THE year's biggest political biography, in every sense, is Stephen Kotkin's Stalin, Vol 1: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928(Allen Lane/The Penguin Press). The first instalment of a proposed trilogy, it runs to 950-odd finely-detailed pages, weary critics have noted, and sets the Soviet leader against an extensive historical and social background to form an impressive panorama. But to what end?
Writing in the Literary Review, Donald Rayfield, professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary College, University of London, makes the point that little fundamentally new can be said of Joseph Stalin. There's nothing unplumbed in the archives, the political theories have all been applied, there is consensus about his monstrous legacy. Yet Stalin's very essence remains elusive, his psyche uncharted territory.
"Psychopaths of Stalin's order arise so rarely in history," Rayfield states, "that forensic psychiatry has few insights to offer." He suggests that the "best evidence for any semblance of humanity" in the future Soviet leader can be found, not in Kotkin's narrative, but in the illustrations in his book. Thus a photograph of him standing with his mother and his parents-in-law next alongside the open casket of his wife is "the sole picture of Stalin showing anything like remorse, sorrow and embarrassment", according to Rayfield. "In the end, however, Stalin's personality lies beyond any historian's grasp: only a great novelist or playwright could penetrate that skull."
And so it is with Glory Sedibe, the "notorious turncoat" whose life Jacob Dlamini has attempted to unpack in an impressive new work, Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (Jacana). A good book, you may say, but its central character? His twisted heart is just not in it.
What we do have here is the slightest of frames upon which a biography could feasibly be built. Sedibe was among those who fled into exile in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprisings. He joined the African National Congress in January 1977 and became a member of its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and given the nom de guerre "Comrade September".
In August 1986, he was abducted from Swaziland by apartheid agents led by Eugene de Kock and, after prolonged torture and interrogation, joined his captors in hunting down his former comrades, a role he readily performed until his death from heart failure or poisoning - depending on who you believe - in March 1994 shortly before the country's first democratic elections.
Such a biography may have been a dull affair, especially for someone like Dlamini, who - as he demonstrated with Native Nostalgia, his account of growing up in Katlehong - clearly revels in playing havoc with the orthodoxy and established un-nuanced, black-and-white set pieces of "the struggle"; as one critic has suggested, he is "a specialist in confronting and destabilising the narratives that people are told - and tell themselves - about apartheid".
And so here instead is an attempt to "explain" Sedibe, and understand why he made the choices he did, to collaborate with a sworn enemy, and to do so without buying, as Dlamini puts it, "into apartheid assumptions about how race determined the moral choices and political loyalties of individuals". This is not to excuse or condone Comrade September's actions - some ANC members have would have clearly been more comfortable had Dlamini chosen a wholly different subject for his book - but to find a motive for them in the murk of a very troubled time and place in our history.
Sedibe's transformation from insurgent to counter-insurgent was not a "straightforward" process, Dlamini suggests, "in which black became white, night became day, and wrong became right. In fact, his actions form but one layer in a sedimentation of betrayals in which he himself was betrayed by the Royal Swazi Police, and may have been sold out to the Swazis and the Security Branch of the SAP for ‘sordid monetary gain' by some of his own comrades in the ANC."
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LIKE Stalin's "humanity", that motive in the murk remains, however, very much an elusive entity. From the outset, Dlamini warns his readers to proceed with caution as they make their way through the book, and that it does not have "a reliable narrator". Sedibe told so many lies that he "cannot be trusted".
He did so even as "Mr X1", the anonymous "star" witness for the prosecution in the 1988 treason trial of his former comrades Simon Dladla, Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim and Mandla Acton Maseko, all of whom faced the death penalty. The police had evidence linking Dladla and Maseko, who'd been trapped at a roadbloack in June 1986, to the ANC's rural landmine campaign and needed to "nail" Ebrahim for the same activities.
Ebrahim, who had also been abducted from Swaziland, told Dlamini, "[Sedibe] fabricated evidence against me. They were scraping the barrel to find evidence against me. So he said I instructed him to plant landmines.
Of course, that was a complete lie. I had absolutely nothing to do with landmines. I did not even know what they looked like."
Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In February 1991, the Appeal Court ruled that the courts had no jurisdiction to try him because of his abduction and he was released from prison.
None of those who knew and worked with Sedibe on either side of the political divide - from his former comrades in the ANC to De Kock and the askaris he commanded at Vlakplaas - are entirely reliable as witnesses here, Dlamini writes. "Their recollections are tainted by fear and the desire to give apartheid secrets an afterlife in the democratic South Africa."
De Kock's "trustworthiness" is of some interest - particularly as he is currently assisting the National Prosecuting Authority in the search for the remains of more victims of apartheid-era death squad killings. This is in terms of a Pretoria High Court agreement between himself and the families of those victims that could result in his early release from prison. The National Council for Correctional Services has until December 19 to decide whether or not he's fit for parole. If he is, then Justice and Correctional Service Minister Mike Masutha has until the end of January to decide whether or not he may be released.
The books and newspaper articles relating to the Dladla-Ebrahim-Maseko trial are just as dodgy when it comes to the truth. "Written by activists, scholars and reporters, they contain factual inaccuracies - not to mention a perennial misspelling of Mr X1's real name - that call into question their worth. There is also Mr X1's family. Staunchly ANC, except for one brother who belongs to the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo), they accepted Mr X1's explanation for why he defected."
The "accepted" version is that Sedibe had no choice in the matter; it was either that or face execution. But the truth is that he went about his askari, or "repentant terrorist", to use the official apartheid definition, duties with considerable zeal. As Dlamini put it, "He seemed to enjoy travelling to Swaziland to hunt down former comrades. He seemed to delight in earning bonuses from his actions as a collaborator. He enjoyed the trappings that came with his income as a salaried employee of apartheid's bureaucracy. Where, Sedibe's story, is the line between his ‘realism' in the torture chamber and his ‘enthusiasm' for collaboration outside the chamber?"
More distressing is the revelation that not even the primary source materials on which the book relies on are trustworthy. Dlamini here is referring to the "industrial-scale destruction of at least 44 tonnes of the apartheid state's security archive by the military, police and intelligence services in 1993 shortly before the advent of democracy", an act that the political scientist and philosopher Achille Mbembe termed a "denial of debt".
"But the attempt to wipe away the stain of history was stymied by the problem of sheer volume," Dlamini writes. "The archive was simply too big to be destroyed in toto. As Ray Lalla, a former ANC intelligence operative with knowledge of the apartheid archive, remarked of his former adversaries, ‘They were like the [East] Germans [in Stasi, the secret police]. They kept files on everything. When they tried to destroy the archives, they discovered it was a mammoth task. There was so much material, they could not destroy it all.'"
The security files on Sedibe that survived wound up before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - but that process passed up the opportunity of finding "a proper legal method", as Dlamini puts it, of addressing collaboration under apartheid. "The TRC flagged the issue but could not face it," he writes, "locked as the commission was into a moral framework in which the story of apartheid South Africa was one of victims and perpetrators." The TRC, ultimately, would only regard Comrade September as one of the former - and not of the latter.
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THE motives for Sedibe's actions may be clouded in "murk", if I may, but that in no way detracts from the immense value of this book. Dlamini's search for the truth may seem fruitless, but in the end he offers an eloquent discourse on betrayal and torture, drawing on not only the South African experience, but of those who'd suffered under the Nazis and the South American military juntas, among others.
And, make no mistake, Sedibe came in for some brutal treatment. Once he was abducted, he knew what he was in for; there was a 1984 MK manual that dealt with this eventuality, warning of "racist sadists who converge on the captive like vultures on carrion. They leave him in no doubt that they have the power of life and death over him and the only choice open to him is to confess or die." It was taken for granted that MK operatives always broke under torture and spilled the beans. "But," Dlamini writes, "it was hoped that captured operatives would hold out for at least 48 hours to give their comrades two days to take cover."
It wasn't long before Sedibe broke. As one witness, another askari remarked, "He had no alternative. The Boers . . . those guys knew how to assault a person." Yet, once Sedibe's askari activities became known, the contempt from former colleagues came on thick and fast. Archie Whitehead, an ANC operative who worked with Sedibe in Swaziland, offered this extraordinary insight: "My own assessment, my understanding, knowing the man . . . I don't think it took too much pain to turn him."
Which brings us to Dlamini's core inquiry: do collaborators really turn? He writes: "Did Sedibe come to believe in apartheid? What were his aspirations, and did he believe that these could be realised through his services to the police and the military?" Sedibe, according to his brother, still supported the ANC - even though he had joined the police. This was also De Kock's argument - that Sedibe collaborated with his captors to survive but never gave up his political beliefs.
It's not a very convincing claim. But then Dlamini offers this insight into "what we might call the psychology of collaboration secured through torture" from Jean Amery, a Gestapo victim and the survivor of three Nazi concentration camps: "Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end under torture, fully will not be regained . . . Torture has an idelible character. Whoever was tortured stays tortured." That, I'd submit, is something that Stalin was well aware of.
Finally, there is the case of Peter Mokaba. There is a single reference to him in the book, but it is a good one. The Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in President Nelson Mandela's cabinet, Mokaba was unmasked as an apartheid spy and collaborator. Despite this the ANC regarded him as a hero, and following his death in 2002, he was awarded the Order of Luthuli, one of South Africa's most prestigious awards, for his contribution to democracy.
As Dlamini drily notes: "Who said irony was dead?"
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