‘Don’t let the free South Africa die with us’

From left are former pupil of Professor Gertrude Fester, Shireen Smith from Bellville; Yvonne Busch from Portland, Mitchell’s Plain; Professor Fester from Table View; and Anne Prince from Silvertown at the launch of Prison Notebook V2967/88.

A book launch by the national Department of Military Veterans (DMV), together with the Castle of Good Hope and author Professor Gertrude Fester has started a conversation about the forgotten stories of struggle activists, and how they can be recorded.

Professor Gertrude Fester tells her story of enduring 104 days of solitary confinement during apartheid.

Professor Fester, of Table View, launched her book Prison Notebook V2967/88 at the Centre for Memory, Healing and Learning at the Castle of Good Hope on Friday August 12.

The former political detainee tells her story of enduring 104 days of solitary confinement under the apartheid-era laws in 1988, before being brought to trial with 13 other political activists in what became known as the Yengeni Trial of 1989, and was later dubbed the Rainbow Trial.

Professor Fester, who is also a human rights activist and a lecturer at UCT’s Centre for African Studies, said putting the book together was a painful process. “I relived the trauma of solitary confinement, but I am much relieved that I’ve achieved this.”

Former pupil of Professor Gertrude Fester, Shireen Smith, of Bellville, reads an inspirational poem.

She said the idea to write the book had been coming on for years, however, the inspiration came from her time living and working in Rwanda, where, she said, the healing process after the genocide was very active.

“It was amazing to see the active engagement and this inspired me to try to start a discussion with my then torturer.”

Another ex-pupil of Professor Fester, Serena Ismail, of Mount View, reads a poem written by Professor Fester.

She said she called her then torturer to ask him for an interview, but he shouted at her and she felt herself go into “victim mode”. “After he was done, I said to him ‘I actually just want to interview you’. There, I felt I took my power back and the healing began.”

The assistant director of DMV, Michael Masala, said Professor Fester’s book was very relevant and digs deeper into the pain that the veterans and freedom fighters went through. “Imagine if you were given a name by your parents to identify you, and someone took it away and replaced it with a number? It’s the worst thing for a human.”

Professor Getrude Fester with Rosalind Isaacs from Portland in Mitchell’s Plain

He said there were many veterans who helped fight apartheid and they needed to speak about what happened to them.

“No one can tell your story better than you, because you experienced it. I urge the veterans to pen your stories – tell your stories.”

He said the book launch was part of a series of memorial lectures and launches that will take place, however, the dates were not yet confirmed. “Many people have passed without telling their stories. We will cement our history, like the statues we see of Jan van Riebeek and Cecil John Rhodes in the city, but no memories of our struggle heroes. Don’t let the free South Africa die with us.”

Dr Mildred Ramakaba-Lesiea with Sonia Mfeketo from Khayelitsha

Women rights activist and struggle stalwart, Dr Mildred Ramakaba-Lesiea, known fondly as Mme from Langa, also attended the book launch, despite her turning 90 next year. She mentioned her age in reference to the fact that veterans are dying without telling their stories.

She said the Western Cape had a rich history as part of the fight against apartheid that was not often told. She said the Grand Parade, which was a stone’s throw away from the Castle of Good Hope, should have been a national monument, as it was a large part of meetings among the activists.

She said South Africa is in a difficult space and could use lessons from the past. “Those times we had proper allies and companionship. We did it for the love of our people. This country needs more love – we don’t have this now.”

To Professor Fester, she said: “Thank you for not forgetting who you are and where you come from.”

Former premier and politician Lynne Brown, who was also detained with Professor Fester, recalled the day that Professor Fester was arrested. “We were on the run for months and we actually went to Gertrude’s mother’s home because we needed a decent place to sleep for the night. It was about 4am when we saw lights around the room – and the next thing we know, Gertrude was arrested.

“This book is a piece in the puzzle of the story about how the new South Africa was birthed, but there are many many stories yet to be told.

“We are still a young democracy and people are still very mad about many things. I believe we should transform as a society. We need to create a dialogue and space for people to talk about the trauma of the past and a space for the young people to read about it.”

Activist Yasmeena Pandy, who was also detained with Professor Fester, recalled how she would trick the prison guards by saying she was getting married into the Indian culture, and how Professor Fester had dressed her in saris and put henna on her hands in preparation for the “wedding”.

“This is how we dealt with solitary confinement and our situation at the time.”

She said in celebrating the book, there were many women being remembered and celebrated as they reflect on the darkest times in their lives. “When we were in prison, I really get to know Gertrude. We found many ways to survive, and together we made it easier for us. We had to do ridiculous things.We made lighter moments of our dark times and Gertrude brought it back with her book.”

Struggle veteran Phumzile Mnotoza said while he knew that the stories needed to be told, it will always be in the hearts of those who fought together. “Your story will never be forgotten. We know the pain of our country and it needs us to be strong.

“The fight of the people will never die on our watch.”