Denis Becket's Radical Middle is an amazing journey through the turbulent 80's. An important journey in that it is a trip made by an unlikely fellow. We expect books like these to be detailing the journeys of the darker skinned brothers of this continent of ours, in that most of us in those heady days of apartheid slightly ignored the travels and trials of our brothers and sisters from the other side of the divide.
Beckett's book brings out one man's crusade to get his white counterparts to consider a form of "majority rule." (Remember that swear word from the 70's and 80's? ONE MAN ONE VOTE?) I thank him for the memories and above all I thank him for this insight into the other world, that we were not familiar with and did not care that much to explore. Funny, lately I have been working on an anthology of South African plays, and in interviewing the likes of Prof Malcolm Purkey, Janice Honeyman and Mannie Manim, I realized that in the 70's and the 80's there were a number of white radicals and liberals who sacrificed a lot. Wow! It took some of us this long to come to that realization because we were too caught up in our own struggles, We, in our opinion/s were the only participants in the fight to bring down the system.
As I continued to read, I was reminded of the words of Steven Bantu Biko when he urged white students to go back to their communities and conscientize their own if they in fact wanted to contribute to the fight against oppression.
Becket details his travels and his efforts in a meticulous way, as though he were recording every meeting, jotting down every thought as they happened. The ability to recall events is just amazing and the attention to detail a bit suspect. (I wouldn't remember all the nuances so I tend to doubt anyone who says they do.) On many pages I asked myself ; "how did he feed his family?" I felt guilty for having been one of the people who at times did not send back the money for copies of The Voice that I sold in Lesotho when I became an extension of his Struggle distribution channels.
I worked under Denis for a period at Weekend World, but never really paid too much attention to what the white bosses were saying or thinking, I was busy fighting a revolution. Radical Middle's insides into the minds of the then rulers of the SA press are interesting and in retrospect, funny. Some honest anecdotes about some black "heroes of the struggle" bring the book still sharper into life. (Some of us had a hard time, back then, giving truths to the larger community, about people who they assumed were brave radicals as portrayed by the white newspapers. But we should follow the saying and not speak too ill of the dead.)
What brings warmth and humanity to the book for me are the personal interactions with particularly Nomavenda Mathiyane. These interactions give a glimpse of the black/white relations in our country then and now. Interesting to note that Denis and NomaV (as he calls her) did not view their relationship from the same page. Their exchanges are priceless, especially the part where she felt "held down" by white bosses. Amazing stuff, because I can relate, while I am sure that Denis thought he was throwing all the opportunities he could at her. These issues go to the core of race relationships in our country. They still are present with us today, as BEE tries to parachute black people to some mythical economic positions.
The interactions with Mrs. Winnie Mandela, Mr. Enos Mabuza (former head of KaNgwane) and Dr. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, former head of KwaZulu and one of the most talked about leaders of the last 50 years, were also refreshing. Denis is a man of his own mind, it is clear that he has been like that since time immemorial. There is a bit of self righteousness about the book because Denis does no wrong and even though he does put one foot wrongly every once in a while, it is told with such denisesque humour that it all becomes part of the journey to his vision of a majority-rule society in which everyone does a part of the ruling.