Book review – Truth is a strange fruit

2010-09-11 11:15

It is not clear why this book has the tagline, “a personal journey through the apartheid war”. One expects a bloody account of a hardened war correspondent’s search for the truth during the violent and turbulent years of apartheid South Africa.

Instead, after reading through 348 pages, I was left wondering if perhaps the journey by the author, who covered this time in history for The Guardian and Observer newspapers, was still to begin or if, in some strange way, I had missed it completely.

I found reading through the book confusing and frustrating.

It just did not flow.

One minute you are reading a gripping account of the famous Upington 14 trial or a report on the infamous mutiny that rocked the Umkhonto we Sizwe camps in 1984, the next you are reading a piece on the author’s earliest recollection of London or a piece on the Duke of Edinburgh’s mistress or an account of how the allied tanks moved in to liberate Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War.

One cannot fault the quality of the ­writing, but it remains a mystery why the story of how a reporter was sent to cover the Duke of Edinburgh’s alleged ­extramarital affair has anything to do with apartheid.

Perhaps the book should not have been promoted as “a personal journey through the apartheid war” – but the subject of apartheid always makes a book a ­best-seller, doesn’t it?

The book contains verbatim extracts of evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), letters written on death row by John Harris and journalism ­pieces written by Beresford during his time as The Guardian’s and Observer’s South Africa correspondent – from the ­turbulent 1980s right through to the new democratic dispensation of the 1990s.

It also carries various accounts of Beresford’s battle with Parkinson’s disease.

In the book’s introduction, Beresford gives an interesting account of his frustration in trying to get access to the rest of the TRC’s final report volumes from the ­National Archives and the Records Service in Pretoria.

I found the extracts from the TRC final report gripping. Herewith a taste of some of the hard-hitting material that is a reminder of our violent past, plucked from a piece titled Do You Know ...?

This chilling account was given by a Mr Van Eck during a TRC hearing in Nelspruit (now Mbombela) in Mpumalanga and ­refers to an incident in which he lost his children during a landmine explosion in December 1985.

“Do you know how it feels to be blasted by a landmine?”

“Do you know how it feels to be in a temperature of between 6 000 and 8 000 degrees?”

“Do you know how it feels to experience such a blast that is so intense that even the fillings in your teeth are torn out?”

“Do you know what trouble reigns if you survive the blast and you must ­observe the results thereof?”

“Do you know how it feels, how it feels to look for ­survivors, only to find the dead and maimed?”

“Do you know how it feels to see crippled loved ones lying and burning?”

An interesting read, but not at all a ­personal journey through the apartheid war – unless, of course, I missed the journey. 


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