A road behind us and one ahead


In the midst of a pandemic, who wants to read about a life of the past?
I regularly wonder if it’s still relevant, my story of the seventeen-year-old boy who desperately wanted to find freedom and the ANC; who walked over borders amid veld fires to go fight oppressors; and who, as an MK recruit, nagged his superiors about changing tired old routines. Is it important, in this day and age, after three post-apartheid presidencies, to read of a soldier who slid over muddy hills carrying bundles of weapons and who became a commander who dreamt of -and plotted- actually winning the war?

Even if you would like to read about him, you might still decide not to. These stories come with a lot of pain after all: of friends burned to death in their car, as Pat and Jabu were, or of Shadrack, who was kidnapped and beaten to death, then buried somewhere in a sack, or of Krish and the other soldiers who were machinegunned at Matola.

Maybe it is all not that interesting anymore. Struggle memoirs abound by now, and even I don’t like to remember some of these stories.

Still, maybe you’d want to know about the time after it was over. Maybe the actual story starts only then. That new country. When the first euphoria already came with a slight tinge of fear that it might just not all go swimmingly. When, after a while, you couldn’t push that fear away anymore and you had to face the dreams slowly coming off the rails, very slowly at first, then faster, tumbling down, leaving little more than rubble: broken stones in the desert, as a comrade would later write.

You might want to know how he still battled on then, under the droning sound and intermittent fury of the overconfident speeches of those who, newly powerful, kept hoping the noise would drown out their ever more visible disasters. How he continued to play his role of small cog in the machine, still, together with other small cogs-of-higher-purpose, trying to make it work under epidemics and arms deals and child-headed households. Under an elite driving BMW’s just like Chris Hani had said.

But of course they killed Chris Hani.

I guess what you really want to know -if you want to know anything at all of this- is in that last bit, the bit about the small, perhaps too-zealous, too-ambitious, cogs who thought they could still create that South Africa for all who live in it, with water and electricity and morals and schools and hospitals and playgrounds.

You might want to know how they ended up being called ‘rogue.’

As I write this, evictions of the poor continue, in winter, in times of COVID. At least two sick individuals have been denied not only care but even food in dilapidated, chaotic hospitals. Bodies are piling up. The sick, like the arrested, are black and poor: the same black and poor who were sick in the nineties and arrested in the eighties.

Maybe the past is not the past.

Maybe all there is, is a road behind us and a road before us. The path is still open, ever since it was opened way back then. Vulindlela, that operation was called, long ago.

My book on the Unlikely Mr Rogue will be out soon.

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