Monday, September 19, 2011

Peter Dickson's TRC submission

In the wake of the untimely death of Peter Dickson, a former colleague on the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth a few weeks back, another ex-journo colleague, Mike Loewe, of Grahamstown, started a forum on his Makana Moon website, where those who knew Pete reminisced about him. Mike Loewe included a copy of Pete's submission to the TRC, which just happens to mention yours truly on two occasions. Indeed, it makes me appear far braver than I was. However, for the record, I am including a copy of Mike's note and Pete's submission.

Mike Loewe's note: I’ve unearthed Pete’s statement to the TRC, one of a batch Ecna collected to make that point that there were whites who did their bit to bring down the regime, to give substance to the demand for a non-racial, democratic alternative to apartheid. It’s a brilliant piece of writing; precise, lived and furious. Dave Macgregor was hired for the project and he did a fantastic job.

Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
By Peter John Dickson, 33, News Editor, East Cape News Agencies (Ecna), Grahamstown, 20 May 1996

When I was appointed to the permanent staff of the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth in January 1988, PW Botha’s successive States of Emergency and their attendant media regulations had been in force since 1985.

Soon gaining a reputation for supporting and promoting street committees, youth and labour organisations and the End Conscription Campaign through personal contact and relentless reporting, it was not long before I gained the attention of the security police.

In fact, in 1993 when I returned to the Herald after having left Port Elizabeth in 1991 disilluisoned with the Post’s staunchly white-oriented and non-resistant attitude to apartheid’s brutality, a prominent ANC activist and friend who is now a member of the Eastern Cape provincial legislature welcomed my return as a return of “that energy we are missing so much in the struggle”. I had tacitly been regarded as “our man” in the Press.

The attention from the security forces, in parallel with my own hardening attitude, can be divided into two phases. The first, from late 1987 to mid-1990, taking the form of indirect intimidation, culminating in late 1990 – as organised violence threatened to derail negotiations – in a direct assassination attempt.

In 1988 in Port Elizabeth when the Times Media group had been restructured and rationalised and had come under conservative self-censoring stewardship, it was known in the liberation movement that Kin Bentley, before his two-year transfer to London, and myself were the only white reporters “on side”.

This did not make us popular at Times Media, nor in wider white society, and certainly not in security circles. Promotions or merit awards at work were denied and stories often spiked – the editor-in-chief, now the publisher, said a pre-trial story I had written on conscientious objector David Bruce would not be published as he had a wife and family to protect from terrorists – while so-called disciplinary measures were threatened for so-called misdemeanours. Ostracism was the social order of the day, especially by senior colleagues, which explains why it took two years, only after intervention by my ANC friend, to rehire me in 1993 on the ironic ticket of “black politics, education and labour reporter” now that the New South Africa was a fait accompli. This beat, too, was replaced with court duties.

In 1988 and 1989 we were frequently followed, covertly photographed, our telephones and those of immediate family tapped, mail tampered with or missing, and frequently telephonically threatened with injury or death by anonymous people.

My Press card for that year was withheld for months before I was summoned by security policeman Karl Edwards to his office at Port Elizabeth security police headquarters at Louis le Grange Square in mid-1988.

Taking place on a strangely deserted floor with he the only policeman present, this meeting was a weird pitch at intimidation and recruitment that failed dismally. He had held my Press Card since the beginning of the year, he said, while my credentials and background were checked, ending in my strangely being deemed satisfactory.

He knew the date I had started at Times Media in 1987, even what I had worn, and had gleaned my background from his younger brother and fellow security policeman Lloyd Edwards. The elder Edwards was proud of the fact that he could come and go at Newspaper House, even the library where several files most notably on the Cradock Four, the Pebco Three and pictures of policemen like himself steadily disappeared. He showed me a thick file of covert photographs of Herald and Post reporters entering and leaving various buildings. He called it his “favourite photo album” and said it was his job to “look after the Press”.

He knew all about my wife’s pregancy and that – it was some weeks later on June 20 – we were expecting a son very soon. His request to send my regards to her came across as more sinister than sincere. He offered me the use of the security police library “anytime”, but I declined the unsavoury self-motivated offer as a clumsy recruitment pitch. This terminated the meeting.
Several weeks later, he and a young woman who was not his wife and mother of his five children, attempted to gatecrash a private family party to unoficially launch a family friend’s Zareba Street, Central restaurant. The notoriously vain, hair-dyeing Edwards naively thought I would not blow his cover. Unlike that of other generally polite “lefties” at the time, I was a bit more hardcore. He was the enemy and I introduced him as such, to his great consternation and embarrassment, and my father-inlaw threw him out of the restaurant, due to officially open the next day. The restaurant, Wally’s, suffered endless Sanab harassment and problems with the Liquor Board before closing down the next year with its owner in financial ruin.

It was also during this time, as I became actively involved in the campaign for non-racial amenities in Port Elizabeth and relentlessly agitated for the release of emergency detainees through regular reports updating their names and numbers, that the intimidation became more of the Ku Klux Klan type. Kin Bentley was in London and, with only the moral support of my considerably more frightened black colleagues, I had to endure the harassment alone.

It began, roughly, with my awakening one night to see an unusual light flickering outside the window of the bedroom my wife and I shared with our baby son. On investigation, with a single tinted-windowed car idling further down the street, I discovered my post box on fire.
After my divorce in 1989, I flung myself even further into the liberation struggle, helping organise and vigorously publicise protest marches and non-racial picnics with the Port Elizabeth Action Committee and publicly refusing to serve in the SADF. I also wrote copious anti-apartheid copy, maintained excellent contacts that amazed my peers during the 1990 riots in Port Elizabeth’s northern areas, called for the release of hunger-striking detainees whose plight at St Albans I first exposed, delved a little too deeply into the non-activity of the Returned Exiles Committee that we now know was set up by MI to help divide the ANC, and wrote perhaps a little too much about self-confessed Vlakplaas operative Ronald Desmond Bezuidenhout. Apparently arrested as a “terrorist” at Port Elizabeth’s Sea Acres resort, he disappeared. I established, after repeatedly approaching Adriaan Vlok’s office through his spokesman Leon “Die Ridder in Swart” Mellett, that Bezuidenhout was a security operative.

An unsavoury-looking short middle-aged man bearing a motorbike helmet and in a black leather jacket, after my second story exposing Bezuidenhout, arrived at the Post claiming to be Bezuidenhout’s uncle. he wanted to meet me, he said, at a house in Forest Hill to tell me more. After he had left, my intuition ringing in my ears, I checked the map and saw the address was the last house at the bottom of a dead end surrounded by bush. I decided to abandon the night time meeting. My editor soon informed me the story was now a non-story. Mellett politely urged me to forget the whole thing. I wrote a third story, quoting Mellett.

One August night soon afterwards, on my regular walking route home to my central flat from the city centre It’s Country late night restaurant, a woman stopped me and asked me for the time. As I looked at the watch, there was a flash of a white bearded face and then a blinding light and enornmous pain in my head, I felt my legs buckle and I remember nothing beyond the sudden slap of the pavement I fell on. Having had a few drinks which made my body more relaxed, I came to rather quickly, but listened to the little voice in my head I have learnt to trust that told me to play dead. I peeked a look, still lying on the Russell Road pavement, and noticed sandalled white feet.

The man, fairly tall and well-built with a beard, said he had seen a “kaffir” hit me and had come to my rescue and chased my apparent assailant away. But I knew he was the assailant. My face was streaming with blood, my head pounding in acute pain, and I was unable to walk – I was at his mercy. he said he would help me to my home and where was it? I knew, as a human being only can know in such a situation, that I was going to be killed. My mind desperately racing, I guided my “helper” through as many well-lit public areas as possible to my Surbiton Street flat.

On the Donkin hill, aproaching Belmont Terrace, I saw a police van and tried to hail it, but the man clamped his hand over my mouth. They drove on without seeing me. It was then that he started speaking about how he hated “kaffirs and communists”, bragged about killing while a member of Koevoet, and produced a bloody knuckleduster-knife combination with which he had smashed my face in only minutes before. I knew I was in terrible trouble now – my mind was thinking of testimony before the Harms Commission in which Gavin Evans escaped CCB death by stabbing in his flat, to make it look like a robbery, by having moved shortly before the planned assault.

At the time, I had a tenant, whose surname ironically was Malan, sub-letting a room from me. A younger man, he was rarely home at night. Perhaps owing to Lady Luck and the lateness of the hour, he was home that night. If he had not been, I know in my heart of hearts that I would not be alive today. My assailant, still holding his arm around my neck, went from room to room in the flat to ensure it was empty, instantly letting go when he switched on my tenant’s bedroom light and saw him sitting up in bed. My shocked tenant, who was well built, asked what had happened. My assailant repeated his “kaffir attack” story. I was in the bathroom by now, washing the blood from my face, and I shouted out that I had been attacked by a white man. The man then dashed for the front door and fled. We tried to chase him, but he had disappeared by the time we reached the street. I did not report the attack to the police – I felt it would be like reporting a burglary to the burglars. They were, after all, the enemy.

The doctor established my nose was broken in three places, that if the powerful knuckleduster-knife blow had been a little to the left I would have been killed instantly. My sinus passages are virtually blocked and I will battle to breathe, the most basic requirement of living, for the rest of my life. The struggle for breath, made worse by extremes of heat or cold, brings intense migraines at regular intervals and for which there is no treatment. These are accompanied by dizzy spells, weakness of the leg muscles, and lack of co-ordination in walking.
These are my memories of apartheid society and I declare them to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I want these memories recorded only for posterity, lest we forget, so that our children may never experience – or turn a blind eye to – this evil again. I seek no retribution and no compensation. I want personal possession of my security police and MI files.

PJ Dickson

20 May 1996

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