Christopher Nicholson. Permanent Removal: Who Killed the Cradock Four. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2004. xvii + 229. No price listed (paper), ISBN 978-1-86814-401-3.
Reviewed by Sarah Mathis (Department of Anthropology, Emory University)
Published on H-SAfrica (June, 2006)
Narrating State Violence
Permanent Removal by Christopher Nicholson tells the story of the infamous murder of the Cradock Four by agents of the apartheid state during the mid-1980s. The deaths of the Cradock Four were widely publicized and considered one of the more egregious incidents of state violence during the final decade of apartheid. The four political activists were taken from their car in the middle of the night by members of the South African Police and military, and were then beaten, stabbed, mutilated and their bodies were burnt. These murders occurred only weeks after high-level government officials sent down orders that two of the Eastern Cape activists, Matthew Goniwe and Fort Calata, be "permanently removed from society."
Nicholson's account of the Cradock murders is eminently readable, having been written in the form of a story rather than an academic text. The book contains no theoretical background or citations, but instead attempts to narrate the thoughts and emotions of many of the major characters involved in the violent incident and its aftermath. Nicholson begins with the death of the four men and then proceeds to tell the story of their political activism, mistreatment by the state, and eventually the series of inquests and trials that looked into their deaths including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings in the post-apartheid period. By telling the story through the various investigations into the deaths, Nicholson allows the reader a first-hand glimpse into the means through which the state attempted to cover up its role in the murders and the ways in which evidence slowly emerged over years allowing for a more accurate picture of actual events to unfold.
This book contributes to a wide variety of literature that has attempted to elucidate the role of the state in the political violence that occurred during the final decade of apartheid. During this period, the state claimed to have little hand in much of the violence that became endemic in many African communities throughout the country, and the secrecy surrounding their operations made it very difficult to prove otherwise. Despite the widespread destruction of documents during the final years of apartheid, however, information pointing to high-level state involvement has slowly emerged in the post-apartheid period, in part due to the efforts of the TRC. In addition, the release of the minutes of the State Security Council has revealed that, as early as 1985, in the same year as the Cradock murders, high-level government officials were discussing the creation of what they called "counterrevolutionary strategies" that involved authorizing special forces within the police and military to use measures such as torture and destabilization tactics to undermine political activism inside of the country. Scholars such as Stephen Ellis, who have studied these minutes, have noted that the State Security Council also had plans to ensure that the "forces of revolution" would not just be combated by the security forces, but also by "anti-revolutionary groups such as Inkatha and/or the ZCC [Zion Christian Church] as well as the ethnic factor in South African society." These special forces within the police and military proceeded, over the next decade, to eliminate political activists and to train and supply arms to other African political groups so that they could also be used to fight the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF). The "third force" was a term used by ANC leaders in the early 1990s in an attempt to expose these clandestine activities despite repeated denials of them by apartheid state officials.
Although Nicholson rarely uses the term the "third force," he nonetheless focuses on exposing the role of the third force in the killings of the Cradock Four. The strength of this book lies in its detailed descriptions of the various inquests and hearings and the insight that these provide into the functioning of the apartheid state's bureaucracy. The narrative illustrates how political violence was sanctioned at the highest levels and then transmitted to the foot soldiers who carried out the violent acts. Nicholson himself comes from a legal background, having worked first as a human rights and labor lawyer, then as director of the Durban Legal Resources Centre, and finally as a judge. This background lends particular strength to his narration of events within the courtroom and his insight into the workings of the state. His nicely complex picture of how decisions were made and handed down within the state reminds the reader that the state is not a unitary entity, but is rather composed of individuals making decisions within a particular context that led to the brutal murders of those considered enemies of the state. In addition, the book also illustrates the multifarious motivations of those who leaked evidence regarding state involvement and of the Security Branch policemen who eventually applied for amnesty from the TRC for the murder of the Cradock Four.
One weakness of the book is that it tends to uncritically reproduce the dominant struggle narrative of the heroic and nonviolent ANC members fighting against the violent and oppressive apartheid state and its collaborators. The author seemed somewhat uncomfortable discussing the role of organizations such as the Azanian Peoples Organization (AZAPO) and the township councils that were considered collaborators with the state and often engaged in violent conflict with the ANC. Overall, there is considerably less complexity in the author's depiction of the dynamics within black communities, such as when explaining the sources of conflict and the motivations of the various actors in Cradock. As a result, the heroes of the book are portrayed somewhat one-dimensionally, particularly Goniwe, who is depicted as a humble teacher, a non-threatening political activist, and eventually a martyr.
In addition, the book's methodology is somewhat opaque. In the acknowledgements and preface, the author refers to collecting transcripts and records from the various hearings and inquests as well as some second-hand research conducted for him in the Eastern Cape. However, the narrative format of the book does not allow the reader to distinguish between the various sources and types of information used. The author himself acknowledges that he took artistic license in filling in background and he engages in a considerable amount of editorializing throughout the book. For example, in his account of a meeting between Matthew Goniwe and a member of the Department of Education he writes:
"There was something likeable about Matthew Goniwe. Deep in his heart Jaap Strydom was a fair man. His lifetime support for the Nationalist Party had not robbed him of a level of decency, which recognized the merits of the teachers' arguments in the situation that had arisen" (p. 44).
In addition, the author has added many side stories, such as a romance between two journalists covering the court hearings. While the editorializing and asides add to the dramatic interest of the text, the lack of methodological clarity makes it difficult for the reader to judge the accuracy of the author's characterizations of many of the major players in the book.
Despite these shortcomings, however, the book is a very interesting read for anyone interested in the details of state perpetrated violence and the processes by which post-conflict communities are attempting to bring out the truth and make amends within a highly political atmosphere such as that which exists within post-apartheid South Africa. The strength of the book lies primarily in its depiction of the complexity of the apartheid state, and it falls short in portraying complexity within the local communities involved in this incident of violence. It is, however, a very accessible book and makes a worthwhile contribution to the growing literature on political violence during the final decade of apartheid.
. Quoted in Stephen Ellis, "The Historical Significance of South Africa's Third Force," Journal of Southern African Studies 24, no. 2, (1998): p. 274.
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Sarah Mathis. Review of Nicholson, Christopher, Permanent Removal: Who Killed the Cradock Four.
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