Mandla Langa. Picture: MARIN RHODES
Mandla Langa. Picture: MARIN RHODES

SOONER or later, the dark side of what happened in the African National Congress (ANC) camps in Angola is going to be fully illuminated by a strong light. Those who did wrong, as well as those who suffered unjustly, will surely be grateful if someone like Mandla Langa is holding the torch. Neither vindictiveness nor cover-ups are pronounced in his DNA.

The secret executions, the cruel detentions, the rapes and beatings will be computed and perhaps investigated. After all, most of them happened quite recently, in the 1980s, and many of the protagonists — victims and aggressors — are alive in the new SA they helped shape.

They should get hold of Langa’s new novel, The Texture of Shadows, and see whether it can help them to start the truthful discussions between individuals and communities that seem long overdue. It is an impressive work of fiction from a gifted storyteller, but the fibres that bind the narrative to actual events in Angola and SA are strong and real. In his contemplative but unambiguous way, Langa clearly thinks the time has come to tell it like it was. "Any story that has not been told, any violation that has not been brought to light as clearly and as comprehensively as possible, is something that has the capacity to turn around and as (James) Baldwin would say, ‘smite us and trip us up’".

A next step is that the archives — every side’s — need to be opened up to researchers and scholars, Langa says in an interview the day after his book was launched at the Women’s Gaol in Braamfontein. The chief launcher, to borrow a Nigerianism, was Lindiwe Sisulu, an ANC stalwart whose political pedigree is well known but whose intellectual weight can be concealed behind her flamboyant elegance and her sharp tongue.

"Most launchers just do a cursory reading. She didn’t, she said she read it thrice, just to make sure she got every element of the book down pat," Langa says. "In some instances I found she knew the book much more than I did."

Sisulu read excerpts from the novel and speculated about the identities of the real people on whom some of the large cast of characters are based. She also went to the heart of the sensitive matters on which the author, her close friend, has dwelt. They were both in Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing, but she was in the security section whose responsibilities included dealing with suspected infiltrators and traitors. "She wondered whether Mandla wanted her to atone, and she went on to say if that’s what he wants, so be it, I’ll do it," he says.

"She spoke about the fact that there had been excesses, violations, abuses, and she linked that to the possibility of there having been a lot of infiltration by the (apartheid) state security apparatus."

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LANGA’s personal history as well as his latest fiction leave no room for doubt that infiltration, betrayal and paranoia were constant threats to the survival of tens of thousands of MK soldiers and other exiles dotted around Southern Africa and further afield, with the largest concentration in Angola.

One of the most sharply drawn characters in The Texture of Shadows is Stander, a white intelligence officer whose job is to recruit, turn, break and manipulate anti-apartheid activists. Morality is not relevant to his work, unlike for Chaplain Nerissa, who truly believes in the ANC and whose faith is tested, but not destroyed, when she discovers the criminal injustice meted out in the camps.

One of Langa’s brothers, Ben, was murdered in SA in 1984 while he was an activist in the United Democratic Front. His killers, ordered to act on false information the apartheid regime planted, were arrested, tried and executed. In terms of fatalities it was a three-nil victory for the former regime’s security apparatus.

Their older brother, Pius, was one of SA’s most distinguished jurists. The former chief justice died last year.

Nothing suggests during our long interview at the desk at which he writes in the Parkhurst house he shares with his wife June Josephs, the owner of Xarra Books, and their daughters, that Langa has found sufficient cause to break off with the ANC. But like many in the movement, he wants the leadership to take a long and hard look at the abuses of the past and errors of the present.

"The strength of a political movement derives from its internal capacity to deal with its most horrible hour," he says, referring to the extreme penalties imposed on cadres suspected of wrongdoing. When he came home briefly in 1990, for the first time since he went into exile on October 10 1976, he said he met comrades who had been "broken" by their punishments and others who had "to a certain extent meted out the brutality".

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AT ONE level, today’s travails are minor compared with the struggle, which he spent in several Southern African countries as well as Hungary, where he wrote his first novel, Tenderness of Blood, published in 1987. During this time he also lived in Britain, for nine years, working at the ANC office in Islington, London. He has done stints at the SABC and the Independent Communications Authority of SA since his return, as well as MultiChoice, where he chairs the Phutuma Nathi companies, two of the poster children of black economic empowerment. They are settling the debts incurred to buy stakes in the broadcaster ahead of schedule. "No, I’m not a very wealthy man. I can say I can take care of my family," he says, predicting these businesses will become even better investments.

He describes the insults hurled earlier this year at Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, by Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe, as an ill-advised outburst from which the ANC had emphatically distanced itself. As for the evidence of growing corruption among ANC officials and politicians, Langa says a patient’s sick organisms have to be excised. "Any government and political party that does not look at these signs as grim reminders of what can happen should things get out of hand, would be foolish. I do not believe that at the helm we have got foolish people.

"What we are seeing is SA becoming another ordinary country, with its own warts and blemishes. Perhaps ours tend to be lurid because of where we come from but they cannot by any stretch of the imagination be seen as the beginning of the wheels coming off."