The day in the late 1980s when I visited the Oudtshoorn township should have been an unremarkable one, but because a councillor of the township had been killed by a mob not long before, because I was being accompanied by a member of the local comrades and because the security police soon arrived to take a look at what I was doing, the day was anything but unremarkable.
Neither side in the battle for power in the country behaved in a friendly fashion that day. Shortly after we arrived, a stone was thrown by a comrade. It was not a very large stone and not very well thrown. It landed at my feet and sprayed dust over shoes that were pretty dusty to begin with.
The comrade who accompanied us said I should realise that the security police would be with us in ten minutes. When they arrived exactly when he said they would, I asked him how he knew. “As soon as I start showing someone around, they arrive twenty minutes later. That is the time it takes for them to leave their offices, get in a car and drive here.”
I was busy with an interview when the security cop turned up. He started by asking me my name, but I pushed my identity book across the table to him and continued with the interview without looking at him. He left shortly afterwards. As soon as I was finished in the township, Miriam and I went in search of their offices and the security police colonel in charge of the area. We approached him in the most friendly manner, but he looked astonished that I, a white person, had entered the township, then arrived on his doorstep, accompanied by my wife. I doubt anything like that had ever happened to him before. Having been taken by surprise, he assured me that they had no objection to my writing about their township and the mob killing that had taken place there.
It is the release of my novel, Closed Circle, as an e-book that has brought back to me the circumstances under which it was written. It was all a long time ago and had slipped to the back of my mind. It has to be said that I have never been a political activist. My interest in the domain of that branch of the police was purely to be able to write about the issues that I felt needed to be revealed to ordinary readers. This I did, and continue to do, with as much accuracy and objectivity as I am able. For my pains, two of my early novels, Store up the Anger and Divide the Night, were banned. The bans were later lifted though, when on my behalf Professor John Dugard of Wits appealed the bannings in very elegant fashion.
Those were interesting days. We found some new friends, and lost some old ones. People at work whom we thought of allies, turned out to be something entirely different. We made contact with victims of state harassment, admired many, and found reasons to distrust others.
At the time, our teenage daughter, Liz, was discovering the joys of first love. Because of her enthusiasm for a ginger-haired kid of her own age, her use of the telephone had to be limited to a few five-minute calls a day. Without some sort of control, we would have lost the use of the instrument altogether. So, when we discovered that the security police were tapping our phone, we told Liz she could speak for as long as she liked. After that, her conversations with young Russel sometimes went on for an entire afternoon. In those days, tape was the medium of recording. Liz and her boyfriend must have used up kilometres of it. At that stage the whole thing seemed like something of a game.
It stopped being a game when Miriam was picked up while shopping, taken to an unmarked office, stripped and questioned at length while naked. Some of Liz’s calls were played to her. It was pretty innocuous stuff, but the telephone has amazing power to terrorise. We never knew the names of the security police thugs who were involved. They had taken her into a building through a back entrance in an alley and we could not even identify their office afterwards. I never thought of it as a game after that. Miriam was shaken, but undeterred from her opposition to Apartheid policies and her support for my writing. Not many men have such a spouse.
Closed Circle is available here as an e-book.