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‘The body is the last to weep’

Stephen Debros
A Kalahari.net interview


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By the time I meet her in the flesh, I have already read an interview with Andrea Durbach in a local women’s magazine. A South African reporter tracked her down in Sydney, Australia, where she now lives and works as the Director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. She still introduces herself as a lawyer and Upington is her first book.

In 1988, Andrea was appointed on the defence team for a group of 25 people charged under the ‘common purpose doctrine’ with the murder of a local municipal policeman in Paballelo township, Upington. In November 1999, Andrea returned to South Africa for the launch of the book which tells her story. We meet on a warm summer evening, in the light and comfortable home of Cape Town friends, and we carefully try to ease out some of her recent thoughts.

The blurb on the cover of Andrea’s book states in a deceptively simple paragraph of facts, ‘It is the 22nd year of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and the country is gripped with civil unrest. A black policeman is set alight. 25 people are convicted of his murder. 14 are sentenced to death. A small town is besieged by a legal trial and one of the lawyers is brutally assassinated. This is the story of Upington.’

Soon after landing at Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts International airport, Andrea opened her first interview with a local journalist by saying, ‘I am absolutely thrilled to be back in Australia.’ Coming back to the country of her birth is full of incredibly mixed feelings. She chuckles knowingly as I ask her to explain.

‘I think I got off the plane in Johannesburg with a mixture of real nostalgia and dread and excitement — with incredible anticipation. I didn’t know what it was, whether nostalgia would be the enemy of my return. I had all these preconceived notions about South Africa, and the feelings I would have towards it. I had this real dread.

‘The dread was what it would unlock for me because I do lead a very ambivalent life in Australia. I am completely fascinated and concerned about what happens here, and I see a lot of South Africans who come through Australia and visit. I had a real yearning for the place, so arriving gave me such a sense of something different.

‘Despite my real anxiety about what it would unlock for me, suddenly the moment I set foot on that airport tar, on that ground, it felt familiar, welcoming, exciting. Something was very different. Being in Cape Town, my home town, I know it’s the most beautiful place on earth, it just is. It’s coming back to place, and people, history — after a very long time, after what’s happened here. I find I’m having these extraordinary dreams at the moment — about here. And I never dream about here, in Australia. I’ve switched stages and I’m in the theatre of South Africa now, and that’s my dream world. Even in my unconscious there’s a lot of very strong, deep attachments to this place that are coming through.’

Andrea is aware that some changes are just superficial, ‘I can’t say that what I’ve seen has changed life for the majority of people in South Africa, but what I do feel is that for white people there’s been a release. I’ve always had the feeling this country’s had enormous potential that’s been locked up in this air-tight little jar — and there’s always been such a tension politically that has kept everything else — the cultural dimension and the spiritual dimension — caged.

‘I’ve come back and I feel that jar has had its lid ripped off, and it’s just exploded with such amazing richness. Just in terms of the psyche of this place — everyone seems to be doing quite interesting things and looking at the world very differently. I’m delighted by it. It’s still such a country of extremes and is so intense.

‘Last Sunday, we climbed up Table Mountain and saw this beautiful cave — so accessible — you just go and climb there. It’s a mountain that’s always made me feel very grounded. In Cape Town there’s this constant force running through the centre of this incredible Cape. We climbed to the top then drove to the Swartlands, out through Malmesbury and saw ... Evita Bezuidenhout.’

Andrea breaks into a belly laugh here, as if realising again, another aspect of South African life that can only be articulated in tears or laughter. ‘You know, Darling,’ she continues, ‘Evita praat Kactus, which is just such a trip, fantastic. Driving back in, from that beautiful country, where no stone had been left unturned by Evita who is just so extraordinary in hitting, piercing, making people think, look at themselves and laugh at themselves. I was filled with such a joy, at the extreme richness of the day. Then we came back in and heard about the bomb blast.’

We both pause to consider the strangeness of this new South Africa. On Sunday 28 November (the day Andrea laughed at Pieter Dirk-Uys and his performance as Evita, the no-holds-barred and famously politically-incorrect commentator) a pipe-bomb was planted and detonated in a St Elmo’s pizzeria on Cape Town’s trendy Camps Bay beachfront. More than 30 people were seriously injured. Andrea continues her analysis of the country called South Africa, viewed through the eyes of one who was born and lived here, and then felt compelled to leave for a new life elsewhere.

‘In South Africa I feel charged every minute of every day. It’s something I speak about to people in Australia. Australia is quite flat emotionally as a country, and there was something very appealing about that when I first came there.’

Andrea uses the phrase ‘came there’ and I know instinctively that it’s because of that ambivalence, caught in a personal space which is in love and at odds with both countries.

She continues, ‘Of course you find that flatness starts to have hills in it after a while. I get this injection of emotion, feelings. You can be angry and excited, delighted and sad, and despairing and hopeful, in the space of an hour in this place. The physical beauty is just extraordinary, and the warmth of the people is something that’s touched me once again.’

I ask Andrea if she’s aware of having a different personality in South Africa and the person she knows as herself in Australia. ‘That’s an interesting question, I’ve actually been asking myself that,’ she begins to explain. ‘I sound different to myself here, I hear myself speaking and I feel like I sound different. My voice has a different timbre, obviously my accent changes quite quickly, but I feel like I sound different.

‘It’s a strange thing to say but I sound familiar to myself. In Australia, even though I speak English — on the surface it feels very similar. You can’t just pack up and take language with you, it doesn’t work. I made up my mind, when I decided I would stay for a while in Australia. I wasn’t going to be a South African who skirted the edges. I needed to immerse myself in Australia and the Australian way of life.

‘That is what I believe I owed to myself and to Australia. I didn’t just want to be someone who watched what went on — I actually wanted to dive in, and try to work it out by living it. To do that you do become different, you adapt, because people need to feel comfortable with you, that you are tuned into their society — more than just watching it. I like to think that my essence is still the same. There’s a cloak I think that I put on in Australia, and slowly, with living there, that cloak is starting to fall off bit by bit, fold by fold is the image I have. The more I feel accepted and accepting of the place, the more that cloak starts to fall off.’

It begins to emerge, as we speak, that being authentic is very important to Andrea. She waits a while, considers a reply, and begins. ‘The book is a major contribution to my coming to terms with who I am. The process of writing demanded an authenticity. I needed to feel that I wrote with an honesty and a sincerity. I think that for a long time in Australia, I pretended to myself that I could live in two places at once, that I could cope with the separation. The book was an opportunity for me to speak and say, “I don’t think I can.” I needed to be able to say that, and feel okay with that.

Often when I was in the Upington experience, I was playing particular roles. I was the lawyer, a woman lawyer, a white woman lawyer. There were certain characteristics expected of me, and those I demanded of myself. In writing this book, I felt at a place able to pull down those masks and barriers, the armour, and confront myself and that experience. That was part of my healing — the healing is about losing. It’s about loss — loss of country, loss of the professional life I enjoyed here, loss of friends, culture, identity. I needed to unravel why I took the step of starting a new life in Australia. That authenticity had to come through — painful as it was.’

For Andrea the book meant moving from the lawyer’s rational, third-person point-of-view to something more personal, more naked. ‘I often wonder what I would be like if I had not written this book. I would have held my self at bay for much longer than I have. But baring one’s soul? I think of myself as a very private person, a rational person. Combining both those features with the creative process which demands that you open yourself was incredibly tough. I struggled enormously, I fought and resisted it. I knew I didn’t want to just write a book about a legal trial — I wanted to write about the human aspects of that experience. Recently I read a book by C S Lewis, Surprised by Joy. It’s an odd book for me to read.’

Andrea stops to laugh out loud again, ‘I think of myself as spiritual, but not religious. It’s funny how books come to you at certain periods of your life.’ In the book Lewis goes back to spiritual belief and so confronts himself. Andrea pointed me to one persistent image, ‘Lewis had two choices. He could either break through the armour he’d built up around himself, or he didn’t have to. He said he felt like a snowman starting to melt. He felt this ice start trickling down his back, and he wasn’t so sure that he liked the feeling. It hit such a nerve because I was going to have to go on the same process. Whether I liked it or not, I was on it. I think when you leap in, you leap in — and you have to take what comes with it, publication, the openness about it. It was a terrible process to go through. When the book was actually published, I thought “Oh my god, it’s all very well to write this, and expose oneself in the writing, but I’m not so sure I want to get it out in the open.’

Of the 25 people originally accused of murder in Upington, 14 were sentenced and moved to death row at Pretoria Central Prison. Andrea continued to fight for their release, and in this space, the first thoughts of writing down the story began. ‘I started writing the book about six months after the 14 were sentenced to death,’ Andrea begins to explain. ‘We didn’t think we’d get a move to appeal, so I went over to England to put pressure on the South African government through the English, Irish and American governments. I talked about the trial a lot, and got approached by a literary agent who said, “I heard your talk, and I think you should write about it.”

I knew it was an amazing story, something I knew should be told. I got back to South Africa and Anne McDermid, who I acknowledge in the book, said she had a publisher who wanted three sample chapters. Then at that point I go to Australia, ostensibly for two months holiday, and I start writing. Then I got incredibly ill, I started falling over, and I realised that what was going on was far too raw and I couldn’t write it. I didn’t have the distance or the perspective I needed to write about it. When I look at those chapters now, my god, they’re just terrible writing, very contorted and contrived. I phoned Anne, said, “I can’t do this,” and let it go.

‘Seven years later, after living in Australia, I was working, a fully-fledged Australian really. I’m at a dinner one night and I have this major collapse. I think I’m having a heart attack and I end up in a hospital with a major panic attack. I have all these after-shocks and I go and speak to a doctor who says to me, while I’m on this medical merry-go-round, “You’re presenting Post Traumatic Stress stuff — what have you been doing for the last five to 10 years?”

He was the first doctor who asked me that, and I told him. He said to me, and I almost called the book this. In a funny way maybe we should have, but didn’t — I thought it sounded too sentimental. He said, “The body is the last to weep.” I remember thinking, my god. Why am I reacting seven years later to these events in my life? Why does it come out now? He said, “Maybe your body feels ready to do it, and it’s actually saying to you, ‘I’ve had enough of carrying this around. You’ve got to get it out, and it’s weeping now. It’s saying to you, you’ve got to start letting it out, otherwise you will constantly have these panic attacks.’

“With that came the writing. It was amazing. I started writing at three in the morning. These images started coming back, the sadness of it all started coming back, the horror of it all. I don’t think I ever really dealt with the horror. I had pushed it away. That was my introduction to the creative process. I felt I was caught up in a vortex, being split open.’ Andrea had hauled out two scarcely touched boxes of old trial notepads, scrap books, press clippings — and was connected to a publisher who published the book.

As Andrea explained at a public reading she gave at the Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank, Cape Town, on 25 November 1999, ‘It’s been a hard thing to do to write this book. It’s been hard to come back to, so ambivalent, why we make choices. I have been digging up memories I’d rather forget. But, the Upington 25 were invisible. The book is about making sure they don’t remain invisible.’

This book is Andrea’s story, yes, but the intimate stories of 25 ordinary South Africans are also being told. Andrea says, ‘ I always wanted this book to be a tribute to these people. Today I’ve been signing books that we’re sending up to the guys in Upington. I feel such a huge amount of gratitude to them, and to Anton [Lubowski] for bringing me into that whole experience. It was life-changing.

‘So many of these cases at the time in South Africa were about people being centre-stage, and then suddenly their lawyers go, they get released from prison, it’s all fine and then — they’re forgotten. My life went on but their lives, as far as I could tell, meant coming back to poverty, and broken families, unemployment. This is about making sure their history is remembered. Speaking to them now — god — I realise how important that is.

‘I’ve spoken to a lot of “The Accused” as I still call them, on the phone. We’ve had amazing conversations. I’ve realised how absolutely critical it is to ensure that people who have been through that period of history, “The Players”, not the lawyers, not the expert witnesses, but “The Accused”’, Andrea places deep feeling on this phrase, drawing it out, holding it up to the light to examine it closer, ‘are remembered and paid their tribute. I feel enormously privileged to have lived those years with these people.’

But what is the book about, I keep asking myself — and try to draw Andrea into the discussion. ‘It is a book about so many things,’ she reminds me, ‘About reconciling my personal and political choices, about reconciling place for me. It’s also about ensuring that the memory and the history of these lives is somehow recorded.’ One image that leaps from the pages of the book is the moment that 10 of the 14 death row prisoners are released.

    A guard approached us and announced that the prisoners would be driven from inside the prison grounds and ‘off-loaded’, as he put it, in the visitors’ parking area ...

    The crowd started cheering and clapping and formed a circle around the vans as they drove into the parking area. The drivers got out and opened the doors and, one by one, the ten stepped into the sun.

Andrea comments on this image, a moment of goose bumps, everything crunched into this point of touching the ground again. She sighs, takes a breath, and starts in a quiet voice. ‘It was the strangest image to watch them come out, to watch these people coming from extraordinary darkness into blinding light, in a spiritual sense.

‘The image that really stays is when the old man Gideon [Madlongolwane] stepped out, with a beautiful, beautiful face. He was clutching a box of Ouma rusks. I remember the orange and the yellow on that packet against his olive-green and khaki prison uniform. It’s an image that will never go from my mind. There was something very comforting about seeing Ouma rusks.

‘I imagined, for him, the comfort he would have drawn in seeing us, as he stepped down into the sun. It’s funny how that stays in my mind. I don’t even know if there were rusks in it. He might have used it as a cupboard or something — I don’t know but it was just so beautiful, and comforting, and familiar. That was such a remarkable day.’

The book runs through powerful emotions. Underlying it is the sense of deep waters flowing beneath the text, powerful emotions hinted at, but always reigned in. There’s a mixture of restrained sensuality and deep spirituality, no matter how politically incorrect that might sound now.

‘I felt so torn between the personal, the political and the professional,’ Andrea begins. ‘There were very rare instances where I could just let go, walk away, and shout out loudly how I was feeling, what was going through me during the trial — and the relationships I was forming — with “The Accused”, my relationship with Anton, with the other experts. And then my sense of never feeling I could get away from this huge responsibility. I felt, at that stage of my life, whether I wanted to be carrying such a terrible burden.

‘There was never much time to even reflect on that stuff. It used to flow through me but I never really had the space to deal with it. Writing the book allowed me to finally express, and even I agree in a restrained kind of way, a lot of feelings that remained inarticulated in that period but which were very, very strong. Probably the biggest feeling that remains is the sense of huge sadness, and grief and loss. It was the loss also of a very intense time. Even though I hated it often, and wanted to run away from it, there’s something so compelling about it that drew me back in. The writing allowed me to expel, and grapple with, what I was feeling — and articulate things I didn’t feel were appropriate to speak about at the time.’

I am struck by the fact that even though South Africa and Australia are worlds apart, Andrea has been able to pick up on and channel a hidden space, a deeper spirituality, which connects both countries in surprising ways. In her subsequent work with other hurt and oppressed people in Australia, Andrea still moves in this twilight zone, this skemêrwereld.

We speak about these connections. ‘It sounds trite but a lot of authors say that eventually a book starts writing you. I did feel that. In Australia I’ve been working in an organisation allowing me to tap into the pace culturally and experience what is really going on in Australia, which is not this kind of laid-back beach culture. That’s a very deceptive, superficial thing. Unlike South Africa that really hits you hard between the eyes, Australia is a much more layered society. It took me a long, long time to peel those layers back, crawl in and find what it is about. I knew it wasn’t just this laid-back irreverence everybody likes to project to the world — it’s covering up something.

‘Slowly, now, interestingly as the same time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is happening in South Africa, confronting our past, so the Australian government is asking the Human Rights Commission there to investigate the “Stolen Generation” who were aboriginal kids, Torres Strait Islander children. They were removed from their parents under a policy of the Australian government in the 1940s and 1950s, removing aboriginal or “half-caste” children as they called them from their families and assimilating them into white culture. The hurt and harm, and the damage of these two nation’s histories are unraveling simultaneously.

‘It was then that I started working with members of the “Stolen Generation” and started getting a sense of something I always felt wasn’t being looked at — something quite disturbing in the cover-up in Australia — an historical detour that seemed to be in the Australian psyche. People didn’t talk about or explore the indigenous culture and its real destruction until recently. Here the links started forming in my mind.

‘Working with indigenous clients, I have been taught about the relationship people have to the land. That is such an important feature of what I feel about this country — it’s my relationship to the earth here that says much more about my relationship to events, or facts. People are important — absolutely — but I step onto the Cape land, the earth here, or I feel that dirt in Paballelo, and it speaks to me about the experience.

‘It’s that linking back to land, seeing that  we’re all originally part of one big piece of earth. We’ve all split off, had different histories, different struggles, but actually it’s the land which pulls us back together. It’s the land which pulls me back to this place. It’s the land that’s helped me understand an Australia that I don’t think I understood before. There are huge spiritual connections. The errors of history help places evolve in the way they do. Who knows? But for certain historical events, Australia could have been very similar to South Africa in how it finally unraveled. The “Stolen Generation” experience has allowed people shipped from England and dumped on Australia to seek their origins and demand apologies for their treatment. There’s this amazing healing that’s starting to happen as people find the courage to speak out about hurt and of being reconciled with past — and then I think, being able to move on.’

Our conversation is turning into laughter. Instead of an aura, I tell Andrea, she has the most amazing hair. As she records in her book, ‘I would explain to curious schoolmates that my hair grew tall and fat rather than down and long.’

With her hair and her mechanisms for dealing with people’s reactions to it, Andrea also has a wonderful sense of humour. Humour is extremely important to her, and underscores the serious content of the book with the river of her own laughter. ‘Oh my god — it’s been a critical tool — throughout my life. I was brought up in a home where my mother has a fantastic sense of humour. I’ve always found humour to be an extraordinary weapon, but also something that softens. Even in my dealings with the security police, the prosecutors, the “Difficult People” where we were antagonistic and adversarial — I’ve always found it extremely useful to bring humour back into the dialogue because it opens gates. For clients, it allows me to see beyond the person.

‘Humour breaks people down. I don’t think we ever broke Justice Jan Basson down but one of the state prosecutors, Terrence van Rensburg, every now and again we’d joke even when we were being damn serious — I saw behind him, behind his robes. Humour carried me through terrible hard times.

‘We used to laugh a lot together with “The Accused”. There had to be some relief for them in there, so we used to have fun.’ For instance, when the death sentences were delivered, “The Accused” made a show of applauding the death sentence, clapping and measuring each other’s necks for the eventual rope, and feigning regret whenever one of them received a lighter sentence. ‘I encouraged that,’ remembers Andrea. ‘It was better than medication — there were worse times to come. If you can do this now, I thought, it gives you a base to fall back on, that humour, that laughter. I find laughter exciting, it’s a very important part of my life — of getting through the writing of the book.’

By way of tangible example, Andrea recalls her recent climb up Table Mountain. A little boy passed her as she was huffing and puffing, and turned around to say, ‘You stop your huffing and puffing because you’ve got the worst yet to go!’ She is giggling as she tells me how she asked, ‘You’ve got be kidding and he said, “No, it’s the worst part, you’re going to have to face it. It’s the worst part.” Of course it wasn’t that bad. Humour is entrenched in our society, it’s a way of coping, and it’s wonderful.’

Finally our conversation draws into its closing moments. I ask her about the question of identity populating her book — the 25 ‘accused’; Anton Lubowski looming larger than life; South Africa, and through it all Andrea — she grapples for handholds in our conversation. I ask if she can say with confidence, ‘I am a lawyer but I am also a writer.’ She laughs, ‘It feels a little pretentious I have to say. But I get huge joy when I’m with my publishers and they introduce me as one of their authors. I kind of think, ‘My god, am I really?’ I don’t see myself as a writer, I still see myself as a lawyer. I’d love to write again, I loved the process. In a funny way, writing has allowed me to really break down the lawyer in me. That’s very healthy and very good. I don’t think I could write fiction, I find it enormously difficult. I want to write about life in the real sense — going back to that authenticity we spoke about earlier which informed the writing in Upington. But when I’m introduced as a writer, I giggle, and think, “I’m a lawyer for god’s sake.”’

The full circle of Upington includes Anton Lubowski in its arc. Less than a month before, Namibia’s first United Nations-supervised elections set for 15 November 1989, Anton was assassinated in Windhoek. A few months earlier he had been appointed deputy director of Swapo’s election campaign, endlessly managing the return of exiled Namibians and the president Sam Nujoma.

At her Cape Town reading, Andrea wept as she shared this part of the book with us. Our audience included members of his family, his father and his son.

‘He was an amazing man. I’ve read that piece so many times in Australia. Reading it here was terribly hard, as you saw. In a way I feel that this visit means coming back to friends, places, connecting with Upington. It also means that I come back and reconnect with him and his family. I feel I can do that now. It’s been too raw before. The book allows me to write about it, and resolve things, to stamp that experience, and give it validity. Ja, it’s been very hard. I think about my time here, in Cape Town. Anton was so involved in every aspect of the trial. I almost expected I’d see him when I came back.’

To me that last ‘Ja’ is very telling — a sign that some parts of Andrea will always be linked to this place, this land - no matter what the die-hard patriots say about people who leave. In the distance, the sound of the intercom at the gate intrudes on our conversation. Andrea’s friend and host has returned, our time is over. Upington is an amazing book, and Andrea has told this special South African story exceedingly well. I hope we meet again.

Upington is published in South Africa by David Phillip (ISBN 0-86486-453-1), and is available from good bookstores or Kalahari.net at R89,95.

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