A captivating touch­stone of truth

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - SAN­DRA LAU­RENCE voices@city­press.co.za

Stu­dent Comrade Pris­oner Spy by Brid­get Hil­ton-Bar­ber

Pen­guin Ran­dom House South Africa 272 pages R189 at takealot.com

The quote with which Brid­get Hil­ton-Bar­ber opens her mem­oir – from Ja­panese writer Haruki Mu­rakami – is telling: “… But still, no mat­ter how much time passes, no mat­ter what takes place in the in­terim, there are some things we can never as­sign to obliv­ion, mem­o­ries we can never rub away. They re­main with us for­ever, like a touch­stone.”

Hil­ton-Bar­ber’s ac­count of her time at Rhodes Univer­sity in the East­ern Cape in the mid-1980s is chill­ing, ter­ri­fy­ing, hope­ful and deeply sad all at once. It is a cat­a­logue of good in­ten­tions, com­mit­ment and grave risks taken, which end in “im­pris­on­ment, poi­son­ing, dis­ap­pear­ances, mur­ders and tor­ture”.

Not that it doesn’t make for captivating and en­joy­able read­ing. I could not put the book down and read it in one sit­ting, com­pletely ab­sorbed in the mem­o­ries and Hil­ton-Bar­ber’s faith­ful retelling of the fi­nal thrash­ing of the apartheid state in its death throes – and the vi­cious nature of its re­tal­i­a­tion as a re­sult.

The beauty of this mem­oir is not only the ac­cu­racy of de­tail and the clar­ity with which mem­o­ries are re­called, but also the hon­esty. Noth­ing is glossed over or made to seem more glam­orous than it was.

Hil­ton-Bar­ber tells us that it was her first en­counter with black, coloured and In­dian South Africans, as it would have been for most whites at that time, and de­scribes the strong, in­tel­li­gent women she met.

She re­calls learn­ing the banned lib­er­a­tion an­them, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, from pho­to­copies faith­fully handed out by her friend and fel­low ac­tivist, Olivia Forsyth.

As Hil­ton-Bar­ber en­ters sec­ond and third year, her po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment grows, but we hear of it as part and par­cel of her so­cial life: who she shared digs with and hav­ing her heart bro­ken by Roland, along­side the con­stant an­noy­ing ha­rass­ment of the se­cu­rity po­lice.

We learn of the launch of the United Demo­cratic Front in New Brighton, which she and her fel­low rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies at­tended, and wit­ness her grow­ing aware­ness that she is part of a turn­ing point in South Africa’s his­tory.

The au­thor reg­is­ters for an hon­ours de­gree in 1985, and the tone of youth­ful hope­ful­ness up un­til this point gives way to a more an­guished time. She tells Forsyth she feels sad and anx­ious all the time, and she has a full-blown ul­cer. The coun­try is tee­ter­ing on the precipice of civil war and she has met the charis­matic Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata and Spar­row Mkhonto.

“The coun­try is ex­plod­ing, there are stay­aways, mass fu­ner­als and boy­cotts … pan­ick­ing peo­ple, flash­ing lights and flames and smoke …,” she writes.

And then the Port El­iz­a­beth Black Civic Or­gan­i­sa­tion lead­ers start to dis­ap­pear, their bod­ies later found burnt and dumped in the Great Fish River. The protests es­ca­late; Chris Mbekela’s house is fire­bombed and his girl­friend dies from her burns. “Ja, I was there,” says Forsyth, “it was so ter­ri­ble.” Then the Cradock Four are mur­dered, and stu­dent ac­tivists de­tained, Olivia among them.

Soon af­ter that, Forsyth leaves for Harare, os­ten­si­bly to join the ANC in ex­ile. Then Hil­ton-Bar­ber is picked up and de­tained at Alexan­dria Po­lice Sta­tion, where she first hears the sound of a per­son be­ing tor­tured. She is later moved to Fort Glam­or­gan in East Lon­don. Af­ter 93 days, she is re­leased and re­turns to Gra­ham­stown to be com­forted by her friends – and to find out that Olivia was a Se­cu­rity Branch spy: Agent 407, code named Lara.

If it is pos­si­ble to call a book writ­ten about so much cru­elty and suf­fer­ing won­der­ful, this is how to de­fine this mem­oir. Hil­ton-Bar­ber has achieved ex­tra­or­di­nary things, not least of which is this book, and all through a prism of enviable hon­esty and in­tegrity.

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