A free­dom fighter re­flects

A new edi­tion of Ray­mond Sut­tner’s famed struggle mem­oir has been pub­lished. Nicki Gules asks him about the im­pact, to­day, of prison and tor­ture – and liv­ing a prin­ci­pled life in a time of cor­rup­tion

CityPress - - Voices -

Ja­cana Media 232 pages R240

Was this a dif­fi­cult book to write, re­liv­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of tor­ture, im­pris­on­ment and your later break with the ANC and SACP? How are you af­fected by the trauma to­day?

The in­tro­duc­tion is new but I had to re­peat­edly reread the orig­i­nal book in or­der to make corrections. In do­ing this I re­alised that the prison ex­pe­ri­ence was harder than I used to ad­mit. I found this specif­i­cally in reread­ing let­ters that had had to pass through cen­sors. We con­cealed what we were ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enc­ing be­cause we were not al­lowed to write about our con­di­tions. Re­gard­ing trauma, one of­ten does not di­rectly recog­nise its im­pact. It can have an ef­fect on one’s sleep, and other phys­i­cal ef­fects, at a much later stage. I have been di­ag­nosed with fi­bromyal­gia, an au­toim­mune ill­ness. The rheuma­tol­o­gist I see be­lieves it is re­lated to my tor­ture and prison ex­pe­ri­ences. I now recog­nise that I ex­pe­ri­ence phys­i­cal pain, in my lower back for ex­am­ple, when I en­counter stress, and stress was a given, daily fea­ture in the prison ex­pe­ri­ence. You write about oth­ers who need to have their sto­ries told.

What I mainly have in mind are peo­ple who live in lit­tle-known vil­lages, who made im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions that are rel­a­tively un­known. Some are in the for­mer ban­tus­tans, such as Venda, and in ar­eas that may not even be on the maps. These peo­ple gen­er­ally can­not write their own sto­ries and need to be in­ter­viewed, prefer­ably in their own lan­guages, and it is quite a time-con­sum­ing and costly project ... I came to re­alise this need when I did re­search for my book The ANC Un­der­ground. I recorded some very im­por­tant sto­ries, but in a lim­ited way. In some cases other schol­ars have picked up the thread and taken the work fur­ther. You have paid a heavy price for your prin­ci­ples and in­tegrity. With your pro­fes­sional and aca­demic back­ground, you could have been a rich man to­day. Was it worth it?

I never as­pired to great wealth, but I took eco­nomic se­cu­rity for granted. I as­sumed I would be able to take care of the ba­sic needs for re­tire­ment. One of the ef­fects of being where I am now, on the out­side of var­i­ous spaces, is that re­tire­ment is a lot more dif­fi­cult than I had en­vis­aged, though I did not think a great deal about those mat­ters and was pre­oc­cu­pied with play­ing a political role. But I am re­spon­si­ble for my own choices and find­ing a way of re­solv­ing these prob­lems. And I said in the book that I gained some­thing im­mea­sur­able from hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to be part of the struggle for free­dom, to be a free­dom fighter. Those two words ‘free­dom fighter’ are sel­dom used any­more be­cause they have been dis­cred­ited in the eyes of many peo­ple. They have been dis­cred­ited partly by the crime and grime of the cur­rent lead­er­ship of the ANC and its al­lies in gov­ern­ment. We need to re­claim the no­tion of being a free­dom fighter and en­cour­age peo­ple to act out the eth­i­cal val­ues that at­tach to the words ... To be called or claim to be a free­dom fighter is some­thing that has to be re-earned ev­ery day of one’s life by how one con­ducts one­self. What ad­vice would you give to oth­ers who take a path like yours?

The ques­tion of tak­ing a path sim­i­lar to mine may not arise, in that there is un­likely, I hope, to be a need for il­le­gal and armed struggle against the cur­rent gov­ern­ment. But if there were to be a time when the cur­rent lead­er­ship were to try to hold on to power il­le­gally, which is pos­si­ble, it may be that those who re­sisted would have to mount a counter-force. But even if one pur­sues purely le­gal struggle, we still need peo­ple to be fired by a sense of jus­tice and com­pas­sion for the plight of the poor and marginalised – shar­ing the pain of those who are being evicted from their flimsy shel­ters into the win­ter nights, those with­out wa­ter or san­i­ta­tion, those sub­jected to gen­der- or sex­u­ally-based vi­o­lence ... A com­mit­ment to free­dom is a lifetime com­mit­ment. One can­not ex­pect re­sults to­mor­row ... One some­times needs pa­tience in build­ing the or­gan­ised ca­pac­ity to rem­edy some prob­lems. You speak of your break with the ANC and SACP lead­ing to sev­er­ing ties with some peo­ple with whom you were close, es­pe­cially Jeremy Cronin. What is it that you miss in these re­la­tion­ships?

I deal with Jeremy Cronin in a few pages be­cause he and I used to be very close, hav­ing met in prison and worked to­gether in the United Demo­cratic Front, ANC and SACP, and writ­ing books and do­ing other political work to­gether. That was a dif­fer­ent time, when there were shared val­ues re­gard­ing what some of us un­der­stood as cre­at­ing the ba­sis for ties of com­rade­ship ... What I miss is no longer there, so that the lone­li­ness I feel re­lates to the ab­sence, not so much of spe­cific peo­ple, but of re­la­tion­ships that com­prise what I value. It is im­pos­si­ble to recre­ate that type of com­pan­ion­ship or com­rade­ship with peo­ple who have made choices that are an­tag­o­nis­tic to what I see as the ba­sis that had ini­tially brought us to­gether. Given that you made so many sac­ri­fices for the struggle in South Africa, do you feel that the way things have turned out has in­val­i­dated your ef­forts?

There are never any guar­an­tees in these mat­ters. I was not sure that I would sur­vive to see democ­racy in South Africa and I have learnt from other strug­gles that there can be set­backs or rev­er­sals of gains un­less one is very vig­i­lant. I must ad­mit that I did not think that the ANC or SACP would al­low or en­cour­age what has been done, that has un­der­mined our demo­cratic project. But noth­ing is fi­nal and there are very many peo­ple who would like to see the demo­cratic prom­ise of 1994 re­stored. I would go fur­ther and sug­gest that there is a need for or­di­nary peo­ple to en­sure that they are more ac­tively in­volved in democ­racy, and not sim­ply through vot­ing ev­ery five years. That is what many of us hoped to see, and pop­u­lar in­volve­ment may be the most pow­er­ful safe­guard of our free­dom.


Pro­fes­sor Ray­mond Sut­tner, a re­searcher and an­a­lyst

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