laissez come

The French phrase laissez passer – ‘let it pass or transpire’ – expresses, perhaps, resignation, but it has also the meaning of a passport or password. The apartheid Nationalist project was precisely the opposite of this – they wanted to control what transpired, and in particular who passed. Because of this, everyone in this story who is black must carry a passbook or dompas and may only be in white areas if in legitimate employ. Nobody who is white need carry such a book, and white characters in this work can come and go as they like.

My parents were exceptions to this rule, being under travel restrictions throughout their lives. This was because my mother was, until its banning and dissolution, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party of South Africa; and my father, although never a member, was a keen leftist and fellow-traveller, biographer and historian to the Party, and editor, for a while, of the CPSA mouthpiece. Neither of them could travel easily, and any application for a passport was always an occasion for tension, delay, disappointment, and, finally, rejoicing at a partial granting of travel permission after countless interviews and interrogations. I was never privy to these interviews with the nameless, to me, officers of the Bureau for State Security and other limbs of the state who sometimes visited the farm. My belief is that neither of my parents were, except in an informal way, active in politics in my lifetime, but I would have been the last to know if they were.

The months of my mother’s diary were jam-packed with political history. Those with a historical bent will have noted that the day Terry went off to a champagne picnic with R., taking the chicken that Lesley had cooked, was the 26th of June, the day of the Kliptown Congress, the day that the Freedom Charter was proclaimed. Does she mention it? No, she does not. On the 9th of August, when twenty thousand women marched to the Union Buildings to protest the extension of the dompas to women, Lesley was just a few miles away in Johannesburg. Does she devote one sentence to it? She does not. Would she have known about these things? They were front page news. Was Lesley completely self-absorbed, cut off for whatever reasons from the events of her time? Among the friends mentioned in the diary and with whom she spent time are Albie Sachs, Brian and Sonia Bunting, Jack and Ray Simons, ‘the charming Bram Fischer’, and many others who were all active Communists and who talked obsessively about the state of the nation.

In the 1950s, as Albie told me, it was still a fairly light matter to defy apartheid – a fine or at most a short term in jail. But after Sharpeville, the atmosphere hardened and it became lethally dangerous to belong to the underground, as he himself experienced. The atmosphere of terror which soaks all left-inclined activity in my memory probably dates from the post-Sharpeville era. But the possessions and papers of anyone who was on the left or suspected of being so, especially listed CPSA members, were, like their bodies, subject to search and seizure without warning throughout this period. This was not just a paranoid fantasy: we were ‘visited’ often enough, both at Clifton and at Plaston. The spies never, to my knowledge, read Lesley’s diary, but they could have done so whenever they liked. The same was true of any other document or even picture in her possession, so that the task of censorship was handed over to her, and whether she liked it or not, she was writing for at least one audience.


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