EXTRACT | One Day in Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg

One Day in Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg.
One Day in Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg.

On Saturdays Fusi and his mother spoke on the phone. Stilted, laboured, heavily edited, their conversations were the highlight of his week. He knew that his suffering infected her and must thus be concealed. And so he was all high spirits, full of the plans he had hatched and the letters he had written, as if he could blow a brisk wind that might catch her sail.

In exchange for this labour he received her voice; for beneath its incessant complaints about his suffering and hers, was its love. He imbibed it slowly, luxuriously, making the phone call linger. When their conversation lapsed into silence, he would wait, the receiver pressed against his ear. Sometimes, many long seconds would go by. And then one of them would resume speaking.

On a Saturday at the end of July 1999 she told him, in the course of their regular conversation, that Sikhalo was out of prison, that somebody had seen him on the streets of Bethlehem. His heart went cold. His first course of action was to slam down the phone lest he transmit his distress along the wires connecting them.

He stood there staring blankly ahead of him. His fingers were shaking and his brow was wet and when he brushed it with his sleeve another layer of sweat formed. In a flash, it occurred to him that his life was destined to change during Saturday phone calls, for he was thinking of Amos and the news of his death.

Eight months had passed since the truth commission hearing; he had not once in that time imagined that his co-accused would be released without him. Important men had heard him speak. The most powerful organisations in the country had vowed to help him. The ANC's Truth Desk was to go to the Justice department and the truth commission itself was to make a submission. He had simply assumed that, when the time came to release the others, his and Tshokolo's names would be added to the list.

He contacted Booker Mohlaba and begged him to do something. Mohlaba replied that he could not act unless instructed by the ANC. And who exactly at the ANC would instruct you if you were to be instructed, Fusi asked. A woman called Patience Molekane, Booker said; it was she who ran the ANC's Truth Desk.

And so Fusi phoned Patience Molekane who confirmed that all the oth­ers were free; just Fusi and Tshokolo, she said, were still in jail. She would instruct Booker Mohlaba's firm to return to the case.

The following Monday he phoned Booker Mohlaba who said that he had not heard a word from Patience and thus could not do anything. And so he called Patience who was now, it seemed, never available; when he finally managed to speak to her, more than three weeks later, she said that she had instructed Booker Mohlaba long ago and did not understand why he could not proceed.

He wrote to the secretary-general of the ANC, and received no reply. He wrote to her twice more and heard nothing. He wrote to Booker Mohlaba and to Patience Molekane; he received no reply. He wrote to the man who had led the TRC's evidence, the one who had vowed to take the matter to the Justice department. He received no reply.

He entered an area of darkness. Looking back now, he cannot see himself; he cannot know what he thought or felt. He can only describe what oth­ers observed when they saw him – they saw a man who was crying inside, he reports, a man who perhaps was even dying.

His eyebrows rise in surprise when he says this, as if they must have been talking about somebody else. He believes them, for they are better witnesses than he, but he is nonetheless astonished.

I ask him to try to remember something of that darkness, and he says, only, that when you are in prison, you think a lot about all sorts of things, but primarily about moments in your past. Some of them come to you over and again.

For instance, he says, there was his first sighting of the ocean. He was twelve or thirteen, a schoolboy in Thokoza. They went in five buses on an educational outing to the coastal city of Durban. They were to visit the harbour, the aquarium, the snake park. They were to go to the beach.

They were approaching the hamlet of Umgababa, he says, when he first sighted the sea. It was cloudy above, the day a dull grey, and he could not tell where the sky stopped and the ocean began. This confusion unsettled him for he wanted his eyes to see with certainty what was before him; he did not like that they were an untrusty guide.

Then they were on the beach and the expanse of water before him was astonishingly wide. All of this is just the surface, he thought to himself, the rest invisible. He tried to comprehend the vastness inside. And he thought of himself somewhere in those depths. The ocean seemed to want him and he believed that it had the power to take him; were he to go in and swim the waves would wrap themselves around him and pull him out.

He crouched at the edge of the ocean and touched it with his fingers. The water rushed through them and his fear was confirmed; this great mass was alive and powerful and its vocation was to take you away.

Why this memory kept returning during his dark time he does not know; perhaps, he speculates, because the sea is the opposite of a prison cell.

Out of the blue one morning, the prison’s head of social work, Mr Gerrit Steyn, approached him.

'You look strange,' Fusi recalls him saying. 'Why are you angry?'

Fusi looked back in astonishment. He knew Mr Steyn a little; he knew him to be kindly and polite, but that is all.

'There is nothing wrong,' he replied.

'No,' Steyn said. 'I see you,' and with those enigmatic words he told Fusi to report to his office the following morning.

The next day, behind the social worker's closed door, Fusi told his story, slowly, over the course of much of the morning. He had told it so often by now. Sikhalo's knock on the door on the morning of 2 April; the security police breaking down the same door that night. The story seemed to die as it left his tongue.

For a long time, Steyn listened without saying a word. He would not interrupt, Fusi realised, until the story was done. And as he grasped that he could speak for as long as he liked, his tale took on a life of its own. He spoke of his mother, of Victoria and of the death of Amos Mofokeng. He spoke of the letters he had written, of the string of lawyers who had failed him. He spoke of the TRC and his certainty that it had been a triumph, that he and Tshokolo were bound to be released with the others.

Finally, he was quiet. A silence followed, and when Steyn finally began to talk the words he uttered were shocking.

'You are boiling with anger,' Fusi recalls him saying. 'And you are depressed. You are depressed because you do not accept what has hap­pened to you. What is going on in your heart is making you ill.' Then he paused, for what he was to say next was very grave indeed. 'If you do not accept what has happened to you, you will die.'

Fusi looked back at Steyn in disbelief. The social worker's words danced around his mind like electric charges. Nobody had ever spoken to him like this before; nobody had addressed him so bluntly and directly about what was in his heart.

Before he could offer a response, Steyn was speaking again. He offered there and then to help Fusi, not just with his emotions and his spirit, but practically. When you need to send a fax to your lawyer, I will do it for you, Steyn said. When you need to see a lawyer, I will book you out of prison and take you in my car. When you need to talk to a loved one, I will make sure you have a phone at your disposal. When you need to eat decent food, I will bring groceries for you.

These many years later, Fusi marvels at Gerrit Steyn. It is not just that he picked Fusi out from a thousand prisoners and saw into his soul; it is that he appeared to believe Fusi's story the moment he heard it. Why did he know it to be true from the start? To Steyn he attributed spiritual pow­ers. He was a deeply religious man, Fusi observed. Perhaps his gift to see through one’s skin came from God.

And from Steyn he learnt that one does not judge a person by his race. A son of labour tenants in the eastern Free State, Fusi knew as well as any living soul white people's disregard for black well-being. What had Robertshaw and Johannes Steyn hurled at him day after day if not hatred? And yet here was an Afrikaner, a son of the Free State soil, who carried under his white skin God's power and compassion.

* This extract was taken from One Day in Bethlehem by Jonny Steinberg.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.