Where did this book begin? It’s hard to say. This is one version: I was back in South Africa for the election in 2009, writing a couple of pieces for The Spectator. I had been thinking for years about writing the extraordinary story of three fellow journalism students at Rhodes University, who thirty years before had risked their lives to fight apartheid, and this seemed to be the moment.
But really, it had begun ten years earlier, in 1999, when I opened my new copy of Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull, her excoriating, illuminating, incandescent tale of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It fell open in my hands to this page and I was transfixed: ‘And the next thing he came back and he beat me right across the room into the wall and he kept on
beating me right into the wall and I felt myself going down.’ It was Zubeida’s evidence to the commission; delivered, I imagined, in a brave, clear voice suffused with the pain I was to hear a decade later: “… a man came in, and he said, the man, ‘Just rape her, just rape her…’” As it turned out, they didn’t rape her, but they did poison her, and she escaped death, but only narrowly. No, that too is wrong. It really began 20 years before that, when we were writing our sub-editing exam in our final year at Rhodes University and we were called out in the middle of it to have our class photograph taken – the Class of ’79.
We milled about on the little slope by the exam hall and were called into rows. I was in the back row, Marion was in the middle, and Zubeida refused to take part. “It would only be used for propaganda purposes,” she pointed out with one of her dazzling, trademark smiles. Within six months of that moment, Marion Sparg had bombed the party offices of the opposition Progressive Federal Party and left the country to join Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC; Zubeida Jaffer had been arrested and tortured; and Guy Berger, betrayed by the spy Craig Williamson, had been arrested for possession of banned books – after seven months in custody, three in solitary confinement – he was sentenced to four years in prison.
Yet of course it began far earlier for all three students – it began at the moment that each of them realised that what was happening in South Africa – so-called ‘separate development’ – was wrong. And that they simply couldn’t tolerate it. And for all of them, that moment came at Rhodes University.
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