BOOK REVIEW: When they came for me: The hidden diary of an apartheid prisoner by John R Schlapobersky

Posted on June 23, 2021

When they came for me: The hidden diary of an apartheid prisoner
John R Schlapobersky
Jonathan Ball Publishers
ISBN: 9781776191031

In his second year at Wits, John Schlapobersky was summoned by a university administrator from a lecture hall, and handed over to South Africa’s notorious security police. It was mid-winter, 1969.

This book tells the story from the build-up to that event, to what happened to him in police custody, and draws out the lessons he learnt. But it is many things besides a linear narrative drawn from apartheid’s darkest moments.

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Schlapobersky is not interested in revenge, but in answering those who tormented him with understanding and reconciliation, if not quite forgiveness. It is no surprise, then, that Albie Sachs – who has championed the idea of “soft vengeance” – has provided the foreword to the book. This is delivered in Sachs’s infectious style and, as ever, with near-breathtaking leaps of legal and political faith.

.......

Schlapobersky is not interested in revenge, but in answering those who tormented him with understanding and reconciliation, if not quite forgiveness. It is no surprise, then, that Albie Sachs – who has championed the idea of “soft vengeance” – has provided the foreword to the book. This is delivered in Sachs’s infectious style and, as ever, with near-breathtaking leaps of legal and political faith.

The “hidden diary” in Schlapobersky’s subtitle is a 100-odd page account of his 56-day interrogation, torture, solitary confinement, negotiation, release and path to exile. The bulk of the account is constructed from memory and fragmentary jottings, because – so he reports – the state archives yielded very little on the case.

The inner journey that carried Schlapobersky through the various stages of the ordeal is, in contrast, recorded with close attention. For communion, he reached for the Old Testament; for comfort, he turned to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The sound of silence”; for recreation, he recited and wrote poetry – while mostly, he simply marvelled at the sheer incomprehensibility of the apartheid system.

The torture included sleep deprivation and standing on a brick for hours – sometimes days (and nights) – but perhaps worst of all was the slow realisation that the mournful singing which echoed throughout the prison at night was a signal that executions would follow in the morning light. Mixed in with all this was the “good cop/bad cop” routine of questioning, which was tasked, among others, to the infamous “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel and the urbane – but no less notorious – Johan Coetzee.

If this was all to be expected in an account of treatment at their hands, what is not anticipated were the issues that seemed of interest to the security police. Was he a terrorist? Did he help an acquaintance skip to Lusaka? Who was the friend he drove half-way to Swaziland?

In the context of the struggle for South Africa, of course, these might seem to be routine questions. But what particularly interested this reviewer was the timing of these interests. Remember that all this took place in mid-1969, and that these strands were then not as closely linked as was later to become plain. Although the Terrorism Act was passed in 1967, terrorism – as an analytical category – rose to prominence only in the 1970s; while Zambia became independent in 1964, Lusaka only became a factor – in the sense that it was a base for “the struggle” – much later; and Swaziland’s independence in 1968 rested on the understanding that the country posed no security threat to the apartheid state.

A resourceful mother and not a little diplomatic intrigue smoothed the way for Schlapobersky’s release, which was conditional on his expulsion to Israel. This involved that country’s consul general in South Africa – who lectured the young man on the tarmac before putting him on the flight to Tel Aviv.

This entire unfolding follows a first-hand account of the life journey that had brought the then 21-year-old to Wits. This is as tender a telling of a boy who was raised by Johannesburg’s then bustling Jewish community as will ever be written. Even the family’s move to Swaziland, and his acquisition of British citizenship, didn’t change the sense that he belonged to Johannesburg – a city whose suburbs, streets and cultural delights are lovingly recalled.

A revealing and informative epilogue points out the lessons of those not-forgotten days in the hands of an authoritarian state. As psychotherapist, Schlapobersky has helped to establish a centre (in the UK) for political refugees who have, in other troubled polities across the world, experienced the same torture as did he. Six brief case-notes provide evidence that telling stories of torment – as he has in these pages – can help to free the many who have been tortured by authoritarianism.

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Accounts of imprisonment and torture under apartheid all too readily serve narrow political ends – but this book is the exception which proves the old rule. As such, this story will need to do much heavy lifting on that never-ending South African agenda of understanding and its twin, forgiveness.

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Accounts of imprisonment and torture under apartheid all too readily serve narrow political ends – but this book is the exception which proves the old rule. As such, this story will need to do much heavy lifting on that never-ending South African agenda of understanding and its twin, forgiveness.

And this work may well begin with a near-hidden thread that runs through these pages, the issue of language. Together with Yiddish, Afrikaans was the tongue of Schlapobersky’s mother on Syferbult, the kosher dairy near Krugersdorp where she spent her childhood – and yet, Afrikaans was also the language which imprisoned her son and was to change the course of his life.

Peter Vale, Senior fellow, Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria


This article was published on Litnet on 21 June 2021. You can access the orignal article here

- Author Professor Peter Vale
Published by Kirsty Nepomuceno

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