Radical Middle: Extraordinarily self-reflexive and satirical

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Radical Middle Confessions of an Accidental Revolutionary
Author: Denis Beckett
Publisher: Tafelberg
ISBN: 9780624049128
Price: R162.95

Beckett’s autobiography, Radical Middle Confessions of an Accidental Revolutionary (2010), has echoes of Breytenbach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1984). One may designate both narratives “meta-autobiographical” because of their extra self-reflexivity on the very process of life-writing. Where Breytenbach recounts the years leading to his seven-and-a-half-year imprisonment at the hands of the apartheid state, the debilitating years of confinement and the post-imprisonment trauma, Beckett relates his yearning to “fight the good fight for a better South Africa” which resulted in his getting a job at the Rand Daily Mail and “writing about iniquities in the macrocosm [rather than] going to the Bar and fighting against inequities in the microcosm” (16). There is, however, an ideological chasm between Beckett and Breytenbach. Where Breytenbach’s vision of a South Africa he is fighting for remains opaque to say the least, Beckett’s clarity of vision borders on what he himself admits may be viewed as naivety. He writes: “I am unabashedly dogmatic on the principle that fuller democracy is the route of the future” (226-7).

Radical Middle recounts how Beckett, a lawyer by training, defects to journalism before he could even practise law. Beckett presents his becoming a journalist as the conscious act of an anti-apartheid activist choosing the best possible front to fight the war. As he puts it, “whether to fight was not the question” (16); rather, the question was where and how. In Beckett’s case, fighting a good fight meant staying on in apartheid South Africa and practising uncompromising cutting-edge journalism. For Beckett, being a “radical middle revolutionary” meant taking a job as a journalist with The Star newspaper as an assistant to the manager. This was a “radical” job because it involved being responsible “for personnel matters relating to the African staff” (16). Upon getting this job Beckett initiates a workers’ union for the 300 black employees of the newspaper. These are people who, until then, had never freely elected a representative who could present their grievances to white management. Beckett also tells of how he went on to start and run some literacy classes for these black employees and how he clandestinely but unsuccessfully tried to fight for the rights of dismissed black cleaners.

Beckett’s book can therefore be read as an account of how the South African print media came to be increasingly under the stifling censorship of the apartheid state from the early 1970s up to the time when FW de Klerk “killed” apartheid by “declaring the New South Africa open” (217) in 1990. Having worked for most of Johannesburg’s leading newspapers during the 1970s, Beckett is in the best position to relate South Africa’s liberal press’s troubled history. While some editors reconciled themselves “to the inevitability of the armed struggle” in South Africa, when he became editor of the Weekend World in 1976, through his leaders, Beckett’s objective was to deter violence “by counteracting the causes of violence [by] making the revolution unnecessary by getting the government to change policy” (44). But this is a position that brought him head on with South Africa’s apartheid political leaders. For example, Prime Minister John Vorster and Minister of Justice and Police Jimmy Kruger labelled Beckett’s journalism and anything similar to it “shocking” and irresponsible, and relentlessly attacked the Weekend World and other media houses. Beckett indicates that throughout the turbulent 1970s and 1980s all self-respecting publications lived in fear of being issued with a super ban, which meant the banning of an edition of newspaper or magazine “and all [its] subsequent editions” (61).      

The bulk of Radical Middle is an account of the birth of Beckett’s Frontline magazine, the reasons it failed to be a profitable business in its 11 years of publication, and its eventually demise in December 1990. The logic that animates Radical Middle is that Frontline was a vanguard magazine in so far as radical liberal anti-apartheid activism was concerned. It is through his editorship of this besieged magazine that Beckett is able to give the reader a microcosm of the bigger struggles that beset liberal publications during the last two decades of the apartheid regime.

But Radical Middle is also more than a record of the founding and demise of Frontline. Beckett says the book is his “answer to posterity’s proverbial question, ‘What did you do in the war, daddy?’” (8). For him that war was the anti-apartheid war. Beckett writes: “Anti-apartheid was a rite of passage in my catchment. We were brought up anti-apartheid, although we didn’t know what that meant and neither did our elders” (12). This statement is illustrative of Beckett’s narrative style. Not only does he criticise the architects and supporters of apartheid, he also satirises those who purportedly opposed it, including himself. He derides white liberals’ apparently contradictory anti-apartheid logic of wanting to give “the Natives” a vote but not “a whole vote at once” (13).

Beckett indicates that this was not the only way that liberal anti-apartheid whites showed a lack of commitment to the cause of racial and political equality in South Africa. A significant number chose to “fight” the system by migrating to New Zealand, Australia and other countries. Beckett quips: “Every year, the Christmas card list was showing more foreign addresses and fewer local ones” (15). He views these individuals as defectors from the anti-apartheid war and calls their decision an act of “betrayal” (12).

His patriotic commitment to South Africa is expressed candidly in the section titled “Afterword, 2010”, where he writes: “We’re still South African. We’re going nowhere. Our kids haven’t left, even. I love the place, I love the people” (223).Viewed this way, Radical Middle recounts Beckett’s heroism of staying in the “battle zone”. It commemorates those white people who, like Beckett, remained, and still remain, in the “frontline” while many others were and are opting for the “sidelines” (222).

Beckett’s style is extraordinarily self-reflexive and satirical. He realises that an autobiography is an attempt to give form and plot to a life which was and is still very fluid. He writes: “It sounds neat and planned as I write it two decades later” (23). He is aware that his life was largely a reaction to random events rather than being a well-orchestrated script that appears written in the pages of his narrative. His style is also often playful, self-deprecating, but compact. This may make it inaccessible to those interested in less dense and plot-oriented narratives uncluttered with ideological musings. However, for the serious reader interested in the turbulent recent history of South Africa, its evolving present and still anxiety-provoking future, Radical Middle is recommended reading.

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