Review: Vivien Horler
The Knock on the Door – The story of the Detainees Parents Support Committee, by Terry Shakinovsky and Sharon Cort (Picador Africa)
It all began with Barbara Hogan. In the late 1970s she had been recruited by the ANC in exile to give information about what was going on politically inside the country and to mobilise the white left. Four years later she was Wits Masters student who had built up contacts within many trade unions.
Concerned that the security police were on her trail, she asked Rob Adams, a contact in MK, for help to leave the country. He told her his principal wanted her to draw up a list of people sympathetic to the ANC, people who could be considered “close comrades”.
But neither Adams nor Hogan knew that the principal was in fact a police spy, and once they had Hogan’s list, in September 1981, they began cracking down on activists, starting with Hogan herself.
She was tortured and detained for 11 months, eventually becoming the first white South African woman to be convicted of treason.
Many further detentions followed, a lot of them students from Wits University. There social anthropology lecturer David Webster arranged for a venue for meetings of people concerned about the detentions, including the detainees’ friends and families. Years later Webster himself fell victim to the security police, when he was killed outside his home in Troyeville in 1989.
Many of those connected with the early detainees were close friends, and were able to support each other, but as the police spread their net more widely, parents and families often lacked matching support.
The activists were also concerned that not all the families were sympathetic to the detainees’cause, laying themselves open to manipulation by the security police.
In October 1981 a young man called Keith Coleman was detained, and his parents Max and Audrey went on to become stalwarts of the new organisation. Because detainees were drawn from across South African demographics, the DPSC was, from the start, non-racial.
In the beginning the detainees’ welfare was the focus of the group. Clean clothes weekly, food parcels, and eventually visits were arranged. Many people had no idea if the detainees had any legal rights, so workshops were held about the law, trials, security police, and also what to do in the event of being detained.
The committee publicised the plight of the detainees, and supported their families with funds, food, clothing and even money.
The mother of detainee Cedric de Beer wrote that the first meeting of the DPSC was held just a few days after he was taken. She and other family members were given ideas as to what to include in parcels (no perishables), and what to expect from the security police.
It was a meeting “where we could voice our fears and frustrations and know that there were so very many others who had trodden the same path. It was and is a most extraordinary conglomerate of people from students to the elderly, from professors to housewives, from every political viewpoint to the totally apolitical.”
The committee also kept meticulous records of what detainees had experienced, information which was then disseminated both locally and internationally. Because of the care and accuracy with which these reports were compiled, they came to be trusted, providing a counter to many of the lies of people like Police Minister Adriaan Vlok who claimed no children were detained.
In his foreword, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu says the DPSC “shone a light into the darkest places of apartheid – its torture chambers and prison cells. They brought into the open the operation of the security apparatus: the beatings, torture, mass detentions, isolation, rapes and killings”.
Eventually the regime crumbled, “brought down by the collective actions of ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.
Tutu also says he believes the committee laid the groundwork for the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, with much of the evidence led there coming directly from facts provided by the DPSC.
This book, in fact, draws heavily on the committee’s archives which are held at Wits.
Some of the individual detainees’ chilling accounts have been included, like this one from a 13-year-old Soweto boy in 1985: “We had to share food from one plate. We were given porridge and tea for breakfast, porridge and soup for lunch, porridge and coffee for the evening meal. We slept on mats on the floor. We were very, very cold. I did not see my parents at all in the first two months.”
Or this from Godfrey Mohuje, 14, from KwaThema in 1986: “They put a bag over my head and made me hold two wires. They switched on the current and I screamed and screamed but they did not worry.”
And then there were the accounts of the families, like that of Edith Dlamini of New Brighton in 1985: “My son is missing… taken from our home… Policemen beat him and took him away… At the police station they said I must go away.”
Many families were poor, some were illiterate, and had no idea what to do when their children were taken. One detainee, 22, told a lawyer his parents had not been able to visit him because they did not have the money. He was also still wearing the T-shirt he had been arrested in months before.
Much of this suffering – and the work that was done by volunteers to try to counter it – was overlooked in the joy that followed the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990 and the first democratic elections in 1994. Few people had any counselling – they simply had to get on with their lives.
Former detainee Daphne Mashile-Nkosi, now an influential mining businesswoman, said: “Nowhere are these experiences written about. We need this book. I want to be able to give it to my grandchildren so that they understand what we lived through. I want to honour… the ordinary people who stretched themselves to help someone else.”
The Knock on the Door – a phrase used by Capetonian Rosalie Bloch after her son Graeme was detained in 1985 – is a sober reminder of what so many people suffered. That suffering, the actions of those who caused it, and the courage of those who helped, deserve to be remembered.
Or as Tutu puts it, it is a story “of the noblest part of ourselves – that part of us that must stand with all the oppressed and exploited people, whether in South Africa or across the world, in the face of injustice and abuse of power”.
- This review has also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday March 11.