The year after Steve Biko’s detention and death, André Brink wrote Dry White Season reflecting the Biko story of death during interrogation in two of the characters, a 14 year old school boy, Jonathan Ngubene and his father, Gordon, who desperately sought the truth surrounding his son’s disappearance and murder. Eleven years later, this banned book was made into a movie (Donald Sutherland, Marlon Brando) but had to be filmed in Zimbabwe as Cry Freedom had been.
In 1978 Brink confronted the issue of suspicious deaths in detention with a novel written much like a mystery. As it unfolds, we discover whom we may and may not trust; layers of reality and perception cloud justice and truth. The protagonist, Ben du Toit, an Afrikaans high school history teacher, is presented with a progression of injustices: a young boy’s brutal caning, his death during interrogation, and his father’s search for peace of mind regarding his son’s end. The story is crafted with genius and we learn within the pages of the prologue that our hero is dead. Ben is not the one telling us his story. The writer is someone Ben trusted with information, but who never bothers to share his identity because the story is about Ben and what happened to him, his gardener, and his gardener’s son.
The movie does not have these layers of awareness. We clearly get the impression that Ben, his son Johan, his gardener, a journalist, and a liberal lawyer are crusading on the side of truth and justice while Ben’s family, community, church, and colleagues at work are engaged in denying the frequent reports of Special Branch atrocities or justifying the status quo as the only way to survive. It was realistic to a point, perhaps too simplistic.
The book narrative was not so clear-cut. Truth was effectively obscured so that it took Ben a while to come to the reluctant conclusion that he wanted no part of apartheid’s excuses. Initially he tried to tell Gordon (the gardener whose son was unjustly beaten) to let it drop, but then things deteriorated to the death of Gordon and his son. When Ben brought the injustice to a lawyer, he was advised to drop it; thus began the recognition that one must take a stand or the stand will be taken for one.
When Ben approaches the lawyer, he is appraised of the prevailing situation: (imagine an aging Marlon Brando) “Law and justice are distant cousins, and here in South Africa, they are not on speaking terms at all.” He goes on to explain that he fights for justice for the black people and when he wins, “they simply change the law.” Which is exactly what was happening--longer time for detention without charges and more banning orders.
Watch the movie if you must--it is well done and graphically portrays the extent to which a system of self-preservation can go horribly wrong. (It is much more explicit than Cry Freedom of a decade earlier.) However, the book includes nuances of South African life and the various degrees to which people “know” and are complicit and those who refuse to know because knowing is too painful and/or dangerous. They hide behind trite assumptions such as: “he must have done something to deserve it”, and “if he is innocent, he has nothing to fear.” Standard fare in just societies, but when a mentality uses rationalization to preclude justice, it is dangerous. An aging professor in the story gives Ben some cynical wisdom: Every man is on his own. Each man has to find his own definitions, and each man’s freedom threatens that of all others. What is the result? Terrorism. And I’m not referring only to the actions of the trained terrorist but also to those of an organized state whose institutions endanger one’s essential humanity.
The book Dry White Season is a dark labyrinth of clues, sightings, and people intimidated into silence. It is fetid and gloomy. Donald Woods’ (Biko) description of the officials responsible for the treatment of Steve Biko in detention perfectly summarizes the people who killed Gordon and his son:
These men displayed symptoms of extreme insularity. they are people whose upbringing has impressed upon them the divine right to retain power, and in that sense they are innocent men--incapable of thinking or acting differently. On top of that they have gravitated to an occupation that has given them all the scope they need to express their rigid personalities. They have been protected for years by laws of the country. They have been able to carry out all their imaginative torture practices quite undisturbed in cells and rooms all over the country, with tacit official sanction, and they have been given tremendous status by the government as the men who ‘protect the State from subversion.’
Brink weaves several other characters’ stories through the web of Gordon’s death/disappearance. The tangle grows in profusion as people are reluctantly pulled in; and retribution stalks anyone pursuing Truth. This simple story of a young black teen who disappeared following a demonstration and his father’s relentless search for him will clutch at your throat and bring home the realization that I am my brother’s keeper and everyone around me is my neighbor. Injustice will continue to rampage when people are more concerned with their own security than seeking Truth whatever the cost.