- Askari: a story of collaboration and betrayal in the anti-apartheid struggle by Jacob Dlamini
With the publication of Jacob Dlamini’s Askari the historiography of the South African post-apartheid transition has – in its own good time – come of age. Building on Dlamini’s first book, Native Nostalgia (2009),1 it also announces the arrival of perhaps our first major post-apartheid historian.
The post-apartheid transition has not lacked for chroniclers and analysts of various kinds. Unsurprisingly the political drama of the anti-apartheid struggle and the ‘miraculous’ (and inherently contested) achievement of a negotiated settlement generated a profusion of diverse historical accounts and assessments: investigative journalists such as Patti Waldmeir and Allister Sparks sought to unravel the ‘inside stories’ of the constitutional negotiations; in edited collections like Steven Friedman’s The Long Journey and The Small Miracle political analysts, social scientists and constitutional lawyers provided detailed analyses and case studies of key events and aspects of the transition; a range of leading participants – from Mandela and de Klerk to Mac Maharaj and Niël Barnard – published their political memoirs or were the subjects of (authorised) biographies; commentators and analysts located the political transition in relation to the underlying structures and available options for the political economy. However, the post-apartheid transition still awaited its historians. There certainly were many and sustained attempts to elaborate and celebrate the master narrative of apartheid oppression and liberation struggle though more as a political and ideological project than as a critical interrogation of the historical evidence. By and large, historians have also tended to keep their distance from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) ambitious enterprise of ‘dealing with [End Page 133] the past’ focusing on victims and perpetrators of gross violations of human rights as an exercise of transitional justice and ‘reconciliation’. But if they are no longer as committed to the ‘radical’ or ‘liberal’ frameworks which invigorated historical research and debates through the 1970s and 1980s, and sceptical of quasi-official attempts to recast history in the service of post-apartheid nation-building, historians have also not yet taken on the challenge of conceptualising alternative approaches which might open up new historical perspectives on the post-apartheid transition itself.
In this connection Dlamini’s Native Nostalgia (2009), provided an intriguing and provocative exception. On the face of it, Native Nostalgia might appear a relatively slight and somewhat idiosyncratic work. By exploring the unlikely paradox that, without in any way denying the grim realities of oppression and exploitation, black South Africans do in fact also remember their lives in townships under apartheid with a certain fondness Dlamini posed a provocative challenge to the master narrative of black dispossession. His implicit and explicit target was the distorting fiction of ‘homogeneous black suffering’, ie that ‘black South Africans lived, suffered and struggled the same way against apartheid’ (2009:18, 21,113, etc). As against the conventional struggle narrative he asserted both that ‘black South African life is shot through with gender, class, ethnic, age and regional differences’ (2009:18) and also that ‘there were bonds of reciprocity and mutual obligation, social capital that made it possible for millions to imagine a world without apartheid’. On both counts the moral was that ‘the freedom of black South Africans did not come courtesy of a liberation movement’ (2009:13). Already in Native Notalgia Dlamini noted that his revisionist account challenged the conventional binary of heroic resistance to apartheid as opposed to dastardly collaboration: ‘There was a fine line between resistance and collaboration. It was never simply a case of resisters on this side and collaborators on the other. Sometimes, the two were one and the same person’ (2009:8). However, at this stage he did not yet put the phenomenon of collaboration centre stage. The monstrous figure of Joe Mamasela, who figured so prominently in the TRC hearings on apartheid death squads, got only a passing mention: ‘Mamasela represents the spectacular side of apartheid. He represents police brutality, government death squads and state graft.... The truth is that the...