Student Comrade Prisoner Spy
Review: Brian Joss
We all have a story to tell. Although not always a good story. Hilton-Barber’s story is a story of turbulent times and one of betrayal.
And she still suffers from the aftermath, so not a good one then.
And it wasn’t only Hilton-Barber who was betrayed by Agent 407, Olivia Forsyth, but other students at Rhodes who were involved in the struggle in the Eastern Cape, where people disappeared or who were tortured and murdered by the apartheid government.
The Cradock Four, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli; the Pebco Three: Sipho Hashe, Champion Galela and Qaqawuli Godolozi; the Motherwell Four: Warrant Officer Glen Mgoduka, Sergeants Amos Faku and Desmond Mpipa, and Xolile Sakati, who were killed in a car bomb detonated by their security policeman colleague Gideon Nieuwoudt, are just some that still echo through our history.
However, Hilton-Barber skates over Forsyth’s betrayal and, in fact, there are only fleeting references to it.
Even years later when they have a conversation she doesn’t question her or confront her. Afterwards she wonders if Forsyth ever lay awake wondering what happened to the “people she knew, people who’d been thrown into the brutal and bloodied political machinery of the Eastern Cape”.
Hilton-Barber became involved in the struggle in 1982 as a journalism student at Rhodes. It is a compelling narrative and her magic way with words brings you to the heart of the action. You can feel the hopelessness and the hope of those turbulent and troubled times.
When she tramps the streets of Lingelihle you almost choke on the dust and when she describes how her friend,Chris Mbekela’s house was firebombed and how his girlfriend, Miseka Ntonyeno, got caught in the car which was engulfed in the conflagration, you can almost smell the smoke and the charred flesh.
Hilton-Barber also spent three months in detention without trial at East London’s Fort Glamorgan Prison.
Although it was hard times she recalls them with self-deprecating humour. To exorcise the ghosts of the past she takes a road trip back to the Eastern Cape to try to make sense of the political violence that engulfed the area in the 80s. This after she returned to Fort Glamorgan in 1996, the site of her incarceration. Her journey back starts when she opens a trunk full of memories.
Sadly, the trip doesn’t do much to lay the ghosts of the past, even though at the end she buries a box of memories in Cradock in “the hope of stilling the demons” that still stalk her in the night, in empty black rooms and dark corners”.
Student Comrade Prisoner Spy is a compelling read and a valuable addition to the annals of the country’s struggle history, from someone who was in the thick of it and had a first-hand view of history in the making.