In July 1964, when I was twenty-four, my life in South Africa came to a sudden end. The events which brought this about were of my own making. No one else was to blame. In the gulf that opened up between my reach and my limits, between my knowledge and my self-ignorance, between my fantasies and my capacities, I crashed. It did not happen privately, but publicly and in full view of everyone who knew me. The events which took place wrecked a pattern of life which up until then had been active, promising and committed. For reasons which I still do not fully understand, I tried to do things which were far beyond me, and I failed. I tried to help change the world around me but in the process I destroyed my own, I betrayed my friends and colleagues and I damaged the cause which I believed in and had worked for. Most of the people who until then had trusted and respected me now regarded me with contempt. Others, in the government and security services, who had seen me as a radical and troublemaker, knew me to be broken and finished. When I left the country six months later, nothing remained of the life I had led at the start of that year.
It has taken me a long time to be able to look at what happened and try to come to terms with it. But now that the obscenity of official apartheid has been formally buried, perhaps it is time to do so. What follows is as much an essay in the personal politics of fear as it is an essay in the politics of failure and betrayal.
At the Cape of Good Hope, in the Western Province of South Africa, it rains in winter. Winter days are not much shorter than summer ones, but they seem so, because it is colder. People spend less time out of doors. There can be clear, blue spells but it is often overcast and damp. The soil is dark and moist, the trunks of the Cape oaks are wet and black. I do not remember frost. Now and again the mountains which rim the Cape Peninsula were topped with snow and sometimes even Table Mountain had a white fringe on it, but the snow never fell on the town or suburbs.
With its beautiful mountains, its mild climate and its long coasts, the Cape was a wonderful, almost innocent place to grow up during the 1940s and 50s. I came from a liberal, Jewish, professional family. My father was a quiet but much-loved doctor; my mother taught the piano occasionally, did charity work and played bridge. I did the things that most boys did. I went to the equivalent of a good grammar school (an all-white school in those days), played rugby and cricket in an undistinguished way, climbed the mountains of the Cape at weekends, swam and surfed my way through the hot and often windy summers, and rode around barefoot on my bike. I enjoyed drama at school, and loved being in plays.
It was a wonderful childhood, especially so because the Cape seemed to be exempt from the extremes of climate and politics that characterized much of the rest of the country. Travelling north to Johannesburg in the winter holidays to stay with cousins, I was always struck by the contrasts there: the dry, frost-hardened brown veld, the ugly squatting mine-dumps, the violent city, the relentless segregation. But even as I was entering my teens the political forces whose origins lay in those northern provinces of the Transvaal and Orange Free State had already begun their southward march, and I developed a sense of outrage at the way my fellow South Africans were being treated under apartheid. By the time I reached late adolescence I was writing angry political poetry. It was inevitable, I suppose, that as soon as I entered university I became involved in student and national politics.
Cape winters are driven by a north-westerly wind. The swell of the ocean is grey and thick. Storms batter the sea and it lashes the coast. When it was foggy and the wind was in the right direction, you could sometimes hear the mournful, repetitive thud of the Moullie Point foghorn many miles away, around the arm of Signal Hill, as it warned ships of the dangers at the entrance to Table Bay. Unlike the warmth and windy openness of summer, winters seemed enclosed and dangerous and I felt trapped in them. Summer always came as an escape.
It was in the middle of just such a winter, on July 4, 1964, that I was woken by the security police at dawn. My girlfriend was in the flat at the time. It was a sudden, threatening invasion. One minute I was asleep, the next there was banging on the front door and then the small flat seemed to bulge with security men. They opened drawers and cupboards, pulled books off shelves, fingered their way through files, rifled through papers, read letters, checked address books, clambered on to the veranda and prodded under boxes.
The raid turned out to be one of many that were conducted across the country that morning. The security police had come to search for incriminating material which might connect me with any proscribed political organization or illegal political activity. So far as I knew, the flat was ‘clean’, apart from a few academic journals and books that were probably banned. But I was wrong. I had made a fundamental error which was to set in motion the events that followed.
About two years previously, I had been recruited into a small organization which came to be known as the African Resistance Movement (ARM), though it had originally been named the National Committee for Liberation (NCL). I did not know everyone who was in it as it was organized in a series of supposedly insulated regions and cells, but its active membership probably consisted of about forty people across the country, plus a wider group of local supporters, and a handful abroad. Its main purpose was to sabotage public installations such as electricity pylons and cables as a means of protest against the apartheid regime. It was careful not to endanger human life. The cause was right, and politically it seemed to me to be the next inevitable step. Small as it was, the organization had in many respects been very successful in what it did. Its activities provided an outlet for the frustration and hopelessness I had increasingly come to feel about conventional forms of resistance to the regime. But I now have the uneasy sense that perhaps it was my personal needs that found expression in those activities, needs that had only a tenuous relationship to the politics of the country. There was excitement in the secret danger of the work, and I was flattered to have been asked to join the organization. Maybe membership of it gave me a sense of self-importance, even of worth. It certainly served to ease the guilt that I had come to feel about growing up white and privileged in South Africa. Perhaps, in striving to be ever more radical, more daring and more risk-taking, I was trying to appear superior to other young men with whom I felt myself to be in competition.
I cannot give a clear profile of my motives except to say that, looking back now, I detect a fatal mixture in them which I was not able to explore. Without really realizing what I was doing, I slipped into a kind of danger for which I was neither suited nor prepared.
Months before that morning’s raid, I had been given a document to read by the man who had been training us in the use of explosives. If I remember correctly, it was no more than two or three pages in length. It set out in very general terms the kind of steps one should take when identifying and assessing a target, and how to attack it. It might well have come from an elementary military handbook. In its generality, it was both innocent and incriminating. I had concealed it in a book on one of the shelves and then forgotten about it. There were a lot of books in the flat and it was pure chance that a security man pulled out that particular one. He paged through it, came across the document and handed it to Lieutenant van Dyk, who was in charge. Van Dyk was a well-known and feared member of the Cape Town Special Branch. I had seen him on a few occasions observing demonstrations and protest meetings, always taking notes. A lean man, he stared at one through black-rimmed glasses and could switch rapidly from mild, perceptive questioning to fury. He and his more violent sidekick, ‘Spyker’ van Wyk, whom I was to meet later, were a formidable pair.
He flipped through the document and seemed uninterested. From where I sat, waiting for the search to finish, I could not see what it was and I tried to appear unconcerned. The men collected a pile of papers, reports, books and an LP which they were going to take away for further examination. Then van Dyk handed me the document, and asked me quietly what it was. When I saw what it was, a wave of fear washed through me and then receded. There was a moment when I felt that my world was about to come to an end. I cannot remember precisely what I said. I probably tried to convey nonchalance, mumbling that it was something I had found or been given, but could not remember where or when, it had hardly seemed important.
I suddenly became aware of the cold. There was cold without and cold within. I began to shiver and moved closer to the one-bar electric fire. ‘Cold, hey? I see you feel it,’ said van Dyk. There was both menace and understanding in his words. Men like that, hunters of other men, seem to be able to smell fear. I had been involved in importing plastic explosive, blowing up electricity pylons and railway signalling cables and attempting to topple a radio transmitter. To be convicted of such sabotage meant a minimum mandatory prison sentence of at least five years, more likely ten or twenty, possibly life, and conceivably death by hanging. I was in serious trouble.
The security men took the name and address of my girlfriend and then allowed her to go home. They appeared to have no interest in her. Although she was also a member of the organization, she was unknown to them. She kept explosives and other incriminating materials at her flat and in a nearby lock-up. She knew it was important to move them.
Collecting their findings, the security men suddenly left. Still shaken by what they had discovered, I was now confused by their departure. I was unable to think clearly about what had happened or what I should do. Yet what did happen, in the hours, days, weeks and months that followed, was to devastate all our lives. But there was not the slightest premonition of this, in the few empty minutes that followed. I didn’t even consider making a run for it, nor think about where I might go. Although I was frightened, a rational adult awareness of the reality of the danger I was facing had not yet displaced the illusion—the illusion of a child—that nothing especially terrible could occur. Something would change the situation. This was not supposed to be happening. It would go away. Time seemed to be suspended. Almost ritually, I washed and dressed. I’m not sure what I intended to do next. A friend and I had planned a day’s climbing on the mountain. It was a Saturday morning. It was still early, perhaps seven or seven-thirty. It was very quiet. And it was cold.
Within ten or fifteen minutes, perhaps less, there was a thundering of feet on the stairs and the security men were back. Van Dyk seemed breathless and excited, almost aroused. It was as if he thrived in these sorts of moments, and I saw this in him again, later, during interrogations, when a junior brought him a bit of news from somewhere else. It was almost as if his self-control intensified under excitement and stress. He re-entered the flat and told me that he was placing me under arrest and would be applying to detain me under the (then) ninety-day detention provision whereby people could be held, for interrogation, in solitary confinement without charge for up to ninety days (this could be repeated again and again). Weeks later, I asked him why he had not done this as soon as he found the document. He said he wanted to wait and see what I would do or where I might go. I don’t know if this is true, or whether he had in fact not assimilated the implications of the document until he had got back to his car and begun to read it properly.
In the event it did not matter. I was taken to the central police station at Caledon Square and allowed to phone a lawyer (a privilege that was quite usual for whites, if not always for blacks) to tell him that I was going to be detained in solitary confinement under the ninety-day law. They took me over to the cells, above the charge office, and steered me into one that was about five feet by eight. Then they slammed the door and left.
I had spent weekends in the cells before—indeed, in the very same cell on one occasion—after having been arrested on demonstrations or sit-ins. But this was different. I can remember little now about the first two days except that I swayed between hope and terror.
I tried to believe that they would not be able to make much of a single document. I began to make up a story to account for it having been in my flat. I remember saying to myself: ‘Well, boy, now you have to sit tight and sweat it out.’ If I could stick to my story about the document for long enough, maybe it would be all right.
But my confidence about this began to flap backwards and forwards like a curtain in a breeze, letting in waves of fear. For I was also certain that there was no way out of the cell. There would be no heroic escape from the situation, and I knew that I was guilty, if that is the right word, of what they suspected. I hoped that the lawyer I had phoned would make public the news of my arrest so that others in the organization would be able to go underground or get out of the country immediately, as was our policy if any one of us were to be arrested.
Most of my Cape Town associates heard about my arrest over that weekend or shortly afterwards. Three of them went into hiding and then made daring escapes out of the country by land, sea and air. As they went, some were able to warn people in Johannesburg and a few more managed to escape. I am very glad they did. But others did not. They waited, going about their normal business, in some cases for nearly a month. Why did they wait? I don’t know, although I think I should have done exactly the same. After all, I had remained in my flat for that critical fifteen minutes between the departure of the security men and their return to arrest me. Why did I wait? Could I have escaped? Did I want to be caught? Did I not believe that what was happening was real? I don’t know.
I am ashamed to write about the events that followed my arrest. Whenever I think about them, there is a side of me that simply wants to die, and always will. But the bare bones can be stated quite plainly. The suddenness, speed and near-comprehensiveness of the disintegration of my will and ability to resist interrogation in solitary confinement took me totally by surprise. It took others by surprise, too. I just caved in.
The security men had shadowed my girlfriend back to her flat and had observed her moving suitcases and boxes. They tracked the equipment to where she had taken it, and arrested her. At midnight on the third day of my detention—it was the Monday after the dawn Saturday arrest—they marched me from my cell and confronted me with what they’d found. It was all there in the suitcases: explosives, detonators, wire, tools and documents. They wanted to know about everything and, especially, everyone involved.
I have two clear memories from that night. First, as I waited for the interrogation to start, I remember seeing balloons of eerie blue light outside the window of Colonel Rossouw’s second-floor office. It was the winter fog wrapping itself around the street lights. Beyond loomed the dark shape of the deserted City Hall, its Victorian trimmings glistening black from the damp of the night. Second, I remember seeing Rossouw, the chief interrogator, taking a pair of red rubber gloves from his desk drawer and putting them on as he approached me. Whenever I see gloves like that now, I remember that night.
Rossouw waved the other security men out of his office, shoved me against a wall and started to punch me in the stomach. He roughed me up with his fists, but it was nothing, absolutely nothing, in comparison to what other people in South Africa and elsewhere have been subjected to at the hands of political police. Moments later the other security men burst through the door, wanting (or pretending to want) to have a go as well, screaming at me. But they didn’t touch me. I slid to the floor by the wall, more in shock than in pain. At that moment I knew for certain that the roughing up would continue until I eventually cracked. It was then that I started to talk.
Over the following days and weeks, they played the good-guy-bad-guy routine in their interrogations; and I knew and yet did not know that they were doing it. Slowly but surely I spilled the beans. I gave the names of colleagues who had been members of the Cape Town wing of ARM—at first a few, hoping others would go to ground and escape, then a few more and then more. Randolph Vigne, Eddie Daniels, Spike de Keller, Stephanie Kemp, Tony Trew, Mike Schneider and Alan Brooks. Then I gave the names of people in the Johannesburg wing whom I knew, including that of one of my dearest friends, Hugh Lewin. Though some were fortunately able to escape, arrests followed quickly, first in Cape Town, then in Johannesburg. As the organization unravelled, the security police pursued links and connections, making further arrests in the provinces of Natal and the Eastern Cape.
Then, about three weeks after I had been detained, John Harris, one of the Johannesburg members of the organization who had not been arrested, planted a bomb in the city’s main railway station. Although a warning was given, the bomb went off before it could be found. An elderly woman was killed, a child mutilated, and twenty-three people were injured. Late that night, my cell door swung open to reveal van Dyk, white with rage, his eyes bulging behind his glasses. He screamed, ‘Twenty people have been killed in Johannesburg by one of your bombs. You fucking Jew. Now you’ll hang.’ He believed that I had concealed John Harris’s name from him, so allowing the bombing to happen. In fact, although I had once met John in a different context, I had no idea that he was a member of ARM. And it had been our policy never to endanger human life. I remember the look on van Dyk’s face as he drew his finger across his throat, first slowly and then with a final, quick jerk, pointed at me, and slammed the cell door shut.
For the rest of that night I could barely control a muscle in my body, and I shivered in terror until dawn. If I had been cracked by the interrogations of the first week, now I was split wide open. More or less (though not quite) everything that I still knew about the organization poured out. I was to remain in solitary confinement for five months, but I was undone in the first two months, perhaps even the first two minutes, of detention. Any remaining ability to resist the urge to do anything to get out of there—to crawl, to beg, to trade—dissolved that night. Whatever remaining determination I had to stand by my colleagues, whatever commitment I had to doing the right thing—and whatever fear I had of what people would say or think of me if I did not—simply evaporated.
Afterwards I realized that I had learned something else that night. I learned that at the root of every fear I had ever had, and every fear I would ever have, was the impossible thought, the horror, of my own extinction. That terminal terror was at the core of all my fear and it has fed every fear I have had since, however unimportant, and each has seemed like a small reminder and expression of it. Today, when trivial things give me a fright or when I am apprehensive about something relatively minor, I am aware how quickly and directly those superficial fears can connect with that deeper, final fear.
As a child, I did dangerous and stupid things—all children do. I climbed rock faces without ropes, swam in treacherous currents and rode bicycles without brakes on busy roads. In early adulthood, I blew up pylons and dodged police patrols, and I felt tense and excited when doing such things. But none of this implied bravery. Instead it was the false childish courage that comes from self-ignorance. Nothing ever felt life-threatening, and so I don’t think I ever really understood fear. I had certainly never known real fear. But now I understood it: now I really understood it.
Three or four weeks after the main interrogations were complete, I was moved from the police station to the local Roeland Street prison. For a while I was held in one of the former death cells, used for condemned prisoners when hangings were still carried out in Cape Town (by the 1960s all hangings were carried out in Pretoria, at the rate of some sixty or seventy executions per year). It was a contradictory place, given its function. Though it had been a kind of death row, it was a large, sunny, airy cell, in a separate block from the rest of the prison. The top half of the door was covered in heavy mesh through which the twenty-four-hour guard could keep watch in case the prisoner tried to take his own life. Final messages by condemned men (I assumed they were men) were scored deeply into the walls. The messages were still visible despite many coats of institutional paint. One, in a corner near the door, read: ‘Why does man fear death but death fears no man?’
How many men had been through that cell before being finally led away to the gallows I did not know. Nothing in my life had prepared me for such a place. And the weeks spent in it only strengthened my longing to escape, whatever the cost. For some of the time I was there I believed I might be hanged myself, until it became clear that the authorities were going to try the station bombing separately from other ARM affairs. Which they did: John Harris was found guilty and executed in Pretoria on April 1, 1965. He went to the gallows singing ‘We Shall Overcome’.
Looking back, it would be easy to blame my collapse on the roughing up, or the detention in solitary, or the interrogations and the fear they generated, or on my short stay in the former death cell. But it wouldn’t really be true. It was much less what was done to me in detention, and much more the encounter with myself that brewed the acid that stripped me. I very quickly realized—almost as soon as I was arrested—that what lay ahead was the probability of twenty years or more in prison, perhaps something even more terrible and final, and that I could not take it. I felt the uncontrollable inner hiss of a deflating capacity to resist. By and by, I was exposed: shameless, self-ignorant, terrified and miserable. I gave names. I betrayed comrades.
Many people in detention and under pressure make statements and many can be made to talk. But I was to do worse: I gave evidence against my friends and colleagues at the trials of the Cape Town and Johannesburg groups. Some eight or nine other members also agreed to give evidence and a few of them went on to do so (the others were not called and were released). But my responsibility for the face-to-face betrayal was by far the greatest. Having been at the centre of the organization, the evidence I gave was the most damaging. Though I was able to protect some members, and some other people who had helped the organization, I told the court in the November 1964 trial of our Cape Town group (Eddie Daniels, Spike de Keller, Stephanie Kemp, Tony Trew and Alan Brooks) about recruitment, about training, about meetings and about attacks on targets, about who did what and where and when. Towards the end of this evidence, I broke down in the box and wept. But it was not over, not yet. I was flown north in a creaking military plane, to be a witness in the Johannesburg trial of Baruch Hirson, Raymond Eisenstein, Fred Prager and my friend, Hugh Lewin.
Though there was one acquittal (Fred Prager) everyone else went to prison. Eddie Daniels served fifteen years on Robben Island; Baruch Hirson served nine years; Hugh Lewin served seven years; Raymond Eisenstein, Tony Trew, Alan Brooks and Spike de Keller each served two years and Stephanie Kemp served one year. Finally, after five months, when there was virtually nothing left to betray and the court cases were completed, the authorities kept their side of the filthy bargain I had struck, removing me from detention, and from South Africa, forever.
I left South Africa on January 1, 1965, at the height of the southern summer, when I was twenty-four. I have never returned. It is where I come from, it is where I grew up. There are some things about it that I miss more than I can bear to think about: the pluralism of the cultures and the colours; the sea and the sun and the oaks and the grapevines below the mountains, and (now) the few people I know personally who are still there or who have gone back. But I miss little else: certainly not the brutality of its history, certainly not the ugliness of its still-enduring social distortions and crudities, certainly not the offensiveness of its staggering inequalities, certainly not its endemic cruelty, and certainly not the continuing violence of its uncertain future. Now with official apartheid dead, I hope that the immensity of the country’s optimism will overcome the problems of its new democracy. But I do not feel easy about going back, apart, perhaps, from now and again wishing I could visit some of the places of my childhood.
What had started as a successful late teenage and early adult life was now, in 1965, a wasteland. Nothing remained. I had been an able student at university, president of the university students’ union and the national union of students, active in a wide range of causes and committees. I was seen as a good speaker, energetic, courageous and respected. It was thought I would go far. I had spoken out, marched, demonstrated and campaigned against apartheid in all its forms. I had helped to raise scholarship funds for black and brown students. I had made illegal visits to black townships and colleges to forge links with the much more courageous students and activists at those institutions. I had been invited abroad to conferences. I had criticized people for not standing up to be counted. In an article (embarrassingly entitled ‘Courage of Conviction’) published shortly before my arrest I had even written that ‘those who are not for us are against us’. I had called for sacrifice and I had led people to expect things from me, and they did. As I became increasingly involved in ARM, I had urged action and more action. Though I had them, I suppressed my fears about what we were doing and why we were doing it, put aside my doubts about our usefulness and entirely failed to examine not only the sources of my energy, but also the way it was expressed in political activism. I had actively helped to draw people into the organization. They trusted and depended on me.
When arrested and interrogated, I simply collapsed like a house of cards. Giving his verdict in the Cape Town trial, a judge said that to refer to me as a rat was hard on rats.
In the years that followed it is unsurprising that, apart from some family members and a few extraordinary friends, most South African radicals disowned, excommunicated or avoided me. The national student movement which I had led for two years wrote to tell me that I had been struck off its list of life members. I had been a member of the South African Liberal Party, but had grown disillusioned with its policies and practices. Now the party sent me a crisp letter of expulsion. After I arrived in Britain, people advised me not to try to study at this university or that, as there would be much hostility, or it would be very awkward as other South African exiles were there. An old friend advised that I should not study politics and should certainly never try to teach it. People wrote with more or less controlled venom, suggesting I return to the woodwork from which I had crawled. A friend from university days, the distinguished South African poet, C. J. Driver, wrote a novel in which the weakly disguised main character—obviously me—ends up being executed. An acquaintance wrote to say that when he had heard about what happened he had sworn to kill me. People pointedly avoided me. Occasionally in London I would catch sight of a South African exile whom I knew, and I would turn and flee. On the whole I avoided the city and I still sometimes feel uneasy in it. Of course it was not London that I was uneasy with, but myself.
This is only a summary of the outer history of my betrayal. It took a long time for me even to be able to acknowledge what I had done. I doubt I will ever really understand the inner history of my actions. We are all capable of self-deceit, especially when seeking to tell the truth.
When people have spoken to me since about what I did then they tend to express themselves in one of two ways. The charitable way says: No one really knows how he or she will react when faced with those kinds of pressures, however severe or slight, and it is prudent therefore not to judge others. But I have often wondered why we do not know how we will react. Is it because we do not know ourselves sufficiently well? Is that why we may sometimes act in a fog of self-ignorance and so get ourselves into situations which we should not be in and to which we turn out not to be equal? Or is it that we can never anticipate what those situations will be anyway, and that we can never know ourselves until we are in them? I honestly do not know.
The other way says: How could you do it? Why on earth did you behave like that? Why did you collapse so quickly and betray so completely? It is almost incomprehensible how someone like you could do that. Cracking in solitary is understandable, most people do, but going on to give evidence for that bloody state against your colleagues? Why? How could you face yourself while doing it, let alone afterwards?
The simplest and most obvious explanation would be to say that I was yellow: straightforward cowardice explains a lot. But why? My behaviour and outlook before detention and confinement was not cowardly, at least I don’t think it was. I did things and risked things that most of my companions did not. In no way did I foresee or plan what happened in detention: I cannot actually imagine anyone planning such a thing. So if it was cowardice, what explains it in those circumstances? I have come to think that not all of the choices we make are as rational as we might want them to be, especially the fateful ones. Perhaps they are more like lunges, propelled by deeper currents of animal fear, survival urges, aggression, insecurity, pain, hate, lust or hunger which surface unpredictably and which can have the power to push aside all values, beliefs, morals, culture, restraint, reason and self-dignity. They don’t always do this, but they can. I think something like that was going on when I came to choose what I was going to do. It was a choice, and it was mine: for although there was pressure and fear and disorientation, no one forced me. I can remember making some elementary calculations of costs and benefits, of what might happen if I did or did not give evidence against my friends and colleagues, searching for justifications and let-outs. But I also have the sense that the choice was actually driven forward on the powerful tide of another kind of energy, one which was prior to rational calculation and assessment. One current in that tide was fear, terrible fear. But it was more complicated than that, and deeper. It was almost as if I had found myself in a situation of my own making but one that I had never intended, never understood, never anticipated. It was as if I had woken up to find myself in someone else’s nightmare, or perhaps someone else’s life. But it was not a nightmare. It was my own life. It was real, it was horrible, and I had to get out.
I see now that part of the life I had been leading up until my arrest was a lie. Not a calculated lie—but a lie all the same. I must have had some awareness at the time about the tension between the kind of person I was and the kind of work I was doing, but I couldn’t have understood it. The fact is that the outer shell of my image and behaviour was false: it was a construction, a sustained act, that arose out of a feeling of inadequacy, a fear of being small or unnoticed or unloved, and a corresponding need to impress people. I’m sure, looking back, that I got involved with political action because political action brought with it certainties and status that I felt I lacked. But by getting involved, I had got into something that started to take on a life of its own. It took me further and further away from being able either to understand my own limits or to accept them. The personal, social and political life I built for myself, although apparently successful, had flimsy foundations. When I was really tested as the person I had constructed and played, the make-up melted away, the false beard fell off, the belt snapped and the borrowed trousers slithered to the floor. The naked little actor, finding that what he thought he had entered as a play had in fact become real life, fled from the stage and begged to be let out of the theatre.
Maybe I allowed myself to become too involved in a struggle whose demands were beyond my capacities.
I’ll try to explain what I mean by this. It was not that I did not believe in the values we stood for against those of apartheid and oppression: it was a detestable regime. However, there were many other white South African radicals who also genuinely loathed apartheid, but who either left the country to live abroad, or stayed without getting dangerously involved. Having decided against committing their lives to the struggle, they seemed to know where and how to draw the line between courageous but prudent opposition, and danger, and to be able to live with that line. Many of them were scattered throughout the universities and professions of Britain, North America and Australia. Some even travelled to South Africa occasionally for research or family reasons and some have gone back to live there permanently since the end of apartheid.
But why did they not cross that threshold into the danger zone? What stopped them committing their lives to the cause, at home or abroad? Why as dedicated anti-apartheiders did they not throw their entire lot in with the struggle? Some did, of course, but they were a handful of extraordinary people. The majority did not and were honest enough to know that the struggle was not their struggle, not really, not personally, and not exclusively, at least not in the sense that they wanted to commit themselves completely to it, to the exclusion of their careers, families and ordinary lives. Where they had the self-discipline, self-knowledge and honesty to match their involvement with their capacities, or to leave the country, I made the error of crossing the threshold into danger. Through genuine detestation of the regime and sympathy and solidarity with those who suffered under it, but without the necessary level of real personal understanding and commitment. But why? Why did I come to feel responsible for all that was going on in South Africa and seek to change it without first taking responsibility for myself? Was this not my real crime, my original one, the crime of self-ignorance, and did my other crimes not follow directly from that?
I can’t really answer my own question. This line of thinking might help to explain why I behaved as I did: but perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it only raises more questions than it answers.
And perhaps it is enough, quite simply, morally and politically, to know that my behaviour was shameful, harmful and wrong. There can be no other starting point than that, whatever the cause or context. Any attempt to explain how these things came to happen will also carry with it the whining implication of justification of some kind, by shifting responsibility to some other place, persons or situation. I have no wish to do that. It was me. I chose to get involved. I acted. I am responsible for what I did in slithering out of it all. I deeply regret how I behaved. If I could change the past, I would. But I cannot. So there it must rest. There it must stay. And some would say that it would therefore be best for me to shut up, say no more about anything and crawl away.
But I do have something to say.
Those events were for me and others a turning point: both an ending and a beginning. I do not think that any of us had ever seriously anticipated that such a thing would happen and certainly not how it would happen. Afterwards, all the people involved went in completely different directions. The lives we had led in South Africa before that quiet July morning in 1964 simply disintegrated. Friendships dissolved when they seemed healthiest; working relationships collapsed when they seemed bound by hoops of steel; careers ceased abruptly; memberships were ruptured when they appeared lifelong; belongings vanished. Quite suddenly, everyone was ripped from the daily structures of which he or she had been a part and their previous ways of life, having been snuffed out by the events of that year, were seldom given a decent burial.
After being arrested and taken away in the police car that morning, I never again saw the street in which I had lived, nor the neighbourhood in which I grew up. I still visualize it all, frozen as it was in July 1964. Snatched out of the ordinary textures of daily life, I was absorbed by the system, first in Cape Town, then in Pretoria. Having ingested and processed me, it finally spat me out in Johannesburg, five months on, from where I left the country for good. A year later, some books and a few personal possessions followed me to Britain, artefacts from a different time and place. They arrived in a wooden crate when I was living in a freezing stone cottage on the Welsh border and teaching nearby at a school in Oswestry. I found the crate one evening when I came home from work; it had been dumped outside the cottage door, in the snow, as if rejected and abandoned there.
Those who went to prison, and their families, suffered terribly. Although some were released early, others served the full terms. Only one, Eddie Daniels, remained in South Africa after being released, the rest went abroad. They all endured with courage and dignity what I had run away from, and whenever I think of it, I am overwhelmed by shame. Over the years I tried to contact them all, by letter or through intermediaries, to try and say sorry for my weakness, failure and betrayal. Some, with extraordinary generosity (like Eddie Daniels and Stephanie Kemp), responded directly or made contact with me—by letter, sometimes through messages relayed by others, once by phone and occasionally by email. Others, understandably, never have. The kind of apology that I owe them all can never be expressed in words, or in any other way I know. Those who were not arrested, who managed to escape, all went into exile, and had to build new lives of one kind or another outside South Africa, though some have gone back since the collapse of apartheid.
When I look back, the time since I left South Africa and came to live in Britain seems both compressed and distended: sometimes it flew, at other times it crawled. At first nothing happened, and yet a lot happened. For about fifteen years I lived as if I were half-awake, half-dead. On the surface, I functioned more or less competently. I slowly began to establish some activities and connections that tied me into daily existence in this new place. Initially, trying to find my bearings, I went away: I worked on a kibbutz and then as a farmhand in the southern United States. Then I came back to Britain and taught at a school in Shropshire for a year. More indecision and wandering followed, but eventually I completed my postgraduate studies, took some temporary university jobs and then was lucky to be offered a permanent one in York.
But there was not much else to me, and it was a half life. How could it have been otherwise? For while you can rebuild the outer framework of daily existence quite quickly, you cannot so easily re-establish your integrity, and especially some elementary sense of self-worth. Rebuilding takes time. As when dealing with a rotten tooth or a suppurating wound, you must first find and clear out the muck before healing can commence, otherwise it will spread. And you must be willing to look at that muck.
At first, I did not. Perhaps I could not. I certainly would not have been able to write as I have done here. I thrashed around, hoping to find some justification or even explanation for what had happened which would somehow exonerate me of my own behaviour. That a few good friends even tolerated me during this phase strikes me now as close to miraculous. For as long as I did not really accept and confront my own responsibility, I would never be able to stand on anything that was secure and sure: pretence would go on, weakness would remain, healthy roots would never form. Without embracing some truth, one embraces illusions, hopes, fantasies.
I married and divorced, twice, in quick succession, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and caused more pain and disruption. I suppose I hoped to find in those relationships the kind of approval and acceptance that would allow me to approve of and accept myself. But you cannot sustain that kind of relationship—or any kind of relationship, perhaps—without some core of self-respect. Now I had even less. I began to rely on sleeping pills, and panicked when they ran low. My sense of fear, and powerlessness in the hands of the security police, stayed with me and I had two recurring dreams which reflected this. In one, I kept imagining that not all the explosives we had accumulated had been found and that some were sweating away in a decaying suitcase in a lock-up somewhere, about to blow up and injure people. In the other dream, I was swimming to Britain. In various versions of the dream I would sometimes see the white cliffs of Dover, or the Houses of Parliament transposed to the coast, or some other physical symbol of the country, appearing over the horizon, and would swim on, feeling relief that I was nearly there. But then a small dinghy with an outboard motor attached would putter up, parallel with me. In it were van Dyk and van Wyk, sometimes Rossouw, and they would wave, laughing at me, saying: ‘Swim, man, swim, we’ll pick you up before you get there.’ I saw a psychiatrist for a while. He was a kindly man who reminded me of Beaker from the Muppet Show. I visited him weekly in his echoing Victorian house outside York. A large clock ticked, slowly, in the hall. A gas fire burbled in the grate in his consulting room. We talked. There were long silences. Nothing changed. I kept thinking that I needed to change jobs, go somewhere else, take a new name or leave the country. At my lowest times during that period there seemed to be no point in going on, but my will to live appeared to be undefeatably strong. Extinction was terrifying, self-extinction even more so.
It is not necessary to go on here about this half-life period. But two things did happen, round about the same time, which produced a change.
First, some time in 1980 an important relationship came to an end. The woman had meant a great deal to me, and now she was moving on. I felt desolated by this. And that seemed to be an old feeling which called up and was engulfed by a wider sense of worthlessness, just as a yell into an amphitheatre of mountains will moan and rumble back all around you as if from everywhere.
About the same time, or shortly afterwards, I was visiting two friends in London, Jill and Tony Hall (both psychotherapists), and we started talking about the events of 1964. The last member of the group, Eddie Daniels, had recently been released from jail. We had talked about the events of that year countless times before. But then Jill, a person I knew and trusted completely, suddenly said: ‘No. It was not okay at all. Whatever the pressures were, it was not okay to behave like that.’
I know it seems unbelievable, but I had never previously allowed myself to admit this simple truth.
A sense of worthlessness settled on me like a fog which would not lift. All my work, all my activities felt pointless and void, like a facade behind which I crouched in secret shame and fear, terrified of discovery but unable to come out. I realized that I had somehow avoided the truth about myself and what had happened in 1964, and now I was discovering the consequences of that avoidance.
I started going to a therapist called Robin Shohet, whom I saw regularly for some time. It is hard to describe what happened in those sessions. There was nothing dramatic. We sat on big cushions in a small flat, with the sounds of a west London street market wafting up, and at first I thought how silly it was. What could happen in here that would make any difference to anything? ‘I have nothing to say to you,’ he told me, early on, when I showed my ignorant disdain for the process. But we got past that and I soon found that he wouldn’t let me get away with anything. Where I twisted, he challenged. When I tried to explain and dodge he cut me off and brought me back to what I’d done and what I felt about it. I learned what was, for me, a simple lesson of immense importance: to take responsibility for what I had done. Not why I had done it, or the circumstances of my doing it, but that I had done it. That I had betrayed my colleagues. Whatever the circumstances I was nonetheless an agent, not a victim. I had chosen, I had acted. I had behaved disgracefully, appallingly. I could not change what I had done: I would have to live with it. However much I regretted it, the past could not be altered. Unlike many betrayals, mine was public and known, not private and concealed. I could not duck it or suppress it or avoid it. Some people would always hate me. And I had to accept that. But I need not remain sleepless and incapacitated, I could find some way to move on.
In early 1984 I threw away my sleeping pills. I was on research leave in Australia at the time. For a while, sleep was intermittent and shallow, like an outgoing tide running fast and thin over the sand of a flat beach, leaving a rippling film of water. But then it began to deepen, as a new tide came in. Slowly, over many, many months, normal sleep returned and with it a feeling of life.
In the years that followed, the recurring dreams became less frequent and then almost disappeared. I began to see the importance of the relationship between the personal and the political in a way I had never considered before. Energy slowly began to return and I devoted myself to my teaching and students. I worked hard at my research and writing, hoping to be able to contribute to the field I work in. And I began to feel more positively that I could settle and put down roots, here in Britain, and came to feel more at ease with my colleagues. Whereas before, raising a family had seemed either impossible or undesirable, I came to see it as a challenge, a plan for the future which did not concern the past. Now, as a parent with two young children, not yet even halfway through their school days, I have the practical and ordinary responsibilities, commitments and worries which are centred on the children and their needs. The past cannot be changed, of course, nor can it be forgotten, but the future is always open.
Although the events that I have described will always be a part of my present, I now feel a lot further away from that cold morning in July 1964, when it all began, or ended. There are still times when waves of self-disgust and shame well up uncontrollably and I feel they will drown me. The sense of hopelessness returns and I want to run and hide. But I have come to believe not only that it is possible to go on and to keep going, but that we should and we must. There is simply no other way to be: to remember and take responsibility for the past in order to live in the present and contribute to the future; to learn from that past so as never to be like that again; to pass it on.
Artwork © Ersi Marina Samara