A peaceful transition to democracy? No, it wasn’t


Review: Vivien Horler

Undeniable: Memoir of a covert war, by Philippa Garson (Jacana)

Everyone over the age of 30 or so remembers where we were the day FW de Klerk unbanned the liberation movements, the day just over a week later when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the day nearly four years later when we took part in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

It was a heady period, the time of the Rainbow Nation, when our new multi-coloured flag replaced the unloved (by most South Africans) Oranje Blanje Blou, and when an ecstatic Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced the recently elected President Mandela to a crowd on the Grand Parade, saying excitedly: “Here he is! Our president – brand new, out of the box!”

It was South Africa’s miracle to have avoided civil war and the bloodbath that had been predicted for years, and emerge into the sunlit uplands of freedom.

Well, 26 years later we know how that turned out. But it did seem pretty miraculous at the time.

However, as Philippa Garson relentlessly chronicles in this memoir of a young Weekly Mail reporter covering the horrendous wave of killings and violence that swept South Africa between 1990 and 1994, this country certainly did not see a “peaceful transition to democracy”.

Do we even know how many – mostly poor – people died “invisible deaths” in this period, she asks. “14 000, say some sources; 15 000, 16 000 say others. Where is the nation’s grand monument to those people whose names seldom made it into newspapers, the victims of one massacre after another, totted up as mere numbers, and inaccurately counted at that?… The ‘born-frees’ may be tired of hearing about the hallowed struggle heroes, about the dream come true. But what of the bloodbath that was visited on their country in apartheid’s death throes…?

“Some who were caught up in the thick of it are still deeply traumatised and don’t want to talk about that time. Others, who know a lot, fear prosecution, even after all these years, and won’t talk.”

Some of the killings still ring down the years: Boipatong, Bisho; the AWB attack on the World Trade Centre negotiations at Kempton, and the assassination of Chris Hani. But much of it, as Garson says, is glossed over.

However it happened, and Garson, a 24-year-old white reporter from an academic, liberal home, was there, with many others such as Mondli Makhanya, Kevin Carter, Eddie Koch, Anton Harber and others, covering the war between Inkatha and ANC-aligned communities.

Moving in and out of the townships she took terrible risks, but was determined, as were her colleagues and bosses, to tell the story of what was really happening, and to try to find the truth about rumours of a “third force” deliberately destabilising the country and the peace talks.

Woven in with descriptions of her work, she tells the story of her private life, her relationship with the wild and unpredictable Clyde, her mixed-race boyfriend, her all-night partying in Yeoville and Hillbrow, and her Sunday lunch arguments about the political situation with her Afrikaans grandparents and liberal parents.

Garson, who now lives in New York, says she started writing Undeniable “during long periods of loneliness and grief at leaving the country of my birth and my beloved extended family”.

The book works best when she is describing her own experiences, either on the frontline in the townships or at home, trying to make sense of her relationship with Clyde. But she also sees her task as one of record, chronicling many of the events that happened when she was not present, and there are times when this reader’s eyes glazed over.

A reader of this website commented on my recent review of Jacob Dalmini’s The Terrorist Album – about a Security Police album of pictures of “terrorists”, saying: “Aaaaarg, picking at scabs. I try not to, they tend to bleed.”

There has been something of a slew of books of this kind published recently: Herman Giliomee’s The Rise and Demise of the Afrikaners; The Terrorist Album, and Imtiaz A Cajee’s The Murder of Ahmed Timol – my search for the truth (which I have yet to read).

And now there is Undeniable. Do we need these reminders? I think, on the whole, we do. We need to remember, we need the record. Do we want to read these books though? That may be another question entirely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *