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Justifiable violence?

Peter Harris. 2008. In a Different Time. Johannesburg: Umuzi.

In theory, South Africa is a country in which the Christian religion predominates and with it the Judaeo-Christian system of morals and ethics. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche thought that justice was the message of the Old Testament and love of the New. Christian philosophy posits a world in which violence is anathema and we are taught that we must turn the other cheek when assaulted by another. We are urged not only to give away our coats to the poor but our shirts as well. The only instance of Jesus resorting to any sort of violence was his overturning the tables of the money lenders and traders in the Temple. The violence in question targeted an attempt to desecrate and commercialise the holiest place and was a clear challenge to the authority of the Church in its earliest days.

The violence in the world and the aggression of Fundamentalist Christians, exemplified by erstwhile US President George Bush and his war-hungry lieutenant, Donald Rumsfeld, reveal how little impact the words of Jesus have on their most ardent supporters. Perhaps GK Chesterton was right when he suggested that Christianity was a wonderful religion--it just had not been tried yet!

Most other religions also proscribe violence in any circumstances. Nietzsche summarized Buddhism as the avoidance of violence as the solution to any problem. Others thought differently on this issue. The Greeks reckoned that violence was justified in order to overthrow a tyrant. Lenin also thought so and in his speech before the Third Congress of Soviets on 24 January 1918, he said: "Not a single question pertaining to the class struggle has ever been settled except by violence. Violence when it is committed by the toiling and exploited masses is the kind of violence of which we approve".

Reading Peter Harris's book sent me back in time to the many years I spent with similar human rights cases as an advocate. This account of the trial of the Delmas Four makes fascinating reading, even for a lawyer who is very familiar with the background and demands of this sort of legal work. The book deals with the trial of four ANC cadres who enter South Africa, after training abroad, and embark on violence in order to bring the Nationalist Government down. They gun down four people and plant a bomb in Silverton near Pretoria which injures a number of people. They are charged with contraventions under the Terrorism Act, the Internal Security Act, and also with four counts of murder, three of attempted murder, twelve of malicious damage to property and high treason.

In order properly to understand why the four cadres embarked on military training abroad, poignant details are given of their family backgrounds and the harsh political and social environment under which that generation grew up. The details of their mission and eventual capture are given with poetic vividness, that captures the stress and danger they endured. After capture they were severely tortured and confessions were extracted by this coercion. The graphic account of their ill-treatment throws into relief the determination of the security police to stop any forms of political protest that endangered the wellbeing of the Apartheid State. The violence of the torture is nicely juxtaposed against that of the cadres in committing their offences. The treatment of the cadres also illustrates the institutional violence that was at work in keeping the disenfranchised from seizing power.

What is fascinating is the attitude taken by the accused to their trial. In previous cases the accused participated and raised defences, which in most instances were dismissed. The Delmas Four refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court, maintaining that they were involved in a war against the Apartheid government that justified their being treated as prisoners of war. The consequence of this was that none of the evidence was tested by cross-examination and that the confessions were admitted by the judge, despite bearing many tell-tale signs of coercion. The compliant role of the magistrates who took the confessions is exposed, as is their abject failure to investigate clear indications of mistreatment.

Once the accused had been convicted of the charges, they faced the prospect of the death penalty for murder and lengthy prison sentences for the other offences. After the most anxious deliberation their families instructed counsel to lead evidence in mitigation of sentence. The testimony of the witnesses, including that of the Oxford-trained history professor, Colin Bundy, set out in convincing detail the reasons why activists resorted to violence in South Africa and why it was far less reprehensible than the kind resorted to by common criminals. Particularly interesting were the parallels drawn with the Boers' violence directed at achieving their liberty, and that of other nations in the world, when confronted with imperial or colonial powers. The picture that emerges is a convincing one and the cross-examination by the State does little to undermine the very positive response of the enlightened Judge de Klerk. So impressed was he by the quality of the account that he voted against the death penalty but was defeated by his two assessors who voted in favour.

The presence of the Delmas Four on death row with Almond Nofomela, a member of the Apartheid death squad led by Dirk Coetzee, opens up the can of worms of the atrocities caused by them. As a result of the revelations of Coetzee and others, the Harms Commission was appointed to investigate the existence of death squads and their activities. The book deals with the appearance of Coetzee in London before that Commission and his mauling at the hands of the lawyers acting for the Security Police and the judge.

A parcel bomb was later sent to Coetzee's address in Zambia, purportedly by Bheki Mlangeni, a partner in Harris's law firm and his assistant at the trial. Coetzee rejected the parcel and it was sent back to Bheki with tragic consequences. The manner in which this horrific episode is dealt with in the book is very dramatic, with details of the manufacture, testing and transmission of the bomb being spaced out from the start of the account.

Particularly evocative in this book are the poetic and poignant descriptions of the characters and situations in which they find themselves. The writing is sparse and yet compelling, with a total absence of the purple prose indulged in by some. The richness of the author's accounts of visits to the jail, including weighing sessions on the doctor's scale, and table tennis games, lends credibility and humanity to a tale which might otherwise easily become overlaid with legalese. The author downplays his own courage in taking on the case and offers numerous asides that candidly expose his own vulnerability at tense moments in the drama.

In the end, the greatest merit of the book is its exploration of the compelling ethical question whether violence is justified to achieve political ends. The author investigates effectively the dilemma faced by activists who decide to embark on killing, especially 'soft targets', including innocent civilians. The answers given to this fascinating enquiry are subtle and well reasoned and leave the reader with the impression that the author has properly grappled with them. The book is full of passion and justice and accurately portrays the role played by human rights lawyers in difficult times.
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Title Annotation:'In a Different Time'
Author:Nicholson, Christopher
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Words:1228
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