself, how this strange complex of stories and actions and secrets kind of came to be in the world and spread through our country and its subculture. And I suppose you understand a bit about how evil comes to be and how things go wrong, but also, what’s important to make things go right. 

Then there is the disaster that is unfolding around us, when people are surrounded by false information; literally every minute, another piece of false information comes in on WhatsApp or Facebook or whatever it is, and most people don’t have the time or energy to filter them. They trust the sources that come from people they trust. And so, I think it’s made me a lot more interested in this question of corrupt storytelling, and how do we find a more truthful form of storytelling? 

And I think secondarily, this question of: What is the progressive thing to do in a particular case. Is it to go along with, say, critiques of Western pharmaceutical companies? Should we undermine our law system because it’s clearly been misused in the past and abused for all kinds of reasons? I just think these are very tricky and interesting questions and I’m interested in them. 

Now, what more personal consequences it’s had, I don’t know. I think it’s made me very aware that beneath the surface of our society, the things that actually move us and shape us and alter our feelings aren’t what appears in the newspapers at all — they are the secrets. I suppose as a novelist I always knew that, but as a kind of nonfiction writer, it’s interesting to find out how that works; why it could be.

Reading your book made me look at vaccine hesitancy in a different light. What The Poisoners underlines is that there is a long history here of scientists and medical practitioners not behaving in ways they should. Using science for evil, to put it plainly. Do you have any thoughts around that?

You are hitting on a very big problem, which is science is such a powerful force in our life; such a powerful force for good in our health and everything else. And when it’s misused, it can reach into us and hurt us. I mean, the story of a lot of these questions of poisoning is people were using science and technology to harm people and I think we really haven’t come to terms with the way our universities were complicit in this. 

But I think it’s why it’s so important to keep science honest. And for scientists to look back and reflect on what happened. I mean, one thing I note is, I don’t know if you remember how the CIA found Osama Bin Laden, or made sure he was in that house in Islamabad? They sent around a team of people saying they were vaccinating people, if I remember correctly, and so you can imagine that vaccine hesitancy in that city is probably quite high.

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