Honour and South Africa’s “dissolved” ghosts

THE DIRTY IDEOLOGY of apartheid was enforced on many levels. It saw the ignominious burial of grotesque secrets. Some more deeply than others. Indeed some of those secrets were never sufficiently exhumed for general access, not at the time, not during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and not subsequently. Blame this on how life goes on. Blame it on the special bureaucratic attention to care invested in covering tracks rotten with the blood of others. Blame it on a government-sanctioned doctrine which did not allow some the dignity of burial. Blame it on the bereaved without the wherewithal to find their lost loved ones. This is the central focus of Michael Schmidt’s riveting book Death Flight, an expose on an untold number of people who were ‘disappeared’ by the South African government during the 1980s.

Death Flight, from its foreword by Nkosinathi Biko until its very last line, which casts doubt on South African leadership and its values, makes for an urgency in your reading which will affect your blood pressure. As Biko insists, however, it’s such a vital piece of writing to South Africa’s narrative, you can’t allow yourself to turn away, even if it gives you nightmares. Schmidt offers the trajectory of the life of Neil Kriel, one of the lynchpins in the initiative to disappear people into the sea, and the work weaves and winds around Kriel in his bureaucratic complexity, from his birth until his death.

Similar to Jonathan Ancer’s important books about South African spies, in his work on Craig Williamson, and his anthology about different scenarios of spying done for the apartheid government, Schmidt’s book is rich with blood-curdling fact. It presents a man who comes across as wholesome enough, but when the abscess of his poisonous secrets is lanced, it’s a portrait which quivers with the horror of embedded propaganda.

Kriel, in 1979 was the 32-year-old commander of Delta 40, an apartheid military unit, murky with bad secrets. He was a military careerist. On one level, he was following the instructions of his superiors in the Reconnaissance Commandos. On another, he was abandoning his soul. Delta 40 morphed into Project Barnacle. It was the early manifestation of the unit which became known as the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), the government-sponsored death squad, at the heart of so much of apartheid’s bloodshed.

But this book is not a biography. It uses Kriel as a reference point, a figure who becomes more and more drenched in the ghosts of others as the work unfolds. Schmidt doesn’t speculate on Kriel’s inner thoughts. He lets the facts tell the story. The men unceremoniously put in bags in unscheduled flights in small aircraft, stripped of their clothes and robbed of their existence over the Atlantic Ocean are not, however, allowed to remain anonymous items in a flight schedule. But so much remains lost. Were there hundreds of them? Were there thousands? This work resonates with the subject matter that underpins Nathan Englander’s almost mythical The Ministry of Special Cases, only it is about the filthy decisions of South Africans, not Argentinians. And it is about how the bloody and cruel reaches of apartheid thinking stretched beyond the South African borders and into Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe. It shimmers with the horror central to Jane Taylor’s Ubu and the TRC, directed by William Kentridge, which confronts these foul deeds darkly through symbol and storytelling.

On many levels, this book contains just as compelling a story as both of these fictionalised accounts, barring two things. By and large, the text is dotted with references to “the author” – as in “in an interview with the author”, kind of trope, rather than using the first person, plainly. While this is a stylistic decision, it does tend to force a formal distance between the writer, the material and the reader.

Also, the text is heavily cluttered with acronyms. While there is a comprehensive list of abbreviations in the front of the book, those acronyms busy up the readability of the material, occasionally stultifying the visual flow. This makes the work function more as an academic read, since most readers will not want to flip backwards and forwards in the text as they read. This is a pity: the material is so gripping that you do not want the momentum compromised.

But as a tribute to all the disappeared, the people from SWAPO and ZANU-PF, the one time friends and peers of the perpetrators, the work is a moving and important tribute. Schmidt offers here an invaluable reflection on lives lost. There is no list of names – there cannot be. They were hidden in the system and discarded like the illegitimate flights conducted to get rid of their bodies.

This is another work which should fit into the literary imperatives of this generation as it comes of age, as it paints a picture that has been too long hidden and should not be allowed to be forgotten.

  • Death Flight: Apartheid’s Secret Doctrine of Disappearance by Michael Schmidt is published by Tafelberg, Cape Town (2020).

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