Beyond the boundaries of a prison cell

2012-08-03 00:00

HOW does a left-wing intellectual with a strong activist bent pass his time in a Californian prison for six-and-a-half years? Well, if he’s James Kilgore — or Charles “John” Pape as he was known during his 27 years as a fugitive of justice — he becomes a teaching aide, he coaches football, conducts workshops on the global political economy, and helps teach American sign language to inmates.

He also writes novels.

“I never really imagined myself as a novelist,” he confesses in a recent interview at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society (CCS). Kilgore was on tour of South Africa to launch his book Freedom Never Rests, a novel which uses the politically explosive subject of water privatisation in order to probe the challenges, issues and disappointments which emerged during the early years of South Africa’s post-1994 transition and illustrates the inevitable interplay between global forces and communities on the ground.

In fact, so unfamiliar with the art of fiction writing was Kilgore that when he sent an early draft of his first novel, We are all Zimbabweans now, to a literary friend, she told him it was “rubbish” and that he needed to read more novels. In prison, he doggedly set about trying to lay his hands on as many books as possible, including several “how to” manuals written by celebrated writers such as Stephen King and Donald Maass.

But the “long struggle” paid off and Kilgore emerged from prison on parole in 2009 at the age of 61 with eight novel manuscripts, three of which have now been published, the latest of which — a murder mystery titled Prudence Couldn’t Swim and set in California — is yet to be released in South Africa.

At the CCS, Kilgore’s appearance attracts a substantial group of students, academics and community-based activists from Pietermaritzburg who are concerned about the issue of access to water, particularly the impact of exorbitant municipal water prices on the poor. During discussion, a couple of audience members thanked him for his contribution to the apartheid struggle and for his commitment to raising the plight of struggling communities in Freedom Never Rests. “It’s embarrassing that such a book should be written by a non-South African,” is the gist of one contribution.

The quasi-heroism bestowed upon him by the South African left during this first visit to South Africa after an absence of nine-and-a-half years seems to make Kilgore slightly uncomfortable.

However, his work in grass-roots education and his contribution to the freedom struggles of Zimbabwe and South Africa, where he spent the bulk of his fugitive years, has clearly created the space for some redemption following his youthful involvement in the criminal activities of the Californian-based Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

The SLA was a small group of self-styled radicals who operated in the seventies, ostensibly concerned, according to Slate magazine, with prison reform, poverty, and race and not above “selected violence” in order to promote their cause. The group acquired infamy in 1974 through the kidnapping of media heiress Patty Hearst and committed two murders during its short existence. Kilgore himself was part of the crew that robbed a bank in 1975, during which another SLA member – not Kilgore – accidentally shot and killed one of the bank’s clients. Police found an explosive device in Kilgore’s home and the man fled, firstly to another US state and, after stealing the identity of a dead child, to Zimbabwe where he met his American wife Terri. It was here that Kilgore – then known as John Pape – found his niche as an educator and earned a doctorate on the history of Zimbabwean domestic workers. In 1991 the couple moved to South Africa with Kilgore working first at Khanya College in Johannesburg and then as a researcher in Cape Town, consolidating his reputation as a champion of workers and the poor.

In southern Africa, he told the CCS seminar, he achieved a “clear realisation” of the limitations and dangers of the work of movements such as the SLA. “From the mass movements in South Africa, I saw the possibility of people organising in different ways to contest the power of an oppressive regime like the apartheid state,” he said. One of the reasons he wrote Freedom Never Rests was as an act of political solidarity with the struggles of South Africans who had an enormous impact on the way he saw the world. Another was to maintain a strongly emotional connection to South Africa.

And at a purely personal level, he said, it was gratifying to find that even with the word “prisoner” stamped down a trouser leg, one was still capable of creativity; of making something that went beyond the boundaries of a prison cell.

It was in these confines that he sat down and documented his memories of South Africa, which helped him achieve the detailed authenticity of Freedom Never Rests, set in a fictional township of Sivuyile in the Eastern Cape. Books such as CCS director Patrick Bond’s Elite Transition and Zakes Mda’s Heart of Redness helped to refresh his memory. “I also drew on the pictures and photographs that people sent me,” he said.

Those photographs served not only as research material and intellectual fodder, but reflected an invaluable network of supporters, ranging from family to friends and colleagues, who kept in touch with him and sustained him emotionally. “At home where I sit and work, I have three collages of pictures I received from South Africa. There are lots of postcards of Table Mountain,” he says with a wry smile. “But they made so much difference in terms of my psychological state, especially in High Desert State Prison, which was a racially segregated, ugly place,” he said.

Today, Kilgore is a research scholar in the Centre for African Studies at the University of Illinois and focuses on the pitfalls of the U.S. criminal justice system which jails a disproportionate number of poor African Americans. He argues that under the free market system, certain people become dispensable. In South Africa, these are informal settlement dwellers. In the U.S., it is the homeless and jobless who end up in prison, adding to a population of inmates which has grown four-fold in the last 30 years.

How do people respond to his past? I ask ... inevitably.

He says his past is “not like a tattoo”. Even at home he has earned some respect for his work in southern Africa. “At first, I was more wary, but I’m more relaxed about it now,” he says. “It doesn’t define me.”

That may be so, but Kilgore comes across as the introspective type and one of his works in progress about the experiences of a sixties and seventies activist seems to reflect an ongoing need to grapple with the intersection of the political and personal. “It’s not autobiographical, but draws on my own experiences,” he says. “The book explores what happens to people after they leave political movements ... what happens to people who don’t abandon those ideas necessarily but keep them intact in different situations and are still effective, rather than simply singing the same song of 40 years ago.” Like freedom, it seems that Kilgore also never rests.

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