Before setting off to the United States last month to cover the presidential elections I received an e-mail so bewildering it felt like a message from the dead. The e-mail contained a list of 15 people from ten countries who were going to the US as international election observers. One of those people was from South Africa and his name – the two words leapt at me from the screen, seized me by the throat -- was Justice Bekebeke.
The last time I had seen Justice Bekebeke was 15 years earlier on the morning a white judge in red robes condemned him to death. It was the most monstrous injustice I came across during the six years I was to spend as a journalist in South Africa.
The place: Upington, a rigidly conservative town in the desert 750 kilometres west of Johannesburg. The crime: murder. The facts: a group of people from the black township of Paballelo, a dusty little enclave on the fringes of white Upington, had chased, caught and killed a black policeman who had opened fire on a crowd of protestors, wounding a child.. Three years later Judge J.J. Basson, white-haired local grandee of the ruling Afrikaner tribe, found 25 people guilty of the policeman’s death. Basson based his convictions on what was known then as “the law of common purpose”, whereby if you share the desire to murder you are as guilty as the person who actually committed the act. When I arrived on the scene early in 1989, a year before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, argument was under way in court over whether the death sentence should be automatically applied to all.
On the morning final judgement was passed, before the doors of the courtroom opened, I talked to the two lawyers heading up the defence of the Upington 25, as they had come to be known. One was Andrea Durbach, who was driven and passionate and came from Cape Town; the other was Anton Lubowski, a tall, dashing Afrikaner with the looks of a Polish count. The accused cherished Durbach and adored Lubowski. They saw him as their “hero, their rock star”, as Durbach, used to say. Over breakfast – we had become friends over the preceding three months – they told me they knew that not all 25 were going to get the rope, but that some definitely would. The one for whom they held out least hope – in fact, no hope at all -- was Justice Bekebeke, at 28 years old the most articulate and most militant member of the group.
The courtroom was brutally hot. The wide open windows admitted no breeze. Yet J.J. Basson did not raise a sweat. He was going to pass death sentences today but it was with an absent voice -- like a bureaucrat who, bored at the end of a long day, is impatient to head home – that he invited each of the accused to make a brief address to the court, as the law allowed. The words Justice Bekebeke uttered that day have remained with me ever since.
“In a country like South Africa I wonder how justice can really be applied,” Bekebeke began. “I certainly haven’t found it. But, my lord, I would like to ask, Let’s forget our racial hatred. Let us see justice for all humanity. We are striving for each and every racial group to live in harmony. But is it possible, in the name of the Lord? Is it possible in such a country?...I would like the Lord to give you many years so that one day you can see me, a black man, walking on the streets of a free South Africa. And my lord, may the Lord bless you my lord.”
Bekebeke got death by hanging. So did 13 others, including a married couple in their sixties who had ten children and had no history of political activism, as far as anyone knew, let alone common crime.
The last glimpse I had of the Upington 14, as they came to be known, was later that morning, after court had adjourned, as a big yellow police truck drove them off to Pretoria Central, the maximum security prison more commonly known in South Africa as Death row. I saw brown fingers clinging to the vehicle’s metal grille; I heard the condemned sing freedom songs, the one gesture of defiance – for their voices were strangely boisterous – that they had left on this earth.
Fifteen years later Justice and I met on a balmy evening in Miami in the lobby of the Marriott hotel. He was tall and very thin with a deep voice, a big smile and sad eyes. We had talked on the phone a week earlier – he had thought I was a crank caller at first -- and were both intrigued, and a little nervous, at the prospect of an encounter which was to last four hours, into the night. As if to show my bona fides, as if to make the point that I was for real and was worthy of talking with him about the most momentous episode of his life, I handed him, almost immediately, a copy of an article I had written for the Independent on 26 May 1989, the day he was condemned. The article, published the next day, began, “Here in Upington, a bone-dry town set in a vast expanse of scrub, sits the cold heart of apartheid” and ended with Justice’s speech from the dock. He finished reading, glanced up, looked through a white wall to a place 10,000 kilometres distant and then turned to me with a shake of the head and sighed, “Man, I tell you: it’s as if it happened yesterday!”
They had all got out alive. The case had gone to the highest court in the land and all the death sentences had been overturned. The political climate had changed dramatically since Mandela’s release and after two and a half years they were all out of prison. Justice was the last man to be set free.
What, I asked him, was his most abiding memory of the whole ordeal? He did not need to think before replying. “Anton,” he said. “Anton is always on my mind.” I winced and nodded, and said something like “What a great man…!” and then Justice began to talk.
“He was one of us. He and we were one. We called him “number 26”, as if he were the 26th accused. He was so much than just our lawyer. There was a place in the Upington court, a consulting room, where the lawyers met with their clients. But he did not want to meet with us there. He wanted to meet with us in our environment, so he came down to our cells to talk to us. He said he was more comfortable there. He was our comrade. We didn’t see his whiteness, that he was an Afrikaner. Never!
“Anton would join in our freedom songs, he knew the words in Xhosa and Zulu. He sang and danced with us, as we did. After the death sentences were announced he came down to the holding cells with us and he was crying. We were the ones consoling him!”
Death Row in Pretoria was as much of a nightmare as anyone might have expected. They arrived on a Saturday and from the moment they were locked inside their cells and for 36 uninterrupted hours they had to endure the moans, yells and cries of a couple who were due to be executed at dawn on the Monday. “She was the last woman ever to be executed in South Africa,” recalled Justice, who felt more satisfaction than anyone when almost the first action Mandela took on taking power in 1994 was to abolish the death penalty. “There were executions nearly every week that we were there. Every time it was terrible. There were days when all of us were down but we always encouraged each other.”
The day when they were most down of all, when no encouragement was possible, came three and a half months into their time on Death Row. It was the morning of 13 September 1989, when the Upington 14 learned through the radio that the night before Anton Lubowski had been assassinated, gunned down at the entrance to his home in Windhoek, Namibia. “There were six of us from Upington together in my cell that morning;” said Justice. “We reacted first with disbelief. It could not be true. Then, as time went by the truth sank in and we were destroyed, devastated -- inconsolable. We knew who had done it. Of course we knew. It was the state.” Of course it was. A death squad unit of South African Military Intelligence.
All his life until the day he heard of Anton Lubowski’s death Justice had been clear about what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to become a doctor. He was a male nurse at the time of his arrest and his dream was to study medicine. “That day I changed my plan. From that day on I knew there was only one thing I wanted to be: a lawyer. I would pick up his spear. I would follow in his footsteps. I would fill the vacuum he had left. I would become another Anton.”
Justice left prison on 6 January 1992, aged 31. He had two missions. To reconnect with Selina, the love of his life; and to enrol at university in Cape Town to study law. He succeeded on both counts. Selina, a teacher who he had known since he was a small child, not only bore him three children, all girls, she paid his tuition fees. “I knew it would be tough at times, especially starting so late and in a very white educational environment, but I was determined that I would allow no obstacle, however high, to block my way. I was like a student possessed. I got good marks. I won awards and in six years I had done my articles and qualified as a lawyer. All along the spirit of Anton drove me and I knew that however tough it got I would never wilt, I would never fail him. I told my comrades in Death Row that this is what I would do, I made a vow, and I fulfilled it.”
A vow to his comrades in Death Row was as solemn an affair as was his vow to Anton. They had stood by him in a spirit of solidarity that for anyone who has not lived through oppression and a liberation struggle, maybe for anyone who was not black in apartheid South Africa, is hard to understand. It was Justice who killed the policeman. It was he who, after the crowd had brought him down, administered the fatal blows; crushed his skull with the butt of the gun whose bullets had wounded the little child. “The real guilty party was me,” Justice told me. “When Anton came towards the end of the mitigation phase of the trial and told us our chances, I said to the guys that I felt I should come clean for the sake of the group. They hardly let me finish. They all jumped on me. They were enraged. They said, ‘We would rather kill you ourselves than let them kill you’. They did not want me to own up to this white judge. It was a question of dignity and solidarity and it was immediately clear to me that there was no possibility of further discussion. Anton was present and he said, ‘OK, guys, I did not hear this. This conversation never took place..’.”
Far from exploiting Justice’s vulnerability, the rest of the Upington accused deferred to his moral authority When I asked Justice about that speech he had given from the dock, he told me that the original plan had been for him to speak on behalf of all the accused. “I could not. Words failed me. In the morning I said that each of us should say something to the judge, which was what happened. Right to the last moment, even when I was standing up, I did not know what I was going to say. But then it came to me and I spoke what came from my heart. And even then, even that day, knowing that in a matter of minutes Basson would condemn me to death, as the words flowed out, I had this sense of hope that I would be free one day. Later when we were being taken to Pretoria in the prison bus I told the guys, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be coming back down this road, in the other direction, one day’.”
Not in his most demented dreams would he have imagined then that within ten years he would be the man in charge of running elections – non-racial, fully democratic elections – in the giant province of the Northern Cape. He began working for the Independent Electoral Commission in 1998 and since 2001 he has been heading the whole of the provincial operation, organising an army of up to 14,000 election workers on the big national voting days. He returns frequently to Upington, the second-biggest town in the province, but now lives in the provincial capital of Kimberley in a previously “whites-only” residential area. He and his wife became a respected couple about town, with her running the family, holding down a high-powered job in education, chairing the provincial branch of the Communist Party (the intellectual conscience of the ruling African National Congress) and finding the time somehow to study for an MBA. “An extraordinary woman,” said Justice. “The head of the family – not all African men will admit it, but I do – and a 25-hour day. Extraordinary!”
Anton was not the only person Justice worshipped who paid the ultimate price. In February this year he received a phone call at Kimberley airport just as he was about to board a plane. “It was my eldest daughter. She said her mother had had a car accident. She did not know how bad it had been. I cancelled my flight and got in the car and drove up the road she had been coming down. She had been in Upington for the weekend doing educational work and was driving back home. It is a straight flat road. As I drove up that road I kept repeating, ‘Please, whatever happened let her not have died, please!’ But the more I drove the more I had this sensation that she was dead. When I saw a police car driving past, and not an ambulance, I knew it was all over. I knew she was dead. And from that day my life changed. I still cannot believe she is not there. I still keep waiting to find her when I get home. I have known her all my life. She was like a sister and a wife combined for me. My mother adored her like a daughter. She was everything to me. E-ve-ry-thing!”
When the offer arrived two months ago to be an observer at the American elections Justice thought it was a joke. But even when he discovered it was not he had no stomach for such frivolities. “It was my daughters who persuaded me to say yes,” he told me, smiling fondly. “They said, ‘Go, go! Clear your head, get out of her, get yourself a life, dad!’ So,” he shrugged, “I did what I was told.”
Talking of jokes, and the inscrutable ways of human destiny, he said he was staggered when he paused and reflected on the fact that the last time we had met he was a black man in South Africa, prohibited by law from voting, condemned to death by hanging, and now here he was, invited to the world’s mightiest democracy to make sure the elections they held were free and fair. “And the other joke is that I am the Provincial Electoral Officer for the Northern Cape but if I were an American here in Florida I would not be able to vote, because convicted felons are forbidden from doing so. They punish you, you serve your time, but then they don’t give you your full freedom. You are punished after you have served your sentence. Incredible!”
That was not the only anomaly in the American system that baffled Justice, but in the end it was not really his business and, diverting as the experience was, the serious stuff was back home, cementing South African democracy, rebuilding his shattered home. “Partly for my daughters, but mainly I suppose for me, in September we all travelled to Windhoek to visit Anton’s grave. It was the first time I had gone. It was there in the black part of town. It was important for me to go there after my wife’s death, take my kids there and get them to see this part of my life. They cannot believe what I went through. They cannot believe there was a time when black kids and white kids were not allowed to go to the same schools. They cannot conceive of the South Africa I grew up in, the South Africa of only 15 years ago! They don’t get how the majority could have been so oppressed by the whites. Especially because our two neighbours either side of us are white. Since my wife’s death they have been so kind, looking after my daughters for me when I cannot get back home in time after school. Always so caring and attentive and decent.
“It is so tragic that Anton could not live to see this. He would have been so happy. I thought this as I stood over his grave. I thought many things. I thought that had Anton not got involved – Anton and Andy, who both fought outside the courtroom as well as in to bring our fate to the attention of the world, who brought the press in, which was so important – I thought that had they not been involved there would have been a quiet hanging and we’d all be dead, without anyone noticing beyond our family and our small town.”
Justice’s words became ever more of a monologue. He was talking with me but less and less to me. I was the unlikely stranger that had elicited these memories but more and more he was withdrawing into himself, performing through me an act of remembrance and reflection that I wanted to believe was having a healing effect. “Seeing his name on the grave,” he said, as if in a trance now, “seeing his name I understood what I had always sensed: that Anton was a part of me. Still is. I am alive, but also I am what I am, because of this man who sacrificed his life for me; this white person in a country where everything was arranged for his benefit and privilege. Yes, it was important for me to see the grave. When I saw his name there I felt the same sense of loss as when I lost my wife. He was a part of me…” Justice’s voice trailed off. He was far away, but he looked happy now, elated almost, proud. “We would sing freedom songs. We would dance in the cells. He was my lawyer, my comrade, my brother, my friend…”