Book review – The militant pacifist

2012-08-04 14:40

Gilder’s new book gives us a glimpse into his conflicted life – first as an Umkhonto weSizwe fighter and then as a government official, writes Mathatha Tsedu

Barry Gilder is a former Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) fighter. He did not train in some house in suburbia, nor is he one of those white revolutionaries that made their names and their mark by housing the real guys.

He wasthe real guy – trained in Angola, eating mush and surviving to become one of the ANC’s foremost spies and spymasters – an “Mchina” in ANC-camp lingo.

His book comes with a health warning, that those looking for an angry, white, former member of a black army will be disappointed. And indeed if you read the book hoping for a “f**k-the-ANC” attitude, you will be disappointed.

Gilder is deeply committed to the ANC. He was at all times ready to serve and to deliver the ultimate blow to white supremacy. But having been born white, Barry spent time working that affliction out of his system by committing both class and race suicide.

He did the former by going into exile, leaving the cultural activist life in London and joining MK.

He underwent rigorous training in the most difficult of circumstances at Quibaxe camp.

He almost lost his relationship with his mother, who wrote to him that he had closed all doors to family, country and home, and then added tellingly: “I cannot
understand how your once gentle and sensitive soul could have succumbed to militant indoctrination. You have done yourself a grave injustice by allying yourself with this kind of baseness . . . In a way you have become dehumanised.”

She later apologised.

The race suicide happened at the same time but was difficult to achieve, not because of him, but because of others. By the time he completed his Quibaxe training, he was “mfowethu Jimmy”, one of the guys, and all white hang-ups were cleansed.

Once he was trained as an intelligence officer in Moscow and returned to Africa to work, he found the ANC wanted him to work exclusively with white intelligence recruits from inside the country.

While confessing that the reasons for this decision made operational sense, he was aghast because “it’s just that I don’t want to be white again”.

When he was demoted from director-general (DG) of home affairs many years later back to intelligence coordinator and placed under Ronnie Kasrils, he read into it a tribal move, as he and Kasrils were not only white, but Jewish.

It raised in him questions about whether the ANC, or more particularly Thabo Mbeki, could think in tribalistic terms.

Two other DGs had been paired with ministers from the same language and tribal background.

Gilder is too much of a real cadre to go around bad-mouthing his movement. But he hides his despondency with euphemism. That transfer from home affairs precipitated “chaotic thoughts” and a sense of “sorrow, of despondency”, he writes.

Ditto the battle between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki from 2005 until September 2008. He describes the pain of watching his movement torn apart, of him being pigeonholed as an “Mbeki man” because he worked in government.

It produced in him a sense of helplessness. He writes: “I feel tired. I am stressed. The atmosphere in the country, in the ANC, in government and the intelligence services is fraught.” Right and wrong, he writes, were “supplanted for us (and) against us. This was no way to run a government.”

But he was too committed to raise his questions directly, so he used an imaginary conversation with one of his first MK friends, Manqoba, who was killed in the Matola, Maputo, raid.

He writes: “The second thing I want to raise with you, comrade, is some questions. What do you make of this new South Africa we have built? Does it even approximate the South Africa we dreamed about in The Coffee (Quibaxe)?

“And our Movement? You see this fight between comrades Thabo and JZ? Does it make sense to you? From where you are, can you see into the future? Will we get over this?”

Gilder knows that Manqoba, real name Mduduzi Guma, cannot answer, but he uses this to raise his own concerns and issues publicly. It is the closest you get to him questioning whether it was all in vain.

His despondency grew and, as he seethed with anger, he took the only step that was in his hands. He resigned just before the famous Polokwane conference in late 2007.

He went sailing and did not even watch the proceedings on TV.

The book also reveals a naivety that is sometimes difficult to believe in a man of his intelligence.

He failed to read how, as DG of home affairs, he was rubbing then deputy minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula up wrongly by trying to work closely with then minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi. This in the end led to his demotion when Mapisa-Nqakula became minister. He was incensed at this.

He records his reaction: “Sense will not be made of this sudden extraction from my life’s biggest challenge and reinsertion back into the world of intelligence.”

This from a man who suspected apartheid spy Craig Williamson from day one when he joined the student organisation Nusas.

Gilder writes of how he told the Geneva-based international student funding organisation not to employ Williamson because he just knew he was not genuine.

The ability to see through Williamson and the failure to see such a big career-limiting fallout cannot belong in the same mind and body. The latter stems from his total immersion in the task at hand, and trusting that comrades will always interpret things logically and understand.

It was the wrong tactic and he paid a huge price.

He says he did not know who would win in Polokwane until the results were announced.

This despite all the signs, especially after the provincial nominations came through showing such immense support for Zuma. How could the coordinator of all
intelligence activities in the country be so ignorant and unaware when proof was available in open source?

The picture that emerges of Gilder from the book is of an intense and tortured soul with niggling feelings of wasted sacrifice, not because he was fired from a job he liked, but because it is painful for him to see the movement becoming what it is today: a haven of ambition and careerism where right and wrong no longer matter.

The book is written in an easy-to-read-way, spiced with humour. It goes back and forth as it traces his beginnings and intersperses this with some forward action until it reaches the present.

He lists virtually all events that happened during this time, which brings some context – but for me, I felt I would have needed to know more of what he made of the events he lists.

If there is one mystery in the book, it is his relationship with Billy Masetlha.

There is no doubt Gilder found him intolerable, but he doesn’t go into enough detail.

Overall, the book is an important addition to the body of memory of the struggle that saw apartheid overthrown and a new democratic order come into its own. It chronicles the challenges of working and sometimes depending on untransformed old-order cadres, while trying to meet the transformation needs of a population getting increasingly restless.

It is also a personal journey of a good man who did good and tried to live the credo of service even when the moral fibre of his movement was being destroyed in front of his eyes.

It is a mere glimpse into the intelligence world and how Gilder the cultural activist, and guitar-playing guerrilla and spy, mixed it all while trying to hold a family together. It is a story of a South African man. Not a white man.

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