Between 1987 and 1990, my husband Rob and I ran a safe house for the liberation movement in apartheid South Africa. We were part of what we would later learn was named Operation Vula, short for Vul’indlela (“Open the road” in Zulu). Its aim was to infiltrate exiled leaders of the African National Congress/Umkhonto we Sizwe back into the country to help co-ordinate the different streams of popular resistance within the country – trade unions, civics, students, armed units and others – and to open a secure channel of communication between the leadership inside the country, in prison and in exile.
This was the time of State President PW Botha, he of the wagging finger and brutal states of emergency. With the townships locked down by the military, Vula operatives would need access to hideaways in the white suburbs, but any white South African who was trustworthy enough would already be known to the regime. The operation thus required white internationals who could come into the country, set themselves up as immigrants, rent a house and blend into the neighbourhood to provide camouflage for underground activists. With a couple of twists of fate, a couple of fairly low-key anti-apartheid activists in Vancouver got the call. We said yes.
Thirty years later, unsurprisingly, South Africa still struggles to come to terms with the history of the struggle. Various narratives have been fashioned to serve various agendas, and what can be known or asserted is very much under contention. Last November, the University of the Witwatersrand’s History Workshop, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) and South African History Online (SAHO) hosted a conference on the Politics of Armed Struggle in Southern Africa to “provide a space for recounting narratives of the armed struggle from the perspective of its protagonists… [and] to make an intellectual contribution to the historiography of the liberation struggle”.
Well, I had to go. But I went as a poet, not a philosopher. I wanted to reflect on what I learned from my experience of underground. I called my piece “Need I remind anyone, again?”, from a poem by Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile that begins, “Need I remind anyone, again, that armed struggle is an act of love?” I introduced it like this:
When I first heard of this conference, I thought you might come together for three days and not mention love at all. I couldn’t let that happen. Then I thought you might talk about love after all, and I wouldn’t want to miss that. And so, here I am. Presente. Here I am, bearing witness. In the name of love, after all, I find myself here to remind us, again, that armed struggle is an act of Love. Because it was not Politics at the beginning. And it is not Politics all the way down.
You might think this sounds naïve and idealistic, but I promise you it is anything but. Whatever else happened in the struggle, there was also the experience of putting oneself on the line for the freedom of everybody, of the indivisibility of that freedom and that solidarity. You don’t see so much of this in the world these days. And because I believe there’s little future without it, I feel obliged to say, “at the risk of seeming ridiculous”, that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love” (Che Guevara).
I am so very tired of people talking at each other, or past each other, hurling barbs, planting mines. Really, I want to scream, I hate it, I feel helpless, because it’s all so stupid. (Okay, not all of it.) But when I rehearsed my piece with small groups of friends before the conference and gave a couple of public readings since, each time people have been moved to speak from the heart of their own experience and concerns. These encounters have been a balm, cool water, shelter, relief. People talking to each other and with each other, as if it really mattered. Discovering that it does. Look, we are still people together! Reminding ourselves, again, that if difference is the condition for hatred, it is also the condition for love. That even when we lose sight of ourselves, a return to our senses is always as close as a breath.
Listen to my reading at Kalk Bay Books, 16 February 2017: https://soundcloud.com/filosofille.