Truth of our past

2009-11-26 00:00

PETER Harris, author of In A Different Time, admits to ­being “filled with doubt and insecurity” when he penned his riveting book about the Delmas Four — Jabu Masina, Ting Ting Masango, Neo Potsane and Joseph Makhura.

“I was writing a serious work of nonfiction … and I wasn’t sure whether anyone would want to read it,” he told guests at a recent fundraiser for the Khazimula Children’s Project at Lidgetton, which shelters up to 30 vulnerable boys and girls, and seeks to reunite them with their families.

His nerves weren’t helped when he met a number of crime writers at the Cape Town Book Fair, where the book was launched.

“I was in awe of the way they handled their craft,” Harris said. “It made me even more nervous. Then I asked Deon Meyer what it was like to write a first novel and he said: ‘A first novel is like having a brother in jail, it’s a fact of life but you don’t want to talk about it’. I thought, I really hope my book won’t be like that.”

He needn’t have worried. In A Different Time has attracted great reviews and was rewarded with the 2009 Sunday Times Literary Award for nonfiction.

It tells the story of four young men who left the country to undergo training as members of ­Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, after the Soweto ­uprising in June 1976, and Harris himself, the man who represented them in court.

Harris — who was educated at Michaelhouse, Rhodes and Warwick universities — said he wanted to write the story because it was, at heart, about ordinary people on both sides of the apartheid conflict. “I liked the fact that the book was told by the footsoldiers, by the people who pulled the trigger and not those who gave orders,” he added.

South Africa in the mid-eighties was a very violent place. The apartheid government was faced with massive internal resistance, there were curfews in the townships, conscripts and reservists were patrolling in these areas, 10 000 people were being held in detention without trial, there were sporting sanctions and wars were being fought in Mozambique and Angola.

It was to this rather frightening place that the Delmas Four returned as combat veterans with six years experience. They reported to Chris Hani and carried out operations for 10 months before they were captured, tortured and brought to trial in 1987.

“What makes their trial different from other treason trials at the time was the fact that it took just three or four weeks instead of three to four years,” Harris said. “The reason was that the Delmas Four refused to take part in their own trial. They didn’t recognise the jurisdiction of the court because they saw themselves as soldiers fighting a just war.”

All four men ended up on death row in Pretoria after they were, reluctantly, sentenced to death by Judge ­Marius de Klerk on April 27, 1989. De Klerk had found enough extenuating circumstances in the conduct of the men during their trial to spare them the death penalty, but he was outnumbered by his two assessors, a Mr de Kock and a Dr Botha. In a somewhat ironic twist, Harris learnt recently that one of those men was infamous apartheid killer Eugene de Kok’s father.

Harris concluded his talk by saying: “In a country where there are still so many schisms, we need to acknowledge what happened in our past. This shared understanding of our past is crucial to the role we will play in the future.”

He added that the gift of critical thinking needs to be instilled in every adult and child in South Africa. “Not knowing what is happening in your country puts you on the wrong side. We all have a duty to know and a moral duty to act for our own selfish salvation, not just the sake of the nation.”

All the money raised from the talk at Lythwood Lodge went to the Khazimula Children’s Project. Chairman Richard Thompson told guests that the project shelters up to 30 vulnerable young children with the approval of the Department of Social Development. “But Khazimula is not an orphanage and ­actively spends time and money to reunite children with their families,” he added.

Khazimula receives 87% of its funding from the department and depends on donations to make up the shortfall. If you would like to assist Khazimula, phone Richard Thompson at 076 332 1877.

PETER Harris was born in Durban and grew up in the Eastern Cape. He was educated at Michaelhouse, Rhodes and Warwick University and practised law for 15 years at Cheadle, Thompson & Haysom.

In the early nineties, he was seconded to the National Peace Accord, after which he headed the Monitoring Directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission for the 1994 election.

He returned to law and did international consulting for the United Nations as an election operations expert in Mexico, Haiti and other places, before being appointed director of programmes at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm for two years.

Back in South Africa, he co- founded the Resolve Group Management Consultancy of which he is the current executive chairman.

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