The bell that rings when the vote is called

Tim Cohen

It’s only days now before South Africa’s fourth democratic election, and political campaigns are in full swing. The atmosphere is highly charged but the campaigns are, thankfully, generally festive. It’s an interesting election, with new candidates, new parties surrounded by big news events and, for many, a host of new choices.

Yet behind the posters, the arguments, the manifestoes and the speeches, there still remains a trace of an emotional backdrop that resonates at a deeper level in South African politics. It’s the quiet undercurrent of a painful past that surfaces only occasionally and only in moments of reflection amid the general atmosphere of campaign pandemonium.

It’s difficult to tell how many people still hear this deep bell, but for a certain generation of South Africans, elections are not only a time for decision making and pondering the future, but also a time of recollection and, perhaps, a time when we scratch the scars of hurtful memories.

For this generation, voting is sometimes less about the present or the future than a kind of testimonial. On one level, it matters much less who you vote for than the fact that you are voting.  It’s a curious experience, somewhat like casting a proxy vote on behalf of all of the people you remember who will never do so.

I have always considered myself a fortunate member of the transition generation; my personal scars are thankfully slight. In truth, compared to many of the calamities and tragedies of world history, South Africa’s democratic struggle does not rank fantastically high in the extent of its personal devastation.

But yet, there is practically no-one in South Africa who does not know someone or who was not themselves scarred emotionally or physically, either as victim or perpetrator, in the process of achieving democracy. So voting takes on this dual role – a political declaration of choice and also act of remembrance and tribute.

Whenever I vote my mind still involuntarily wanders toward a handful of people – some of whom in truth I did not actually know very well. These little snatches of memory gradually expand from snapshots into short scenes. And from there, it’s a short step into a bewildering set of reminiscences, some gentle, some harsh.

Some of the victims of my transition movie are now fairly well-known, like the photographer Ken Oosterbroek who was shot on assignment during the 1994 election campaign in, we think, township crossfire. I remember waking up staring into his face after a fabulously drunken party. I remember his ordinary decency as a person and his extraordinary ambition as a photographer.

Some have all but faded from my storyboard. For reasons I don’t clearly understand, I wondered recently about an old university acquaintance, Jackie Quinn. I remember her as an incredibly forceful person, filled with the transcendent self-belief that many left-wing leaders had at the time. As a peripheral activist in Durban in late 1980s, I was the victim of her scorn for my remaining traces of liberal false consciousness and general lack of dedication to the cause.

She was shot in Lesotho in 1985 along with nine other people, including her boyfriend Leon Meyer, in a South African Defence Force (SADF) raid. The government weirdly denied involvement in the raid at the time, despite admitting to a dozen or so others that took place during those years.

The raid was led, we learned much later, by notorious Vlakplaas commander Eugene de Kock. At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), de Kock first claimed Jackie was not a target and that Leon was the only intended victim. But she apparently answered the door and tried to grab the gun of one of the raiders, so they shot her, and then entered the house and shot Leon as he tried to load his gun.

There were two terribly sad things about the raid. First, the group of nine were betrayed by one of their collective friends and, second, Leon and Jackie’s one-year-old child Phoenix was in the house at the time of the killings, and was left parentless.

Some memories fade, some don’t. One part of my transition movie that remains crystal clear involves a former flatmate Michael Hamlyn. He too was killed in a SADF raid, this time in Gaborone, Botswana.

We had a strange and not very enduring acquaintance. We were two oddities, both redheads; I was an arts student, and he a maths student, of all things for a politically conscious person to be.

Even though we shared a flat as students with one other person, we bickered like children. I was for participating in student and civic politics; he thought this trivial, irrelevant, mundane, and almost embarrassing. He was right, but what else was there to do?

He played an electric guitar badly, and despite a taste in music that was just appalling, he played it constantly and very loud. His thought patterns were erratic and staccato, and reflected his actions and even his speech.

But he was also truly brilliant – a top maths student and a musician in the Durban Chamber Orchestra. The loud music was a way of blotting out the static in his overactive brain, I later surmised. Eventually, the constant arguments became too much and the three of us went our different ways.

In truth, we were lost. The currents of South Africa society at that stage were running too strongly and our capacity to influence them as young, white university students was hopelessly small. I gave up and got a job in the real world. Mike ran away to sleepy Gaborone, erratic as always, where in June 1985 soldiers entered his house in a poor suburb outside the town and machine-gunned him in his bed as he slept. He was one of nine who died in the operation.

This was an official raid, acknowledged at the time. It was called Operation Plecksy, and was unusual because it was one of the few in which the perpetrators asked for amnesty from the TRC. Through that process, we now know a little of what happened.

The TRC report said this about the raid: “The raid was not a success either in military or public relations terms. According to the amnesty application of Anton Pretorius, so-called ‘deep cover’ agents of the Soweto Intelligence Unit had identified four primary targets as those ‘responsible for planning and execution of terror onslaught’. They were Mr Tim Williams, Mr Riaz Saloojee (aka Calvin Khan), Mr Patrick Ricketts and Mr Christian Pepani (aka Jeff). None were hit.

“After the raid, according to Pretorius, three of these deep-cover agents – identified only as R103, RS 276 and RS 283 – were recalled to Lusaka where one was said to have been shot almost on arrival while the other two (including at least one woman) were tortured and killed at Quatro camp.

“So negative was the general reaction to the raid that an elaborate propaganda exercise had to be mounted to justify the operation. This was orchestrated by Craig Williamson and included the planting of stories in newspapers like The Citizen and Sunday Times under such headlines as ‘The Guns of Gaborone’. In a discussion with the Commission, Eugene de Kock stated that some of the weapons displayed as captured in the raid were in fact borrowed from him by Williamson.”

One of the other people killed in the raid was a prominent artist Thami Mnyele. Apparently, the raiders killed him and then stole a couple of his paintings. What a weird thing to do.

So now, when I vote, I wonder about those paintings. What was on them? What happened to them? And I wonder about Mike, about our arguments, about our choices, about what might have been. At these times, he is very much alive in my thoughts, even though he is dead to the world. He is both life and symbol – an example that so many South Africans share the deep bell that rings when the vote is called.

Tim Cohen is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of South African publications. He is currently contracted as a columnist to The Weekender and Business Day, where he has worked for most of his career. He was the 2004 Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year.