Read of the Week

The Knock on the Door – The Story of the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee

Terry Shakinovsky and Sharon Court

Picador Africa

Review: Simoné* De Bruin-Fortuin

As I’m putting the finishing touches to this book review, I am struck by the significance of the date – February 2. The date the mighty apartheid regime capitulated and announced the unbanning of political parties and the freeing of political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, in 1990.

I remember it was a hot Friday, two weeks before my 17th birthday, and we came from all over the townships and the suburbs to protest on the Grand Parade. Shortly after getting there, we got hold of the morning edition of The Argus, announcing in fat lettering “ANC unbanned”.

It was a victory for the masses, some of whom paid the ultimate price for our first taste of freedom.

It was also an acknowledgement that the sacrifices of the many, many detainees across South Africa, who had been tortured and brutalised by the apartheid police, eventually forced this merciless state machinery to its knees.

The Knock on the Door – The Story of the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee, which is being released this month, pays homage to these detainees,their parents, spouses and families who made public the brutal operations of the security establishment.

In the foreword, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu says the book tells the story of how people crossed all divides to find their common humanity and make their unique contributions. “The story is also remarkable because of how they fought: quietly, but with a voice heard across the world.”

The Detainees’ Parents Support Committee (DPSC) was started in 1981 in Johannesburg by the parents, spouses and families of activists who were detained and had no recourse to legal intervention.

Branches and similar structures soon spread to other parts of the country. Many in this movement had not been politically involved.

Members of the DPSC stood on street corners with placards calling for the release of their children. With the help of many people who supported the liberation movement, they organised food, clothing and legal representation for detainees across the country, and they supported the detainees’ families. DPSC activists marched, petitioned, argued, wrote and protested for the release of all detainees. The DPSC helped to draw international attention to the atrocities being perpetuated against children – some as young as 9 – by the apartheid state. The evidence amassed by the DPSC also helped to lay some of the groundwork for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

While reading this book, I was reminded of a letter a close friend of mine had written to us from Pollsmoor Prison where she was detained without trial.

An excerpt from the letter, dated September 23 1989, reads: “I am dying to be on the outside world. Being in here is not easy but don’t worry I’m keeping strong.” Before Pollsmoor she was kept in a police holding cell in solitary confinement where, she says, “I counted ants to keep sane.”

The Knock on the Door is an inspiring account of ordinary people coming together to stand up against racism and the abuse of power. But it is also heart-wrenching in its accounts of the torture of those in detention and those opposing the apartheid state.

I dare those who believe it is time for us to forget the past and move on, to make such an inane comment again after reading this book.

As Mohammed Timol, brother of Ahmed Timol who was murdered by the security police in 1971, says: “This is an important book because it tells of a fight that is still ongoing, a fight for the truth.”