Songs & Secrets – Book Review

The book, Songs & SecretsSouth Africa from Liberation to Governance, by Comrade Barry Gilder (aka Jimmy Wilson) is music in textual form. Its secrets are hidden in text between the lines after the chapter Interlude; appropriately named in the middle of the book. Comrade Barry was an anti-Apartheid musician artist turned MK (Umkhonto weSizwe – ANC military wing) guerrilla and underground operator with skills to “photograph a report and reduce it to a micro-dot to be disguised as the dot on an ‘i’ in an otherwise innocuous letter.”

The narrative begins in January 1976 when he was winding up his tenure as NUSAS (National Union of South African Students) cultural officer. To have the book published Barry had to get a go-ahead from, Siyabonga Cwele, the Minister of Intelligence in 2008. Had he composed his narrative as an opera, we, who can read but have no ear for fine sounds, would have lost so much. Asked why he did not do so, probably Barry would answer, because he cannot compose music in that complex form. Notwithstanding the humility, in the Author’s Note he ventures to say “The author hopes that this work, albeit modestly, may add to the efforts of the crew to locate and repair the leaks, perhaps briefly to dry-dock and anti-foul the rudder and hull, and to plot a course to intersect once more with the true course originally laid out for it.” So the book’s objective is to pinpoints oversights and miscalculation in the manner the struggle was conducted or rather, more to the point, mishaps in implementing the movement’s revolutionary agenda such that, hopefully, remedial action can be instituted.

A tall order indeed Comrade Barry sets himself here. He intends to achieve it by “..rise[ing] above current adversarial discourse about whither South Africa and provide insights into the realities of the journey from liberation movement to government.” With artistic subtlety in the subsequent sentence he trims down this objective and writes, “He seeks to do this, however, largely through his own experience of this journey.” Thus, as a traveller on this journey, Barry sets the parameters to give an analytical account of the encountered twists and turns, highs and lows, through his limited vision – determined by his position in the bus as he peers through the window.

This he does elegantly as a musician and writer. In the Prelude he recalls, “My right hand blurs with the strings, strumming out the persistent rhythm of the song, my left hand trilling the strings as I change chords … I wonder how they [audience] are receiving this performance. Some years ago I adapted this song from the one sung by Richie Havens at Woodstock in 1969.” Very early in the story Barry acquaints his readership with his attitude to life. Like the hippies who turned their backs on the stiff modes of life, Barry Gilder sets to recount how and why he turned his back on white privilege.

In 1968 at the age of 17 he did his compulsory nine-month military service with SADF (South African Defence Force). In 1976 when he was winding up his tenure at NUSAS, SADF served him with call-up papers for ‘special’ camp, which meant “joining the troops that were pouring into southern Angola,” as SADF invaded the country. He opted to leave the country. In London he opted to join MK (Umkhonto weSizwe – military wing of the ANC, African National Congress). The argument he put is, “If South Africa was to belong – as the ANC’s Freedom Charter puts it - to all who live in it, then those of the all who chose to fight for that ideal certainly had no right to leave the more dangerous fighting to only a part.” Thus he became the first white member of the ’76 generation of ANC exiles to go for training in MK camps in Angola, and took to the journey of actualising his own redefinition as a partisan of the liberation struggle that was going on in his country.

Objectively, Black-White identity issues feature as a strain running the gauntlet of the book. On his arrival in Luanda he cringed when a comrade offered to leave their hotel room to afford him and Ronnie Kasrils a chance to catch up on their re-union. Inside Barry’s mind flashed the perception: “The white men stay to drink while the black man is exiled to the streets.” Again in the second half of the book, when Comrade Ronnie was asked to tip him on a perceived too close a relationship with the then Minister of Home Affairs, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Barry queries, “Why did Mbeki choose this particular messenger? Did he believe that the message would have been better received if delivered by a fellow white man – a fellow cadre of Jewish extraction? Did he believe there was some sort of special relationship between Ronnie and me?”

In simple terms Barry says there’s no special relationship that existed between him and other white men in the struggle based on the colour of their skins.

By the virtue of his white background, yet unbiased standpoint, he offers insightful perspectives to race relations. At the start of his training in Quibaxe Camp he writes, “I begin to feel the first tinges of the individualism I had carried with me across the frontier begin to melt, to be absorbed into this pulsating collective that would become my organic home for the year-and-a-half ahead and onwards.” Because of the class-race relationships in the Apartheid structure, the individualism he refers to is individualism that is linked to his white middle-class background.

At the end of his training he says, “Leaving Quibaxe in mid-1980 was like leaving the womb. Indeed a new person had been born here. My intellectual political understanding had been shaped into a precise tool of experiential understanding and analysis. My middle-class individualism had been cleansed with the blood-flow of the collective... My guilt and hesitancy around people of darker hue had been washed away.” In chapter To The Front, when he was recruited by the ANC chief of intelligence, Comrade Mzwai Piliso, to set up a specialist intelligence machinery, concentrating on recruiting and running white intelligence agents. He says the move made perfect operational sense, except for the fact that “It’s just that I don’t want to be white again.” Whilst the average aboriginal African may not wish to be white, many demand to be treated in a manner similar to how people of Europeans-stock are treated and perceived. Barry had rejected those standards.

If there ever were grounds for him to feel guilty for Apartheid and its prescripts, as he admits – a consequence of collective guilt, guilt by circumstances beyond his control – then the episode he recounts wherein a fellow camp mate admonished another mate for not seeing that Barry was a ‘Black man’ must have demolished those guilt-pangs once and for all:

“– Hawu, comrade! Don’t you know Comrade Jimmy? Are you blind? Can’t you see that he is a black man?!”

Simply classic! With typical Barry humour, he goes on to relate why the recording officer Kitso gave him the name James Wilson:

“ - You see, Comrade Jimmy, before I left the country, when I was still very young, I worked as a gardener for a white family in Johannesburg. They were very good to me. Their name was Wilson. So I named you after them.


Somewhere during the course of that year and a half period, a soldier in a neighbouring camp shoots a buffalo and the two camps share the meat. After a member of the kitchen staff delicately forks a piece of meat onto Barry’s plate, he stares at it, “It is by four centimetres by three across ... I hold my plate close to my chest as I slink off into a corner like a dog that has got hold of a bone. I sit on the ground, leaning my back against the wall of a building, my knees drawn up in front of me, the plate carefully secured in the frame between thighs and chest.” After he had disposed of the rice and gravy, his “small cube of meat sits alone in the centre of my plate... I first suck on it for a moment and then begin to chew.  My teeth bite immediately into something hard. Shit! My tooth nearly breaks... I take the piece of meat out of my mouth and inspect it... Inside I find an AK bullet... Of all the pieces of flesh of a whole half-a-buffalo, I get the piece with one of the two bullets that killed it! I jump and run to the kitchen [to get another piece]” only to be told the meat is finished. Now, if Comrade Pallo Jordan, after hearing Barry dare Mahlathini to shine with the words ‘Dlala Mahlathini’, was left with lingering doubts as to Barry Gilder’s transformation into an MK bush-trained guerrilla, Jimmy Wilson, this incident surely laid to rest any reservations.

The climax in the first half of the book comes when he returned to the camps in Angola from Botswana, where he was then the regional chief in the Department of Intelligence and Security. This time around he is M’china, the leadership that interviewed and took trained soldier to the front, the one place most soldiers wanted to go: “I arrived at the camp in the car with Chris Hani, national commissar of MK. As we come to a halt there is a lot of standing to attention, saluting and opening of doors for us. I feel very special.” Earlier commenting on a visit to regional resident in Luanda he say, “In Res 1 I can now sit at the dining table with the other leaders without feeling out of place. I am also a leader. I am no longer plain Comrade Jimmy. I am Commandier Jimmy.” At Caculama Training Camp he put on his M’china face and addressed the detachment, doing his best to emulate Comrades Mzwai Piliso, Joe Gqabi, Chris Hani. When he was done, “Suddenly a voice from near the back of the crowd shouts out: Swim Makana! Bring Comrade Jimmy a guitar!  It was back to the old days. His music had lived on in the camps in the seven years that he was at the frontline. Humbled, he composed himself, “I sing, hesitantly at first, warming to the occasion as the audience encourages me and, surprisingly, sings along to the choruses.”

The insights he mentions in the Author’s Note are largely contained in the second part. In chapter On South Africa’s Secret Service in which services he worked as deputy-director-general in South Africa Secret Service and National Intelligence Agency he says, “Although we were creating a new service, we had no choice but to do so on the foundation of the Apartheid statutory service...We had to accept those from the old service who had elected to stay on.” He goes on to talk of ‘co-option’ and says it was a “swear word to us revolutionaries, but as no one actually used the word we did not see it coming and perhaps did not recognise it when it did... Thus were many of us drawn, almost imperceptibly, into the world of wealth, privilege and influence.

When as a new senior in a position to access past files and he sought to see the file the former intelligence service had kept on him, he was told there was no file on him. Upon investigation it emerged that the intelligence and associated services, the police and military had systematically destroyed all records of their operations; carried out “wholesale obliteration of history.” Meaning our much lauded miraculous transformation was “based on incomplete records of the past, on an incomplete and imperfect reconciliation.”

On top of the destroyed records, inherited Apartheid apparatus to govern the country, going forward, in the interest of reconciliation, Tata Mandela and later Mbeki gave the Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a crucial ministerial portfolio, Home Affairs. For the ten years the chief was at the helm there the department did not carry out a transformatory agenda. As if the external challenges were not enough, conflicting interest among comrades emerged: “These days if you gather together a group of South Africa’s directors-general and of a liberation movement background around a table, you can be certain that the conversation will soon turn to war stories. Not of exploits in the struggle against Apartheid, but of tales of conflict with their political heads, their ministers, in the democratic government.”

If this casts too gloomy a picture, trust Barry to make a joke out of it. A scene between him and a comrade from the trenches in Angola and frontline state:

“He [his comrade] grabs my arm, spilling a little of my whisky. He ignores his tears. Perhaps he has some pride in them... He pauses and only now wipes the tears, but only from one side of his face with the back of his hand.

-       If I have to resign from NIA, he continues, to join a [ANC] branch and help to give leadership, maybe I should.

He pauses again and a look of sadness in that space of sorrow beyond tears passes over his face.

-       Perhaps the problem is I have to pay off my bond and my kids’ schooling.”

For a fairly large number of MK cadres their lifelong commitment to the liberation of the oppressed majority has boiled down precisely to that: concern for jobs, income, security, settling debts, kids, pension, etc. Barry, the musician author, portrays that graphically; tragically comical in its commonplace realism. In words he says, “what we are far from winning is ideological power – the supremacy throughout our society of the ideas and values that underpinned our struggle of equality, of the primacy of the wellbeing of all people, of the innate illogic and injustice of capitalist accumulation, of the anathema of racism and tribalism and narrow nationalism, of the predatory greed and arrogance of the great imperial powers...” As the political party that shouted victory in the negotiated settlement, the liberation movement paid scant attention to ideological power. A counter argument to this point would be to assert that the ANC is and was not a socialist organisation. That argument falls flat on its face though when one considers the equally expedient manner in which clauses in its National Democratic Revolution document, the Freedom Charter, were overlooked.

Back to the book: Barry reiterates the aphorism, it is said that history is written by the victors, “But, it seems, it has not been the case in post-apartheid. We are told to stop harping on the past.” We are told this and that.

23 May 2015