Red Dust by Gillian Slovo

I can’t remember how I came to know about Gillian Slovo, but I do recall the first book of hers that I read was Ties of Blood (1991). Since then and knowing a bit of Gillian’s history, I have made a point of collecting her books. I recently finished Red Dust (2000).

Red Dust is the story of a small South African town going through the Truth and Reconciliation process which the country underwent following the arrival of the New South Africa with Nelson Mandela as President. What is striking about the book is the way Gillian has empathetically brought various groups of South Africans together in this exploration of one of South Africa’s dark sides: the role of the secret service in the struggle. Without giving the story away, a young white female South African lawyer is brought back from New York by her mentor to represent a black male MP whose torturer has applied for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC). Gillian has clearly come a long way in her writing from the view of Publisher’s Weekly. Her characters in Red Dust are real (or perhaps they are to me who grew up in the country she speaks of).

Gillian is one of the best placed to write such a story as her parents were quite involved in the struggle against Apartheid. Her mother was Ruth First the journalist and sociologist who was killed by a letter bomb posted by the white South African government to her university office in Mozambique. And her father was Joe Slovo, one of the leaders of the SA Communist party. Living through this period of history, Ruth was just a name while Joe was presented as a terrorist. As such, and knowing there was more to South Africa’s ‘terrorists’ than what was presented, I made a point of reading Ruth’s book 117 Days about her time in solitary confinment – what a phenomenal book: a tough but must read for anyone trying to understand what one human being can do to another and the strength of others in the face of such adversity and torture. But, it was only at the event launching Ruth’s archive, 30 years after her death, that I came to know about her as a sociologist – her goundbreaking work in field research as a legitimate form of understanding social aspects. At this event, I got to hear Gillian talk about her mother and the tragic events surrounding her death. It was striking how after listening to a day of people talking about her mother, Gillian pulled it all together in the closing session as though she was talking about a completely unrelated person yet it was clearly personal as she shed light on what it was like growing up in a family with two such prominent parents. Gillian was therefore well aware of the reality of the secret service police as experienced by her mother and others of the ANC and Communist Party who were friends. Her being white, also exposed her to the beliefs and fears the general population would have faced and the conviction some whites had about protecting the state against the onslaught of communism. By all accounts Gillian would also have experienced some of the challenges faced by the young female lawyer returning ‘home’ and having to face how society had changed during her time away from South Africa.

The questions most prominent throughout this book on reconciliation are:
what is truth?
do we ever get to know the real truth? and
does truth set you free as promoted by the TRC

Gillian provides the human face and feelings of individuals involved in the TRC as opposed to Antjie Krog’s Country of my Skull which tells the story of the TRC. Both accounts are of use to the historian trying to understand the past – especially one they might not have experienced: a good example for understanding some aspects of the First World War in East Africa being the autobiographical Marching on Tanga and the fictional Jim Redlake both by Francis Brett Young.

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