After spending three months in detention in the 1980s, student activist Bridget Hilton-Barber discovered she had been betrayed by one of her best friends, Olivia “Olive” Forsyth, who was a member of the apartheid security police also known as “Special Branch”. Three decades later Hilton-Barber talks to AmaBookaBooka about betrayal, forgiveness and what to do when you accidentally cook your laptop (besides panic). By JONATHAN ANCER.
In 2015 Olivia “Olive” Forsyth wrote Agent 407: A South African Spy Breaks Her Silence, reflecting on her days as a Special Branch agent at Rhodes University, apologising to the people she betrayed. For Forsyth, it was her own private Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But for former student activist and author Bridget Hilton-Barber, Forsyth’s apology was a case of far too little and much too late – there was little truth and even less contrition. In the latest episode of Amabookabooka, Hilton-Barber talks about her fast-paced memoir, Student. Comrade. Prisoner. Spy – a powerful story about her own journey at Rhodes in the 1980s, which chronicles her political development in apartheid’s brutal war. The book, which has been buzzing around in her head for 30 years, is also about confronting demons – and her demon-in-chief comes in the form of one of her best friends at the time, Forsyth.
In the podcast, Hilton-Barber reads an extract from Student. Comrade. Prisoner. Spy about the deadly consequences of the Special Branch fire-bombing her friend Chris Mbekela’s home and how Forsyth pretended to come to his rescue. Hilton-Barber compares the political Struggle students waged in the 1980s to the #FeesMustFall protests that have swept universities recently. Although writing her memoir was a cathartic experience and Hilton-Barber says she managed to slay some demons in the process, she doesn’t have “closure”. Hilton-Barber reveals that the draft of her book was so hot that it almost went up in smoke and then she gets deep-fried in Amabookabooka’s world famous Sound Effects Rorschach Test.
After you have listened to Hilton-Barber, listen to an interview we conducted with Forsyth when Agent 407 was released in 2015:
Also in this week’s podcast there’s a story from the winner of All About Writing’s monthly writing challenge and the Book Lounge’s Mervyn Sloman talks about the lengths some authors will go to win over bookshop staff and what events are coming up at the coolest book shop in the country. DM
AmaBookaBooka is a podcast about books and the people who write them. It is produced by Jonathan Ancer and Dan Dewes for the Daily Maverick and in partnership with the Book Lounge.
Main photo: Bridget Hilton-Barber
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