Recently we observed the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. But without personal stories the occasion becomes abstract and runs the risk of speaking only to the converted. Author Janice Warman tells the story of a South African journalist who paid a high price for holding on to his integrity and who has now risen to the ranks of the United Nations in Paris.

Like many students of the 1970s Guy Berger, now director of freedom of expression and media development at UNESCO, was politicised by his time at Rhodes University. But he was one of the few who went on to fight apartheid and to pay a heavy price for doing so. Those who tortured and imprisoned him have not been punished for their crimes. They have enjoyed impunity for their actions.

I knew him slightly during my time on the journalism degree at Rhodes and came to know him better when I wrote a book Class of ’79, to honour the part he, Zubeida Jaffer and Marion Sparg played in the liberation of South Africa.

Like them, his experience of fighting apartheid has a direct bearing on Impunity Day, the global call to demand justice for those targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression, because of what he endured at a time when democracy was a far-off prospect in South Africa, and when to attempt any form of freedom of expression was likely to endanger your life.

Guy is a moral person through and through, and when he was arrested, tortured and put on trial for having banned books and for being a member of the ANC, his first thought was for others. Several fellow activists were subpoenaed to appear as state witnesses against him, and despite facing the certain prospect of prison himself, he pleaded guilty in order to save them.

Had he not done so, anyone who refused to testify against him – and most would have done so – would have been imprisoned themselves. It was a dilemma faced by many, if not most, political prisoners at that time, and it was one he would not countenance.

He was convicted of possession of banned books and of membership of the ANC, although as he points out, at that time he could not have been a member – white people could not join.

Guy recalls his arrival at Rhodes University, where he was later to become head of the School of Journalism: “It was a mind-opening experience. You had grown up with black people as servants, and now you would meet them as equals. This was not so much on campus, which was still largely racially exclusive, but there were township activists prepared to work with left-wing white students. I met young people who were militant and proud of themselves; they educated me. It was the Black Consciousness era. They were being brave and standing up for their rights; they were out of the ghetto. At the same time, one could learn about Marxism, which was banned because its methodology was used for analysing the fusion of apartheid and capitalism, and advocating a socialist alternative.’

The Black Consciousness Movement had been formed in the wake of the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and echoed the rise of Black Power in the US. Despite its leader Steve Biko’s own support for non-violent action, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, it leaned towards more militant and radical solutions. Most of its key leaders were banned by 1976, the year before Biko’s death.

After Biko’s death, five Rhodes students, who were friends of Guy’s, were involved in a big township stayaway. Two white students were banned and two others gave state evidence and got off without punishment. In contrast, a black lecturer was imprisoned for his involvement and – incredibly, from today’s perspective – one black scholar was caned as punishment. These events were deeply radicalising for the second-year journalism and politics student.

‘For me at the time,’ says Guy, ‘it seemed that there wasn’t an easy middle way. The Progressive Federal Party was so marginal to change, whereas so many immediate battles were going on right on the doorstep. I had to get involved directly. The only way the apartheid nut could be cracked was through direct challenge, rather than through the all-white Parliament.

‘One of the things that made me more militant was when the banned crusading editor Donald Woods had to flee the country in 1977, and three newspapers were banned: the Voice, the World and the Weekend World. To me, they had been an educational resource, enabling me to better understand what was going on in the country. Broadcasting [which was state controlled] was all sewn up by the government; other newspapers weren’t as independent as Woods’s Daily Dispatch.

‘Besides making me angry about the suppression of the press, it also confirmed a hunch. This was that when you have credible information resources closed, you couldn’t believe anything that was allowed to continue to be published. Your rule of thumb was to assume that whatever was reported, the opposite must then be true.’

By 1980, the year of his first arrest, Guy had been involved for several years in student study groups, self-help groups, a township newspaper, and volunteer projects in the townships and rural areas; and, like many students, he was attracted to reading ‘banned’ literature.

In addition to his activity in the white anti-apartheid student movement, he had also agreed to research trade unionism for the banned ANC. He had just gone to bed in the early hours of an August morning after writing an article for the Work in Progress journal. Suddenly, there was aggressive banging on the door; the police had come.

Initially Guy thought that his arrest was not especially serious – that he was part of a general round-up related to widespread boycotts in the local township schools, to which he was not connected. Reality sank in swiftly, he says, after he was moved to an isolated police station in the small Eastern Cape hamlet of Alexandria, where the security police, led by Alfred Oosthuizen, started serious interrogation, demanding to know when he had joined the ANC and following it up with three days of sleep deprivation, threats, assault and sweet talk.

Thereafter, he was taken back to Grahamstown to write a statement, and then to prison in East London for sporadic further interrogation. He remained in solitary confinement there for another three months, before being transferred to Port Elizabeth for the formal political trial.

Berger knows he was betrayed by the notorious spy Craig Williamson, who had been involved in a chain of messages from the ANC in Botswana delivered to Berger by another spy, Karl Edwards. Both men testified at Berger’s trial. The verdict in the Port Elizabeth court found Berger guilty of being a member of the ANC, a finding based largely on the possession and circulation of banned ANC literature.

‘In fact I wasn’t a member,’ Guy explains. ‘At that time the ANC’s internal constitutional laws even stated that white people living in South Africa couldn’t be members. At any rate, in 1979–1980, I was a sympathiser, not an actual cadre. The hard evidence for the conviction was possession and distribution of ANC publications.’

In the build-up to the trial, he had been detained for three months and was moved several times – a tactic routinely used to separate detainees from their families – from Alexandria to East London to Port Elizabeth. Another four months passed after his sentencing. He was then taken to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and, finally, to Pretoria.

‘The first three or four days of that 1980 detention were the worst in terms of direct pressure,’ he says. ‘There was a combination of sleep deprivation and slapping me around. Unlike some others, I wasn’t given electric shocks or made to stand on drawing pins, but the inhumane treatment was still effective.’

He was kept awake for three days and three nights, then forced to make a statement. ‘You start going a bit funny after that,’ he says with understatement. ‘But probably even worse was to follow: solitary confinement in a tiny grey cell for twenty-three hours a day. The window is painted black, and a naked bulb is on twenty-four hours. You don’t know when this ordeal will come to an end; it seems indefinite. You imagine your file is on some clerk’s desk. You have no reading matter and no contact with anyone. There is only yourself and your worries.’

After some time, he was allowed a Bible and sporadic visits from his wife Jeanne, then his girlfriend – occasions that he was sure the police were bugging. To counter the eavesdropping, he would write words on the palm of his hand to show her.

It was typical of their racist thinking, Guy says, that the police assumed that he was part of a grand plan and that he was, among other things, running underground cells to recruit students for the ANC. ‘They said: “Now that we have got you, we will stamp out the opposition in the Eastern Cape”.’ This was sincerely believed by them, Guy maintains, notwithstanding that the region had a tradition of resistance going back 150 years. ‘They simply assumed that black campaigners were incapable of organising themselves and needed whites to do it for them,’ he says.

‘I was surprised to be arrested, in fact, because I didn’t think I was really doing anything very serious or effective. It would have been nice to be a hero, but it was actually small-scale stuff – helping a bit here or there. Yet they said in court that the things I had done were connected to hard-core recruiting.’

Guy’s role for UNESCO puts him at the rock face of press freedom worldwide:
‘I have been fortunate. I felt at the time Mandela died that I was quite privileged in a way. Although it was difficult, I was privileged to be part of a society that was undergoing change, that offered me an opportunity to be part of it and that it was successful. And I’m hoping that some of the work I can do at UNESCO can be successful – not for me as an individual, but as part of a successful movement.’

‘Do you feel now that it was all worth it?’ I ask him.

‘In terms of whether it was the right thing to do, I think yes, absolutely. I have such an abhorrence of racism that in a way I don’t think I could have done anything different, particularly the way racism worked out in apartheid South Africa, in terms of such an extensive deprivation and humiliation; it was institutionalised so absolutely. Racism disgusts me so much; I feel very emotional about this, and this is the kind of thing that does drive one to action. It is just appalling. So was it the right thing to do to fight apartheid? Yes, absolutely.’

‘The whole outcome – in other words, the fact that we no longer have apartheid, that it’s twenty years since a new democracy – was it worth it in that sense?’

‘In that sense, yes, there is no doubt about that. It’s certainly not the perfect society that one probably naively thought could come about more quickly. It certainly could be better than it is, but if you take the longer-term view, it’s a different world and a different country to what it was. And a much better one.’

And as he writes to me from Paris today, with Impunity Day on the horizon: ‘Free expression is a human right; not a crime; it is the attacks on this right that constitute a crime. When there is no punishment for these kinds of crimes, society is failing to protect a fundamental right – with knock-on consequences for other rights, for democracy and for development.’

Copyright Janice Warman 

Sections of this article first appeared in Class of 79: three students who risked their lives to destroy apartheid, by Janice Warman (Jacana, 2014)