Clare: The terror of the mundane

Christopher Clark’s sketchy historiographic reflections on Clare Stewart’s murder consist in fragments of the fickle memory of friends and loved ones; library newspaper archives and personal journals; epistolary correspondences; police reports and recorded co-op meetings. But more than these, the author relies on a “widely held version of [decades ago] events” and uses a strong interpretive improvisational frame. 

The frame of Clare: The Killing of a Gentle Activist relies on present-day entry points to help grasp attitudes and relevance of yesteryear’s deliberate actions versus happenstances; in other words, theorise the most plausible reasons and motives for Clare’s murder. 

At the heart of the themes that weave through the story of Clare’s activism in rural KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s and early 1990s is one I want to condense as follows: a contested place of authority for “good whites who suffered too under apartheid”. The foreword by Rachel Stewart, Clare younger sister, takes three pages to hint at this condensed theme. 

Something must be said about how the author of this brilliantly written and moving account — who keeps coming back to this national memorialisation of “good whites who suffered” theme — weaves together history, poetics and narrative into the chimaera he presents here; how he make us identify with his striving for contesting legitimate political belonging of “good white South Africans who suffered during liberation struggle”. 

That’s a mouthful takeaway. To riff off of literary critic Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s understanding of the term “read” (in deconstruction parlance), it does well here to read “not with suspicion” and instead with “critical intimacy— as opposed to critical distance”. Flowing from this critical intimacy, let me attempt to break down the multiple-pronged premise I stand on. In the book Clare, i) we are dealing with a sketchy historiography; ii) we are dealing with a “border-thinking” genre that offers its reflections from the standpoint of a nonfiction narrative where evidence is not self-evident; and iii) we are dealing with a golden thread of “the good white South African’s place in post 1994 South Africa”. 

Clark writes: “Clare’s family were loath to push for the murder of a white woman to be prioritised at a time when so many black South Africans were desperately seeking justice … they hope the new dispensation would demonstrate their professed non-racialism by recognising Clare as a martyr who had served and died for the liberation struggle.”

The author takes on a daunting, cold, 10 November 1993 murder case — a white woman with many struggle credentials. She is a woman with tried magnanimity. She is of a stock of tested stewardship in black communities. She was an Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operative. A mother to mix-raced children at a time they were born a sin. She was a humble intellectual. She walked barefoot and lived in black-reserved cottages. She possessed a university agrarian qualification which she put to use for the advancement of the downtrodden. She was a rural community activist. She is Clare Stewart. 

Clare died a gruesome death. Her disappearance and retrieval of her remains ring an air of harrowing political assassinations we associate with the more well-known characters such as Nokuthula Simelane, Ahmed Timol and hundreds of others still buried in mass and shallow graves. 

Author Christopher Clark. (Samantha Reinders/New Frame)

This nonfiction account is Clark’s first long project. It comes after an illustrious investigative journalism career under his belt. The book, simply titled Clare, is discursively shaped — it is engaged at the level of ideas rather than mere truth/false forensic evidence. This allows the project to situate itself in a border-thinking area that pushes autobiographical boundaries toward narrative-biography, and figuration of archives towards archival reconfiguration. 

“I found myself being drawn to Clare … her story was one of seeking purpose and being true to oneself even in uncertainty … an apt hero for our times; at least mine,” writes Clark, breaking the biographical structure of a book on Clare to insert his own mirrored perspectives and parallel drives to Clare’s. 

The project succeeds in the frontier-pushing endeavour, where there’s a play between Clare’s and the author’s life. But it fails in the latter, where the archive is revisited to help produce a “martyr who served and died for the liberation struggle”. It fails because the relatively unknown story of Clare lacks the necessary national-level crisis to inspire or evoke a revisiting and retroping (of an old, but generally known, iteration). 

A photograph of Clare, taken in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s

The relative obscurity of this story, among many unrecognised but deserving “martyrdom” stories, is discursively undercut because, for instance, it does not fit the criteria of a contested Mandela liberatory iconography — often signified, in the twilight of rainbow euphoria (by the left, black and Pan Africanist bloc) in this shorthand: “sell-out”. Instead, this auditing of ANC’s legitimacy and hegemony falls in the echo-chamber pitfalls of a mind-made-up researcher. The project is unable to recuperate Clare and graft her on South Africa’s political wall of fame. 

Even with parallels drawn on similarly undertaken askari murders, the proximity of this “MK intermediary” (as Kasrils refers to her in exchanges with Clark) to Vlakplaas foul play, leaves a sense of forced plot. For all we know, Clare’s death might have been coincidental. The author concedes to this, though reluctantly. He writes: “I began to reluctantly accept that we would never know the full truth of what had happened.”

Although the author is open to other theories he didn’t privilege in his investigation, the project has the unfortunate air or subtext of envy for political validation. 

The slang “receipts” (proof for calling someone lying out) captures this subtext best. As a reflective project, the book rightly takes stock of the failed liberation project. It hints at the culpability of those in office but in doing so is not aware of its complicity in absolving the grand rebar of black/white power structure (where the corrupt Matjingilane political class changes face but keeps the old order intact). 

Clare is a project that is haunted by this blind spot of analogous black and white sacrifices or what might be better expressed as individuated Olympics of suffering. It easily flattens “experience”, under repression, into an ahistorical and undifferentiated plane. It also easily exaggerates “agency” into a Chuck Norris hyperbole, incommensurate with its conditions. Where the book succeeds is in its generative poetic incertitude frame. Here the author doesn’t only dump us with cold facts but tips us over, over the persuasion cliff, into a vertigo of pathos. 

There’s something fresh in how the book weaves the world of ideas and the mundane. This is apparent when Puleng, Clare’s youngest child and only daughter, talks of “mythologising her [mother] as an MK fighter”, adding that she has a tinge of pride in her martyrdom yet a ripple of resentment — for feeling abandoned by her — also equally surfaces when she thinks of how she, Clare, chose the precarity of struggle over the safety of her young children. 

Clare bears the mark of our time — the struggle to break with established modes of discourse. This struggle to refashion and repurpose fragments from history is thoroughly captivating and turns the book into a gripping page-turner.

Clare: The Killing of a Gentle Activist by Christopher Clark, Tafelberg, R320

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Rithuli Orleyn
Rithuli Orleyn works through the Blackhouse Kollective outfit, a home for Black Consciousness and Pan Africanist thought. He is a fellow of The Centre for Humanities Research and a PhD candidate in the history department at the University of the Western Cape

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