By Nick Mulgrew for The Sunday Times
Jacob Dlamini (Jacana)
By now, Jacob Dlamini can claim to be a specialist in confronting and destabilising the narratives that people are told – and tell themselves – about apartheid. Native Nostalgia, his first book, trod controversial ground by examining how and why black South Africans might remember parts of their lives under apartheid with fondness. His latest, Askari, tackles one of the most under-articulated phenomena of struggle politics: the hundreds of men and women who defected and “collaborated” with the apartheid state against their former comrades. Pretty messy stuff – but as Dlamini writes, “Saying that things under apartheid were messy is not saying much.”
Askari centres on people who told stories in order to live, primarily that of Glory Lefoshie Sedibe, better known as, variously, Comrade September and Mr X1. In 1986, Sedibe was abducted from his hideout in Swaziland and tortured until he collaborated with apartheid security forces. In later testifying against his former comrades in court, Sedibe became perhaps the most despised (albeit under an alias) of all apartheid collaborators.
In tracking Sedibe’s transformation from “an impimpi catcher to an impimpi himself”, Dlamini hopes not only to humanise collaborators, but also to explore the afterlives of the secrets they both kept and betrayed.
Why would Dlamini want to do this, though? Would this not be valorising an especially heinous species of traitor?
Understanding, however, is not condoning. Stories of collaboration and betrayal have already made their way into evocative first-hand narratives, like as Hugh Lewin’s Stones Against the Mirror and Elias Masilela’s 43 Trelawney Park: KwaMagogo. But what marks Askari out is Dlamini’s authorial balance between empathy and an almost impassive, academic thoroughness. He is not an actor in this story; he is a narrator.
Askari cannot claim to be a definitive, know-all account of askaridom, nor of the life of Sedibe or the dozens of other collaborators Dlamini names and discusses. While his book is the culmination of a 26-year-long obsession Dlamini has had with askaris, Sedibe himself has been dead since 1994, and most askaris – still wary of public reprisal and condemnation – are reluctant to speak about their experiences. Further, the people he is able to speak to (like Eugene de Kock, who directed a legion of askaris) can’t be taken at their word. It is a jumble of unreliable sources, told by unreliable narrators – including Dlamini himself, by his own admission.
But Askari does not have to be definitive or perfect in order to achieve its aims. Dlamini delves into and explores the multi-faceted nature of betrayal and collaboration, not only during apartheid, but also during other times of political turmoil in other countries, via extensive detours into the psychology of interrogation and the remarkable and myriad follies of apartheid politicians.
He ultimately argues that “condemning Sedibe to hell would offer no insight” into our collective understanding of collaboration during apartheid. In humanising askaris, Dlamini shifts extra blame to the apartheid state. It is, after all, through torture that apartheid agents made comrades “choose” to collaborate.
Once he was turned, Sedibe was said to take visible relish in betraying ANC secrets. But, Dlamini argues, his askaridom was not an anomaly: it was not only the few hundred askaris, but millions of black South Africans who, at various times, were forced to work within and in support of apartheid structures – whether as teachers of bantu education, or as civil servants in homelands – and who made up a veritable spectrum of collaboration, from the benign to the dehumanising to the fatal.
Askari is one of the most important, probing and virtuosic works of non-fiction published in South Africa this decade. In ambition he is rivalled by only a handful of writers; in doggedness and audacity, even fewer.
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Darrel Bristow-Bovey, author of One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo, recently penned a column for The Times about Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize win.
The Australian author won the coveted award for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
After riffing hilariously on the image of Flanagan using his discarded drafts to light barbeque fires – “What self-respecting South African would light a braai using bits of paper?” – Bristow-Bovey turns serious, saying South African writers have a lot to learn from Flanagan’s willingness to turn to World War II POW work camps in Thailand for his subject matter.
Read the article:
I was in Kanchanaburi a few months ago, and I walked through the war cemetery with its long unshaded rows of the long-dead boys of 1943. I came upon one tombstone with a name and an age and a place of origin: South Africa. For days afterwards I thought about that far-buried South African and what he might have felt and what might have happened and who might have been waiting at home.
Later I discussed it with a friend, musing about the possibility of a novel or a screenplay, and my friend wanted to know why that story, and wasn’t it a form of historical escapism, and did I not perhaps consider that I was shirking the moral responsibility of grappling with what it means to be a white South African? Does South Africa or the world need another white man’s story about white men and white men’s history? What about other voices and other experiences?
Published in the Sunday Times
Which book changed your life?
Changed is a bit rich. I’m still a work-in-progress. As you’d imagine a million books “changed” me a million times. One of those that struck a chord was James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room – that is, apart from all the Enid Blytons that snaked and sneaked into my life and never really left.
Where do you write best?
I can concentrate just about anywhere, although I’ve always imagined how it would feel to have a writing desk inside an early 20th century French brothel, or an Arab King’s quarters where he keeps his revolving harem. To be fair: I do almost 90 percent of my everything ie writing, revising, eating, reading, listening to music, etc on my bed. Poor bed.
Who would you like to be stuck in a lift with?
I wouldn’t love to be stuck in a lift with anyone at all. I’m terribly claustrophobic.
What are you most proud of writing?
I never get proud of my writing, almost none.
What keeps you awake at night?
Stories. Looking at my three year old daughter sleep. Unfinished books. Joni Mitchell’s album Blue playing in my head.
Do you keep a diary?
Not any more. I keep a million small notebooks, Moleskines, journalist’s pads. You know, I still have my stash of Lion Brand Shorthand Notebooks.
What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
Maybe Enid Blyton? Or any cartoon illustration of Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like. No one raged with such lyrical beauty about such a painful question as inequality. Well, not since James Baldwin.
What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?
Paige Nick’s Sunday Times column.
Which current book will you remember in 10 years’ time?
I rarely read “current” books. But maybe Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place.
What is the best piece of writerly advice you’ve received?
Recently an editor coaxed something quite intensely personal out of me, saying, “You need to deal with your fears, betray your family if you have to.” And I thought, “Mhhh? True.” That’s what we do as writers. Betray those closest to us.
What music helps you write?
Seeing visuals in my head gets me going.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Beautiful”, “Punk”, “Motherfucker” … I got life-long, James Ellroy-like Oedipal issues.
I’m Not Your Weekend Special (Pan Macmillan) a collection on the life of Brenda Fassie, edited by Bongani Madondo
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Random House Struik and David Krut Bookstore would like to invite you to the launch of Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke by Elizabeth Rankin and Philippa Hobbs.
Author, art historian, lecturer and curator Hobbs will be speaking about the book, which she co-wrote in close collaboration with the artist.
The launch will be at the Parkwood David Krut Bookstore today (Tuesday, 25 November) at 5:30 PM for 6 PM.
Don’t miss it!
Penguin Books and Exclusive Books would like to invite you to the launch of Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius by John Carlin.
Carlin paints a portrait of Pistorius’ complex personality and tragic fall from sporting hero to accused murderer.
The launch will be at Exclusive Books Rosebank Mall on Thursday, 27 November at 6 for 6:30 PM.
See you there!
What really fuelled debate, and charged our imaginations, however, was that, for all the phone records and Whatsapp messages the court trawled through, Pistorius alone knew whether he actually meant to kill Steenkamp.
This unknown – and the complexity of separating the signal from a year-and-a-half’s noise – makes the Pistorius-Steenkamp story a compelling one for book treatment. Publishers seem to agree.