With the current tensions and peaceful resistance in the US (and now worldwide) following yet another police killing of an innocent black man, the insensitivity amidst all of this for example of a white sportsman trying to tell his black teammate why he should not dishonour the flag or his country by taking the knee, Bradley Steyn’s own battle with his privileged whiteness could not be more relevant
Bradley Steyn was still a teenager when he crossed Strijdom Square (at the time) to visit his mom at the State Theatre. His life exploded into the sharpest of tiny shards as he found himself centre of the horrific Barend Strydom massacre (with 8 black victims murdered and 16 injured) yet wasn’t targeted because of the colour of his skin. He tells DIANE DE BEER about the decades of trying to recover his splintered life:
Two journalists capture much of why Bradley Steyn’s book Undercover With Mandela Spies – The Story of the Boy Who Crossed The Square (Jacana) is such a mesmerising read if like me, you aren’t immediately drawn to yet another story about our past as told by a white man.
The first is Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm who writes about Bradley Steyn and his book: “Bradley Steyn’s book is not just a rollicking read full of testosterone-driven skop, skiet and donner, treachery and treason, it is also about a young white man’s gradual attainment of wisdom, of understanding how psychologically, emotionally and spiritually corrosive the idea of unreconstructed whiteness is.” (And I implore you to find this article at Daily Maverick and read it, as further proof that this is an illuminating read, as she does a wonderful piece, putting it all into its political context of the time – 1988).
And this concluding paragraph in journalist Ranjeni Munusamy’s column in a past Sunday Times:
“Ours is an impossible story: It began 25 years ago with the triumph over a system that forced us to hate ourselves and each other.We are and will always be a deeply damaged people. On our journey we lost our humanity and our values were eroded. We lost our national pride.Now begins a new era. Broken or conquered, we must find our way.”
These, in different ways, encapsulate Bradley Steyn’s story Undercover with Mandela’s Spies: The Story of the Boy who crossed the Square and the title is perhaps so much more vivid if you live in Pretoria where it all began.
And then, to further intrigue, there’s yet another catch phrase on the cover: Four sworn enemies. The MK ANC Spy team that infiltrated the heart of the apartheid regime.
And the preface begins with: “It’s been 30 years. It’s time I got over it.”
He is, of course, talking about that horrific day that impacted the rest of his life. “There was a court case,” he writes. “A killer got the gallows and was sent to Death Row. I saw what he did, saw him murder those people, but I survived. I got a job. I married. I had a child.” Survivor’s guilt is often what really survives – in these kinds of situations.
Bradley Steyn, who was only 17 years old at the time, was no different. In fact, nothing in his personal circumstances helped either – not because people are bad, but because they don’t know how to react, how best to help. That includes everyone from parents, to teachers, to friends.
He explains his own circumstances best: “But then like a cassette tape unraveling, everything suddenly snarled into a noise I didn’t recognise, and that life I had before just screeched to a halt. “The story of his world following the shooting on the square is how his life took on a life of its own.
“I had escaped physically unscathed, but the real damage lay within. I have never recovered emotionally.” He acknowledges that the post-trauma he suffered was hard on his parents, as his stress disorder intensified in the weeks that followed the slaughter.
“The desolation of not having the school principal or my teachers or the other children – except a couple of close friends – even acknowledge what had happened has remained with me to this day.” It’s a chilling sentence which captures the terror this young boy must have felt following the killing spree he was witness to – allowed to escape simply because of the whiteness of his skin.
That has been his battle and what propelled him into a life dictated mostly by the use of force as he found his life spinning into a routine of violence, seemingly the only thing he understood at the time.
“A child today would be given a time to heal, to be filled with fury, and then to dip and rise – whatever was needed,” he notes.
But there was nothing like that, not for any of the victims. His mind was left to rage with bedtime becoming hellish. It’s so typical of how white people in this country reacted to horror at the time, they turned away, brushed it aside and those directly affected, just had to cope. No one did.
And as he explains, the devastating after-shocks didn’t stop there. That was just the beginning. In desperation, his parents decided that the military might help to bring order to his chaotic life and it did, on the surface – but also honed all his skills for a way of life that led to him announcing the following resumé: Thug for hire. Highly qualified.
As he passed from being a bouncer at nightclubs to a life much darker and dangerous, he writes: “I was just a humble thug, a 19-year-old taken in by the lure of an undercover life where I could blow off the terrors inside my head without having to answer to anyone…the people I came across were often brutish, unafraid of blood and even death. That was the criminal underworld, and I guess I had been shifting more and more into that zone of absolute indifference because it fulfilled a need in me to shut off all emotion.”
From there he followed a short route into doing dirty work for the apartheid regime and at some point, was flipped to the other side, eventually fronting as a far-right fanatic to infiltrate an even scarier world which eventually led to him fleeing the country for his life.
And finally my first reservations when handed the book, and I will again explain this courtesy of Marianne Thamm and journalist/author Janet Smith who was instrumental in the writing of this book:
Smith wrote about her first impressions: “If I was wary of supremacists – who didn’t hesitate to DM me with threats of slitting me open from top to bottom and rejoicing if I was gang-raped – I was cautious of Bradley at the get-go. I was affected by his experience as the boy who crossed the square, but I was immediately suspicious of everything else, especially the depth of his relationship with the ANC.”
She explained that while she was “moved by his having witnessed Strydom’s massacre, I felt he had to be that white male stereotype of a special kind that my generation of South Africans knows only too well. He would want to be ‘protected’ and treated as special in some way because he had always been told he was.”
Thamm in turn writes: “Smith’s sentiments echoed my own when I first picked up this remarkable book. Do we really need another damaged white person who finds redemption through black suffering and pain?”
And when reading the book, these are issues the author battles with himself and which makes this such an intriguing read. He had to come to terms with his demons. And the serious position he takes is underlined by the space of time elapsed since his life was turned on its head.
I love the way Steyn ended the book by giving the details of all the victims of that horrific Strydom Square nightmare, fortunately now with a powerful new name and that of a woman, Lilian Ngoyi; but also the details of the people who played a large part in his life.
It is a book that captures the devastation on so many levels of people living in this country during apartheid, but it also tells a story of reclaiming a life and making a difference, something which this country is also renowned for.