A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle
London: Hurst, 2015*
Paperback. xi+307 p. ISBN 978-1849045605. £16.99
Reviewed by Chantal Zabus
Université Paris XIII-Sorbonne Paris Cité
Divided into fourteen chapters, Jacob Dlamini’s book dismantles our beliefs that apartheid in South Africa was solely a racial struggle between blacks and whites by looking into the interstices of collaboration during the anti-apartheid struggle as of the 1970s. Dlamini, a Research Fellow at Harvard University who grew up in a township on the Witwatersrand, does so by showcasing the story of Glory Lefoshie Sedibe who, at age 24, joined the 12,000 or so freedom fighters of the then outlawed ANC (African National Congress) in the wake of the 1976 Soweto riots. The question raised by this book is why this young anti-apartheid insurgent, born in Eastern Transvaal and educated by Lutheran missionaries, who chose exile when he crossed to Swaziland in 1977, became, a decade later, an apartheid agent.
In 1986, Sedibe, who had been appointed Head of ANC’s Military Intelligence for the Transvaal in Swaziland, was abducted and after being “turned” through torture, he defected to the Security Branch of the South African Police (SAP) and was made into a counterinsurgent. He was trained, at first as a new recruit at Vakplaas, a notorious police death-squad base west of Pretoria, then in East Germany and later, in the Soviet Union, three years before he was kidnapped and became a defector. Dlamini deftly charts these changes that transformed Sedibe “from resister to collaborator, revolutionary to counterrevolutionary and, in the eyes of the ANC, hero to traitor” .
Dlamini, however, takes great pains not to pin Sedibe on the ninth and last circle of Dante’s inferno, which was reserved for traitors. His reconstruction of Glory Sedibe is admittedly arduous, for Sedibe’s personality was as complex as it was elusive. Sedibe goes by many noms de guerre—Comrade September, Lucky Seme and Wally Williams—while working as a commander of MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe), the ANC’s armed wing. He ultimately became what Justice Henry Daniels named him, Mr X1, then a “rehabilitated terrorist”  who took the stand in 1988 in what turned out to be the most riveting political case since the 1963-1964 Rivonia Trial, in which Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life on Robben Island.
The singularity of Dlamini’s approach, focusing on one man, lies in the word, used in the singular, Askari. It provides the title and, in foregrounding an indigenous African word, the book is on a par with, say, Marc Epprecht’s Hungochani, used thus in Shona to avoid the loaded term “homosexuality” in his study on sexual dissidence in Southern Africa.(1) Meaning police in KiSwahili, from an Arabic borrowing that “historically meant soldier, policeman, guard” , askari entered South Africa’s lexicon of terror in the 1970s. Askari then referred to members of ANC or PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) who, through voluntary defection or torture, had switched sides, which inexorably conjures up the idea of traitor. The word for “traitors” or “spies” is in Nguni Izimpimpi (singular: impimpi) and in Zulu amaMbuka. We are not told what “traitor” is in Pedi, Sedibe’s native tongue, which he chose not to use during his own trial, preferring “broken Zulu”. Eugene de Cock, the lugubrious Afrikaner commander at Vakplaas, never considered him a “traitor”  as he did other askaris, nor an impimpi , for he remained convinced of Sedibe’s pro-ANC politics. Almond Nofomela, a high-school drop-out who joined the SAP in 1979, never considered himself “an askari” . Askaris can be “turned” and “re-turned”, as Sedibe himself considered returning to the ANC fold in the year of his death in Pretoria in 1994. Askari is also the name of a project that got disbanded by President F.W. de Klerk in 1993. Despite all these terminological nuances, Dlamini slots Sedibe as an askari on the grounds that he identified and helped (sometimes overzealously) capture and murder ANC activists and, more largely, helped “drive [the ANC] out of Swaziland” . In his stern stance, Dlamini is, however, eager to find a niche for Sedibe in the midst of these definitional gaps signaled by the cohabitation of KiSwahili and English in the book’s very title.
Despite the singular approach, Dlamini indeed takes great pains to locate Glory Sedibe and other askaris’“story of collaboration and betrayal”, as the subtitle indicates, against South Africa’s larger historical production of collaborators, turncoats, and double agents before the James Bond series endowed the double agent with a carapace against remorse and a capacity for romance. That history stretches back to earlier clashes between African peoples and the European settlers such as the British use of Zulus against the Zulu kingdom or the verraiers and ‘Judas brothers’ among the Boers in the South African war of 1899-1902. However, one senses that “collaboration” and “betrayal” loom larger when it comes to the Apartheid era. Dlamini also locates abductions such as Sedibe’s alongside arbitrary detentions and assassinations against the earlier “total strategy”, the brain child of French military strategist André Beaufre; the contemporaneous repeal of laws requiring blacks to carry passes; and the broader “state of emergency” declared by then President P.W. Botha in 1986, the same year of Sedibe’s abduction.
Dlamini’s book contains comparisons with other dispensations such as the military dictatorships of Latin America during the second half of the 20th century, and the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe such as East Germany and the Stasi files. He also taps into world events like the Red Brigades in the 1970s or the 1968 student protesters in Turin; and makes reference to collaborators in other countries such as the loyalists in British Malaya; the Kikuyu people who helped the British destroy the Mau Mau in Kenya; the harkis who fought alongside the French against Algerian independence; and closer to home, the Parisians who provided what Jean-Paul Sartre called “humanitarian helpfulness” [qtd 6] to the German occupiers during the Second World War.
Accordingly, Dlamini asks “why didn’t South Africa have ‘lustration’ as in Czechoslovakia” [8-9], a process whereby former collaborators were excluded from public life. Yet, South Africa had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or TRC, which Dlamini faults for “not being interested in complex individual cases”  and for doing “half the job” while “making possible the confessions of killers such as Eugene de Cock” .
Dlamini’s main target among the self-confessed killers in death squads, is Eugene de Cock, who, along with Dirk Coetzee and Almond Nofomela, have been treated by apartheid apologists “like the proverbial bad apples of any war”  rather than, Dlamini intimates, as accountable public servants. In this infamous troika, Nofomela is singled out as the tokenistic Black who, according to Dlamini, lacked “political understanding”; he served as a reminder that “the average bureaucrat was Black”  and implicitly helped Apartheid’s killing machine. Dlamini also denounces those askaris who explored to their advantage “fictions of racial solidarity” by “insinuating themselves into activist groups and underground networks” . These same fictions of racial solidarity were also used by askaris who “presented themselves as victims of circumstances or as ‘hostages’” , especially in front of the TRC.
The book claims that it deals with the four truths that the TRC upheld—“the factual and forensic; personal and narrative truth; social truth; and healing and restorative truth” —but one wonders why Dlamini did not mention, besides Deborah Posel’s work, the usual evaluations of the TRC’s “rainbow of truths”.(2) Despite Dlamini’s reticence about the TRC, the Commission’s files are what made Dlamini’s archival work possible. Indeed, Dlamini consulted these files salvaged by the TRC, what he calls, after Achille Mbembe’s cautionary tale, “the slivers of official archives” , or what Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza termed “Apartheid’s paper Auschwitz” [qtd 3]. Dlamini was left with a skeleton of materials after a massive archival purge, since “44 tons of the apartheid state’s security archive [was destroyed] by the military, police and intelligence services in 1993, shortly before the advent of democracy” . This impression that one only sees the tip of the apartheid iceberg was confirmed when I recently visited Pretoria’s South African Defence Force archives, which started as of 1969 by legislative fiat. What about the two decades after the official beginning of Apartheid? In Dlamini’s case, his job was to flesh out this skeleton—including the Security Branch’s “lifeless” cadaver-like “time line”  tracking Sedibe’s every move— and the body of evidence and research that it yielded matches any post-traumatic reconstruction in depth and clarity.
The skeleton that does not get plausibly fleshed out in Dlamini’s narrative is that of Mark Behr, the South African novelist who died prematurely in 2015. Dlamini is right in indicting Mark Behr as an agent of the South African security establishment. A graduate student at the University of Stellenbosch from 1986 to 1990, Behr “confessed” that his act of espionage on the student organisation, NUSAS, earned him money (to pay his studies); that it was “morally untenable” and that in his core identity “lay coiled an awful lie”.(3) One can even follow Dlamini’s endorsement of Behr’s former Professor in Political Science, Guillermo O’Donnell, who chastised Behr’s motives as akin to “Hannah Arendt’s claim about the banality of evil”  but one has to stop to consider why Dlamini did not mention Behr’s homosexuality. When Military Intelligence was about to expose Behr’s “history of closeted gay experiences”,(4) he became a double agent by consulting with ANC factions from outside South Africa. Dlamini is silent on the fate that awaited sexual dissidents in apartheid South Africa as well as on Behr’s role as a double agent. The skeleton has now long been out of the closet and Behr’s repentance left trails of betrayal and abuse in his fiction such as The Smell of Apples (1995).(5)
Dlamini resorted to such archival material as the TRC’s files only when interviews were denied, as was the case with MK operatives who feared that their testimonies “would help ‘glorify’ Sedibe” . His methodology rests in fact mainly on interviews (we are not told whether they were semi-structured or not) that were carried out over a two-year span—2013 and 2014. For the making of his book, Dlamini, who also worked as a journalist and is used to investigative methods, interviewed five askaris but also members of Sedibe’s entourage like his brother Kaborone, who led a students’ rally celebrating the collapse of Portuguese rule in Africa and was jailed in Robben Island for terrorism; his former comrades; but also the infamous Eugene de Cock whom Dlamini visited in jail where he is serving a sentence of 212 years for murder and assorted crimes.
Because of the anachronistic division of the book into themes—e.g. “the farm”, “the village”, “the oaths”, “the psychology”—there are inevitable factual overlaps. Some acronyms could have been more explicit for the lay reader; a case in point is AWOL  to refer to “absent without leave” in the military.
Women in this quintessentially male book are given some narrative space. The one female askari, Rekisa, whom Dlamini interviewed, “offered to take [him] to [a] border area where she would ferry insurgents across”, that is where she helped de Cock “disappear” anti-apartheid activists, but he proudly states that he “never took her up on her offer” , presumably refraining from contact with the physicality of locale. Dlamini also mentions Maki Skhosana’s televised death by necklacing by anti-apartheid agents as retaliation for the deaths of insurgents lured by askaris masquerading as ANC insurgents.
Dlamini’s obsessive search for the truth around Sedibe’s defection leads him to tackle the biographical genre, a genre which, incidentally, was “standard practice for people joining the ANC” . He subtly weaves Sedibe’s skeletal biography with the more tangible strands of autobiography, embedding fragments of his own life—mainly his childhood— into the larger “literatures of betrayal” . This autobiographical impulse testifies to the importance of turning “traumatic memories … [as] the unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences … into narrative memory”.(6) Dlamini’s book also bears testimony to the need for narration.
Dalmini’s fascination with the working of torture is contagious, for the reader is gently coerced into empathising with what Elaine Scarry called in her book “the body in pain” and the incommunicability of pain [qtd 75]. But what Dlamini gives us with one hand, he takes with the other in his unwavering conclusion that even if “collaborators are made, not born” , they remain “moral agents” [221, 234]. The question of agency pops up again and again throughout the book and it is clear that although Dlamini understands Sedibe’s predicament and sympathises with it, he remains unflinching in his stance. He even glorifies people like the female martyr Ndwandwe who chose to die instead of turning into a collaborator and was made a hero or rather a shero postmortem. This is, by Dlamini’s reckoning, “the honourable option” .
The book opens and ends with Njabulo Ndebele’s notion of “fatal intimacy” between black and white South Africans, which Dlamini calls “an unwanted intimacy between people that built an insidious complicity into daily life” . This “subtype of complicity”  is the very definition of collaboration. We might speculate, along with Dlamini, what would have happened to Sedibe had he not defected; like his contemporaries in MK “he might have become a senior official in the post-apartheid government, or found his way to becoming a wealthy businessman” . Yet Sedibe’s defection, despite all its wrongs, and his all too human story, did take place and made Dlamini’s book possible. Askari is masterful in usefully complicating South Africa’s apartheid era and its grey-zone legacies.
* First Edition: Johannesburg: Jacana Media (South Africa), 2014.
(1) Marc Epprecht, Hungochani : The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2004.
(2) E.g. Kader Asmal, Louise Asmal & Ronald Suresh Roberts, Reconciliation through Truth : A Reckoning of Apartheid’s Criminal Governance (Foreword by Nelson Mandela). Cape Town: David Philip; Oxford: James Currey; New York: St Martins, 1997); Richard A. Wilson, The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa : Legitimizing the Post-Apartheid State. Cambridge UP, 2001; Catherine M. Cole, Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission : Stages of Transition. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010.
(3) Mark Behr, 'South Africa : Living in the Fault Lines'. Common Sense (October 1996) : 13-17 (p. 14 & p. 15).
(4) Ibid. : 14.
(5) Mark Behr, Die Reuk van Appels (Strand: Quellerie, 1993); The Smell of Apples (London: Abacus, 1995). For a discussion of Behr’s “confession”, see Chantal Zabus, Out in Africa : Same-Sex Desire in Sub-Saharan Literatures and Cultures. Woodbridge, Suffolk: James Currey & Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2013 : 163-175.
(6) Bessel van der Kolk & Onno van den Hart, 'The Intrusive Past : The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma'. In Cathy Caruth (ed.), Trauma : Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins UP, 1995 : 158-181 (p. 176).
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