AiW Guest: James Smith.
On Jacob Dlamini’s Askari: A story of collaboration and betrayal in the anti-apartheid struggle (Jacana Media, 2014).
To many the mere notion of an askari challenges. In the South African context it denotes someone who does something that many would deem unthinkable, especially now, 20 years after the ending of apartheid. To be an askari was to be a member of the African National Congress (ANC) who defected to and joined the apartheid government’s security forces. Jacob Dlamini has written a book, that also challenges. Given the topic and country how it could not?
The book challenges because while it is ostensibly about one man’s betrayal, exploring why Glory Sedibe (Comrade September) ‘betrayed’ the ANC and its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), it is about so much more: the very nature of betrayal and the possibility of collaboration within each one of us.
Jacob Dlamini has written a compelling biography and a vital, important book. It is a book that pieces together the complex life of a man born into a world of contingency and consequence. It is forensic, not so much in relation to its use of primary and secondary sources, but in its dissection of what Sedibe’s life means. Many of the questions one would really want answered, such as what drives a man to betray, remain unanswered. But then, how could they be? The sources are slight for a biography and consist mainly of oral testimony from sources perhaps not altogether reliable or that can be corroborated – perhaps the book should be described as a para-ethnography – but would shelf upon shelf of archival material and screeds of interview transcripts truly make for a more reliable narrative of the inner workings of betrayal? Dlamini speculates about Sedibe’s motives, he probes rationales, mitigations and contexts but he does not judge. This absence of judgment has a powerful effect. For as inevitably as we cannot truly stare into the heart and mind of another’s reasons (especially third hand) we inexorably pursue judgment elsewhere, maybe because judgment promises us neatness and the comfort of sense. Here Dlamini does not judge or invite us to judge, and therefore our attention turns inwards.
Glory Sedibe was destined for great things, he was academically gifted, attending university if not graduating and rapidly rose through the ranks of MK to a position of some influence. Like many of his contemporaries he might have reached a position of influence and standing in post-apartheid South Africa. His life was to be something else. The petty constraints on his and his family’s lives and his time on campus politicized him. He crossed more than one border and joined MK. In 1986 he was abducted from his safe house in Swaziland by members of an apartheid death squad. Interrogation and torture ensued and it was not long before Sedibe was giving up information on his comrades in the ANC. It did not stop there, however, he would allegedly go on to hunt insurgents – his ex-comrades – himself and he was feared and hated by them.
The book is a recent history, mainly focused on the 10 years leading up to the first democratic election in 1994, and a very recent event reminded me of the relentlessness of history, and the perpetuity of consequence. Eugene de Kock, who looms large in the book as the leader of the notorious Vlakplaas counter-insurgency camp, a violent and unpredictable figure and Sedibe’s boss, was granted parole on 30 January 2015. His disclosure before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlined the scope of the apartheid state counter-insurgency activities, and when amnesty was denied de Kock was tried, convicted on eighty-nine charges and imprisoned in 1996, for 212 years. He was the most senior official of the apartheid state to have been imprisoned. De Kock’s parole was eventually granted as he was deemed to have shown remorse and cooperated with authorities to help recover the remains of a number of victims. De Kock never sought to deny his involvement and responsibility but has consistently claimed that his activities were sanctioned right up to presidential level. Truth has its limits even when the truth has never been denied.
By 2015 Sedibe was already a decade dead, denied his own accounting in front of the TRC. He may have died from a heart condition, poison, alcoholism, desolation, it is not certain. Certainly, by the end he was flitting between multiple bottles of vodka and religion, beset by money troubles. He found no place or peace in the rapidly approaching new South Africa. He died forevermore the “notorious turncoat”. Contrast this with Peter Mokaba, a fleeting reference in the book. Post-1994 Mokaba rose to the rank of Deputy Minister, despite also being unmasked as an apartheid spy and collaborator some years earlier, after several years of internal suspicion. His exposure was considered too demoralising for ANC youth supporters as he was the first president of the ANC Youth League and on balance not worth publicizing. He died in 2002 a hero, awarded, garlanded and named on a World Cup stadium.
Dlamini dwells on the nature of collaboration. If there is conflict there is the possibility of collaboration. It takes many forms, implicit or overt, active or passive. When, where and how does collaboration occur? Torture, whether it be to turn insurgents or elicit information is perhaps the most intimate way in which collaboration can truly be delineated. Or can it? If collaboration is a continuum that may be constantly traversed (knowingly or not) then perhaps even that moment when one says ‘enough’ is not enough. What of those who never say ‘enough’?
There are no binaries. We cannot truly know why Sedibe did what he did, and we cannot know what we would do in his shoes. Dlamini’s skill as a biographer is that of an impressionist. He sketches only the essence of Sedibe’s life, which is all he need do. The interpretation is ours and we are invited to fill in the blanks by ourselves, with ourselves. The result is an uncertainty, a doubt that underlines the autobiographical ambiguity of living in seemingly unambiguous times. And ultimately, when reckoned with torture or dislocation or the removal of the parameters of our lives how would we react? In 1964, anti-apartheid activist and student leader Adrian Leftwich in turning state witness and betraying his friend Hugh Lewin did not expect to cave in as quickly as he did, and he was tortured by it for decades. Leftwich, who was brave enough to expose himself and make a stand against the monolith of the apartheid state ‘gave the names’ before torture was even a possibility (see Hugh Lewin’s excellent book about this, Stones Against the Mirror: Friendship in the time of the South African Struggle [Umuzi, 2011]).
The consequences of collaboration are not always clear. The cause and effect of betrayal is enmeshed in multiple fragments of intelligence, unintended implications and contingent consequences. In Dlamini’s reconstruction it is not always clear whether Sedibe was solely or jointly responsible for particular betrayals or deaths. And is collaboration without (much) consequence, such as author Mark Behr’s spying on fellow students at Stellenbosch University, less of a betrayal for that? Behr’s own account of his actions rather self-servingly suggests that consequence can be weighed against betrayal. He had “not murdered or tortured” and doubted that his “activities on a campus like Stellenbosch led directly to any such atrocities”. Can we only construct a retrospective personal moral economy of betrayal? We of course do not – cannot – know Sedibe’s own account.
What Dlamini’s book perhaps suggests is that biography can help dissect South Africa’s past in a way that autobiography sometimes cannot. Biography may be constructed and interpreted through secondary sources but autobiography is refracted through a need to rationalise and reconstruct one’s life. Some of the most important South African literature is autobiographical or semi-autobiographical but should we supplement the refraction of autobiographical narrative with the reflection of biographical complexity? Distance when reflecting on lives lived in a complex, challenging and compromised country allows us to see ourselves and leaving things unsaid forces us to say them. South Africa is at once a new and a very old country and we may not yet have the language to reconcile and make sense of the past in the present. Glory September’s life in print suggests that we can parse truths of a sort through the circumscriptions of hidden lives uncovered.
Ultimately, we end up where we end up. Happenstance? Right place or wrong time? The consequence of accreted decisions and responses. We may biographically identify turning points: Sedibe’s abduction from Swaziland, the discontent that politicized him, the moment in his torture when he said ‘no more’, the point where he went beyond simply giving people up. These turning points do not constitute cyphers. They do not magically unlock internal process or make sense of life course or personal narrative. Rather, they decrypt something important within ourselves.
James is Professor of African and Development Studies and Vice Principal International at the University of Edinburgh. He has studied, worked and lurked in (mainly South) Africa for almost 20 years, most recently on things like tsetse flies, sleeping sickness and alternative forms of energy. His publications include Science, Technology and Development and Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk (both Zed Books).