/ 3 October 2023

Barry Gilder on the loyalty and loneliness of exile

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Barry Gilder’s book, At Fire Hour (Jacana Media), is a remarkable story about the courage, conviction and bravery of those who go into political exile. It honours their loyalty and comradeship but it also takes us to where suspicion, conspiracy, fear, loneliness and betrayal can thrive if kept unchecked.

At Fire Hour was created in part towards his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand. Gilder’s earlier published books are Songs and Secrets: South Africa from Leadership to Governance (Hurst/Jacana, 2012) and The List (Jacana, 2018). Durban-born Gilder went into exile in 1976 after his cultural life as a singer and the head of the National Union of South African Students’ cultural wing. The white leftie joined the banned ANC and served the movement in various leadership positions. He returned to South Africa in 1991. 

At Fire Hour is not autobiography. It is a fascinating historical fiction inspired by memory and imagination to tell the story about the fictional Bhekisizwe Makhathini, a political activist whose consciousness was initiated in the early 1970s in the South African Student Organisation. 

Makhathini went into exile in 1976. In Botswana, he fell in love with the ANC operative and jazz singer, Pumla, and he joined the organisation. Bheki was distrusted by ANC comrades because he was not charged by the security police. 

Considered an impimpi, he carried the scars of being tortured in one of the ANC’s camps far harder than the trauma of interrogation by the security police or from his alienation in the movement. Bheki is described as suffering a tortoise syndrome — a man who retreats his head in his own shell when he is insecure.

Bheki is hardly a weak man. He is stoic, a brilliant poet, a deep-thinking writer and a fighter who wants to be in the trenches. He is a passionate lover and becomes a doting father and husband. His years in exile take him from South Africa to Botswana, the Netherlands, the UK, Russia, Zambia and Zimbabwe before his return to South Africa. On this sojourn he grows into a man who carries his scars with dignity.

Gilder tale about conspiracy and survival has all the ingredients of a thriller. It is Bheki Makhathini, like so many of the fictional characters in the book, who drives the narrative, but as the plot unfolds Gilder gives the reader interesting insights into the political movement. 

The book is set against a backdrop of important events from the ANC’s arts and cultural history. It includes moments such as the formation of the Medu Art Ensemble in Botswana, the historical Culture in Another South Africa festival that took place in the Netherlands in 1987, and other events that shaped the ANC’s policies on arts and culture as well as international solidarity for the cultural boycott of South Africa.

As the plot unfolds, Bheki and the others are located at these historical ANC cultural events in direct interaction with well-known ANC cultural figures … Mongane Wally Serote, Mandla Langa, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Thami Manyele, Barbara Masekela, Albie Sachs and others. 

Gilder’s characters also work with ANC publications that were central to the banned movement’s cultural voice —The Dawn and Staf frider.

This interaction between Gilder’s fictional characters and real-life people, combined with their immersion in these historical ANC cultural events, is gripping. There is the constantly floating question about where reality has ended and where creative licence has taken over; about which characters are real and which fictional. 

Much of Gilder’s book can be considered as testimony to the struggles of the ANC in exile — or, as those gatvol of the current-day ANC would say, its nostalgia.

The book tells of the way arts and culture were an integral part of the liberation struggle, but it is essentially a remarkable story about exile, bravery, loneliness, love, conspiracy, betrayal and comradeship. 

He crafts the book as a juggling act between imagined reality or a reality re-imagined through his lenses.

One moment, you’re reading Bheki’s beautiful poems and the next his articulate prose, side by side with an almost clinical documentary style of Gilder’s own storytelling. At times, it feels like one is reading three books simultaneously.

Gilder dedicates his book to Alex la Guma, Keorapetse Kgositsile, James Madlope Phillips, Jonas Gwangwa, Lindiwe Mabuza, and all the South African activists no longer with us who, he says, “stormed the castle and defined the happening”. 

This textured cultural history of the movement has almost been erased. Yet there is no doubt culture for the ANC in exile was a priority. So how, when the ANC became a government, did it produce a dysfunctional department of sport, arts and culture? How is it that almost every minister of arts and culture in its 30-year administration has been incompetent, the last being Nathi Mthethwa, who hit rock bottom?

Gilder’s book is part history, part imagination, part nostalgia but in large part it is a reminder about the amnesia among the current ANC leadership who have forgotten about the price that was paid by cultural activists in the liberation struggle. As much as it is fiction, At Fire Hour is a wake-up call to claim back the role that cultural activists can play in creating a humane, forgiving, remorseful, accepting and ethical society.

Ismail Mahomed, the director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is an award-winning arts manager and cultural leader.