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Alan Paton Award shortlist: Dikgang Moseneke talks about his memoir My Own Liberator

Published in the Sunday Times

My Own LiberatorMy Own Liberator: A Memoir
Dikgang Moseneke (Picador Africa)

Could you expand on the title “My Own Liberator”?
The title “My Own Liberator” anticipates the core theme of the memoir which is the place of individual and collective agency in a challenging or even oppressive life experience.

You were sent to Robben Island at the age of 15, having already suffered torture and solitary confinement. You served 10 years on the island, enduring appalling cruelty. What was the source of your resilience?
Resilience is always a product of several and combined factors. The first is, of course, upbringing. In my childhood my family, and in particular my grandfather and grandmother taught the value of perseverance in the face of pain or severe challenge. Secondly, my parents demanded hard work, honesty and a focus on good outcomes. “Be good,” they often demanded. This was particularly so when the homework was difficult or work in the family garden was arduous. Lastly, many senior leaders on Robben Island inspired me to continue to sacrifice in order to help dislodge apartheid and create an equal and just society.

You refer, however, to the “joy” of incarceration on the Island. Can you explain that?
We as a collective of prisoners on Robben Island took the sting out of our imprisonment. We demanded and succeeded to engage in beneficial activity like studying, reading, writing, singing, attending political classes and playing soccer and rugby in a manner that helped us escape the rigour of the deprivation of incarceration. We also firmed up our conviction that apartheid will collapse. That was a matter of enormous hope and “joy”.

Why were you drawn to study law?
I suppose my trial in the Supreme Court as a child made me come close to law even though it was by accident. Also many historical revolutionaries tended to be trained in law.

You had strong role models growing up. Who were your heroes when you were young?
My mother and father, so too my maternal grandfather and grandmother. I had wonderful primary school teachers who I write about in My Own Liberator. Even in my youth at secondary school I was impressed by the blinding thoughtfulness of the writings of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe on African humanism and liberation in our lifetime.

And now?
I struggle to find appropriate role models now. I certainly have no political role model across the world. I suppose I am getting old and cynical. I admire a handful of progressive writers across all cultures and continents.

Towards the end of the book you pose the painful question “Was our democratic transition all in vain?” How do you answer that?
My answer was decidedly that the push for democratic and social transition was not in vain. Our current governance and economic challenges can never make colonialism and apartheid and more palatable.

What do you believe are the greatest challenges we are facing now in South Africa, and how should they be tackled?
There are many threats to our democratic project; chief of which being social distance and economic inequality. Too many of us are poor and without relevant education or skills. Many vital norms and values that animated our struggle for democracy appear to have been neglected by the ruling elite, some business leaders and sections of our population. The notions of equal worth such as non-racism and gender equality are under severe stress and there is a real threat to some public institutions of our democracy. Our nation is in desperate need for a re-energised and unifying vision.

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