Frontline reports

30th December 1994 at 00:00
The Bondage of Fear: a journey through the last white empire, By Fergal Keane, Viking Pounds 17, 0 670 85391 7.

Fergal Keane's voice is known to many. It has conveyed some of the most vivid pictures coming out of South Africa during the extraordinary years between the release of Nelson Mandela from life imprisonment and his election as President.

Appointed as the BBC's Southern Africa Correspondent in 1990, his distinctive Irish voice has been heard coming from Parliament and conferences in major cities to back rooms in Soweto, from rural towns and Afrikaner farming communities to unlit dwellings in the urban squatter camps where one quarter of South Africa's population now struggle to survive.

The Bondage of Fear is as much about the life of a committed foreign correspondent as it is a picture of "the human consequences of life-and-death struggles as witnessed by one reporter". In Keane's radio reports we have his sketches but this book lets us see him at work in the landscape - a fact sometimes forgotten when listening to Keane's confident commentator's tone, sitting comfortably thousands of miles away. Named Amnesty International Human Rights Reporter of the Year in 1993, Keane has taken considerable personal risks to report his stories.

The risks have frequently been shared by his colleague and translator Milton Nkosi. On the way to Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital to interview people wounded before an Inkatha rally, Keane and Nkosi were themselves surrounded and threatened by a crowd of intoxicated and violent hostel dwellers. Keane could pick out only one word: inja, Zulu for "dog". They were saved by their BBC press cards and a change of mind. Nkosi told Keane afterwards the argument had been whether to kill them (the dogs) there or back at the hostel.

Momentous political history is woven in intimately with personal testimony. In his chapter "The Land of the Dead", Keane describes the last frantic hours of the apartheid puppet state Bophuthatswana - its fall unwittingly aided by a military sortie of the ultra-right in an act of "self-destructive, arrogant stupidity." Keane's close friend and colleague John Harrison was killed in a road accident while covering the same story for BBC television. For both of them, the story of South Africa's transition to democracy had become "a personal passion". Harrison "lived and breathed the story; for him it was a magical tale, a human drama in which he played the honourable role of participanthistorian."

Horrified by the massacres and waste of life, Harrison was looking forward to the elections as the biggest story of his career. In one of the intermittent passages expressively written in the present tense, Keane describes intense emotions at his friend's funeral, including a terrible anger at the country itself. "Although this is not noble to admit, I am sick of its insane and savage violence and the nightmares it gives me. As for the holy trade of the foreign correspondent - I have begun to doubt everything we represent".

The nightmares are indeed real and fearsome. How does the mind cope with constantly witnessing brutality without itself becoming brutalised and cynical? Keane recounts stories which focus the reader on the experiences of young black South Africans: the young children with rocks in their hands, the boys flaunting AK47s, the young people who have participated in necklacings are all the product of the brute force of the state and wide-scale torture unleashed on children from 1976 onwards.

The slogan evolved in those years of resistance to Bantu education and apartheid in general - "Liberation before education" - has had tragic consequences: "It was the ultimate ironic triumph of apartheid that it forced so many young people into a self-consuming madness". With mass arrests depriving communities of their most politically mature members, community organisation frequently fell into less disciplined hands.

For Keane the elections were essentially about the breaking of psychological chains and the bondage of fear: "the fear that led whites to deny the humanity of blacks, the fear that led blacks to regard whites as supermen . . . it is about healing a bloody history and claiming a gift of hope." As he himself acknowledges, this book is not an academic history or sociological treatise, but his own journey through "the last years of the white empire" to witness the experiences of ordinary people during that upheaval. As a reader I have come away with a sense of debt to people like Fergal Keane and Milton Nkosi, and others like them, who surely have to overcome their own fear in making such dangerous journeys to tell the story of those ordinary people to others.

Beverley Naidoo's new South African novel for young people, No Turning Back, will be published by Viking next year.

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