Jacob Dlamini’s Askari: A Review
Informers and collaborators date back to at least the New Testament with Judas Iscariot kissing and betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The stigma that comes with the term “askaris”, a Swahili word, transcends culture, language and place. The shame of being branded a traitor can be passed on from generation to generation. Take, for instance, Zara Black, the protagonist in CA Davids’ debut novel The Blacks of Cape Town, as she tries to find out the truth about her family past while suspecting her father might have been a traitor or a spy.
Jacob Dlamini’s Askari (Jacana, 2014) explores the ways in which a number of black people, through one form of torture or another, were forced into collaborating with the apartheid forces.
Dlamini’s first book, Native Nostalgia (Jacana, 2009), is a personal narrative on growing up in the township. It aimed to defy the popular narrative that township life during apartheid was hellish by telling a different story about it. Both books can be read as Dlamini’s effort to try to explain that by “saying things were messy under apartheid is not saying much” – there are complexities and nuances that still remain unexplored. Dlamini is an academic: a visiting fellow at Harvard University and a research associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Askari tells the story of Glory Sedibe, a freedom fighter turned collaborator. In an attempt to humanise his subject, Dlamini describes, with eloquence and precision, the man behind the nom de guerre Comrade September was. The narrative spans from his early age, to him joining the ANC in 1977 at 22, his relations with his comrades as a senior member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and his capture, torture and defectment in August 1986.
The book tries to understand why Sedibe defected, and most importantly why he “stood out among the askaris for the passion with which he turned against his former comrades”. Most of the askaris interviewed by the author admit that it was by their own free will that they defected, but some did so only after months of interrogation and torture. There is a wide range of reasons: some for monetary gain, some for fear, and some because they no longer believed in the cause.
When questioned during one of the trials in which he was a state witness, Sedibe claimed it was because he no longer believed in the cause. But his handler, former death squad leader Eugene de Kock, and close family members believed he was loyal to the ANC till the end.
In an effort to show the nuances and complexities behind collaboration, the book makes comparisons with stories of other defectors around the world, from Argentina and Chile to Nazi Germany, with the intention of demonstrating how these collaborators were not merely “hostages to circumstance”, but moral agents who made choices in service of the captors; it explores the tightrope of willingness, morality and choice they had to walk. From the moment they are captured, they were excommunicated by the movement. Even if they were accepted back, comrades would wonder if they were double agents or not.
Being given a choice to collaborate under torture can be classified only as semblance of choice. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek says:
“In the subject’s relationship to the community to which he belongs, there is always such a paradoxical point of choixforcé(forced choice) – at this point, the community is saying to the subject: you have freedom to choose, but on condition that you choose the right thing … If you make the wrong choice you lose freedom of choice itself … The situation of the forced choice consists in the fact that the subject must freely choose the community to which he belongs, independent of his choice – he must choose what is already given to him.”
The underlying idea of forced choice is you’re given a choice and simultaneously told what to choose. “Choice” is at once presented and refused, which culminates in a forced choice.
In his introduction, Dlamini admits that he “cannot say that he has not judged him [Sedibe]” because of the choices he made after he defected. “Sedibe … was a moral agent who made informed choices along the way. He decided to become an insurgent. The structure of apartheid did not decide that for him, even though it shaped the conditions under which he took that decision,” writes Dlamini. “He was forced, at the risk of death, to become a counterinsurgent. But he persisted with that ‘choice’ with apparent relish.” Dlamini’s judgment of Sedibe is without reservation, and rightfully so, but condemning him as a moral agent outside of the context of an immoral system he worked for is, to say the least, bias. Sedibe and his ilk were part of the dark underside of the ruling ideology; their cases can’t be treated as individual pathologies. An immoral act in an immoral society is normal.
It is evident that Sedibe was seduced by power to do to his comrades as his captors did to him. His relish was based on power the South African Police (SAP) badge given to him, which came with the ability to spare or take life at will. During his testimony, he refused to be called an askari, claiming he was a member of the SAP. He displayed arrogance and no signs of remorse. Sedibe was a part of the ruling order – he embodied it; he was, in effect, what Steve Biko called a non-white, which is “…any man who calls a white man ‘baas’; any man who serves the police or security branch is ipso facto non-white”. Dlamini’s blatant bias in his judgment and apportioning of responsibility casts a shadow on his intentions and renders the entire project dubious, a conscious erasure of black pain, which means black people can’t demand redress if they were active participants in their oppression.
The apartheid government, institutions and functionaries are responsible for the deaths of anti-apartheid activist here at home and abroad, not just selected individuals. It is understandable to want to have a perpetrator of a crime, to put a face to a cruel act, but the focus on individuals and not the total evil of the ruling ideology exonerates it and those who continue to benefit from its policies by placing all the blame on individuals such as Kock and Sedibe. These minions have no defense other than citing how they were “just doing their jobs”.
The ghost of Comrade September and his ilk (dead or living dead) will forever haunt our country’s politics. After the last page of the book is turned, you can’t help but ask yourself, “Who among our self-anointed messiahs was a spy or suspected of being a spy?” How much information does Jacob Zuma, a former leader of the ANC’s intelligence, know about his comrades? Is the lack of criticism of his failures in office, of Nkandla, a result of people being afraid of being exposed?
The book has interesting anecdotes and historical facts about collaboration and counterinsurgency. Most readers will find it a mine of information, a glance into the past and a glimpse into the future. Unfortunately, though, answers to some of the questions the book sets out to answer leave a lot to be desired.
Jacob Dlamini appears at the Time of the Writer Festival hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Creative Arts in Durban. The festival runs from March 16-25. For more information, visit:
Main Photograph: African Askari’s fighting on the side of the Germans in German West Africa at some time between 1906 and 1918. By Walther Dobbertin and published courtesy of the German Federal Archives.