The books tell stories of murder, deception, torture and racism, of events 30 or more years ago that still resonate today, of secrets that few want to hear, and of killers who have never been held to account.
One is by Paul Erasmus, a secret policeman under South Africa’s brutal, racist apartheid regime. For years he has described his misdeeds to investigators, courts, journalists and commissions, but now he is telling his story to a broader audience in a country where many still do not want to confront its bloody history.
His book is among a wave of works being published in South Africa recounting how the apartheid security services spied, lied, betrayed, brutalised and killed, ranging from personal memoirs to historical inquiries by leading academics and investigations by journalists.
“There is a hell of a lot of hurt out there, and it should be dealt with. The more we know about our past, the less chance there is we will repeat it,” Erasmus, 64, said.
Erasmus’s memoir, which will be published in the autumn, describes his 18-year career in the South African police, from when he opened fire on a looter in his first year, through his involvement in appallingly violent campaigns against nationalist insurgents in Namibia and eventually as a senior member of the infamous police propaganda unit, which targeted so-called enemies of the state ranging from popular musicians to high-profile figures such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s wife and a formidable leader of the anti-apartheid movement in her own right.
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“My job was to create chaos, mayhem, to destroy people’s lives … I didn’t join the police to become a criminal. But that is what happened,” he said.
Many authors say efforts to come to terms with South Africa’s past have been inadequate, even though it is more than 25 years since the apartheid regime collapsed.
“We were in such a rush to get past that difficult moment in our history, people are now feeling that we need to go back and record it,” said Jonathan Ancer, whose book recording the lives and work of 12 spies during the apartheid period was published last year.
South Africa set up a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) after Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) to power, to investigate past atrocities. It granted amnesty to some accused perpetrators and was lauded for helping South Africans move on after decades of violence.
Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela (right) hugs Joyce Seipei, the mother of a murdered teenage activist, at a truth and reconciliation commission hearing in Johannesburg in 1997
Winnie Mandikizela-Mandela (right) hugs Joyce Seipei, the mother of a murdered teenage activist, at a truth and reconciliation commission hearing in Johannesburg in 1997. Photograph: Adil Bradlow/AP
But many South Africans now question the attitude of earlier political leaders, saying the TRC did not go far enough. There are claims that much of the history of South Africa has been deliberately obscured or ignored in text books and university courses.
“I felt that the TRC was ultimately disappointing. It was a very necessary and important process but didn’t achieve what it could or should have achieved,” Ancer said.
An inquest opened in February into the death of the anti-apartheid activist and trade unionist Neil Aggett, whose body was found hanging at the notorious John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg in 1982. At least 73 political detainees died while in the hands of the police between 1963 and 1990, and no one has ever been held responsible for any of those deaths, campaigners say.
Erasmus was a key witness at the inquiry, where he described police torture methods, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, electric shocks and a form of waterboarding. He also said he had been ordered to find evidence to portray Aggett as suicidal.
“Like most white South Africans, I was convinced that communists were behind the horrific unrest and I felt it was my calling to devote my life to fighting this evil,” Erasmus said in evidence that prompted death threats from former colleagues.
The case followed another, in 2017, where a judge ruled that Ahmed Timol, an anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in October 1971, did not kill himself as authorities have long claimed, but was murdered.
Imtiaz Cajee, Timol’s nephew, led the decades-long effort to overturn the original verdict of suicide. He recounts these efforts in a new book.
“The memory of our loved ones should not just be selectively recalled during elections. The families want to know what happened. They want the annals of history to correctly reflect that a brother or a sister or a father was murdered,” Cajee said.
Most of the new books are being published in English, are expensive and a high proportion of the authors and readers are white. So too are many of the subjects. This lack of diversity risks distorting South Africa’s collective memory, said William Gumede, the chair of the Democracy Works Foundation in Johannesburg.
“We have not as a society as a whole used books and literature as part of a work of collective memory as has happened elsewhere,” said Gumede, who worked with the TRC.
One problem facing activists and researchers is the absence or ambiguity of key documents. Another book has revealed the existence of a “terrorist album”, a bound collection of 7,000 photographs of wanted anti-apartheid activists who had fled into exile, which was distributed to police stations under apartheid.
All but three were burned in the early 1990s but Jacob Dlamini, a history professor at Princeton University in the US, found one in the national archives that he was allowed to view, but not take notes.
Dlamini’s research led him deep into the warped world of the apartheid security forces, where racial prejudices were so ingrained that it was considered inconceivable that a non-white activist could be the second in command of an ANC special operations unit. Huge efforts were made to influence public opinion overseas. Dlamini describes hearings arranged in 1982 in Washington for Congress where supposed “reformed terrorists” – in fact members of a secret police death squad – told of the misdeeds of the ANC and their communist backers.
“In the 1970s they were very, very confident that they were in control. They were hugely ambitious. Their aim was to capture all known enemies of the state,” Dlamini said.
However, towards the end of the 1980s it became clear that the police could no longer match the forces ranged against them. As the apartheid regime fell apart, the work on the album, once detailed and precise, became “more and more slapdash”.
“The past is not a settled question,” said Dlamini, who grew up under apartheid in a township outside Johannesburg. “It is not over. You can still fight.”