Decency in a time of hateful chaos


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.

The super spy you love to hate


YOU WILL BE hard-pressed to pause in Jonathan Ancer’s critical biography of one of apartheid’s most notorious spies, Craig Williamson, once you start reading. From the start, this book presents a fully-fleshed terrifying character who is at once a blend of John le Carré-like intrigues mixed with ethical and deeply South African ponderables. It’s a meaty read, but one that will sweep you off your feet as you hear your pulse roar in your ears and feel your heart bleeding for the family of Williamson’s victims.

Notorious high apartheid spy, Williamson (b. 1949) was always big. He was also always something of a bully, but furthermore something of a wily strategist. Not a stupid man, but one with a fraught understanding of moral and human values, he was perfect grist for the apartheid goverment’s mill. Blend all this with time in the South African Police service, an offer under the table by the powers that were and the volatility of anti-apartheid tensions at their angriest peak, and you have a recipe for someone unstoppably lethal in the context that formed him.

Is the man an unmitigated psychopath? Is he the embodiment of quintessential evilness? Is he a manifestation of what political theorist Hannah Arendt describes as the banality of evil in her thoughts about Nazi Adolf Eichmann? Is Williamson a man who should be allowed to hide behind an avuncular image in contemporary times, or should his demons be exposed for all the world to see? Maybe he should be seen as simply one of apartheid’s foot soldiers? A man who was in the right – or wrong – place, at the right – or wrong – time? Ancer writes around these issues with simple journalistic brilliance. His work is crisp and to the point and while it is unapologetically in the first person, it never stumbles into being self-congratulatory.

As a result, you have a book which is unequivocally important for an understanding of the South African narrative. It’s very far from being a simple angry bruising attack on a man, or an academic treatise. Rather, it is alive with the words and opinions of sources, as it uses acute and careful descriptions of Williamson’s life and times, based on exhaustive research, to serve as a cipher to give his victims the fleshed out dignity they warrant.

For instance, we get to meet Neil Aggett, a medical doctor who was headlined as having died in detention in 1982. A victim. Ancer reflects him as a man with his values intact and his brave sense of priorities refined and honed, before the apartheid regime broke him into a million tiny shards.

Jenny Schoon (nee Curtis) and her six-year-old daughter Katryn have oft been similarly relegated to the footnotes of a contemporary understanding of the great ponderous beast of apartheid history. Ancer brings her sense of humour, her beautiful friendships and her values into the frame, reflecting potently on who she was, as a librarian, a wife, a reader, a Yeoville resident, before she was rendered a bloody statistic by a parcel bomb in the early 1980s, with little Katryn.

Ruth First, the wife of Joe Slovo, who too was slain by a Williamson-driven parcel bomb in the 1980s, is also pivotal in an understanding of his brutality and is, too, presented as a real person, with fears and priorities, who loved and believed, who wore a white skirt on that fateful day.

By and large, Williamson kept his hands clean and got others to do his dirty work. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he rose through the structures of Wits University student politics and was up there with the National Union of South African Students’s leadership, cosying up with the thinkers and opinion-makers, listening, waiting, disclosing, betraying … and shocking myriads when he was revealed as a spy and then rapidly defected to the ‘other side’ of aggressive South African politics.

It’s a well-structured and balanced work which should be a must-read for the generation that’s coming of age, as we speak. Without being didactic or formulaic, it explains how binaries of black and white/good and evil are meaningless as it offers insight into the rich and messy texture of apartheid that is vital for any South African, or anyone wishing to know more about an era soiled with political assumption and legislated hate.

  • Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson by Jonathan Ancer is published by Jacana Media, Johannesburg (2017).