Review of 1986 by William Dicey

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William Dicey

When I first heard that William Dicey was bringing out another book, I was delighted. I loved his youthful “quest” travelogue, Borderline, and believe his essay collection, Mongrel, is an exceptional addition to the South African canon. Under-appreciated, the latter should have won multiple awards, but it is a hard book to categorise, shape-shifting as it does between creative non-fiction, fiction, typographical wizardry and journalistic investigation. The bottom line is that Dicey could write the operating instructions to a washing machine, and I’d still read them.

So, I turned eagerly to 1986, a title with obvious Orwellian overtones. But there are no clocks striking 13 here (although both the fictional world of 1984 and apartheid South Africa featured doublespeak). In spare, almost sparse, prose (at first), Dicey strings together a chronological series of events of a year that, in hindsight, marked the beginning of the end of apartheid. Yet, it is rarely acknowledged as such, unlike milestone years such as 1976 (the Soweto uprising), 1990 (the release of Mandela) and 1994 (South Africa’s first democratic election). The book’s “chapters” are the 12 months of that year, each beginning with a scanned news clip from the first day of the month: these are often so out of touch with reality as to provide an element of wit, as well as extra layers of irony. This frame determines the momentum of the book. Often, the precursors to the events described, and their consequences, are detailed as well, which leads to a slight sense of dislocation as the narratives move backwards and forwards in time, but the material is well controlled and never becomes confusing.

To begin with, Dicey keeps editorialising and analysis to a minimum, but it soon becomes clear that the construction of the book is not the simple string of beads that first presents itself. Rather, the author reveals his skill and his insight as an archivist. His selection of events, the stories he chooses to retell (or tell for the first time), give a sense of compounding pressure leading to inexorable political change. He gathers together a dense net of information, some of it half familiar, some coming as a surprise.

The year 1986 has special meaning for me because I remember it well. I was a politically active postgraduate student in my early twenties, and, unlike Dicey himself (still at an elite boys’ school and politically uninformed, as he explains in his closing author’s note), I was aware of at least some of the cataclysmic events and protests convulsing the country at the time, even as the media was barred from reporting most of them. The brutal second state of emergency, begun in June that year, carried weight for me even as a young, white middle-class woman; I had friends who were detained indefinitely under its provisions. Other friends were in prison for refusing military conscription at a time when troops were deployed in the townships. In that year, my flat (occasionally used to shelter those evading detention) was searched, my phone tapped, my car vandalised.

The year was a singularly grim one, a long catalogue of torture, ambushes, funerals begetting more funerals, guns and grenades, murderous cross-border raids and multiple other atrocities. As I read, memories came flooding back: the collapse of the rand as the Groot Krokodil (President PW Botha) wagged his finger, the despair in opposition leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert’s words as he made his speech of resignation from Parliament, the enthroning of Desmond Tutu as the archbishop of Cape Town, the launch of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the destruction of the established squatter camp Crossroads, the bombing of Magoo’s Bar, the blacked-out sections of the Weekly Mail, the increasingly heated debates on sanctions, the death of Mozambican president, Samora Machel, in a suspicious plane crash. I remember the despair we felt as things grew steadily worse. Few in my circles had any idea that we were living through the final years of apartheid: the intransigence of the government seemed fixed in stone. As Dicey writes, “it was the last year in which civil war seemed at least as likely as a negotiated settlement”.

And then there was all the stuff we weren’t told – this was a time of clandestine arms deals, the siphoning of taxpayers’ money into slush funds (plus ça change), war in Angola (the account of a childhood experience of the current Namibian minister of justice is truly surreal), abuses in ANC exile camps, meetings with Mandela at Pollsmoor, a constant semi-surreptitious flow (from the business community, the cultural sector, lawyers and agents of the government) to visit the ANC in exile in Lusaka, Dakar and London. It was only much later, for instance, that it emerged that the reason Kobie Coetsee (then the minister of justice) visited Nelson Mandela in jail was because Winnie Mandela sat herself down next to him (in business class, nogal) during a flight to Cape Town and bent his ear.

This is a hallmark of the book that I personally found fascinating: the way Dicey returns women’s stories to the overarching narrative of that year. Supporters of the UDF, the network of anti-apartheid organisations, all knew of leader Johnny Issel’s troubles with the authorities; it wasn’t until I read Our generation (the memoir written years later by Issel’s wife at the time, journalist Zubeida Jaffer) that I realised how much she had suffered at the hands of the security police. She was married to Issel in the days when the wives of political activists were invisible (or certainly absent from public reporting) unless they needed to step up as placeholders for their struggle-hero menfolk. So, it was refreshing to find that hers was the experience recounted, and her vulnerability when detained during pregnancy highlighted.

Women’s voices echo throughout, and many are ones I know and admire: Dicey speaks of the “gumption” of chroniclers of apartheid that include Sindiwe Magona, Bridget Hilton-Barber, Elsa Joubert, Emma Mashinini, Josette Cole, Mavis Smallberg, Marion Sparg, Annemarie Hendrikz and more whose words appear on his pages.

As he carries us through a year that just kept getting worse, Dicey’s analysis becomes more complex. His trademark lyricism is kept on a tight rein, but energises many of his lines. Some of the most moving sections are when he weaves the events of the day with the words of others to remind us what everyday life was like for black citizens under apartheid. For instance, his recounting of the last hour of an elderly blind woman burned as a witch, who went trustingly to her death, is haunting and devastating, as is the intimate description of a jail visit between the teenaged MK bomber Andrew Zondo and his mother. Nelson Mandela, drinking Coke on a beach on a secret excursion with his jailor, gets the last word, speaking of how he witnessed white South Africans at play during the December holidays, apparently unaware of the clouds of smoke and tear gas almost literally on the horizon.

This is an absorbing read, but not an easy one. I was unable to sleep after reading (and remembering the events of) the sections on the infamous necklacing, a form of execution meted out to informers and collaborators, and then used increasingly without discrimination on all sides. It didn’t help that I read this at a time when battling with severe (pandemic-related) PTSD. While I firmly believe this book should be widely read, perhaps I should issue a trigger warning for all those who had first-hand experience of the events described: I found revisiting some of these scenes emotionally taxing – and I was generally at a second remove from them.

1986 is meticulously researched, and more painstakingly (if unobtrusively) referenced than many academic monographs. Both a careful and a voracious reader, Dicey cites the best writings of and about the time, pointing us to further works to visit and revisit. It is a sobering reminder of just how bad things were, and just how far we have come, no matter how delinquent our current state of affairs. It is also a tally of the things that continue to bind us: the ordinary relief of sport and music and the barbecue pit, alongside a mind-boggling past and a revolution that in the end, while far from bloodless, took place without the wholesale slaughter prophesied.

See also:

First sip: 1986 by William Dicey

First sip: Rogues’ Gallery by Matthew Blackman and Nick Dall


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