Regional Programs > Africa > Next Story

Two Sides of the Story
Gertrude Fester

Day 1

What a bizarre sense of relief! No more being on the run, no more watching the rear view mirror, no more moving house every third or fourth day!

I look around to swallow my environment. I do so meticulously, as if I'm presenting an inventory to an arrogant official:

Floor-cracks, dark grey cracks in grey cement floors, mottled with blotches of dark shades of grey dirt. Beige gloss painted wall, and again light and darker blotches of dirt and where obscenities have probably been scrubbed off. Probably also phallocentric comments. Gosh, if the worst have been scrubbed off...

Faint light from the centre of the ceiling, covered with chequered wire. "Fokken manjiesligte" a fellow prisoner had shouted a few days ago probably as he too did his inventory on arrival. Small barred openings for windows, covered on either side with dust-veneered wire on either side of the bars blocking any bit of pale winter sun. I'll sit here on the cement block alongside the wall. At least I'm out of view from the 24-hour a day guard. And it's so cold. Just my luck to be detained this time of the year. And the toilet, ja ne, deliberately dehumanizing us prisoners. Imagine the toilet opposite the barred doorway, and that bloody guard sitting there smirking at me all the time because I'm an 'artickel neen-en-twintig'... Are you safe, my love? Did they arrest you later?

18 May 1987

Dear Diary
They arrested Sandra at 5 this morning. We didn't even have a chance to say goodbye. What brutality! What intimidation, with all their big guns and big boere bodies! Oh, I just have a headache thinking of it! But what about you, Sandra? Where are you? What are they doing to you? But why didn't they detain me? Is this their strategy to unnerve me? To detain you first and then me, much later? To confront me with things you supposedly had admitted? And then give each of us the impression that the one had informed on the other? Divide and triumph over us lovers? Keep strong, my love. Try to have a good night's sleep—you'll need it for interrogation tomorrow, that's if they're not interrogating you now. What a day, lawyers, priests, comrades, changing all plans, venues, going through what we'd say if one is arrested. Going through the 'Know Your Rights chart…' Are you suffering, my love? I don't want to think of what you're going through. Good night, Pumpkin.

Thanks Dear Diary for the solace you give me
In sisterhood

Day 10
So many empty hours. Well at least I can have a rest here, whatever rest means in a prison cell. Outside I would have been going from one meeting to another, doing one task after the other. Up early for the 6am pamphleteering stint at Salt River Station, dash to work, back again for a lunchtime picket...oh I really should stop crying. I can hear the keys. Wipe your tears. Don't let the enemy see that they're getting the better of you. Ah, medication time...

Gosh, I never thought this would happen to me. Even though we prepared ourselves for it. I remember that Silvermines picnic cum 'Know Your Rights Workshop'. Even the UDF wasn't allowed to meet then; how our Area Committee came up with then idea of going to restaurant-meetings, an expensive undertaking. You really had to order something to eat after five cups of coffee and three hours later.

I remember how remote all the issues seemed at the 'Know Your Rights Workshop'. We didn't actually take it too seriously, but well, just in case:

Not bad, Sandra, it has been ten days now. Listen to the questions, analyze them. Work out what they pretend to know. That's an old strategy. So glad our other comrades informed us about this when they got out. Make certain admissions to obvious things only. Pretend you're co-operating if the torture becomes too unbearable.

Ah exercise time. Not anyone can boast a private exercise yard with wired mesh on top!

12 June 1987

Dear Diary

For the third successive morning I parked outside Loop Street Security Headquarters from 6 to 8am and no sign of her. According to Joann's sister, she's being brought here for interrogation. Oh, just to see her and know that she's well. I should get a hold
of myself. I drive around aimlessly for hours. Maybe it's a solace to be alone, so that I don't have to answer so many phone calls, to comfort her family. And to listen to those macho brothers of hers, before her detention deriding her for spending so much time and energy on 'kaffirs', "Are those people worth it?" they'd ask. Oh those hypocrites made me sick! And those parents of hers! They're the pits! First the divorce and now it's politics, politics, politics! And then there's that woman friend of hers. "It isn't normal, you know. We're a decent family. God-fearing and respectable coloured people. We know our place in society. God knows best. "Mens wik maar God beskik!"

As for those sisters of hers. "You really should look after your hair. You're so lucky, you've got the straightest hair out of all of us. But you don't even blow-dry it. And no make-up. If you wore make-up you could pass for white." And here I am. Her lover for ten years, longer than her marriage lasted—unnoticed, unacknowledged, unsupported. Well, at least this anger gives me strength. How are you, my sweets? Keep strong and well, my love.

Goodnight, pumpkin

Day 30
Have faith, Sandy, they can't keep you here for more than six months. Yes, THEY CAN! THEY CAN RENEW THE SECTION 29!

I'm just another statistic. What is it now? 35 women in Section 29? Is there speculation about where I'm being held? Do they talk about me? Do you miss me, sweets? Maybe I'm mentioned at support group meetings or at a political rally focusing on women political detainees? It's quite ironic, my sitting here. How often have I made
speeches stating: "We demand their unconditional release! Section 29 is a Draconian law. Detainees are held who knows where, cutting people off from their loved ones and families." (I'II make a point of saying loved ones!)

Dear God, where is she? Is she well? Or detained? Why did Old Le Fleur say that I should make my sister power of attorney and not Madge, he knows how close we were. Where is she Lord? Please God, keep her safe from these brutes.

The Lord's my Shepherd, I shall not want... Tho' I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no ill. I shall fear no ill...I shall fear no ill. Is this your way of punishing me? You, God of Love I must get out of here. I must. I cannot stand it. I can't breathe,
I can't breathe!

Day 40
What a stupid way to have acted! Imagine being shy and hiding the handcuffs. There I was being escorted, by my two security police. Passers-by give me casual glances.
But everyone's really too busy with their own lives. What a rat race! They do not see how eagerly I'm taking in their faces, even smiling occasionally, and yet, being shy. My track top partially obscures my handcuffs. And I see a familiar face. Granted I don't know him very well, having seen him on the other side of the pews at church. He's walking on the other side of the street. His face creases into a smile. I return the smile. Why am I shy? Does he know I'm a detainee? Does he read newspapers? He doesn't know I'm under Section 29. He probably doesn't even know what it is! That's the problem with some of these Christian types. Everything's God's will so that they can ensconce in their political apathy! How does it go again? Yevtoshenko's 'Telling lies to the young is wrong, telling them that God's in his heaven and all's well with the world is wrong...'

Let's reschedule the roster for the day. After exercising there's Poetry Time. I'm quite impressed with myself. Doing all that in my head. Back to the roster: then I'll wash my clothes. And then I'II hang my clothes on top of the bed frame instead of on the bars of the door. Let's see what that old Jantjies has to say when I obscure her view of me on the fucking toilet! t

1 August 1987

Dear Diary

Today I feel even more depressed. I've just come from a Church Service for the families of detainees—note FAMILIES! I feel empty with humiliation and pain. Imagine, I was questioned by her lawyer why I was lighting the candle for her. My eyes welled up with tears. He knew about my relationship with her. Fortunately Jenny overheard this and told me to go ahead. Still, lighting the candle afterwards meant nothing to me after that. I need to take a good look at myself. Why can't I operate without her? Maybe this is a blessing in disguise: I have to fend for myself. Does it mean that I became too dependent on her, despite our alternative relationship? I don't even know where to pay the car. I have to administer business and I'm at a complete loss. Have I allowed myself to become a 'passive wife'? I who started the youth club, the teenage magazine, the study aid club, co-ordinator of the women's groups...

Oh, you'd hate me sweetie, but your family's so bloody selfish, they boss over your things. We had a joint banking account and you make your sister power of attorney! Fuck you too... Oh, what the hell. I'm too depressed to write any longer. I must be getting hooked on these sleeping pills.

Night Now

Day 60
This fucking Jantjies really irritates me. She's a bloody arse-creeping coloured, yes,
COLOURED! Sycophantic, servile, servant! Probably ingratiating herself for fucking promotion. I suppose. Of all the guards, she's the only one who insists that I sit on the bed so that she can see me all the time. "Hoekom?" vra ek. "Omdat Kaptein so sI!" I have to sit there and see this sell-out fucking coloured police-woman. Imagine all the other fucking boere, blue-eyed, blue-eye shadowed guards simply sit with their one-pearl-one-plain or Rooi Rose which they hide when their superiors come. I'm sure they must be bored too. Watching this terrorist all day long. But this fucking coloured bitch... (sjoe, Sandy, don't use such sexist language, you're always admonishing others not to speak like that) Yes she's a bitch, BITCH, bitch, bitch...oh stop all this crying, fucking crying all the time! Don't let them do this to you! She's a fucking bitch, bitch...Oh God, where are you? Please be with me and comfort me. Oh God, even you've left me...I've never been so lonely in all my life. Now I'm left alone with this bitch, BITCH...

Pull yourself together, man. Come on, say one of your poems or sing your songs, you're so fond of singing.

I'm so alone and very very cold
What are you doing out there in the sun?
It's part of life this struggle and strife
With me in here and you out there
Winnie and Nelson have been apart long
Irene and Wilson had no nuptial bed
And all their courage and commitment too
Inspires me, so strong I'II be.
I'm so alone and very very cold...

I'm sure there were 5 verses. One with other couples, then the heroines, Dora Timana, Dorothy Zihlangu...Then the women in prison, Mama Mfacu... If I could be as brave as them. But they were under Section 3. Section 29's worse! Stop feeling sorry for don't start all that tjanking again!

28 August 1987

Dear Diary

I haven't written to you for a long time. That's because I'm sorting myself out and actually living. I have moved house and am sharing with a wonderfully kind woman who listens to me while I rave about my life with Sandra. Sandra, where are you? Some say you're being kept at Ravensmead. Others say you are going to be part of a big treason trial. Have you given in to your interrogators? Sandra, have strength, my sweets! I'll support you whatever you do. Don't be too hard on yourself. Remember you are human and fallible, even though you like setting high standards for yourself. But then again, not only for yourself. For others too, especially me. And I couldn't always reach your standards. I remember how intolerant you sometimes were of me. You have-been-overseas-types are all the same. You get impatient with me if I don't understand something. We all haven't had the opportunity to study overseas, like you bourgeois Fairways coloureds. My word. Lil's brought me Milo and wonderfully fresh-
baked muffins. She's so considerate. I really like her.

Until next time, my sweet!

Day 93
Yippee! The sun's almost reached the 20th brick. If I stretch enough, I can almost reach it. How I miss the sun! How I miss life.

Keys, again! Medication time! I'm getting quite good at pretending to swallow the Voltaren. That makes 30 in my secret hiding place. I'd better find another place, they nearly were discovered during last time's search. I definitely need them in case. . .I can't stand it much longer. All I want is to get out of here. But I can't betray my comrades, there's too much at stake. They already got half of the cell before I was detained and the work must go on!

I hear someone coming. Who's that? No, it can't be you Oupa, you're Dead. Oupa you're dead! I'm seeing things . . . Madge, is that you? Come let's go for a walk on Camps Bay beach. You know how I love walking these . . . Mary, Mother of God, Please intercede on my behalf . . .Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you . . .

30 August 1987

Dear Diary

Lil and I are going to a gay club tonight again. It was wonderful dancing with her. Gone were all my problems. No state of emergency, no being on the run, no being undermined, unacknowledged, no Sandra in detention. No Sandra . . .just warm wonderful feelings. She's a friend in a million. I feel so guilty, in fact I can't even write it down! Or shouldn't in case it falls into the wrong hands. I feel whole again. I haven't felt like this in years. She's really good for my ego and she's in love with me. Lil respects me. Yes, Sandra, we've had many wonderful years but they haven't all been roses. I miss you sweetie. I'm lonely here but I suppose you're worse off inside there. Are you cold? You were always such a cold person. Love you


5 September 1987
Dear Diary

I feel shit guilty. Golly I had such a WONDERFUL time with Lil, a caring, gentle, wonderful woman! And to think I'm in love. What must I do? Sandra, how long are you going to be inside there? The lawyers have confirmed that a 7th accused will join the trial. They're convinced it's going to be you. Do you know that it'll be years before you'll get out? Be strong, woman, be brave. . . Your family has managed to track me down, so I can do them some favours naturally. They're even better than the security police, finding me out at my new hideout. Thank goodness for Lil. But why am I feeling so guilty? I must learn to consider myself for a change. By the time I get around to considering my needs, I don't have any energy left. Firstly, it's the struggle, then Sandra, then my family, then Sandra's, then the school kids, the area committee, the women's groups, Mama M, Mama H, and so on, and so on . . .What about me, ME, ME, ME!

Night now
From a new assertive

Day 100
How strange to be back here after the clinical and communicative Hospital! Gee. I'm glad I survived. Thank you God for letting me live! Now I have extra energies for those boere! I wonder why the Major wanted to know whether Barbara and Cass are lesbians? Did I give him hell! What has that to do with the security of the state? It's amazing how quickly the tables turned. I had to laugh when he reminded me that he was the interrogator and not me! That I should know my place! I am feeling much stronger now. Still a bit weak on the tummy though. Force yourself to eat woman, you musn't allow them to break you down again. Do vigorous exercises, both mentally and physically. My collection of poems is growing. Maybe I'll have enough for an anthology when. . .

Sweetheart, I am going to make love to you now. Onto my cement block in the corner, where inquisitive eyes can't see me. I wonder what she thinks I'm going to do when I fetch my pillow. Ag, they can imprison my body but not my ideas, they can rob me of my freedom, but they cannot take away the pleasure that my body can give me. Come into my arms, my love. Let me fondle you and hold you.

Gertrude Fester has worked in grassroots women's organizations most of her life and is a founder member of WEAVE. Her dream is to take herself seriously as a writer, poet, and performer.