Surviving the Death Row

Book Title: In a Different Time

Author: Peter Harris

Publisher: Umuzi Publishers

In a Different Time is a story of four South African men who were part of a specialised unit of the African National Congress (ANC) military wing uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK). During their trial, these men became known as the Delmas Four named after the small town where their trial was held.

In a Different Time is a true story of the Delmas Four – Jabu Masina, Ting Ting Masango, Neo Potsane and Joseph Makhura who were sent to South Africa by the ANC in exile to carry out acts of war in the country of their birth. The book is fast-paced, absorbing and beautiful written. Sometimes it reads like a crime novel except that it’s all true.

The story takes place during the dying days of the Nationalist Party’s rule (late 1980’s). The Delmas Four had skipped South Africa while there were learners after the riots of 16 June 1976 popularly known as the Soweto Uprisings. History records that about 10 000 learners were peacefully protesting against the imminent use of Afrikaans language as a mode of instruction in all black schools. Police opened fire on learners sparking a national rebellion and an international outcry. The 1976 learners’ riots resulted in about 576 civilians being killed by the apartheid security forces within a mere 10 months and 10 000 activists were detained in the aftermaths. It was the most significant international event in South Africa since the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre where police killed 69 peaceful protesters. It has been estimated that some 4000 young black South Africans went into exile in the 18 months following the Soweto Uprisings.

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The Delmas Four were a direct product of the Soweto Uprisings. They left their country of birth as young, angry black males – with only one mission – to return and restage something akin to the French Revolution on home soil.

In a Different Time is the journey of these four men driven to extremes for an ideal of freedom. It paints a picture – at times poignant, at times devastating – of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. It’s about bloodshed, bombs, gunfire and the butchery of the innocent. The Delmas Four is an epic story of a country at war with itself. The end of apartheid is intertwined with the fortunes and setbacks of the men of war on both sides of the conflict.

Narrated by their lawyer, Peter Harris, In a Different Time is a compelling account of the futility of war and the necessity of peace and democracy. The book begins with the capture of the Delmas Four in 1987. Harris receives a call from the ANC headquarters in Lusaka (Zambia) to go to the Pretoria Maximum prison and help four ANC cadres. He has never heard or met them. The enforced encounter takes Harris into the dark secrets of the ANC military wing, the determination of its cadres and the brutality of the apartheid security forces.

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In a strange twist, the Demas Four tell their lawyer, Harris that they intend pleading guilty to the acts of sabotage, multiple counts of murder, and possession of illegal weapons. Despite his best attempts, the Four refused to budge. They told him that – in was all in the name of freedom and there were prepared to die for their cause. Indeed, they pleaded guilty and summarily sentenced to the death penalty.

The political events of the time (1990 Mandela’s release) and the legal dismantling of apartheid offered the four men reprieve. As part of preparing for negotiations, all political prisoners were pardoned and released from prison. The death penalty was suspended, and it was subsequently outlawed in the new South Africa (after 1994).

Today, the Delmas Four have been fully integrated into society and play prominent roles in the media, government and security forces respectively. Their lawyer, Harris now heads a large management consultancy in Johannesburg.

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by Bhekisisa Mncube