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Margie Orford

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How I was detained and charged with treason as a student in 1985

I have written an article for the Guardian about the time I was arrested, detained and charged with treason for my involvement in a protest against PW Botha’s state of emergency in 1985:

On 20 July 1985, PW Botha, then-president of South Africa, declared a state of emergency in the areas around Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape. The police were given unlimited powers of arrest and detention without trial. It was the beginning of apartheid’s long and violent endgame.

One afternoon in October of the same year, a friend stops by. The state of emergency has been extended to the Western Cape, she says. I must come. There’s a protest march at the University of Cape Town. I have been involved in student politics (writing, protesting, marching) since 1983, so I abandon the Romantic poets – preparation for my final exams – and we drive up to the university. The police are on one side of De Waal Drive, the protesting students on the other. We hold up placards – mine says Stop the State of Emergency – as the indifferent commuter traffic heads for the cocooned southern suburbs.

I watch the cops. I don’t like tear gas. “Five minutes to disperse!” yells the bull-necked officer, but the police are already charging. Everybody runs. I look back. There’s a cop gaining on me. His skin is raw from shaving and acne. I pass out.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    September 5th, 2011 @18:04 #
     
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    Quite an engrossing - and chilling - account, Margie, thanks.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 6th, 2011 @10:27 #
     
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    There was a certain kind of grisly humour associated with those days, which I think would make an interesting subject in literature. A kind of security-policeman-hands-out-a-banning-order-and-then-steps-outside-straight-into-a-cowpat humour. e.g. I remember once sitting once in a room full of swapo people who were recollecting being sjambokked at a political rally by the cops and laughing uproariously at the memory - while the single sa visitor in the room sat growing paler and more shockled with every word. It's always interested me: where did that laughter come from?

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Ben - Editor</a>
    Ben - Editor
    September 6th, 2011 @12:42 #
     
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    Kelwyn, South Africans' tendency to laugh at pain - literally, and often self-deprecatingly - is something I've heard flagged (as "barely credible but quite true") at least a dozen times since settling here, by observers as diverse as novelists and radio djs. It's the done thing!

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    September 6th, 2011 @23:54 #
     
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    It did not feel so funny at the time. to me. Next time I will look for the funny - although the philosophy questions were entertaining.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 7th, 2011 @08:34 #
     
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    Ben, I think you're correct: there's something a little - masochistic? - about this process. But I am reaching for something I don't quite understand, here ... that extreme situations bring out unexpected responses. And, yes, Margie, one is terrified: I'm not trying to belittle that. But I witnessed, for example, the security-policeman-meets-cowpat scene, and it was very very funny: although one kept the laughter for safely afterwards. Laughter is a way of cutting one's opponent down to size - it shouldn't be underestimated.

    Maybe incongruous is a better word than funny - apartheid was, after all, bizarre and grotesque in its manifestations, even though it did of course have an underlying nasty, racist/cheap-labour rationality. Which was fraying by the 1980s anyway.

    I think that, if one has experienced extreme situations, they change one's personality. One can even become addicted to danger, to living on knife edges (this is not a good thing - excellent Schlondorff film about this, can't remember the name).
    The 1980s did this to some people. At some point, whether rightly or wrongly, extreme political situations get transferred in some people's minds to an existential issue - i.e. our life is like this at present; so all life is like this. We are still living with the legacy of this worm in people's minds, I think (I think e.g. Serote's first novel, To Every Birth, shows how apartheid can become blurred with the existential in people's understanding, in his main character in part one).

    But mainly I am wondering whether we don't need to look at the decades leading up to liberation with a fresh eye. My own feeling is that we're in a logjam - a crisis - now; Gordimer was wrong, now is the time of morbid symptoms in my book. This is partly because we have been talked into stock responses to our past - a la party loyaltists, or a la cultural nationalists, or a la religious salvationalists - speaking personally, I'm sick of them all.

    For me, this is where literature should come in.... . But.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    September 7th, 2011 @14:13 #
     
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    This is a fine piece, Margie. I remember that march -- I could so easily have been the one in the cell, and I would never have coped as well as you -- I had my own Pollsmoor horror story at 20 a few years earlier (different set of politics), and went completely to pieces.

    Re that march, I remember a security policeman pointing and laughing at my legs, exposed because I was using my skirt to wipe my teargassed eyes (I was still naive, hadn't yet learned to light a cigarette at that first whiff of teargas). There was something about all that naked power and overt racism that sharpened the edge of gender domination, and not enough folk have written about that, IMHO, and to get back to Kelwyn's point...

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    September 8th, 2011 @10:47 #
     
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    This line - 'I am fine, apparently' - so much could be said about that.

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  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    September 8th, 2011 @12:36 #
     
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    I think Serote gets it right in 'To Every Birth' about the nature of the fear, when one of the novel's characters thinks that "they can do anything at all" to his brother in detention. It's the fact that one's totally in another's power: and that that person is malign, perhaps slightly crazy. (Carolyn Forche realises in El Salvador that 'there is no thing that one person will not do to another').

    The most fear I remember is something that wasn't being re being face-to-face. There is I think also a 'what if' fear (for want of a better word) and it's oddly enough as visceral as any other form. e.g. When I was being hassled, the Windhoek SP played good-cop-bad-cop with me. The guy who was the 'good cop' used to be all cheerful and hail-fellow-well-met ("Hi, kelwyn, how're you doing?"). I almost got to like him, if that's not too weird (well, not really!). Years later back in Jhb, I'm reading about some cops on trial, and he's one - they had tortured people by braaing them over an open fire in Caprivi. Reading that, years later, I have never felt such fear, before or since.

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