ASKARI is a splendid and well researched novel that seeks to expand our understanding of the nature of betrayal. It is the story of Mr. X1, (a name given to Glory Sedibe, once a respected commander of the military wing of the African National Congress, by the court to shield his identity during his testimony against his former comrades) and his journey to becoming an ASKARI (a rehabilitated or tamed terrorist).
The trial in which Sedibe testified was billed by some as South Africa’s biggest political cases since the Rivonia Trial in which Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were given life sentences to Robben Island. ASKARI is about Mr. X1’s (Glory Sedibe) metaphormosis from insurgent to counter-insurgent-from a freedom fighter to donning the mantle of a despised traitor.
Sedibe, like the majority of black youths who left the country after the Soweto riots of 1976, came from a very poor family. Though his father, Ephraim, was a teacher in the rural asbestos mining town of Penge, he barely earned enough to keep the wolf from the door. However, he inspired and impelled his sons to get an education.
The seeds of revolt in Glory Sedibe were deeply planted and long nurtured. His elder brother, Kaborone, was imprisoned for terrorism while at university. This event and the panorama of poverty in his hometown spurred the 24-year old to leave the country of his birth and join the fight against apartheid. He could have chosen the easy exile life of a student. Instead, he opted for the military route and joined uMkomto weSizwe– the armed wing of the ANC.
He received training in military intelligence from the old Soviet Union and East Germany. He rise through the ranks of MK (the military wing of the ANC) was spectacular. Though some accused him of pomposity and arrogance, he was highly regarded by many for his penetrating intellect and remarkable eloquence.
In 1986, in a daring prison raid, he was captured by the South African Police in Swaziland, brutally tortured, and turned into the perhaps the most useful collaborator the South African government ever had. With his assistance, military operations against the South African government were scuppered, several ANC internal combat units wiped out, and because of his testimony in the political show trials some of his colleagues were sent to long prison terms.
In looking at the nature of betrayal, the author graphically examines the private agony of detainees in apartheid’s inferno of torture. He examines the role that the brutal doctrine of counter-insurgency plays in the turning of a captured ‘terrorist’. This is the burning lake of torment that Sedibe found himself in when he was captured-as ‘racist sadists’ converged on him ‘like vultures on carrion.’
However, is the torture chamber the only factor in treason? The book rigorously examines the complex phenomenon of collaboration-the choice political prisoners make between collusion and death-the difference between an individual’s reach and their limits. It scrutinises why some under pain of torture and even the threat of death still refuse to denounce their political beliefs, and why others enthusiastically sold their souls.
The book also reveals how treason transformed the lives of the collaborators.
‘Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture full, will not be regained.-Amery.
Treason left an indelible mark in the character and life of Sedibe. From trying to change the world around him, he destroyed his life. He betrayed his friends and colleagues and damaged the cause he had worked for. From a gregarious and inspired revolutionary, treason turned him into an incurable alcoholic. This was a problem that grew as his service as a counter-insurgent continued.
Traitors put themselves inside a different kind of jail according to Hugh Lewin-himself betrayed to a long prison sentence by a colleague. ‘It is a jail,’ Lewin writes, ‘that had no keys. We served out sentence and were released. They bought their freedom with pieces of silver, and they would live with that knowledge for the rest of their lives.
According to Whitaker Chambers in his book Witness:
‘The horror of treason is its sin against the spirit. And for him who violates this truth there rises inevitably a black vacuity, which is in reality a circle of absolute loneliness into which neither father, wife, child for friend, however compassionate, can bring the grace of absolution.’
ASKARI is a highly readable, elegant and memorable book that illuminates the universal tragedy of betrayal. The narrative is comparable to the very best of modern non-fiction work and often transcends the goriness and carnage of its subject. One can also call the book a ‘historical novel’ since it exposes the wanton apartheid creature in all its grotesque and hideous lineaments.