Defiance in a place where there’s no darkness

suttner

AMID THE FLURRY of anti-Zuma material from across the board, this bracingly honest, almost painful to read reworking of a text that extrapolates on South Africa’s sense of humanity, stands out. Raymond Suttner was a bright young academic with great dreams for the liberation of this country, in 1975. That was the year in which he was first arrested by the apartheid government, for disseminating pamphlets that aimed to undermine the racist ideology. He first published the body of this text in 2002 – an account of the ten years in all, in which he was incarcerated, much of which was in solitary confinement, and detained without the possibility of trial whilst South Africa was in a State of Emergency.

The current version, revisited, some fifteen years later, is prefaced with a powerful and deeply angry introduction, which reflects on the politics of our time, right now – in a world where the leadership of organisations such as the ANC and the South African Communist Party are espousing values that makes someone as authentic and thoughtful, as committed and focused on the struggle as Suttner was, feel grotesquely betrayed, and he’s not afraid to say so.

It’s a hard-hitting and soulful extrapolation of the realities which we face right now as a society torn and bruised by corruption of our political leadership. For this, it is a very important work, and in the reading of it, you need to read the text from beginning to end, and then to read the introduction again. But further to that, Inside Apartheid’s Prison should be mandatory reading particularly for the generation of young adults – the so-called born-frees – coming into their own, as we speak. It offers lucid reflection on what was happening in this country through the brutality of apartheid and in its aftermath – and in doing so, it’s a readable work by a man who lived to tell the tale.

Suttner’s prose is clean of self-conscious rhetoric. It’s direct and unapologetically in the first person. And in the material, he offers you a revealing and frank self-portrait as he includes many letters which he sent to his close family and friends during the horrendous years of his incarceration. At times difficult emotionally to read, these are missives which make you privy to devastatingly private moments between a mother and her son, between a brother and a sister, a brother and a brother … moments that offer you insight into the very depths of horror in an apartheid jail – the torture, the isolation, the loneliness, the emotional crumbling and the very real attempts to hold it all together, with the aid of literature, sport and relaxation techniques.

Reading it, you are given to understand the damage that incarceration of this nature inflicts on the identity of an individual, and also the extent of privations inflicted on the prisoner – gestures of cruelty that cause – and are designed to cause – the fabric of a psyche to fray.

It’s a tale of a red-cheeked love bird called ‘JB’ (JailBird), and of a half grown female rabbit – animals that feel surreally out of place in the hard and grey and unrelenting environments of a South African prison cell. In being about the psychology and the emotions, as much as it is about the politics, it is a book that has deep soul. It’s a troubling, haunting read, but a vital one: Above all else, it’s a work of truth to values: the writing is pure and remains candidly and vigorously defiant throughout.

  • Inside Apartheid’s Prison by Raymond Suttner is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).
  • Suttner is in conversation with Emilia Potenza (curator of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg) at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Oaklands, on June 28, at 19:30. Booking: Hazel or René 011 728 8088 or 011 728 8378 (after hours); email rchcc@telkomsa.net or rene.s@telkomsa.net or visit www.greatpark.co.za
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