A captivating touchstone of truth
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.