Decency in a time of hateful chaos

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IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.
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Defiance in a place where there’s no darkness

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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