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An Interview with Barry Gilder

Songs & Secrets (Jacana) 

This is the story of your life – an autobiography, intended or not?
If it was the story of my life I would have started with my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my upbringing in apartheid South Africa, my musical ‘career’,  my studies at Wits, my involvement in student politics and in Nusas, perhaps my relationships prior to exile and so on and on.  It was deliberately written as an account of the transition from liberation struggle to democratic governance and deliberately told through my experience of this transition. Of course, the story being told through my window on it, perhaps makes it – at least in part – a memoire.

The language [in Songs & Secrets] flows easily. Did the journalism of the SNS help make the effort any easier?
Perhaps it’s the songwriter in me. Songs require rhythm and cadence (and rhyme).

Do you read any spy thrillers?
Occasionally, but I prefer intelligent ones, such as John Le Carre.

Who still addresses you as Comrade Jimmy?
Well…until the book came out it was only comrades who spent time with me in exile. Now everyone who’s read the book seems to take pleasure in calling me Comrade Jimmy. But, actually, most people who’ve known me for a long time just call me ‘Mfo’.

Unlike those like Comrade Manqoba, you did not keep a diary. This book is a tale of elephantine memory. How did you get it right?
Actually, Comrade Manqoba did not keep a diary. His notebook I refer to in the book contained political and character assessments of the people we were training with. I don’t know for sure, but I think he had been tasked by the camp leadership to do that.
As to my ‘elephantine memory’, I actually have a terrible memory, except perhaps for events that engraved themselves for some or other reason. I did quite extensive research – going through my own papers (limited as they were), reading other people’s accounts of a similar period and interviewing people who shared some of the story with me. And I did something that some may regard as rather ‘anal’ – I created a spreadsheet timeline into which, as I worked on the research and the book, I inserted all relevant dates and events of a personal and general nature. For instance, I still had most of the passports I had used during the timeline that the book covers, so I went through them and inserted all the trips I’d made in the timeline.

Has post-apartheid South Africa turned out to be the country you – and other exiles – gave your life to? Has it been worth the sacrifice?
I think the book largely answers that question, but there can be no doubt that the South Africa of today is far better than the one that pertained at the time we were making our sacrifices.

With few exceptions – OR and Adelaide, Walter and Albertinah – the struggle has robbed many people of a normal family life. Fate could not have moved you to [the second] Lorna had you had a normal civilian life, don’t you think?
Fate would have had many surprises for me had I lived a ‘normal civilian life’. As I say in the book, I would not have chosen intelligence as a profession if I’d lived such a life. If I had not gone into exile I would not have met the first Lorna nor had my daughter Thandi, nor would I have met Mandy and had my daughters, Molly and Neo. To the extent that I have covered my personal life in the book, I did so mainly to convey the effect of struggle on families. I hardly think, anyway, that OR and Adelaide, Walter and Albertinah had ‘normal family lives’.

It is in the order of life that people will come in and out of the lives of others – husbands divorce their wives; friends become foes, etc. Has your personal relationship with Billy Masetlha not merely followed this template of life?
I’m not sure I understand this question, so perhaps I should just say ‘no comment’.

How well did you receive the Mr Fixit tag at Home Affairs given that the department remained ‘horror affairs’ throughout the tenure of successive directors-general, yourself included?
When I got to Home Affairs I found a myriad of challenges. These are, at least in part, covered in the book. Together with my management and in consultation with the then Minister and Deputy Minister, as well as the parliamentary portfolio committee and other partners, we devised a turnaround strategy that was designed to implement long- and short-term fixes to the challenges the department faced. We were open with the public about these challenges and what we planned to do to address them. Perhaps this openness led to the ‘Mr Fixit’ appellation. The truth is – as told by others, not me – we had made significant progress in our turnaround strategy by the time I was redeployed.

Has missing out on Polokwane 2007 not riled you, cadre of the movement?
Not sure what you mean? Riled me? I think the book deals with how I felt about ‘missing out on Polokwane’.

What sort of damage has the Mbeki/Zuma rift inflicted on the ANC? Can Mangaung fix it?
I think the book answers the first part of your question. As to whether Mangaung can fix it, it is clear from the policy documents discussed at the ANC’s recent policy conference, as well as numerous public statements, that the ANC is well aware of the challenges it faces. I’m sure the upcoming national conference will be well-seized with addressing these challenges. But some of these challenges are not the ANC’s alone. They are entwined deep inside the challenges that South Africa faces as a whole – of inequity, poverty and all that goes with these.

Early retirement was just too premature. The book reads like you were pushed. Would you say you jumped?
I was not pushed. No one asked me to retire or even hinted that I should consider it. I think the book adequately deals with the processes that led to my early retirement. Quite simply, I needed a break.

Some comrades tend to be less equal than others. Mzwai Piliso is likely to end up a name fading from the lips of those who had known him. Shouldn’t your next book project be the task of telling his story as you seem to have been enamoured with him?
There were many people I was ‘enamoured’ with in the struggle and governance years. I have tried in the book to convey a little about some of them. I’m not sure I’ve got enough years left on this planet to do justice myself to all of them. Anyway, I think the next book I write will be fiction – much more ‘freedom of expression’ in that.

Whose life story still has to be told to complete – if this is at all possible – the legend of the broad church, both in exile and at home?
There are many more stories to be told. One of the main reasons I wrote ‘Songs and Secrets’ was because I felt not enough was being told of our story by people who had participated in it themselves, rather than being told by people who were on the side-lines or who wrote out of some sort of disaffection or had some axe to grind. In fact, it could be argued that we have been shy – perhaps out of deference to the need for reconciliation – to tell our history, not just in books like mine, but in fiction, in movies and other art forms. Surely, those that argue that to move forward we must forget the past are those who have reasons to want to make sure that our past has no impact on our future. That is unscientific and ahistorical.
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