By Dylan Wray
George* is a history teacher. He used to be very high up in the apartheid security police in the Eastern Cape. Zolile* has always been a history teacher. As a young man, he was arrested attempting to flee South Africa to take up arms with Umkhonto weSizwe. George more than likely oversaw or at least, knew about the arrests and detentions of many who fought against apartheid. Zolile was tortured in a cold Cradock* police cell. George left the intelligence services to become a history teacher. Zolile has only ever been one.
Zolile teaches at one of South Africa’s oldest schools with a proud and rooting struggle history while George teaches at one of the best schools in South Africa. They were both going to meet, almost three years ago, with other history teachers in a workshop exploring a resource we had created on John Vorster Square, the headquarters of the apartheid security police. These two men were going to be in the same room with the stories of perpetrators and victims from within the walls of John Vorster Square circling between them. Two stories told, two histories were to meet. But they never did. They never saw each other and they never heard each other. They never met because I didn’t let them. I told George he wasn’t welcome.
Well, to be honest, I never told George this directly. As the workshop approached I contacted one of the senior staff at George’s school. I wanted to talk to him about what it would mean for George to attend a workshop about the role of the security police while someone who was tortured by his colleagues sat opposite him in the room or even, next to him. I raised my concern for Zolile. His manager felt that I was playing the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and it wasn’t for me to judge or persecute. I disagreed and George wasn’t invited.
At the time, I felt comfortable, perhaps even proud of my stand to not let an ex-security police head be at that workshop. I felt right in protecting Zolile.
But here’s the thing. Today, I would want him to be in the room.
This is what I know about George: I know he ran the apartheid regime’s European spy network for a while. I know that he didn’t appear before the TRC. I also know that he played an influential role in the early negotiations between the intelligence agencies of the apartheid state and the resistance movements. I know that he eventually worked with his negotiation foes/partners in the post-apartheid intelligence services and that he became close friends with his former enemies. I know that one of the learners he taught was the child of apartheid activists who had been arrested by the security police. I know this child asked to be removed from his class and he was. I know that George regularly takes the young adults he teaches on tours to Auschwitz.
But this is what I don’t know: I don’t know the details of the decisions he made in the positions he held. I don’t know if he actually tortured or oversaw the torture of South Africans like Zolile. Did he begin to use his position of influence to change the system from within? Did he have a change of heart or was he just very strategic when the system began to crumble? Why didn’t he support the TRC? Was he just a coward afraid of the consequences? Does he regret that decision? Would he choose differently now?
I don’t know the answers to these questions because I never asked him.
And Zolile? What do I know about him? I know that he has shared his story of detention and torture before in a room full of other teachers. I know he has been hurt. I know that he speaks a lot about forgiveness and that the young adults in his classroom hear this.
But what I don’t know is how Zolile would have felt about George being there that day exploring stories from John Vorster Square with him. Stories similar to his, similar to George’s. I don’t know if, as he sat there in the room, he would have felt like a victim or if he would have sat there as the one now holding the power — the power to forgive, to blame, be angry, or to forget. I don’t know how he would have felt because I never thought to just ask him.
So I did.
It is late, I know. It should have been the first thing I did when I was confronted with the possibility of George being in the same room as him. I should not have presumed how Zolile deals with his past and his pain. I should not have seen him as a victim.
So I asked him, just a few days ago, how would he have felt about George, the ex-security policeman, the apartheid negotiator, the history teacher, being there at that workshop on John Vorster Square.
Zolile said, “I would happy. I am glad to meet him. 100 percent!”
Zolile went on to say that when he was in one of the jails (there were many, he told me) one of the young policemen had had a bit too much to drink and began talking to him. “He was friendly”, he said. He told Zolile about growing up on a small farm with little money, about needing to find a job and the police offering him one, and a bursary as well. So he took it. “It really touched me”, Zolile told me. “I felt sorry for them. They were ignorant from their actions. Some of them were suffering for their actions”.
I don’t know if Zolile meant to say “they were ignorant from their actions” or if it was a slip of the tongue. But in my case, my actions most certainly created more ignorance. My ignorance came from my actions. In not asking Zolile how he would feel, and in not inviting George to be a part of that workshop, if anything, I became more and more ignorant. I failed to recognise the opportunity in this former security policeman wanting to be in a room with other teachers of all shades and ages, together learning about the horror of John Vorster Square. Something led him to want to attend.
I failed to see Zolile as more than a victim and didn’t get to hear him talk about forgiveness and compassion. And every week after that, with every re-telling of this story, reaffirming my decision, I became more and more ignorant. I eventually couldn’t see what Zolile sees, believes and holds true. I couldn’t see the possibility that George really needed to be there on that day.
Now we, George, Zolile and I, suffer for that action. By choosing not to let George into that room, a moment was lost. Perhaps in the conversation that could have taken place between someone who was once a perpetrator and someone who was once a victim, we might all have found answers to what we didn’t know about the other. Today, or perhaps, tomorrow, in another workshop or another conversation, I want us all to be in the room.
* Not their real names or geographic location.
Dylan Wray is the executive director of Shikaya, which runs the Facing the Past — Transforming our Future project. shikaya.org