Over the rainbow

Some are dead or in jail, but others have achieved high office. Former ANC activist Gavin Evans revisited his old South African comrades- in-arms to find out if life in the new `Rainbow Nation' has lived up to expectations. Photographs by Gideon Mendel
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The prospect of returning home always prompts feelings of ambiguity. That warm sense of belonging sits uneasily with grimmer expectations. Home is still South Africa and I returned this autumn, when the huge skies give even Johannesburg a kindly edge. Divert your eyes from the endless acres of squatter camps, shut your ears to stories of crime and carnage, and the country raves with a joyful lightness it could never know in the apartheid era.

I should mention that, after 15 years of fighting for the end of the old regime, I left home in 1993 for a wet, foreign land where I could move with safe anonymity, but always with an accent. Since then, the odd mugging has punctuated my pilgrimages back, but otherwise I have avoided the danger and triumph of South Africa's rebirth.

My friends remained, watching, helping, in some cases hindering the transition. A couple entered the government. Several acquired heroin or alcohol habits. One is a major-league drug dealer. Another is in jail for bank robbery. A few ended their days among the country's 60,000 annual murder and road-death victims. But most made their acquaintance with normality.

David Hare once described his play Plenty as being about "the cost of life lived in dissent", and this is what I wanted to find out from those with whom I shared the trenches: have you had a good peace? The six I questioned were by no means a representative sample, but they were all friends who had played prominent roles in creating this brave and uncertain new world.

I struggled to abandon the duality of sharing their hopes for the future and retaining my distance. I like to think it's a sensible wariness. Much has changed, but the trappings remain: the expectation of service, the armies of servants, the habit of prefacing requests with words such as, "Listen!" And yet I returned to Britain freed, finally, from my defensive cynicism about nirvana's reluctance to arrive. On sunny days I share Alan Roberts' optimism: "There are a lot of things I can do now, and my homeboys and black friends can do - enjoying ourselves - in a way you wouldn't have imagined five years ago. That's not insignificant - it's a helluva lot."

Alan Roberts

Alan Roberts remains truest to his activist past. One of nine children of a "coloured" community matriarch in Mafikeng, he had "no politics beyond a hatred of whites" until 1975, when he was "beaten to a pulp" by the police for leading a strike, after which he crossed the Botswana border and joined the ANC. I first met him in the early Eighties.

Life in the free South Africa, however, has not been good to him. On the eve of the election, his 14-year-old son was partially paralysed by a riot policeman's dumdum bullet. Then his two-year-old son drowned in a swimming pool. A year later his sister was killed in a car crash. He is now Land Commissioner in the Cape area, which involves recommending whether past black inhabitants on white-occupied land have a right to reclaim it. He appears delighted with these challenges but still admits he has not coped well with the peace.

"I found it very hard. In the struggle there was no routine, no expectations and we were always filled with fear, not knowing if someone was going to scrape you off the street the next day. I didn't get into serious relationships or acquire possessions, because my lifestyle was organised around revolutionary activity. But I had a sense of purpose." Democracy arrived sooner than expected. "The personal questions started hitting me hard. How to adapt to this? I'm only now beginning to, and it's a massive struggle to fit into a normal society." Today, at 46, he is rebuilding his life and "doing it right" with his baby daughter Emma.

Murphy Morobe

I first met Murphy Morobe in 1982, shortly after he was released from six years on Robben Island for his role in leading the 1976 Soweto uprising. He became the public face of the ANC-aligned mass movement, the United Democratic Front and, in this role, was arrested several times for anti- government activities (one such occasion, in 1984, is pictured left). In 1994, he ended his political involvement to head the state's Financial and Fiscal Commission, which allocates funds between the various levels of government.

His shift away from activism appeared seamless, but he told me that "acclimatising to a normal life was extremely difficult". "The activist life had a freedom that normal life denies you. That's the irony - in freedom there is also denial. Freedom opens up your vistas, but responsibility constricts your horizons." He struggles to break past patterns, still rising at 4.30 am - "a function of prison routine" - but now uses it to get in two hours a day in the gym. He relaxes by hiking in the veld, but worries he can't unwind emotionally. This 43-year-old, recently divorced father of two laughs self-reflectively. "I always fear that one day I'll be 90 and all of the things I wanted to cry about will come back to me."

His prognosis about the future remains cautiously upbeat. "Some among the forces of good have become villains who undermine what we stood for, but that's in the nature of the transition. There are things which detract, but the main thrust gives me hope."

Mkhuseli Jack

I first met "Khusta" 15 years ago. The son of a domestic worker, he was 12 before he owned his first pair of shoes, and his schooling was patchy, but his charisma saw him emerge as president of the Regional Youth Congress and a major mover in the United Democratic Front. For this he was tortured, and survived several assassination attempts, one of which killed his uncle.

He still bears the physical scars, but his attitude to his torturers goes way beyond the notion that "the best revenge is to live well". He helps their families with bursaries and chats to them at his gym. "I don't believe I benefit from seeking revenge," he explains. "A good heart is also a way of celebrating your victory. I celebrate it when I see the people who I fought with and the people who tortured me, working together."

When the ban was lifted on the ANC, he married my sister and together they relocated to Brighton for four years, where he completed an economics degree at Sussex University, before returning home to enter business. "I wanted a new challenge. I knew nothing about business but I thought I could create jobs." Today the 42-year-old Mkhuseli employs over 1,000 people, mainly in construction. "When I was a child we were told that blacks were less intelligent than whites, and we thought it true because we were living in shacks, but now, under a successful ANC government, you can't tell that to my children. We are living everywhere."

Brett Myrdal

My old high-school classmate, Brett Myrdal is a big, blonde surfer, mountaineer and scientist. He went into exile in Zimbabwe after refusing to do his military service, only to be snapped up by the ANC and fast- tracked into an elite military officer's course in East Germany. He then went on to be an ANC military commander.

When he returned to South Africa, he found himself becoming a recluse and went into therapy. "The psychologist asked how I felt, and all I did was just cry for an hour - I couldn't stop. I had extreme difficulties adapting, with an enormous need to find people who'd understand what I'd been through." The 39-year-old now co-ordinates the Table Mountain Fund, which involves setting up bio-diversity projects in the Cape Town area. He seems happier than before, though his past still haunts him. "If I think of the people I loved in exile who didn't come back, or who came back and ended up with nothing, I still cry a lot. Very few people skimmed the political cream. The others were left destitute or became criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, strugglers."

Like the others, he backs the ANC. "I vote for them because there's no one better, but they've lost the moral high ground. They're a regular political party, as corrupted as any other," he says, before ensuring I leave with a brighter conclusion. "My hope is that the next generation will grow up free from apartheid psychosis. That's an enormous hope."

Janet Cherry

Janet Cherry, 38, lives in Port Elizabeth, on a five-acre smallholding she shares with "two horses, one donkey, two dogs, two cats, one partner and one child". We first met as students 20 years ago - a time when we were inspired by idealism, adventure and hormones. Soon we were working together in strike support committees and ANC underground units.

Her turning point was 1990. "I'd lived with a sense of intense paranoia and I remember thinking I wouldn't be prepared to have a child while the ANC was banned. So it was an enormous relief to rediscover personal freedom and an absence of fear. My quality of life improved dramatically - I felt settled and stable for the first time in years, and it was a great relief to find I was able to think independently again."

Soon after the election she had a son, rekindled her passion for horseriding, and found a new one in mountaineering. She withdrew from activism, taking up a post as a development studies lecturer before being seconded to the Truth Commission, to research human rights abuses committed by the ANC in exile. She was shocked by what she discovered. "I learnt I was part of an organisation responsible for some terrible acts. After that there was no way I could go back into the ANC because I knew too much of what went on."

Mike Roussos

Mike Roussos is a former union and Communist Party leader. In 1990, after 16 years of revolutionary activism, Mike left his pounds 50-a-month union job and accepted a managerial post with the mining giant Gencor, and rose with astonishing speed to become its human resources director, for 110,000 employees. Today, this 44-year-old former communist leader is chairman of a major listed computer company.

A mantra of so many white "comrades" is that they left politics after discovering they were powerless to criticise without being branded racist. Mike, however, says his experiences working in the unions and the ANC head office taught him to anticipate a period of Africanist hubris. "Ambition ruled after 1990. It wasn't like the old days when you were sacrificing. Now it was, `I want to get what I deserve.' People use whatever advantages are at hand and race is a nice one, so I didn't expect things to be hunky- dory." His own reason for dropping politics had more to do with business and family demands.

How he reconciled himself to the leap from socialist struggler to capitalist accumulator? "It was an issue, is an issue," he assures me. "But have my values changed? I don't think so. While I'm not able to spend time making a difference, I respect the people who can - a good number of them are communists."