Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Biko (book) Cry Freedom (movie)

Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years.
Sobukwe was put in isolation six years and subsequently banned.
But they killed Steve Biko at age 30. Why?

Biko by Donald Woods and the movie Cry Freedom are a good place to start answering that question. Woods, an English speaking editor and anti-apartheid writer, became a friend of Steve Biko in the desire to hear the other side of the story. His search took him to places and relationships he never imagined. And he discovered things about himself that shook his complacency. He says: “Few white South Africans shared our anti-apartheid view, and even for many of us who described ourselves as liberal, a long political road had to be traveled away from racism. This was certainly so in my case.”

This long political road is a significant theme in Wood’s book which is first of all a tribute to his friend, Steve Biko, and second a beautiful account of an unlikely friendship against all odds, and which flourished and won. Beyond death.

The movie, Cry Freedom, was produced  in 1987, ten years after Biko was murdered. Apartheid still reigned and fear of reprisals still valid. The book was written in the two shattered months after Biko’s murder and is necessarily riddled with deep emotion. However, it does not lose grip of the message. Woods manages to hone in on the man, Steve Biko, even as he mourns his friend and South Africa’s lost son. His tribute is simple and comprehensive:

My most valued friend, Steve Biko, has died in detention. He needs no tributes from me. He never did. He was a special and extraordinary man who at the age of 30 had already acquired a towering status in the hearts and minds of countless thousands of young blacks throughout the length and breadth of South Africa. In the three years that I grew to know him my conviction never wavered that this was the most important political leader in the entire country, and quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know. (Donald Woods)

The book concentrates at length on the risks frequently taken by Biko to build up the Black Consciousness (BC) movement and develops the unlikely friendship between the white editor and black patriot.  The movie takes a less personal angle, creating a more powerful political statement. Vivid footage of bulldozers razing squatter camps as well as police invasions of townships provide testimony to the brutality of the system. There is none of the hand-wringing and pity-provoking dialogue that could weaken the impact. Instead, the movie gives the reality of township life from character’s lips, then moves on. Biko’s murder was deliberately underplayed, making the point even more powerfully. Watching it again, almost 30 years later, I was impressed at the restraint used. In recent times, directors need plenty of gore and carnage to shock their audience. Rather than subjecting us to the speculative nature of Biko’s torture, we are confronted with his untimely death and the outrageous claims of the men who killed him. 

The book generously presents the Biko-Woods friendship and how Woods grew through it, culminating in Biko's death and Woods' investigation to prove the murder. In the movie, Biko dies half way through, and the second half of the story then focuses on Woods’ escape from South Africa and supplies the requisite close calls and chase to qualify it as an adventure.

Both book and movie underline the most obvious misapprehension of Biko and Woods: that they were safe because of Woods’ color and Biko’s high profile. They did not know that they were up against not merely misguided racists, but “the mortal enemy, who stopped at nothing, who committed the ultimate outrage.” (Woods) The murder of Biko changed the tenor of the fight against apartheid because it was a wake-up call that the rules could be changed at a moment’s notice and rationale would be subsequently supplied. Deaths in detention had been an ongoing issue, but since most were low-profile people, they simply disappeared. Biko’s death spot-lighted this outrage and at the end of the movie, a list of people who died in detention is supplied along with alleged reasons for death.

So: Why did Biko have to die? 
What made him so dangerous? 
Why was he too dangerous to isolate or lock up on Robben Island?

Black Consciousness was Biko’s dream. For him, it was the daring re-taking of identity by blacks in order to know themselves and change their lives. Biko describes it thus:

The first step, therefore is to make the black man see himself, to pump life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth. This is what we mean by inward-looking process.

Biko’s dream was to enable blacks everywhere to look inward: recognize what they saw and lovingly embrace it. To do that, he had to regain their minds, dulled and blinded by a system which ground them down from birth.

The most important weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.   Biko

And Bantu Stephen Biko was out to take that weapon back.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Moses vs. Post-modern, part three

To wrap up, Part Three, Some requests. (a total of 7)

  1. Teach us to number our days aright. As I mentioned before, we are good at numbering. We can count hours and days and years rather well. But the reality of numbering our days aright seems to be more about perspective, how to value the days and years allotted. Some of us have very productive years: pursuing vast education, amassing fortunes, discovering scientific breakthroughs which prevent or cure disease, making the world a better place for posterity. But others of us gradually deteriorate with ALS. multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, or endure quadriplegia and other diminishing conditions. Life is not even-handed. It’s as reliable as a roulette wheel: all we can be sure of is the spinning part. So in the the face of this inequity, and since we are saddled with Someone who isn’t interested in leveling the playing field, it makes sense that we should attempt to gain perspective. See if there is something we might have missed. What exactly is involved in numbering our days aright?
  2. Help us gain a heart of wisdom. This is part of the outworking of numbering the days. But it goes further and makes an assumption. If our perspective is enhanced, we may become wise. Wisdom is one of those old-fashioned things. It seems more suited for people who don’t deal with transgender issues, same-sex marriages, the whole sexual revolution of this century. Wisdom sets itself up as the know-all, understand-all, got-this-figured attitude. Wisdom sounds like a good thing. But it is severely restraining. It has certain aristotelean qualities: like absolute truth. We are much more aware and open-minded in this post-modern world, to assume anything like absolutes. But if there is a type of wisdom that won’t box us in or demand too much of us intellectually, we are interested. What we don’t want is to have to let go of our hard-earned tolerance and appreciation for the variety of outlooks and cultures we have in this world. We don’t approve of the lack of understanding for those who do things differently: widow burning and amputation for retribution are the business of those cultures. Who are we to decree what is right and wrong for those who see the world differently than we do? We do, indeed, want a heart of wisdom, but on our terms--conforming to our understanding of what wisdom is. 
  3. Relent. Have compassion. Yes, please. Since You are God and made us and everything, You are well aware that we are very tiny little guys in the whole scheme of things. Give us a break, won’t You?  You made us. You love us, or so we have been led to believe. What’s with the Heavy Hand? We don’t really have the power and authority we’d like to think we do. We put on a good show. But we have a hard time putting things to rights after we’ve messed up. And it’s even harder when we’re trying to clean up someone else’s mess. Please, relax the pressure. Our lives are miserable enough. Relent. We need a breather.
  4. Satisfy us (wow) We are a pretty insatiable mob. We reach out and grab for gusto: ours and others’. We earn and want more. We buy and consume at a prodigious rate. Bottom line: we can never get enough. Not enough food, clothing, technology, education, stuff, travel, beauty, sex, money, anything. We are bottomless pits, black holes. Our desires are simple: encore. Just a little bit more. Can you? Satisfy?          in the morning (wow) There is a morning every day. So we’re just asking for daily            satisfaction. You should be able to come up with that, right? For a planet of people who are all about themselves and what they want? Their self-actualization and comfort?                                                                                                                    with Your unfailing love (wow).  We are not easily satisfied to begin with. But love alone does not sound like it is going to do it. We love the idea of love. But it doesn’t take away hunger pangs, cure disease, pay the bills, keep us warm (or cool if it’s summer time), shelter us from weather, or do any of those practical things that we need for basic survival. It certainly doesn’t guarantee a decent internet connection! So if You can deliver a daily dose of Love that satisfies us. Big wow. We have no idea what unfailing love is, You see. It sounds wonderful. But all the love we’ve ever known or managed to generate eventually fails. It lets us down and lets down the ones we love or who love us. We fail at so many things we attempt, but love is one thing we fail at notoriously. If Yours is unfailing, this may be something of true value to us. Could You please, regularly top us up with Your high-octane, unleaded, super-detergent Love just so we can make it?
  5. Make us glad. You know: happy. Content. At peace. Satisfied. Rested. Home. We have been afflicted for days and suffered for years. Trouble is our middle name. We have burdens. We are slaves, all of us, slaves to someone or something. We have addictions. We’ve been brutalized or abused. Oppression is no stranger to this planet. Those of us who haven’t been victims have probably been perpetrators. And we are all in need of something very Holy. Some Holy Gladness. Something that will wipe away the ugliness and sordidness of broken lives and destroyed relationships. Can You just make us glad? A little glad? A taste of what glad might mean in Your dictionary?
  6. Show us Your deeds. Show us Your splendor. We want to see something very spectacular. You used to show Your people mighty miracles. They were so long ago and far away that they have the aura of myth around them. Many important theological types are finding ways to explain away these supernatural stories. But we are kids at heart. Just look at the movies we watch. We want to be amazed and we want the impossible to come true. We love the saved-at-the-last-minute stories. Don’t burden us with the responsibility of being adults. We aren’t ready for the heavy stuff. We want to be mesmerized with You crashing in on humanity: bigger than life. Be our cosmic super-hero. We peek at Your wild ride of freeing the Israelites from Egypt. We love the story of You piling tons of Red Sea water up against gravity so they could walk through “on dry ground.” We love the dry ground part; we know how long it takes ground to dry. Show us again how you fed millions bread, meat, and water in a desert. For forty years! We can do disaster relief and aid in this century. We can even make some projects last forty years. But it stretches our resources and we have to deal with donor fatigue. You, on the other hand, kept their clothes and shoes from wearing out. That was a touch of genius. What’s more, You kept them aware of Yourself with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. What was that all about? They could see with their eyes that You were watching out for them. We need some of that in the 21st century. We are feeling a little jaded and surviving modern day plagues isn’t enough to light our miracle candle. About those meter-thick stone walls of Jericho, which You disintegrated with the sound of trumpets blowing. How did you do that without scud missiles? Why were You so prolific with Your superpower back then? We would love to see some of it now, just to know that You really are who You say You are. We don’t expect You to do anything really impossible. LIke Joshua and the sun standing still. We know that the sun doesn’t stand still. The earth doesn’t stop spinning on its axis. We’d all fall off. Not asking for that kind of supernatural. Just something nice and safe--not mind-boggling.
  7. Favor us, establish what we do. Is it that much to ask? Show us a little favoritism. Establish the works of our hands: make it worthwhile. We are struggling so much to do something worthy. Can You make it happen? Here we are, small enough to be ludicrous, helplessly laughable. But we want to do something. Make a difference. Something that counts. Something to affirm that it was all worth it. Something for You. Can You do that for us, O Creator of all the universes we can and cannot see? Can You make our feeble efforts worthwhile and validate us? Have favor on us.

Monday, July 21, 2014

21st century (post-modern) reflection on Psalm 90, part two

This is an continuation of yesterday's post, interacting with Moses and his observations about God.

And now, Part Two, Observations about us. (a total of 7)

  1. Our dwelling place is You. We’ve looked at the reverse side of this: that You are wherever we dwell. We are hard-pressed to dwell outside of You. I’m sure this was of great comfort to a guy like Moses. But to us in the 21st century, it seems invasive. We try to find ourselves and be our own persons. But escaping the reality of You, our extraterrestrial Big Brother, is an ongoing effort. Our lives are busier and more hectic than we’d like, and with over six billion of us on the planet, one would think You’d have better things to do than to be with each one of us.
  2. We are made of dust and return to dust. Basically, we are one with this planet we developed from or evolved on. We like to think of ourselves as star dust. Moon dust. Celestial dust. But we hardly believe in celestial whatever, because we know it’s just fairy dust in the end. Glitter that children play with and delight in. We are realistic about our humble beginnings and inevitable end. What we don’t get is why is there something down deep that longs to be immortal? What is the yearning for something after this and after death? It lurks in the shadows of our minds and unsettles us.
  3. We are like new grass in the morning and dry and withered in the evening. I already mentioned that we don’t like this image. Our efforts to extend life expectancy have done us credit. The fact that we all do end up dying in the end is just a fact of mortality. We actually accomplish quite a bit in the short span we have and feel that we ought to get some recognition. We build on one another’s achievements and our technology is awe-inspiring. We put a man on the moon! We have sent missions to Jupiter, for heaven’s sake.  (Hmm, for our sake rather.) So for people who have grass-like life expectancies, we have nothing to be ashamed of.
  4. We are consumed by Your anger and terrified by Your indignation. And what have we done to deserve this? For the most part any more, I don’t think we even contemplate Your anger and Your indignation. It was a much bigger factor of life back in Moses’ day. Back before they knew about things like global climate change, meteorite showers, and terrorist attacks. But even without a conscious thought of You, it is interesting that fear determines much of our lifestyle and terror highlights our news reports. From hand sanitizer and vaccines to bullet proof vests and wars of containment, we are on a mission to protect ourselves from enemies visible and invisible, known and unknown. In fact, when in doubt, we create enemies to defend ourselves from. But we’d rather not include You in the picture. You are much too frightening. You are our cosmic bully. We don’t like bullies.
  5. We have no secrets from You. Our privacy is invaded by You. We have developed ways of hiding our thoughts and plans from one another. But we are absolutely exposed before Your all-knowing Eye. You remind us of Sauron’s Eye in Mordor. Penetrating, relentless, and we resist its intense ability to see deep into us. Our lives become occupied with putting up barriers and walls to hide behind. When we think we are safe and slide down against the barricade with a sigh of relief, we sense Your presence, hear Your breath and wonder how close You truly are.
  6. We finish our years with a moan. Yes, we have roughly 70-80 functional years and then it’s curtains. All over. Even those years are full of trouble. The regrets are painful, the accomplishments irrelevant. We are finished. Whether we go out sleeping, fighting, resisting or welcoming, it’s all the same. Whatever is on the other side, there is no return. We’ve tried it and extended life, but in the end, we all die. The longer we last, the less appeal life has anyway. Life itself wears thin. So we succumb where we have no choice.
  7. Who knows the power of Your anger? We certainly do not. We have no concept. Our filmmakers are spectacular and have given us multiple mind-bending visions of apocalypse: the end, the inferno, the ultimate destruction of the world, humankind, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe. You name it, we have some creative talent with computer generated graphics depicting the unimaginable. But we cannot begin to imagine You. We grapple to take in our own human destruction: the Holocaust and Hiroshima are still hard for us to get our heads around. When we put our minds together, we can effect a lot of pandemonium. But what about You? You put all the galaxies together in the first place. We’d rather not think about what You would do if You were riled. We are blind to Your power and creativity, and we’d rather stay that way.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

21st century (post-modern) reflection on Psalm 90, part one

For a song written about 3,500 years ago, this is pretty much says it all. Yes, there is some discussion about whether Moses is the genuine author. But for people who measure the earth’s history in millions of years, we won’t quibble about a millennia or two. Let’s give Moses credit since the argument hasn’t been settled yet and probably won’t be.

Of course, the biggest red flag is that the song is written to God, whose existence is intermittently questioned by all and sundry. But it was written, by a man, whom we call Moses, whose life is verifiable by archeology and a wide variety of ancient manuscripts.

He makes some outlandish claims as well as time-tested observations. First, he looks at God, then he looks at us humans, then he makes a few interesting requests.

Warning: from here on out, reflections are in second person, since Moses wrote this song to God.

So, Part One: Observations about God. (a total of 7)
  1. You have been our dwelling place throughout all generations: this seems pretty comprehensive. It covers space and time. We don’t “dwell” much nowadays, we are quite far into Moses’ future. We move, travel, organize, develop, expand, invent, market, exploit, explore, and some stuff we’d rather not mention. But we don’t dwell for the most part; we’re too busy. But the essence seems to be that wherever we find ourselves and whatever we appear to be doing, we are doing it where You also happen to be. As things stand, we aren’t getting away from You. Maybe if we did more dwelling and less of the other, we’d connect more. 
  2. You are from everlasting to everlasting. This is a little outside our scope, since we don’t "get" eternal things. We are more in tune with beginnings, endings, upgrades, outdates, obsolescence and temporary. We thrive on change and progress. So when we start thinking about everlasting, we resort to the idea of batteries that last longer, but the thing they energize eventually gets tossed and so do they. We can say “You have no beginning and no ending” and understand it in our heads, but we have no true concept because we secretly know that if we go back far enough or ahead long enough, we will find the point at which it/You begin or end. The only none-ending thing we know is the circle and it comes back upon itself.
  3. You turn us back to dust. Well, that’s what we are made of, so it makes sense that decomposition would get us back there. If Moses wants to give You the credit, fine.
  4. A thousand years in Your sight are like a day that has just gone by. Time is not significant to You, at least not in the same way it is to us. For you, millennia fly by overnight, or minutes stretch like years. That does not sound appealing at all. Chronos is one of those things that we like because we can measure it and calculate by it. We don’t like to waste it: time is money, we say. It is one thing that levels us: we all have 24 hours in a day. We try to be efficient and cost-effective. You, on the other hand, are notoriously wasteful. You seem to have time to burn. And You are not in a hurry to get anything done. This mystifies us because we only get so much time here and then it’s over, like grass--(and we don’t like that image, Moses).
  5. You consume and terrify us in your anger and indignation. True, we are people who live in fear and terror. But much of it seems to be of our own making; we don’t exactly see You in the picture. Except when we want to find a convenient scapegoat. As for our terrors, we are getting a handle on them. Our security measures are phenomenal. They reduce our efficiency, but make us feel better. We have quality control inspectors, ingredients listed, the FDA, seat belts, speed limits, strict law enforcement, steel bars, electric fences, camera surveillance, and our airports--let’s just say it takes hours to get through security. We are definitely consumed, but your indignation is something we are blissfully unaware of, unless we’re blaming you for a terrorist attack, a tsunami or an earthquake in some impoverished place.
  6. We have no secrets from You. This one is a bit unsettling. We have secrets. Lots of them. So many, in fact, that we struggle to keep our stories straight. Secrets protect us from each other and ourselves. Nakedness of the soul is not something we do well. We are liberated with bodily nakedness, unless it is used as a form of abuse or intimidation. But the idea that You are there, on the inside, and know us better than we know ourselves, this is intrusive. You are taking unfair advantage.
  7. Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due You. We don’t even know what this means. Basically, we have two unmeasurable sides equalized here; sounds like they’re both infinite. And both unsavory. Wrath and fear. Where is the loving God that we prefer to talk about whenever we talk God? This is the 21st century. We’re not back in the primitive old testament days when people actually thought that the fear of the Lord was the beginning of knowledge. Please. 
Tomorrow, part two: Observations about us.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Two Native Sons, Max du Preez and Rian Malan

Two men, born and bred in Africa, of the white tribe known as Afrikaner into the chaos:

As a tribe, a nation, we are all immured inside a fortress of racial paranoia, jealously hoarding our gold and getting deeper and deeper into a race war we cannot possibly win. We all know that. Our generals have been saying that since 1973.” (Malan p. 296)

Max du Preez and Rian Malan, born shortly after the initial apartheid laws were installed, never experienced life outside of apartheid during their growing up years. Something in each of them recoiled and made them uneasy. Both opted to resist the system, or at least not go along with it. Both were journalists. But they were profoundly different men.

Max du Preez (pictured left) is a rowdy, activist, risking all, striking out, viciously fighting. Rian Malan is a reserved contemplative (by comparison), looking inward and running away from the horror of the truth he uncovered. Both men found themselves on the wrong side of the establishment, the Nationalist Party. Both saw themselves as native sons of Africa, both from strong Afrikaner roots: Malan’s name tells his story, du Preez comes from Kruger stock. Both are intriguing story-tellers. Max spins a dramatic adventure with hair-raising thrill. Rian recalls personal encounters of thought-provoking and agonizing depth.

The titles of their books reveal much about their heart compulsions: Max calls himself the Pale Native claiming the right of inheritance and love of the land. His insistence on his validation as part of a tribal group on the African continent contrasts with Rian’s more complex response in My Traitor’s Heart. Malan knows his heart is African and in Africa, but realizes that by not aligning himself with his tribe, he becomes a reluctant Judas. (See review of both these books in the two previous blog posts.)

Both men were “kaffirboeties”, the derogatory term meaning “black-brothers.” Malan (pictured right) wrote his book before the end of apartheid and his angst is reflected in the as-yet-uncertainty of the outcome. He confesses, “I had been running for eight years and I had to run to the far side of the planet, but I hadn’t outrun the paradox. It still had its claws in my brain. I had been running all my life, and each flight left me weaker, more diminished, more deeply dishonored. Each time I opened myself to speak about South Africa, I betrayed myself again.” (p. 102) This book was his attempt to restore his honor as a human being.

Du Preez’s book came out nearly a decade after apartheid toppled and focused on the difficulties of being the whistle-blower, the renegade, the maverick. Escape was not a consideration: “It wasn’t even a patriotism or a sense of duty or responsibility that prevented me from ever considering leaving South Africa. It was just unthinkable. If you transplant a fifty-year-old kameeldoring tree, it will wither and die. Its root system goes too deep to dig out.”(p. 3)

Du Preez took giant risks: he was in Soweto during the youth uprising June 16, 1976; he interviewed Dirk Coetzee and published his confession; he visited Vlakplaas and almost did not escape alive. He exposed the lie of the “we did not know” refrain often used in the wake of the TRC because he had already publicized what was being spoken in daylight.

Malan did not follow such a flamboyant route: he chose remote research and greater depth. He traveled to distant places and met people in grassroots struggles. He heard their hearts and told their stories passionately. His book is less autobiographical and more about the Afrikaner tribal group responsibility. He wrestles with guilt by association, recognizing that when the barriers in the townships go up, there are no whites on the other side.

Max begins his book recounting the difficulty of his job search in “the new South Africa” because despite his qualifications in journalism and his track record of anti-apartheid activity, he could not resume his unfettered writing career. “History is against you, my brother,” is what he was told. The Big Picture had changed. Color still determined employment, but now it was a different color. This view of history as cyclical and huge and the people in it as small grains or specks in the grand scheme contrasts with Malan’s deeper, soul-searching heart perspective. He saw himself as an individual white man who had to “purge the black fear from my white heart” (p.293), but this was something each member of the tribe had to do personally. The healing would not come collectively. Just as the implementation of apartheid was the act of individual people in concert, so the recuperation and restoration would only come through individuals processing the reality and aftermath in their hearts.

Both Malan and Du Preez are important reading in the story of how far South Africa has come. Their voices bring out the breadth and depth of the fifty years that need to be understood. Every revolution needs activist sand contemplatives: without their record, history will fade and lessons will be lost.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: My Traitor's Heart

The name Malan stands as one of the strongest pillars of Afrikanerdom. Back in 1688 when Rian Malan’s ancestor, Jacques, fled France’s persecution of Huguenots, he found himself forced by the Dutch to the “Dark Continent” where his family proceeded to make a new life for themselves, radically changing the lives of the people already there.

Malan started My Traitor’s Heart as a history of the “great and detested” (Salman Rushdie’s word choice) Malan family. Rian’s journalistic instincts and persevering research brought instead this book of conscience, pain, and incessant questioning. Subtitled “Blood and Bad Dreams: a South African explores the madness in his country, his tribe and himself” the book reveals three dominant themes: blood spilling, madness and tribes.

Malan tried to write a history of his family and ended up writing of the atrocity in his own heart. As a young, privileged, white Afrikaner, he rebelled against the mechanism of apartheid which dominated and terrorized the majority of the population. Without close friends among blacks, he became a leftist, white liberal, choosing music as a medium of resistance. In the end, he ran away to America where he wouldn’t have to live with the haunting reality of apartheid that he had seen too well as a police reporter. This job enabled him to ask “the questions that cut to the very heart of the matter” but he was afraid to find the answers, so he fled.

His return to South Africa eight years later (to research and write this book) was practically inevitable as he describes: “South Africa holds the souls of its sons and daughters in an almost inescapable grasp. History casts all of us in a strange and gripping drama, but I had deserted the stage. I had no idea what my role was, and felt I would never be whole unless I found out.” (p. 102) The journey of that discovery is Rian’s gift to his generation: My Traitor’s Heart.

Published in 1990, before apartheid’s story ended, this book is another touchstone of life in apartheid’s pathway of death wreaked on many of the sons and daughters of Africa. Malan opted for an explosion of truth-telling rather than half-informed oversimplification which so much of journalism indulged in when apartheid was the focus. Of course, his goal to “undo the harm of years of fear, hatred, and violence” could not possibly be met through the writing of a book, but it is a creditable start and one which would help many hearts of genuine patriots attempt to see more clearly where South Africa has come from so that she may continue in an upward, redemptive path rather than meander back to bloody detours she wandered in those fifty years.

My Traitor’s Heart is divided into three smaller books. The first, Life in this Strange Place, starts the Malan family history with fascinating research uncovered in the Cape’s historical archives. Besides being a journalist of integrity, Malan is a superb story teller and his compelling narrative blends story after story into a unified whole.

This element is particularly strong and unnerving in the second part of the book, Tales of Ordinary Murder, where Malan seeks “a resolution of the paradox of my South African life in tales of the way we killed one another.” Hardly ordinary, a relentless litany of murders make up this fascinating account of Malan traversing the country, following leads, and uncovering things done in darkness. Atrocities of white on black, black on white, and black on black smear the pages with unremittant bloodletting. Names like Simon the Hammerman, Spiderman, Halftime, de Koker, and Moshweshwe become familiar as the stories weave in and out and people are brutalized and humanity becomes so frayed as to be unrecognizable. 

Eventually, Malan acknowledges: “in this war, as in all wars, there were no innocent parties and no innocent bystanders. . .” He touches on Winnie Mandela’s thuggery and the media’s reluctance to finger her as the “first lady” of resistance. Ultimately, Malan suggests we walk a fine line between two myths: that of white supremacy and that of brave and noble Africans in epic struggle. Myths is what he finds them to be. Hence his discovery of the atrocity within his own heart, and the question: how do I live in this strange place?

The third section, the sad tale of Msinga, entitled A Root in Arid Ground, gives the the closest thing to hope we can expect in this tragedy; and it is tragedy in an of itself. This is a tribute to Neil and Creina Alcock. This white couple, with eyes wide open to the exploitation and injustice perpetuated by the apartheid system: creating the “independent homelands”, enforcing “bantu education", and destruction of excess food rather than feed those starving in the homelands, chose to align themselves with the oppressed. Previously a highly successful farmer, Alcock fought the system and attempted, with his education and remaining resources (having lost his farm), to alleviate the plight of people overcrowded on land unable to support them. It reads like a developmental success story, until drought and man’s inhumanity triumph.

Although not people of faith in God, and with evidence that there was little enough to have faith in humanity for, the Alcocks gave themselves unstintingly to the African people among whom they lived. It was a virtual no-win situation, ecologically and socially. The Zulus they served were divided between the Black Consciousness and Wararas, or the Ndlelas and Mhlangaans, or whatever other rift could be dredged up from the distant past. Heartbreaking as their story is, it is a story of love that would not turn from ubuntu to self-preservation.

Creina, Neil’s widow, taped at length for Malan and he shares this highlight of her insights: “Love is worth nothing till it has been tested by its own defeat. ... Love is to enable you to transcend defeat.” Creina spoke from her own personal crucible of testing and over-coming. 

As Malan turns the realities in South Africa over and over, looking at them from as many sides as possible--more multi-faceted than diamonds, he recognizes that “there is no military solution because the enemy is within.” This is hauntingly similar to Nelson Mandela’s insight that the oppressor is in truth more a victim of his brutality than the person he tortures because he is defined by what come from within his heart. 

In the process of writing this book, Malan was seeking a freedom from his family’s history, his own running away, and the stain his white tribe had brought to their adopted land. His integrity allowed him to ask the hard questions, then brought him back to look for the answers. As a result, he gained much more and learned the intrinsic truth of liberty:

“Being free is not about casting off chains, but living in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Nelson Mandela.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Every Stone Shall Cry: Pale Native

I heard it again this past week. I still shake my head. There are still people saying: It wasn’t that bad. Those things didn’t happen. We had to do what we had to do. The education never would have worked together. Those killings were propaganda. I never saw an unhappy black person. 

Yes, some people still say and believe it. That is why we must read the records and learn from the journalists who did the hard investigation at the risk of their own lives. 

Du Preez’s Pale Native reads more like a high powered thriller than a journalist’s account of his life and mission. Self-described as: “a butt-kicking, hard-living, cynical, restless, maverick journalist”, Max was all these. Abrasive, tough, irritating, fearless, visceral and rough, he minced no words and took risks with grave consequences, but he never flinched in his role as “troublesome advocate of justice and fair play” (Sunday Independent).

With Max, the fight against apartheid was deeply personal. As an Afrikaner, and a member of the oppressive class, he keenly felt the injustice and his responsibility to speak out. Interwoven in the story are his reflections and feelings of guilt and shame of being part of the unfair side, though not by choice. For him the colors blend, the sides are not “right” and “wrong” and the stories have to be heard for the record to be set straight.

Why? In his chapter on Dirk Coetzee and Vlakplaas, du Preez explains why people go into denial: “because if what Dirk said was true, they were part of something very barbaric and unchristian.” Max willingly took on the dark, hidden, underside of the apartheid apparatus because there were few willing to pay the price. That price was high in his personal life, his professional career, and financial affairs. 

Du Preez published the Vrye Weekblad, the only Afrikaans anti-apartheid journal, until he was bankrupted by a corrupt libel case. The journal featured the horrors of the Special Forces and how high the corruption went in the government. 

The most difficult chapter for Max to write was “Let the Truth be Known” about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He followed the TRC for SABC and deeply believed in the process. He recognized that the nature of this commission forced white South Africans “to take the tales of horror from the past more seriously.” His expectations of the TRC included peace for his country and a personal peace as well. Undoubtedly he longed for justification of his activist life marginalized by this battle against apartheid.

He was deeply grieved when de Klerk’s opportunity came and he absolutely denied the atrocities and any knowledge of the workings of his underlings. Desmond Tutu, the chairperson, asked how de Klerk could not know when Tutu himself had personally informed de Klerk about the killings. Du Preez summed it up: “FW de Klerk wasted the most important moment a white South African leader will ever have to speak honestly to the black majority and ask them for forgiveness and full acceptance. It could have made  such a huge difference. That moment will never come again.”

Despite that overwhelming sense of opportunity lost, Max remains hopeful for his country. He belongs to a heroic breed of reporter willing to take on a corrupt establishment. Nelson Mandela recognized his lonely role while other media groups and foreign correspondents chose safer, less volatile approaches. The abrasive exterior which enabled Max du Preez able to survive in such a tumultuous climate has made his settling into the new South Africa more complicated. We must still read the history with which he has enriched his new country.