Letter to my daughter

2008-06-19 00:00

A few days before Henry Cloete, a journalist from the Volksblad, decided to write an article about this blog for his newspaper, I reluctantly removed it. It’s not that I had thought that the time had not yet dawned to talk about what happened in prison in those dark days so many years ago. No, from my own experience I am strongly convinced that people suppress such experiences of great personal (and overwhelming) pain. However painful, in the end it helps to talk about it and I believe that it’s important for our people’s general consciousness to realise what happened and to digest it. Not because one wants to encourage hate, revenge or envy, but because honest processing with humility and compassion helps us all to understand our beloved land and ourselves better, and to move forward.

The most important reason why I removed this blog was out of concern for my daughter and to try to protect her from events that are too big and hard for an 11-year-old to process.

I am still deeply concerned about that, but everyone’s reaction to the blog and Cloete’s articles that appeared in the weekend’s Afrikaans newspapers convinced me to put the letter to Helen back on the blog. I want to thank everyone deeply who responded with compassion. My initial fears that there would be insensitive and hurtful comments were unfounded. Your support and encouragement mean a lot and make it a bit easier to climb this hill.

Many people contacted me and asked me to resubmit the blog, as they still wanted to read or reread it. I do this with one request: please be careful and sensitive with my daughter. She is a very special girl and the events of the past must never become an unbearable burden for her.

Lastly, I want to give my heartfelt thanks to the woman in my life, Mafani, whose unselfish support, understanding and love made it possible for me to speak about these events from so many years ago, and to brave the future with hope. Yes, the Bible is correct: there is indeed nothing bigger than love.

My dear Helen

Most of the morning I have been looking at this photo of you holding the kitty cat with so much love. You are so young, and so full of love and joy, especially when you are home and surrounded by your “little zoo” of animals.

Yes, I look at you and I wonder if I should ever tell you some of the things about Daddy’s past. Should I rather leave me in the happy place in your head described by the little piece of crumpled paper with the red crayon heart that you gave me the other day? You wrote (in your special way of spelling): “Thank yo fo lufing mi and fo gifing mi nise stuf, an owase sharing wif mi.”

But, my dear, how will you ever understand if I don’t tell you? How will you understand Daddy’s silences or the times that he hugs you so hard that it begins to hurt? How will you understand why I stay alone, and when you come to visit me why you are sometimes awoken by Daddy crying or talking in his sleep in the middle of the night? Especially the last while, I have thought a lot about this and the other day an old struggle friend of mine, Yogesh, who was also in the underground, reminded me of a mutual friend, Marius Schoon, whose wife Jenny and little daughter Katryn were blown to pieces by a parcel bomb that apartheid agents sent to them.

Helen, Katryn was just a bit younger than you when she was killed by what she thought was a parcel containing knick-knacks and toys from her granny. On the outside it still had granny’s handwriting, but on the inside granny’s love was replaced by deadly explosives. Marius survived the bomb, but not really — he died of a broken heart and cancer, in that order.

Yogesh was asking me about Marius’s only surviving child, Fritz (or Fritzie as his mum used to call him). Fritzie was also injured in the explosion but survived. Neither of us had seen him in years. Then it struck me again that although we sometimes think we can forget, these things do not leave us. They are there and they influence who we are. Like birthmarks, sometimes hidden, sometimes visible. No, more than birthmarks, life marks, because they were inflicted at a time when one has long been born and very conscious of every part of every blow.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission got some of us to recall these things but in a strange way — because it was primarily a political process with an end goal to put a decent full stop behind the past and to get the country to move on and face the future — it revealed and then repressed even more. “Now that you have stripped and showed us your wounds, put on your clothes and get moving; there is a lot to do” — that kind of thing.

But, of course, it is not so simple, even if short-term survival demands it, things are never that simple. My dear, one day when you are a bit older you will begin to understand this. And that is why I think it is time to talk about those things again and to write about what happened. Because sometimes one looks at someone and you wonder and ask that deceptively simple question: “Why?”

In a couple of years’ time when you are older and you begin to understand, or think you understand more, with the brutal frankness of a teenager, then please do not think that I have written this to make you feel sorry for me. Just as a person who has lost a leg does not tell a fellow traveller, who in the dark cannot see that the leg is gone and that he cannot get down a steep slope, that his leg is gone to get sympathy, but simply in order for the companion to understand why he is in trouble and cannot get down.

So let me start with an awful night when I was gang raped in Diepkloof prison the night before I was sentenced. One of the warders who hated me for, in his view, having betrayed the Afrikaners, took me out of my single cell and locked me up for the night in a cell with common prisoners. I do not know exactly how many men did it, but it was more than 20. It just went on and on. At the end I was torn and bleeding badly. The next morning when I had to get up those stairs from the cells underneath the courtroom I couldn’t without the assistance of one of the warders. Then I was sentenced for 15 years and taken to Pretoria Security Prison, where there was a closed-circuit camera all the time in my cell. I was too ashamed and scared to turn my back to the camera in case the warders saw the bloody mess that my backside had been turned into and thought it a good idea to repeat it.

The wounds healed, but the pain never stopped. Nor the pain of the torture during interrogation. When one is not allowed to sleep for more than a week, when day and night no longer follow and all becomes a mixture of fear about when you will hear the footsteps down the corridor that announce the next beating-up session.

When you are bleeding from your ears and mouth and you can only see a blur, and you are thrown in a small room where the walls, the floor and the roof are all sloping and skew, and blinding lights flash hour after hour together with screeching sounds being bombarded at you until the only thing that you can do is to scream even harder and throw yourself against the walls to feel more pain, because the pain is something to hold on to, something to prevent you from falling down a dark abyss of insanity. And just when you think you can take no more they take you out and march you down the long 10th-floor corridor into a room with a window where the bars have been removed and they push you halfway out and say “look down there, this is where Achmad Timol fell down, that is where you are going too if you don’t talk”. Then somehow somewhere it snaps, it breaks and eventually you come out of the torture rooms into your little cell where you have to serve your sentence. The wounds heal and the blue marks go away, and on the outside it all looks fine, but inside it is broken and the pain never goes away. You learn to keep going because you have to. Because that camera in the cell follows and records your every move. You learn to live with pretending that all is okay. You live with the pain.

I will never be sorry that I took the decisions that I did to fight the evil of racism. But what I learn every day is that I did not only get a 15-year sentence and I did not only serve eight- and-a-half years. Every day, I am somehow still serving a sentence that was imposed on my life in the dingy cells of John Voster, Diepkloof and Pretoria Security Prison. There is no time line, it is indeterminate.

As you grow older you will probably try to understand why I talk in terms of history, rather than the bottom line. You will wonder why I try to understand why T. doesn’t look people in the eyes. Why I still cannot separate P. from the barefoot schoolboy in Alexandra. Why I cried like a baby the day I heard how badly R. had beaten his wife. Why I procrastinate for so long to talk about my own failures and shame. Why I try to salvage things and keep them together through my own efforts. Why I have to find ways to honour my commitments at all costs. Why it is not about processes, but human feelings and relations. Why being alone is so painful and scary. Why I think about ideals and human love and care, long before I think about money. Why I limp along.

Somehow the answers to these and so many other questions are written on the white walls of a two-by-three-metre cell in Pretoria Security Prison. Go and calculate it, 365 days multiplied by eight-and-a-half years of being alone every night. I was barely an adult when I went in there and so many nights I wake up still being right back there.

It may sometimes seem so, but the sixties and the flower period are not how I think about love. What shaped me was so different that I don’t relate to that at all. All I know is that every night on the walls of my cell I saw the hard shadows of the bars of my prison window projected there by the floodlights in the courtyard and they became shadows in my soul. I so much want them to go away and I know of no other way than giving love and care. I will not give up on love. I must find better ways of loving, but I will not give up on love, it is my only hope otherwise I will truly be sentenced for life.

Helen, having written this, I don’t know how much you will understand one day. Perhaps you can’t. Perhaps my consolation should not be in the possibility of my wellbeing, but in rejoicing that you together with your generation, together with the vast majority of our people who couldn’t, can now live freely and without discrimination in our country.

You see Helen, when I wake you in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and fear, and your soft blue-green eyes ask “why?” I want to say a lot of these things. Perhaps you will understand one day and accept them, perhaps you won’t. Perhaps I should not even expect you to understand. Perhaps I should accept that for some of my generation our pain and limping along is the price to pay to fight for hope and to secure a better future for others. Perhaps it is folly, but you see, somehow I still hope that I will get a chance to be happy in this new South Africa that I have prayed and worked so hard for. I instinctively know that if I give up on love there is no hope for me. Then the shadows of those prison bars will truly and finally become engraved in my being.

I suppose what I am trying to say is, it is a bit dark right now for all of us to see clearly. You see during the long climb up there I had a couple of bad falls and I lost a leg, and now it is difficult for me to get down this slope. But I am trying very hard.

My dear child, when you become old enough to truly ask “why?”; please have mercy, please don’t give up on me.


• litnet.co.za

Carl Niehaus

• Carl Niehaus was expelled from RAU for putting up posters on the campus calling for equal non-racial education and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

• The same year he resigned from the Dutch Reform Church (NGK) in protest at the racist theology of apartheid and joined the primarily African Dutch Reform Church in Africa.

• In July 1980, Niehaus joined the ANC and worked in the underground inside South Africa until he and his fiancée, Jansie, were arrested in August 1983.

• They were found guilty of high treason. Niehaus received a 15-year sentence. Jansie was sentenced to four years in prison.

• He did two degrees in theology through Unisa and finished both summa cum laude.

• He is currently a member of Parliament in the National Assembly.

— anc.org.za

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