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SA

It all started with a knock on the door…

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MOIRA SCHNEIDER

In 1981, the notorious apartheid security police arrived at their home at 05:00 with a knock on the door. They were looking for their 21-year-old son Keith, who was working on SASPU National, one of two political newspapers produced by the SA Students Press Union.

“He was away for the weekend with his girlfriend.We knew where he was but we said we didn’t,” Audrey remembers. “After they left, we phoned Keith and said: ‘They’re looking for you, you must come home.’

“He did and we asked him whether he wanted to leave the country. He said: ‘Absolutely not.’ We knew the security police were looking for him to detain him and he made the choice.

“My husband and our other son, Neil, helped him pack his stuff and escorted him to John Vorster Square, where police said they were only going to ask him a few questions. They immediately detained him under section 29 of the Internal Security Act.”

Keith was held in solitary confinement for five months and placed under a two-year banning order on his release.

This is part of the history of the DPSC, which was formed in the wake of Keith’s detention. The full story is told in a new book, The Knock on the Door, which was launched on Tuesday.

It is a story of ordinary men and women across the social and economic spectrum who mobilised to make a difference, and contributed in no small measure to the downfall of an evil system.

Max Coleman’s bravery in standing up to the authorities is referred to, initially when his son was detained by a Captain Struwig, described in the book as “notorious for his cruelty as an interrogator”.

“If you touch a hair on my son’s head, you will have to answer to me,” Max had said.

“He was quite shocked and appeared quite afraid of my husband,” Audrey relates.

Keith recalls: “I was proud of my father; I think that the position he took as the strong parent was clearly felt by the security police. They were scared of him, and I felt that offered me a degree of protection.”

Far from feeling despair and loneliness at Keith’s detention, Audrey says it made her and Max “very angry and determined that we would reveal what was happening in this country. We knew that Keith had done nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, we were very proud of him.

 “My husband used to go to John Vorster Square every single day for months, demanding things.

“He kept a diary every day of what he saw and who he saw. The man who had coffee with the security police and was trying to be nice – his son was badly tortured.”

And was there any support from the Jewish community for the family? “Not at all,” Audrey shoots back.

“I was very sad. I actually phoned a rabbi and I said to him: ‘I’m embarrassed that out of all the religious organisations, you’re the only ones that don’t give us support.’ His answer to me was that his duty was to study the Talmud.

“The churches were absolutely fantastic. The diplomats were there, the media were there and those were our protection at times of mass meetings and standing in the streets with posters.”

Keith laments his parents’ alienation from the white community at the time. “Many friends, including in the Jewish community, stood apart from them once I had been detained and they’d got involved in the DPSC.

“But they carried on nonetheless. They were brave, not only in taking on the state but also when it came to the price they paid at a personal and social level.”

Audrey didn’t know what had happened to either of her sons, while she supported others who were in the same situation. “When you become committed to something, you forget about yourself,” she explains.

“As time went on, you realised that there were other people who didn’t have the standing in society that we had, nor the money or knowledge of how to go about the whole thing. So, you broaden your commitment to helping others.”

Audrey feels a sense of satisfaction that the DPSC helped bring about a new dispensation.

“It was an amazing organisation and an example of how civil society can get together and fight repressive laws or human rights abuses. I think we’re all far too docile.”

Terry Shakinovsky, who co-authored the book with Sharon Cort, says writing it was difficult. In going through the DPSC archives and reading accounts of the torture of women and children, she found it “very hard to confront the worst excesses that the human species is capable of”.

It comes as no surprise to Shakinovsky that the DPSC, which was established in 1981, was banned only in 1987. “It was partly because some of the prominent people were white,” she states.

“It’s founders knew that they were given a space to operate that parents from other races would not have been granted. The great strength of the DPSC was that they were able to take the space awarded to them by a deeply racist regime and extend the gains that they made to South Africans of all races.”

In solitary confinement, without access to news, Keith had “very limited” information about his parents’ involvement in the DPSC during his five-month detention. After his release, he recalls feeling “proud of them that they had taken on the security police and campaigned for my release and the release of other detainees”.

“I knew that the state was dangerous, but also that my parents had the strength and the canniness to campaign in a way which judged the degree of danger. To a certain extent, I felt that they were protected by the fact that they were white, middle-class people and that the state wouldn’t take them on in a physical way,” he says.

“But once the state of emergency was declared and the DPSC itself became a target, once the third force and the death squads were started, I then became scared for my parents – particularly after the assassination of academic David Webster, who was with them in the DPSC.”

Despite it being 36 years since his solitary confinement, in some ways the experience is still with him. “There are times when I remind myself that no matter what is going on, I have my freedom, I can see the sky, I can walk out of an unlocked door – all little experiences which we take for granted but which are wonderful and meaningful.”

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