Vol. 41 No. 10 · 23 May 2019

One Long Scream

Jacqueline Rose on trauma and justice in South Africa

7238 words

On​ 27 June 2016, Lukhanyo Calata issued a public statement about corruption at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, where he had worked as a journalist for several years. He knew that it would probably result in his dismissal. The corporation had succumbed to what has come to be known in South Africa as ‘state capture’: working in the interests of Zuma’s government, which had itself been captured by big business. Zuma had especially close ties to the notorious Gupta brothers, who now face possible extradition from the UAE to answer criminal charges in South Africa. Calata spoke out against the ‘despotic rule’ of the SABC’s chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. On the day of his disciplinary hearing, Calata joined a picket outside SABC opposing the corporation’s decision not to report on a rising wave of violent protests across the country. The aim of the protests was to secure better housing, job opportunities, municipal governance and social services, and to force the ANC government to reverse policies – so remote from the vision it had when it came to power – that were manifestly failing those citizens, mainly black, who were most socially vulnerable. In fact, the writing had been on the wall for Calata since February 2014, when, following Zuma’s annual state of the nation address, he was grabbed by the scruff of his jacket by SABC’s head of news, Jimi Matthews, told not to get Matthews ‘into shit’ and ordered to put together soundbites of opposition politicians’ positive reactions to Zuma’s speech. He refused (even had he wished to, he could hardly have complied as no such soundbites existed). The resonances with the apartheid era were chilling. Under the regime of P.W. Botha, the SABC had been known as ‘his master’s voice’.

Calata had chosen his moment carefully. The day he spoke out was the 31st anniversary of the state-ordered murder of the anti-apartheid activists from the Eastern Cape known as the Cradock Four: his father, Fort Calata, Matthew Goniwe, Sparro Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli. The men were tortured by blowtorch, and stabbed multiple times. The fingers on Fort Calata’s left hand were severed; on one severed finger was his wife’s wedding band, which she had removed because her fingers had swollen – she was six months pregnant. This wasn’t merely torture, the activist Allan Boesak recalled, but a ‘demonstration’. The attackers – it is believed – were from the Security Police, specifically the notorious ‘Hammer Unit’, whose members used their own personal weapons and would drive into the townships ‘dressed as kaffirs, with our faces and heads blackened’. Sixty thousand South Africans defied a banning order to attend the funeral, along with dignitaries from all over the world. In response, Botha called a national state of emergency, granting ‘complete indemnity against any civil or criminal proceedings’ to the state and all its functionaries. Lawyers in London working with the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front and the Cradock Residents Association issued a statement to alert the international community: the South African government’s failure to contain the people’s anger, they said, had ‘given rise to a new phase of terror against the people’. Today it is generally recognised that Botha’s move was an act of desperation that brought about the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Lukhanyo Calata was three at the time of the murders; his older sister, Dorothy, was ten; his younger sister, Tumani, was born a few weeks after the funeral. Lukhanyo grew up with no conscious memory of his father. At the end of My Father Died for This, the remarkable book he has produced with his wife, Abigail Calata (they took it in turns to write different sections), he can offer only an imaginary reconstruction of the murders.* He pieces the story together from partial records, from conversations with people who had first-hand knowledge of the security apparatus, and from the inconclusive legal hearings which have prevented both the family and the nation from putting the case behind them. At the first judicial inquest in 1989, state involvement in the killings was denied, but then in 1992 the New Nation newspaper published a copy of the ‘signal’ sent by Colonel Lourens du Plessis ordering the ‘permanent removal from society’ of Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata (two of the Cradock Four) and Mbulelo Goniwe (another ANC activist). Du Plessis now says that, when he was called to Pretoria after the story broke, he had the impression that the state attorneys wanted him ‘to say what I didn’t think was the truth’. At the second inquest in 1994, Judge Zietsman ruled that the killers were members of the security forces but declared himself incapable, on the basis of the evidence before him, of identifying the murderer or murderers, who have never been named. It has become a cliché of the post-apartheid dispensation to say that, in order to secure the transition to democracy, the new South Africa opted for truth rather than justice. In the case of the Cradock Four, there has been neither.

I met the Calata family in December 2018 at a conference on ‘Recognition, Reparation and Reconciliation’ in Stellenbosch, organised by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of Stellenbosch University, who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has worked ceaselessly over the past twenty years to keep something of its spirit alive. The title of the conference gestured towards healing, but all three of its terms also touch an open wound. Any call for recognition has to start from the premise that there are things we cannot bear to know or see. Reparation remains a sore point, as substantive reparations for past wrongdoing fell outside the commission’s brief (the Mbeki government all but rejected every recommendation it did make). And what are the chances of reconciliation when racial inequality in South Africa has barely diminished – some would say it has worsened – since the first democratic elections of 1994? In the words of Mark Solms, psychoanalyst, neuroscientist and owner of a farm in nearby Franschhoek, who also attended the conference, the question for the white beneficiaries of apartheid is ‘how we had sort of got away with it’ (not the outcome he personally had sought: over the past 17 years he has tried to establish a new racially inclusive model of land distribution).

In fact, the story told in My Father Died for This would suggest that, in the transition to democracy, truth was not the alternative to justice, but just as much a casualty. The ‘once glorious liberation movement’ of the ANC, Calata concludes in a bitter final chapter, ‘has not honoured the pain of our people in its politics’. John Jeffrey, the current deputy minister of justice, told him in September 2017 that turning a blind eye to the murder of the Cradock Four and others such as the activist Steve (Bantu) Biko ‘was the price that had to be paid’. Partly for budgetary reasons, he explained, there would be no further investigation: he had to prioritise present-day crimes. Such frank admissions are surely rare, most likely drawn out of Jeffrey as his way of honouring Lukhanyo as his father’s son. Even those who see the forfeit of criminal justice by the commission as a historic error, or who argue, in the face of that critique, that amnesty was the only way of averting civil war, do not put it quite like this. There is no doubt in Allan Boesak’s mind that the question of the Cradock Four would have been part of the secret negotiations between the ANC and the apartheid leaders: ‘The generals and architects of apartheid had negotiated themselves out of murder.’ This brings the case crashing into the present. ‘I don’t know,’ Boesak told Calata, ‘how any leader in the ANC can look your mother in the eye, without feeling they must be damned to hell for what they did and continue to do … How can people walk through this country, how can we walk our streets, how can we walk through our townships and not see the blood still on the soil?’

Calata devotes a significant part of My Father Died for This to his great-grandfather Canon James Calata, secretary general of the ANC from 1936 to 1949, who brought his politics to the pulpit and was central in making Cradock the politically conscious and active community for which it was still being punished in the early 1990s. Fort, James Calata’s grandson, was named after the Old Fort Prison, where James was imprisoned for treason in 1956. The book calls on voices from the past as a way of enacting the Calatas’ belief – shared by many – that the past has not been assuaged and that the present dispensation is a form of treachery. South Africa has been transformed, above all, legally and constitutionally but the need for vigilance remains, as aspects of the apartheid era are repeating themselves. In what is presumably a deliberate allusion to the Cradock Four and the Gugulethu Seven (another group of ANC activists, killed by the security forces in March 1986), the SABC protesters have come to be known as the ‘SABC8’. Having been dismissed by the corporation for ‘disrespect’ and for undermining ‘the authority’ of its management, all but one were finally reinstated on appeal.

By refusing to report on the protests, the corporation was trying to render invisible the faultlines in post-apartheid South Africa. The picket outside the corporation was organised by the Cape Town advocacy group Right2Know. Silencing social protest and not naming the state functionaries who killed the Cradock Four are both acts of censorship, sinister forms of quietism, negating the mind’s capacity for judgment in a bid to make the world feel easier with itself. They are also two sides of the same coin (truth and social redistribution are not bargaining chips to be played off, one against the other). In March 2017 I attended a lecture given by Gobodo-Madikizela in Cape Town in which she used the word ‘perpetrators’ to describe the beneficiaries of the current economic regime. There were objections, but Gobodo-Madikizela’s allusion wasn’t casual or sloppy. It was, I imagine, a deliberate provocation, a way of bringing to the surface the failure and corruption of South Africa’s ruling class.

The place​ of Stellenbosch in South African history could not be more different from that of Cradock, which for a long time was a small and relatively poor service centre for the surrounding white-owned farms, before becoming a pivot of black migration in the face of forced removals and a byword for resistance to the apartheid regime. Cradock is recognised as the ‘Cradle of the Freedom Charter’, an idea first mooted at an ANC conference held there in 1953. Today unemployment in Cradock is above 50 per cent, poverty is endemic (especially in the squatter camps that ring the townships), and education is underfunded – blacks who can afford it send their children to former whites-only schools. Stellenbosch, by contrast, is a fiefdom of Afrikaner and, increasingly, expatriate wealth. Nestling in the heart of vineyard country, the town has an aura of unreality. Chic cafés and restaurants, with mainly white, English or Afrikaans-speaking clientele, spill onto the pavements of streets lined with stores selling fine art and jewellery, mohair scarves, handbags made of antelope. African goods hover in dark recesses or are cluttered on stands as you pass. As Gobodo-Madikizela pointed out in her opening remarks at the conference, squatter homes, mainly built today by the young generation, are growing in number and creeping closer and closer to the vineyards of Stellenbosch. The next generation of Africans weren’t meant to be living in squatter homes.

At one of these vineyards, Lanzerac, a celebration was held on the last night of the conference to mark twenty years since the appearance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report and to honour Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah, both of whom attended the evening, along with many others including Albie Sachs, the ANC freedom fighter and retired justice, who earlier in the week gave an impromptu speech at Dornier, another vineyard. He insisted that the achievement of a non-racial democracy had to remain the priority, and defended the constitution, which he had played a key role in drawing up. The constitution has been fiercely criticised in light of the failure to live up to its promise, but it was, Sachs argued, an ‘activist’ document: there must be an unceasing struggle to ensure that its clauses on everything, from non-discrimination to the redistribution of land and resources, are put into effect.

But it was above all the university’s history that made the hosting of the conference at the Theology School in Stellenbosch so meaningful. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had been a theology student at the university in the early 1920s before turning to psychology and sociology. After a few years studying in Europe and the US, he returned to Stellenbosch in 1928 as a professor, but by 1937 had left to pursue a career in politics, becoming editor of the Afrikaner nationalist newspaper Die Transvaler and committing himself to the National Party. Eventually, in 1958, he would become the prime minister of South Africa, in office until his assassination in 1966. Before that, as minister of native affairs, he had been responsible for some of apartheid’s most inhuman laws: the 1952 Pass Laws Act, the 1953 Separate Reservations Act and the 1953 Bantu Education Act, whose purpose, by his own account, was to ensure that blacks received only enough education to work as skilled labourers (he described apartheid as ‘good neighbourliness’). Not until May 2015, in response to the #RhodesMustFall student protests, was a large plaque honouring him removed from the campus at Stellenbosch.

It is Stellenbosch University to which Gobodo-Madikizela’s centre for Historical Trauma and Transformation has recently moved from the University of the Free State, and which, since 2006, has hosted a conference every three years – with the exception of 2015, when there were widespread student protests – on the theme of reconciliation and reparation. In December I was there to present my work and thoughts on psychoanalysis and justice, but the stories told over the five days of the conference by those still living in the aftermath made clear that thinking was not enough. Not that ‘feeling’ will do it either, in a context where expressions of empathy – ‘I feel your pain’ – are so often a pretext for doing nothing.

Everyone was friendly. The project of understanding and transformation was held in common. Some of the most famous dignitaries of the anti-apartheid struggle mingled and shared platforms with young activists and students, treating them as the comrades and friends they were. I never felt that I wasn’t included, even when a black caucus was called to give the Africans and African Americans attending the conference more room for their collective voice. And yet one reason this was different from any other academic event I have attended was the way it pushed in your face the suffering that was meant to be over and done with. Whether giving and continuing to give a voice to a family such as the Calatas can be redemptive was a question the conference raised but did not pretend to resolve.

Perpetrators and the sons and daughters of perpetrators were welcome, and given space to speak. Verwoerd’s grandson, Wilhelm (a political philosopher also based at Stellenbosch), has loudly disowned his grandfather’s legacy; he is an ANC supporter and social activist working with former Northern Ireland combatants who have become peace advocates. To his family – his own father proudly collects the memorabilia of Verwoerd’s legacy – Wilhelm is a bloodline traitor. In his presentation, he described the pressure put on him to embrace his repellent family history and the effort of repudiation he has had to make. ‘I don’t take for granted,’ he said about talking in public, ‘that I will be able to speak.’ The overriding question, as he sees it, is what whites ‘are willing to do by way of white work’. It was the question that pretty much every white person attending the conference had to ask of themselves. ‘You are not fit to touch the hem of Africa,’ a voice pronounces in the middle of Eliza Kentridge’s poetic grief-sequence Signs for an Exhibition. (Kentridge is the daughter of two anti-apartheid lawyers; her father defended Nelson Mandela in the Treason Trial of 1956.) Unlike other moments in the poem, it does not seem as if this is the voice of a mother speaking to her daughter, but the daughter, punishingly, addressing herself. When I look back at the conference, in fact pretty much whenever I write about or visit South Africa, it is a version of this voice that I hear resounding, or that I think should be resounding, in my head.

The articulate and poised Wilhelm Verwoerd made a stark contrast to Stefaans Coetzee, one of the bombers of the Worcester Shopping Mall in 1996, who came across as a wrecked man. Four people died in Worcester and 67 were injured, many of them seriously. Coetzee had been a member of the white Afrikaans Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) and an admirer of Wit Wolf Barend Strydom, who in 1988 massacred seven black people and injured more than a dozen others on what was then called Strijdom Square in Pretoria. (A few weeks earlier he had randomly killed a black woman in an informal settlement in De Deur, outside Johannesburg, to test his resolve.) Coetzee had felt unable to accept the new ANC government: ‘I was filled with hatred and I still don’t know why.’ He was 17 at the time. In 2016, he ran the Comrades’ Marathon with the number 67 – the number of the injured – inked on his arm (at the end of the run, he handed his medal to one of the victims). Before he spoke, we were shown a film clip in which, head bowed, he muttered compulsively: ‘I apologise.’ But ‘saying sorry’, he also insisted, was not enough: ‘There must be doing of sorry.’

Several people I spoke to after Verwoerd’s session said that, moved though they were, they could not bring themselves to shake his hand (an odd idea in any case; there had been no handshaking at any of the other sessions I attended). Gobodo-Madikizela is best known for A Human Being Died That Night: Forgiving Apartheid’s Chief Killer (2003), a book of interviews with Eugene de Kock, the apartheid death squad leader who was called ‘Prime Evil’ by his own men. The day after she first shook his hand, she woke up to find that she could not lift her right forearm, which had gone completely numb, ‘as if my body were rejecting a foreign organ illegitimately planted’. At their next meeting, de Kock too seemed panicked about the physical contact – as though, she thought, he were struggling to split off his ‘killer hand’ from his body. The vocabulary – frozen limbs, splitting – owes more than a little to the language and history of psychoanalysis, which began with the case of hysteria of Anna O., the patient whose arm froze into the petrified shape of a snake as she sat with it wrapped around the back of her dying father’s chair; while terms like ‘splitting’, ‘scotomisation’ and ‘derealisation’ (mental self-blinding) slowly crept into Freud’s late vocabulary as he began to confront minds whose only recourse in the face of mental pain was to take flight from themselves. No surprise that such a conference should find itself brushing up against the worst of psychic trouble – from hysterical paralysis to psychotic modes of defence. In her presentation, Cathy Caruth, a leading figure in the study of trauma, seemed to be shifting her ground, away from trauma as something that defies representation – an idea which not uncontroversially has very nearly come to be orthodoxy – to trauma as something which shatters the very basis of human communication, since there is no one either inside or outside the head to address, no one there to listen. In perhaps his most famous essay, written in 1959, W.R. Bion, one of the first psychoanalysts to bring psychoanalysis into the world of psychosis, called this ‘attacks on linking’.

As the conference skirted this hallucinatory dimension, it was as if all of us, faced with past atrocity and an ever receding horizon of social justice, were scrambling for a language of sanity. Lindiwe Hani, who also spoke, is the daughter of the ANC activist Chris Hani, much loved leader of the South African Communist Party. He was murdered in 1993 by a hired killer, Janusz Waluś, a migrant in flight from Polish communism, in the countdown to South Africa’s first democratic elections, as part of an attempt to provoke a civil war: ‘an explosion of carnage and race war’, as Joe Slovo said at his funeral, ‘a massive spilling of blood and the end of negotiations’. (Instead the almost immediate consequence was that the ANC secured a date, 27 April 1994, for the elections.) Hani was 12 years old at the time. In the months after his death, every time someone asked her how she was doing, she would reply ‘robotically’: ‘Fine.’ As she puts it in her memoir, it took years for her to realise that ‘fine’ is shorthand for ‘fucking insane’.

Madness can be generative (which does not mean that it is a condition to be welcomed, or sought). In an attempt to confront her demons, Hani visited Waluś several times in prison; she had already met Clive Derby-Lewis, the ‘mastermind’ behind the killing, who provided Waluś with the gun. She had, she writes, been living in a ‘shroud of death’. In the years after her father’s murder her first serious boyfriend died after accidentally crashing his car into a wall; her sister, Khwezi, who had heard the shooting and was the first to discover her father’s body, died of a cocaine overdose. She herself was in recovery from years of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. One of the things Waluś told her was that, the summer before the killing, he had gone to see his own 12-year-old daughter, who was living in Norway, because he knew he would never see her again (in the event, his death sentence was commuted when the death penalty was declared unconstitutional by the South African Constitutional Court in June 1995). Why, Hani found herself asking in what seems like an act of astounding generosity, should another 12-year-old lose her father as she had lost hers?

She accepted his apology, even began to like him, though she was not inclined to forgive – hatred and forgiveness would come over her in waves. ‘Don’t forget you killed my father,’ she would throw into the conversation with Waluś whenever things got too cosy. But she did not want to ‘perpetrate the anger’. Like ‘doing of sorry’, the inventiveness of the wording struck me (a state of mind can surely be perpetrated as much as any deed).

Where​ is trauma meant to lodge itself when the mind, like the body, in shreds or shot to pieces, is no longer anything that might remotely be called home? The very persistence of horror in South Africa tells us that thinking about trauma in relation to language, circling endlessly around the question of whether or not it can be spoken, which has tended to dominate academic discourse, is not enough. In South Africa, Nomonde Calata is famous for the wailing, almost inhuman, cry she emitted at the start of the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which momentarily brought the hearing to a complete halt. Gobodo-Madikizela’s lecture in March 2017 was called ‘The Cry of Nomonde Calata’. For the poet Antjie Krog, who was sent by the SABC to report on the commission’s proceedings (in the better days of the SABC, we might say), the cry marked its true beginning. She felt she was witnessing the ‘destruction of language’: ‘To remember the past of this country is to be thrown back into a time before language … to be present at the birth of language itself’ (before a time when individual speech could even be an issue).

We need to redraw the cartography of the mind, to venture beyond the paths on which Freud, safely and unsafely, was willing to tread. We need insane visionary moments, including the world of dream and hallucination, to be credited as part of the landscape of trauma – the psychic equivalents of ‘upsurge’ and ‘turbulence’, evocative terms used by the South African literary and cultural critic Sarah Nuttall to capture the increasing outbursts of rage and protest that are spreading across South Africa today. Such moments arrive unbidden, erupting from what feels like another world. Abigail Calata tells a story that when she was dating Lukhanyo but hadn’t yet met her future mother-in-law, Nomonde, she felt the presence of Fort Calata in her bathroom. Without hesitating, she picked up the phone to tell Nomonde, at that point a complete stranger, that she had a message to give her from her dead husband: he had never intended to leave her in that way. The same night, it turned out, he had also appeared to Nomonde in a dream. On another occasion, when Fort appeared to Nomonde in a dream telling her to go home, she rushed back to Cradock to find that his grave had been vandalised. Impossible links across the geographic landscape, or between people barely known to each other: these moments of cross and intergenerational transmission will not be held to the usual protocols of space and time. The simplest message of the whole conference was also perhaps the most far-reaching premise of psychoanalysis. Nothing perishes inside the body or the mind, which is why the suggestion that South Africa has left apartheid behind is as psychologically as it is politically inept. Oddly, this might be grounds for the very optimism that has so visibly faltered. In one of the best received papers I attended, the legal scholar and activist Jaco Barnard-Naudé offered a rereading, after Jane Harrison, of the story of Pandora, in which the evils that spill from her box are the ghosts of past wrongs unavenged and forgotten. The one item left in her box, when evil has thus been exhumed, is hope. Ghosts walked the corridors of this conference. Perhaps its most important task was to give them room to do so.

But it wasn’t just the ghosts who were calling out for recognition. The ethos of the heroic freedom fighter and his family has also played its part in clamping down on psychic pain. Lindiwe Hani’s mother, Limpho, saw it as a slur on the family honour when Lindiwe checked into rehab under her real name (owning the name in fact played a key part in her recovery). At one point in My Father Died for This, Lukhanyo Calata calls Nomonde ‘a mighty soldier of a woman’; Abigail describes her as the ‘true hero’ of the whole story. Siyah Mgoduka’s father, Warrant Officer Mbalala Glen Mgoduka, was one of many killed on the instruction of Eugene de Kock (he designed the bomb placed under his father’s car). In conversation at the conference with his mother, Doreen, Siyah said: ‘She is a better man than I could ever be.’ It is as if, in each of these cases, lack of frailty – of ‘woman’s’ frailty – were the highest possible praise, though Siyah also repeated three times during the session that, as the years have passed, he has slowly become ‘softer’ as a man (Doreen forgave de Kock; Siyah refused). By staging their dialogue for us to listen, they seemed to be demonstrating that in today’s South Africa such barely perceptible but momentous shifts of the heart can only be spoken in front of a witness. A conversation between the two has been made into a split-screen film, a technique that perfectly conveys the barrier between them, the slowly moving closeness and distance. As if, by means of this unusual format, they were summoning a symbolic ‘third’ presence into the room. For the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, who spoke of her work with perpetrators and victims in Gaza, such a third is the only possible basis for any form of political recognition between enemies. In a one-to-one encounter, identities tend violently to entrench themselves.

As the widows​ of fighters, Nomonde Calata and Limpho Hani were never allowed to show grief. ‘One does not cry for a hero,’ Nomonde was told. ‘I had to put up the face.’ ‘Put up the face’ feels right (as distinct from the more familiar ‘put on a face’). Even in the presence of her children, only one mask of unwavering courage and fortitude was acceptable. She has not been offered therapy, or anything close. ‘I would love,’ she said in discussion with Gobodo-Madikizela, ‘to have a one-to-one conversation. I want someone to listen.’ She is famous for her role in the Truth Commission, but it was clearly another type of listening that she was asking for here (the lack of any such follow-up is seen as one of the commission’s most serious failings).

In South Africa, psychoanalysis came to a halt in 1949, the year after apartheid was established, with the death of its only training analyst, the Lithuanian Wulf Sachs, who had come from the UK (a flourishing psychoanalytic community of South African exiles has been present in London ever since). Mark Solms and Tony Hamburger, the two figures who have done the most to give psychoanalysis new life after apartheid, both spoke at the conference. But like pretty much everywhere else in the world, and despite best efforts to the contrary, psychoanalysis remains out of reach for the many – in South Africa, the racial majority and the poor. ‘To establish psychoanalysis in South Africa,’ Solms remarked, ‘without confronting its elite status is to create a still-birth.’

There is a long history, which resonated across the conference, of wives, often themselves activists, who were left behind while their husbands took part in undercover work, were imprisoned, fled into exile. James Calata’s wife was a leader in her own right, an equal partner, but she rarely saw him because he was always on the move. After her marriage, Limpho Hani became involved with the ANC and in 1977-78 was detained for several months for her role in ferrying recruits across the border to Swaziland. But the family hardly ever saw Chris Hani, who was dedicated to armed struggle. He had crossed the border and lived for long stretches of time in Zambia, Lesotho, Tanganyika, Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Angola and what was then called Rhodesia. Limpho Hani raised her three daughters more or less single-handed. When her husband was in prison, Nomonde Calata had to scrape together a living for her family. She had worked in the canteen at the Cradock Provincial Hospital, but was sacked after being reported by a police officer who spotted her on a bus wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Free Mandela’. Her husband had never talked to her about his activities in the ANC underground. In this context, the killing of these men can be understood as a sinister type of continuity, enshrining an absence that was already there in these women’s lives. ‘I do want my time,’ Nomonde said as she sat with her three children, ‘all the time I lived for others, for fear, for protection.’

Of these stranded, abandoned wives the most famous is of course Winnie Mandela, who, though barely mentioned at the conference, seemed to be stalking the halls. Sometimes this was explicit: Winnie Mandela was a family friend, heroine and role model for Lindiwe Hani; ‘The Hani girls with Big Mummy Winnie at Mama’s fiftieth’ is one of the photographs in her memoir. But she is also there, implicitly and far more awkwardly, in the fact that Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata chose Father Paul Verryn – a family friend since the 1980s, when he visited Fort Calata in Diepkloof Prison – to write the foreword to their book. Verryn is the minister Winnie Mandela charged with paedophilia, without any evidence, as the net started to close around her infamous team of bodyguards, the Mandela United Football Club, who terrorised Soweto, the township to which she moved in 1986 at the end of nine years’ banishment in Brandfort. In 1988, members of the club kidnapped three young boys, including Stompie Moeketsi (or Stompie Sepei), who was murdered by Jerry Richardson, the football club’s chief coach. In 1991 she was sentenced by a Johannesburg court to six years in prison for ordering the kidnap and for her active part in the assault, commuted on appeal to a fine and two-year suspended sentence.

And yet one of the most surprising things I discovered during my visit is that in today’s South Africa, blighted by persistent, glaring, social, economic and racial injustice, the star of Winnie Mandela is once again on the rise. For many it has never waned: not for those who always considered the historic 1994 compromise between Nelson Mandela and de Klerk a betrayal that sacrificed justice at the altar of a freedom and has turned out to be a travesty for the oppressed; or for those of the new generation who believe decolonisation was pushed aside in favour of democracy. At the core of the student protests of past years was the charge that the halls of learning, as bastions of white privilege, had been left more or less intact; until the Rhodes Must Fall campaign of 2015 brought down the statues and demanded free education, which Zuma finally conceded as one of his last acts before he was forced to resign. The gesture is now widely regarded as a political stunt – there had been no prior consultation with the Treasury – and is today the cause of further protests on campus. Seen in this light, Winnie Mandela’s obduracy, her refusal to bow to the commission, becomes her foresight. Only when Tutu pleaded with her did she offer a paltry apology, her parting gift to proceedings for which she had never hidden her contempt.

Like the hysteric who ushers in the birth of psychoanalysis, and who so often carries the malaise of a whole family, Winnie Mandela can be seen as a figure who embodied the unhealed sickness of the nation on behalf of everyone. ‘The past must be opened,’ Sisonke Msimang concludes her book The Resurrection of Winnie Mandela (2018), ‘not just to grief, but to the structural nature of racism … Just there, in the recent past, like the body of a wounded animal hit by a speeding car, there lies the corpse of justice.’ Whatever her crimes, Winnie Mandela will remain on a pedestal, Msimang argues, ‘until there is a harder, sterner form of justice … until all the apartheid murderers are named on a public roster so that they are known to the world.’ ‘The perpetrators should meet this family face to face,’ Paul Verryn writes in his foreword to My Father Died for This. Neatly, and troublingly, Msimang aligns her defence of Winnie Mandela with the grief at the heart of the conference and with the call for justice and accountability that drives Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata’s book.

In fact Winnie Mandela has already been granted re-entry into a communal world, at least symbolically, in Njabulo Ndebele’s novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003), in which she narrates her own story after four other women, each of them abandoned by their husband for a different reason, have offered their story to her. One of the men is a disappeared mineworker, others seek educational or marital advancement (a new, white wife), or sexual freedom. The women embrace Winnie Mandela for her brazen flouting of the myth of the ever patient Penelope, waiting for Ulysses’ return – a cruel, centuries-old European hoax, Ndebele implies, against African women. The novel ends with all five women welcoming Penelope, in the modern guise of a hitchhiker, into the car in which, joyously and with fierce independence, they have taken to the road together (shades of Thelma and Louise). ‘You personify extreme political perception unmediated by nuance,’ one of the women says, addressing herself to Winnie, ‘nuance having been drained out of us by the blatant obscenity of apartheid, which reduced life to one long scream.’

We should​ expect no thanks from those who suffered under apartheid if we reduce them to mere victims of history, especially the women caught up in the struggle (which must include Winnie Mandela), despite or because of the enforced passivity and subjugation they endured. The random violence of the security forces whenever they raided activists’ homes was notorious. It did not stop Nomonde Calata refusing to leave her house when ordered to do so by a police officer, or telling him to get off her bed: ‘“You will have to take your gun and shoot me, and take me out of the house.” Well, they stood up and left.’ Their sexual taunts also failed to deter her: ‘You’ve got a baby without a father,’ one of them mocked, noticing that she was pregnant. ‘Don’t you want us to be the father of the baby?’

In 1969, Winnie Mandela was held in detention without charge for 491 days, subject to beatings and torture, often in solitary confinement, sleeping on a blood-soaked mat, her cell next to the torture chamber (at other times she was held in the ‘death cell’). Such details emerged only as recently as 2013 with the publication of her prison diaries and letters. She is eloquent on the subject of how much better prison conditions are for a prisoner – her husband, say – compared with a detainee. ‘I’d communicate with the ants,’ she recalled, ‘anything that has life. If I had lice, I would have … even nursed them.’ ‘You are going to talk against your will,’ Major Ferreira, one of her interrogators, told her (the other was the torturer Major Swanepoel). ‘We can go to the torture room now,’ she replied. ‘My defence has my instructions on my prospective inquest.’ She also snubbed a request that she address her captors in Afrikaans, telling them she preferred to use the language of her ‘first oppressors’.

‘The bloody bitch has sucked the saliva of all the white communists,’ Swanepoel snaps at her during one interrogation. ‘[She would have] seduced the pope if she had wanted to use him politically,’ his ‘partner’ adds. (‘They roared with laughter.’) This is a prisoner who suffered frequent blackouts, palpitations, breathlessness, who woke up screaming in the night, would mutter the names of her children, and at one point almost starved herself to death (for political reasons she did everything possible to hide the fact that this was an attempted suicide). ‘And they wonder,’ she writes, ‘why I am like I am’ – a statement I see as undiminished in its impact by the fact that she is clearly trying to exonerate herself.

At moments it has seemed as if her refusal to retire as a sexual being is the worst of her crimes. In the early 1990s, I went to visit a well-known writer on South Africa then based in Oxford. My plan had been to discuss his take on the violence spreading across the country in the run-up to the 1993 elections. Instead, I was regaled with endless stories of Winnie Mandela’s sex life as I gazed out at the college lawns. She was meant to be carrying the flag for her husband’s and the nation’s freedom. Instead she became the sinner to his saint. ‘That Winnie began her fall from grace just as Nelson was beginning his ascent to sainthood,’ Msimang writes, ‘is both a tragedy and another sort of fiction.’ Or, in the words of the eponymous character in The Cry of Winnie Mandela: ‘Whereas imprisonment had prepared him for the language of transcendence, I was too grounded in the muck of folly’ (both, surely, tragic outcomes).

Why do we expect, in situations of political injustice, that virtue will accumulate on the side of the oppressed? At the very least, Winnie Mandela does us the favour of demonstrating how misguided that belief is. Why, then, do we rush to divest the downtrodden of the ethical ambiguity that must be everyone’s birthright? It is a truism of psychoanalysis that nobody’s thoughts are pure. We are all traitors inside our heads. Lindiwe Hani is a model of generosity in relation to the man who shot her father, but the day after meeting his mastermind she had woken up with a ‘pure and clear urge to kill’. Even de Kock is permitted ambiguity, and not only in Gobodo-Madikizela’s book. Siyah Mgoduka told us at the conference that his feelings towards de Kock started to soften when he stepped forward to say that he had issued the command to kill Mgoduka’s father, just when the presiding magistrate, for lack of evidence, had been about to close the case. Only the woman, it seems, has to be one thing or the other. Only she is hurled into the vortex of her collapsed moral grace. ‘The woman who greeted him on that sunny day in February 1990,’ Msimang writes about Winnie on the day of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, ‘was morally ambiguous … she spoiled the picture of the perfect revolution that the ANC was intent on creating. She was a reminder that the country was burning.’ Unlike Winnie Mandela, neither Botha nor de Klerk has ever been convicted in law for any crime.

Given all that we had seen and heard, it struck me as nothing short of miraculous, or at least wholly against the grain, that towards the end of the conference the philosopher and activist Achille Mbembe managed to talk of beauty. He was not being sentimental. ‘The Trauma of the World and the World as Trauma’ was the title of his paper. Mincing no words, he spoke of the ‘traumatogenic’ institutions of capitalism and liberal democracy, which to this day have never delivered racial equality, and of the ‘genocidal unconscious’, which turns humans, first among them the racial ‘other’, into disposable commodities. A more viable future will emerge, he suggested, only out of rupture, only if we begin by recognising the brokenness all around. We need a new political subject, no longer in flight from interiority, who deploys multiple selves, inhabits the cracks and crevices of the world, who knows how to be nobody, knows when she has nothing to hide, and when to rush to the other side to meet her double. At first I thought that this version of political hope, grounded in brokenness, belonged to a different universe from that of Tumani Calata, the youngest daughter of Fort and Nomonde Calata. Growing up, she had wanted to know nothing about her father, a stranger whom she never grieved. Then, slowly, she started down the path which finally allowed her to begin again, to take possession of the utterance, ‘I am the daughter of a hero. I know who I am.’ In the end, despite the apparent contrast between self-affirmation and breakage, it seemed to me that they were both saying the same thing. Something unprecedented still has to happen. There will be no political emancipation for anyone till we all recognise the corpse still lying on the road, the continuing injustice, the work that remains to be done.

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