Not the South Africa We Fought For: A Dialogue with Gertrude Fester



Professor Gertrude Fester was born in 1952. She has held various political portfolios in the new South Africa, including being a member of the National Parliament until 1999 for the ANC. She served on the Finance and Improvement of Quality of Life and Status of Women Portfolio Committees.

Subsequent to leaving Parliament, she was Gender and Transformation Consultant to the Minister of Minerals and Energy, and Political Advisor to the Mayor of Cape Town. From 2001-06 she was appointed Commissioner on Gender Equality. From 2011-13 she was professor and deputy director at the Centre for Gender, Culture and Development at the Kigali Institute of Education.

During 2012-15 she was the research coordinator of the Rwandan Association of University Women’s Council. From 2013-14 she was an international consultant for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammernarbeit, the Kigali and Mirovni Peace Institute, and Ljubljana Slovenia.

She is a member of the International Artistic Committee coordinating the Marche des Arts du Spectacle African, in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. She peer reviews several international journals. In 2015 she published South African Women’s Apartheid and Post-Apartheid Struggles: 1980-2014. She established Sociology at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley during 2016 and 2017.

Lumumba Mthembu


This conversation took place between Midrand in the small bedroom of an apartment in a gated complex, on a Thursday before the first genuine summer rains drenched the highveld, and Cape Town in the convivial atmosphere of Prof. Fester’s domicile, via Google Meets.

Lumumba: Thank you for speaking to me about Prison Notebook V2957/88. I enjoyed the title. Having recently moved to Midrand, where I cannot leave the house due to not yet having a car…

Gertrude: (Laughs). So, you’re in a self-imposed prison?

Lumumba: I don’t want to cheapen what you went through but the title gave me inspiration from someone who was in solitary confinement.

To begin, I would like to work through some quotations that I jotted while reading. The first is from the section on “Underground work” on page 104. You write, 

“Being in education was not just a job but a vocation. We had to prepare the next generation to be critical beings, to be able to assess what the truth is when they, for example, encounter the media, how they could contribute to a better society, not just for themselves but for the greater good in South Africa.” 

Do you feel the youth of today are critical beings contributing to the betterment of society?

Gertrude: Life is different now to when I was younger, but as a former political prisoner, it fascinates me how young people are not interested in learning about the past and the struggles we went through to attain what we have today. “Those were your issues,” they say, “those aren’t our issues.” It’s difficult to be young now. Social media has exacerbated that, but I always have hope.

Lumumba: That’s a good place for me to direct you to the foreword by Michael Donen, SC. We always get this type of preamble when a liberation icon releases a biography:

“Those who were not yet born during those times should read Prison Notebook to appreciate what our heroes had to go through so that we could attain the freedoms that we enjoy today. Those who lived through those times will be reminded of how lucky we are. All of us – government in particular – should read this book as a reminder of the gratitude we owe them.”

But when we look around we’re on 81 days of load-shedding, which is more than double the previous annual record. We’re unemployed. Our ruling party is unprincipled. Do you think there is a connection between this state of affairs and youthful indifference to the sacrifices made by stalwarts of the struggle?

Gertrude: As a former ANC Member of Parliament, I must say we are really disappointed and very sad that we’ve failed our people. We have failed to eradicate poverty. We have failed to create employment. Sometimes when I see a comrade from the past, we joke that we knew that power can corrupt but we didn’t believe it would happen so quickly in our country. It’s so sad.

I’ve experienced so much fear in my life. All of us struggle-veterans are much better now. We’ve had lots of counselling and reflection but even though we operate normally and successfully in many cases, the trauma is still with us.

Lumumba: Thank you for including yourself in the collective pronoun “we”. You mention two quotations in the book that speak to corruption. The first is from Giles Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers: “It’s difficult to start a revolution; more difficult to sustain it. But it’s later, when we’ve won, that the real difficulties will begin.” The second one I don’t remember too well…

Gertrude: It’s the Karl Marx one: “We have conquered the mountains. We now have to conquer the plains.”

Lumumba: Thank you for that, Gertrude. Now to discuss your espionage antics.

Gertrude: (Laughs).

Lumumba: We’re still in the “Underground work” section on page 107:

“Once again I walked past the customs at Jan Smuts slowly and nonchalantly while my mind, heart and head were tossing like a cork on tempestuous waves.”

I tried to locate a similar quotation in which you talk about your “cuckoo-clock heart”, and it dawned on me that you’re very good at descriptions of fear.

Gertrude Fester: I’ve experienced so much fear in my life. All of us struggle-veterans are much better now. We’ve had lots of counselling and reflection but even though we operate normally and successfully in many cases, the trauma is still with us. Occasionally when I hear a bunch of keys, a loud knock or police siren, I am momentarily unnerved. It’s like you experience it again.

The reason I find things especially hard is because I always had to pretend that everything was fine. I would never let the guards see. Even in my social life: my marriage and relationships, I had to pretend that everything was under control, so I know fear. It’s important to share that.

We pretend we are these fantastic cadres. When I came out of prison I had to make speeches until I said, “Look, I’m tired,” and booked myself into an institution. Because of that, other women came to me and said, “Thank you for doing that.” It opened the way for others to go for treatment instead of acting like soldiers. Soldiers also have hearts. They also bleed and need counselling.

Lumumba: Now that you’ve touched on your psychiatric treatment, let me ask about the discrepancy between the way you handled solitary confinement, and the way you handled institutionalisation. It seems like you had a worse time in Valkenberg and Avalon than at Wynberg Police Station?

Gertrude: I get really sad at betrayal from people who are supposed to help you. It’s really sore. We must speak about abuse in the medical field: when doctors don’t respect our human rights.

Lumumba: So, just for clarity: a nurse, F, gaslit you by saying you were in love with a fellow patient?

Gertrude: The betrayal is what is important and painful; the fact that these people were supposed to care for me. I mention my insecurity about my mental health in the book. That, for me, was very frightening. There were instances when I was writing when I wasn’t comfortable and had to convince myself to keep calm: “You’re fine. You’re fine. You’re fine.” 

Betrayal is a big thing, especially when I didn’t betray anybody in prison. I was determined. And then not to get compassion but to be deceived by (laughs ironically) by the counsellor…by people who love you or pretend to love you or pretend to care for you… That’s my issue with medical personnel.

The fact that they dump all these pills into your mouth and you have no control. The tablets dulled my senses. I had to take the pills. I had to do this. I had to do that. Then they could also tell me what I’m thinking, that I’m in love with someone? I think I say in the book that I wished I were in love because it’s lovely to be in love. (Laughs).

Lumumba: It’s not just you, Gertrude. We all suffer with betrayal. We don’t know where to place it. When it happens to us, we carry it awkwardly through the rest of our lives, not knowing where to put it down. There’s no shelving it so thank you for going to that dark place.

To discuss another dark place, but not as dark, please tell me about your arrival at Pollsmoor? You visually challenge a guard to strip-search you and she doesn’t do it. If you could unpack the dynamics that played out to allow you to go unmolested, because you do reference your education and class in that moment.

Gertrude: A woman was stripped and violated in front of me. She didn’t complain. I was not going to accept it, and I played on intersectionality. My body language, my demeanour, my Masters degree, my lecturing and middle-class status, I showed that power with my body. I played on race, class and language. When people don’t speak English, they’re at a disadvantage and it gives you power. The way I spoke: clearly enunciating every word, my whole demeanour said, “Don’t you dare! I have more power than you. Don’t fuck with me.” Even though I was a prisoner, the way I used my body, it was like I said it.

Lumumba: That’s wonderful! Sometimes people treat “power” like a dirty word. It’s commendable that you deployed your intersectional power in self-defence, instead of using it when you’re already in the ascendancy. You were vulnerable and it bought you a small freedom.

In your afterword, you reach out to the one who had power over you: your interrogator Andre Du Toit. Were you looking for closure? 

Prison Notebook V2957/88, by Prof. Gertrude Fester.
Prison Notebook V2957/88, by Prof. Gertrude Fester.

Gertrude: It was because I lived in Rwanda and witnessed their wonderful attempts to reconcile. South Africans could learn from Rwandans. Living there meant I couldn’t not speak to him. It was a personal, political, psychological, emotional imperative to understand, as a lecturer in transitional justice. 

I may say it in the book; I say it quite often in my writing: the amnesty committee was more effective than the reparations committee in the TRC. People were just forgiven but the victims stayed victims. We have not dealt effectively with the past. In the literature, the South African TRC is used as a good example but its work is incomplete. Recommendations have been made but the government has not come to the party. I critique us as a South African government for not fulfilling the recommendations of the TRC. Where is the president’s fund of two billion?

I think about what kind of pension Du Toit is getting as a general, and yet he doesn’t own that he was part and parcel of creating a monstrous society. I don’t want to blame everything on apartheid but there is something called intergenerational trauma. The violence in Manenberg and the Cape Flats is almost in our DNA. These things need to be addressed. We have wonderful laws. We have a wonderful constitution but translating it into reality comes with a budget. We are number one on the Gini coefficient.

Lumumba: If I could press you to be specific on the question you asked Du Toit: what are the major challenges facing the new South Africa, if it can still be said to be new at approximately 30 years of age?

Gertrude: The main issue is eradicating poverty by creating jobs. We need carpenters. We need electricians. We need welders. People are eager to work. We also need to look at education: it is empowering and dignifying. Charity is disempowering.

Why is so much money budgeted for pomp and ceremony? There is money but how is it used? Some bad mistakes have been made.

Lumumba: I won’t draw you into answering whether any of that is possible under the ruling party. I’d rather close on a personal note: You didn’t have pen and paper so physically and technically, how did you hold all of the memories that go into the book in chronological order? How did you compose a play? The poetry and creative writing: when did you transfer it? Didn’t it jumble in your brain under the stress?  

Gertrude: We don’t understand and we undermine the resilience of the human being. Every single morning I would wake up and recite all the poems aloud. I would edit them in my head: “That line doesn’t sound right. I should use another word.” I had nothing else to do. It was my way of surviving. I thought about suicide but that would have been a defeat. “I’m not going to go crazy.” It was a determination. I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t pray and sing.

Lumumba: Talk about the superiority of the written word over oral tradition! (Laughs). You debunked all of that. 

Thank you, Gertrude. That’s our time. You added colour to the black and white of the page. 

Gertrude: Thank you, too. I wish you well.

Lumumba: Let’s hope things go well not just for ourselves but for our country, too.

Gertrude: The world is not in a good state at the moment. We can wait on governments or do good where we are. Let’s take up the challenge.         

Lumumba Mthembu

Lumumba Mthembu is the in-house writer of the Durban-based NPO, Contemporary Archive Project, which chroniclesthrough documentary photographythe life of the city since the turn of the millennium.

In this capacity, he has published reviews of photo series and exhibitions through the Mail & Guardian, ArtThrob and Bubblegum Club. He has also facilitated workshops regarding the non-fiction writing process.

He graduated from Rhodes University in 2016, having obtained a Masters Degree with Distinction in English Literature, and was a Mandela Rhodes Scholar in 2015.



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