Top journalist tackles the skeletons in SA's cupboard

“I’d rather have a country established on a national truth than on a national myth.”

Famed veteran journalist ­turned­ author, Michael Schmidt, pulled no punches at the launch of his book, Drinking with Ghosts: The Aftermath of Apartheid’s Dirty War (BestRed), in Johannesburg.

Schmidt's novel, A Reporter's Notebook, ­which respected journalist Max du Preez calls “the best he's read”­, dives into a time of anxious revolution and rebellion - a period which Schmidt claims to be “airbrushed”, by selectively nostalgic capitalist opportunists.

“People keep talking about the peaceful transition, but I remember sitting by mass graves every weekend, so I don’t remember the peaceful transition...neither do millions of South Africans who actually went through it,” explains Schmidt.

“We need to revisit the Dirty War in Southern Africa, not only because we need to relocate it in its proper historical context, but because its defining ethic of a descent into terror by both sides left such a deep and damaging imprint on the regional psyche, despite our attempts to cloak it in a ‘Pact of Forgetting’, that to a very real extent terrorism built our democracy – which is why we tend to revert to such debased behaviour in times of crisis, as in the Marikana Massacre of 34 miners by police in 2012.”

“There is a pact of silence in southern Africa around atrocities committed in the past by victims and perpetrators from both sides of the political spectrum. They have come up with the tacit agreement not to talk about such things for the purposes of stability,” he adds.

The current climate of disquiet in the country bears a resemblance that is difficult to deny. Infrastructure challenges, a justice system under the spotlight and a populace that wants to be heard; all lead to inevitable questions around the role of journalists.

The South African press has been pushed into a precarious position by factors such as the Secrecy Bill, which pose a direct threat to media freedom. Not since the apartheid era have journalists been faced with such a blatant attack on their right to disseminate information – particularly information relating to the state.

In this current climate, Michael Schmidt’s Drinking with Ghosts is a remarkable example of rigorously­ researched and brave investigative journalism. The Executive Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in South Africa, Schmidt has a respected track record as a journalist for publications including The Sunday Times.

The book draws on his extensive experience in the field. Drinking with Ghosts unpacks and reflects on the actions, both covert and overt, carried out by the state and its operatives during the apartheid years in Southern Africa. Its specific focus is on the Dirty War as exemplified by hidden nuclear weapons, clandestine forays into neighbouring states, mass poisoning and disposal of military opponents, shady arms deals and bloody massacres.

Schmidt believes that his generation has a role to play as interlocutors in the change from autocracy to democracy, since many of the aspects of the transition have been occluded.

Part of what makes the book so immensely readable is its stylistic sense of immediacy, so that even sections that date back ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago read as though they are happening right now. This, plus Schmidt’s absolutely impeccable eye for detail, from descriptions of dangerous characters to complicated military stats, make Drinking with Ghosts: The Aftermath of Apartheid’s Dirty War (BestRed) an irresistible read.

Extremely relevant to journalists in the investigative field (as an outstanding guide, as well as a great read), and also easily accessible and engrossing to those with an interest in South Africa’s socio­political history and present, Schmidt has produced an important book that not only uncovers a lot of dirty linen, but places it within a fascinating context.

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