Permanent Removal

Permanent Removal

by Alan S. Cowell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781431423439
Publisher: Jacana Media
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Alan S. Cowell is an award-winning New York Times journalist. He was assigned to Johannesburg in the mid-1980s and was awarded the prestigious George Polk Award for courageous reporting. The government of the day ordered him to leave in early 1987 and he was not allowed to return until the early 1990s. Since then he has been a regular visitor, most recently covering the Oscar Pistorius trial and anchoring coverage of the death of President Mandela.

Read an Excerpt

Permanent Removal

By Alan S Cowell

Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Alan S Cowell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4314-2346-0


The letter arrived in the final delivery before I closed the house and set the alarm sensors for a long absence. I resisted an irrational temptation to call a last goodbye to someone who had been there only in my imagination.

The cab – not, please note, an official vehicle placed at my exclusive disposal – was waiting across the frosted lawn. The driver yawned, reaching for a Styrofoam cup of something warm and steamy. The music on the car radio sounded vaguely oriental, but this was an era before the quarter-tones of the mosque and the muezzin's call became, for us, the symphony of menace. Down the street, between petrified trees and iced-over SUVs, newspapers were being delivered to other people: my subscriptions to the Times and Post and Journal had been suspended indefinitely – an act of giddy liberation. Untethered from my daily rites, I felt remarkably, peacefully, alone.

I went through the final fussy mental checklist of a protracted itinerary – passport, cash, medications, credit cards, traveller's cheques, money belt, shortwave radio, maps, workout kit, letters of introduction, contact book, backup USB, PDA, Swiss army knife (not in the carry-on, of course – even in those days!), batteries and cables and connections for the technology that burdens the modern wanderer. Past travellers took with them great steamer trunks and cases of victuals – limes, porter, salted hams, firearms in anticipation variously of scurvy or pirates or hostile receptions.

These days, you prepare as if you are some kind of techno-turtle, carrying your cyber-shell on your back: bound to the world wherever you are, wired or wireless, made whole by e-mail and internet access.

I looked back at the white colonial home, memorising the empty porch and shuttered windows that mocked any dreams of a family seat, a cradle of generations. Then I fell into traveller mode, staring without seeing past the cab's stained, Perspex division into the gloaming.

My mind was already far ahead, across miles of ocean and desert and bush that I would traverse at a sanitised altitude of seven or eight miles, untouched by storm or pestilence. Or so I thought. But your ghosts always find ways to haunt you. When they are awoken, it is well to be prepared.

I have sometimes asked myself how events might have unfolded if the letter had arrived in time for me to absorb its contents, in time to weigh its implications so much earlier. Or if I had never seen it at all. But "what ifs" has never been my style. What happened, the past, may be written about – as in this attempt – but not rewritten. Not if we are honest. Not if we seek to avoid making the same mistakes over and again.

An early transatlantic connection deposited me in London with just enough time to switch terminals for the overnight flight to Cape Town. In my previous existence, Embassy Suburbans – with tinted windows, driven by armed, over-fed minders wearing fishing vests and cargo pants – ferried me across bumpy tarmac; the kind of ostentatious discretion that people associate with American policy in the half-light between diplomacy and mischief. At dingy airport lounges in Cairo or Tashkent at some unwelcome hour, with large insects buzzing in pools of flickering neon and soldiers in ill-fitting uniforms cradling worn Kalashnikovs, second-tier officers ensured that I traversed their ambassador's territory without embarrassment or offense. Envoys handed over sealed cables: eyes only, and so forth. Not anymore.

Thomas J Kinzer, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, abbreviated sometimes with faux bonhomie to "TJ", had become Tom Kinzer. Lecture-circuit guru, TV soundbite dispenser, conference invitee and attendee, panel moderator, occasional op-ed contributor.

When journalists asked – with decreasing frequency – I told them I embraced this early change of life, this transfer from public to private sector, from the closed world of diplomacy to the open exchange of ideas. But there were times – in the right company, at the appropriate hour and with the requisite lubrication of Jack Daniels, when I would vouchsafe a degree of bitterness at having played the diplomatic game so dutifully and with such consummate duplicity. Only to be knifed by my own side. A high-flying career sustained by the rapier thrust of ambiguity had been lost to the political sabre-slash.

The metaphors of treachery are always those of the blade.

Somehow, in the very early retirement deal, along with the annuity and healthcare provision, I wanted my morality back. But how could a scarred diplomatic warrior insist on the return of openness, honesty? Would a courtesan demand the restoration of maidenhood?

Materially there was no real hardship. I could hardly complain of mistreatment when my garage housed a late-model Jaguar (despite the attentions of my ex-wife's lawyers in Washington and Paris) and my calendar was generously booked with paying engagements. But, left to dangle in the wind, your name not mentioned inside the Beltway without the appended question "wasn't he the one?", financial reward is not everything you consider to be your due.

On that journey from a northern winter to a southern summer, I had particular cause to attend the conference to which I had been invited, far beyond the stated agenda.

True, I felt stimulated by the challenge of steering debates with some of the host nation's great thinkers, by the flattery of sharing a podium with the likes of Suzman and Gordimer. Folders of pre-conference material told me the theme was "Truth and Reconciliation – Prerequisites of Justice?" The list of speakers was impressive, a galaxy of moral celebrity – Tutu and Mandela, Boraine and Bizos. The kind of people for whom the subject under discussion was the indigestible, daily reality, lodged in the national throat, not some nebulous college-campus theory.

But voyagers harbour subliminal motives. Nostalgia moulds journeys as surely as flight schedules. I had travelled this way before, much earlier in my life. I found myself asking: would the mountains be lower now, the passions less intense, its objects less gilded?

As the flight attendant leaned over to lower the window blind, I caught sight of myself, slightly stubbled, but still presentable – dark around the chin and with the beginnings of greyness at the temples – peering back at my own reflection with an expression somewhere between bemusement and apprehension: was I, Thomas Kinzer, arch-cynic, one-time manipulator of governments and dark events, looking for some magical return to innocence?

I have never been prone to airborne excess. Yet on this journey, feeling unready for sleep, I took a little more wine than usual with dinner, and, surprising myself, requested a Scotch on the rocks instead of decaf. I tried reading some of the standard authorities – Gobodo-Madikizela, Krog, Joubert – but could not concentrate. I swung the small, personal in-flight screen into place and flicked through a digital sheaf of movies, not altogether gripped by any.

On the real-time navigation display, the airplane resembled a child's cut-out toy, already south of the blue Mediterranean and the empty reaches of ochre desert, starting its long haul towards the tip of sub-Saharan Africa, coloured green – fecund, mysterious. I had once found the place names exotic. Kano, Accra, Nairobi. A line across the map was marked "Equator".

Far below, I imagined pin-pricks of light signalling the course of sightless, powerful rivers: fishermen's pirogues, hewn from single tree-trunks, drawn up on the muddy banks of dark villages. The inner eye, as Wordsworth put it, resurrected long-ago visits to towns built as administrative centres by the European colonial powers decaying inexorably, their night spots seething, their medical dispensaries empty.

Memories from an earlier, unchronicled life bubbled from forgotten depths: security guards with night sticks snoozing fitfully outside aid workers' guarded villas, patrolling the razor-wire barricades of traders' padlocked storehouses; a web of single-track roads through tunnels of impenetrable bushland, ribbons of rusty sand, impassable in the rains.

Far below, there would be ramshackle churches (usually less ramshackle for the wealthier Catholic dioceses) and village huts shaped like round, chocolate cakes topped by straw, the perimeters swept clean by women fearful of snakes, perching like birds on small, three-legged stools; a baby, usually, strapped to the back, another clamouring for the breast and another in gestation, hostage to the dreaded virus that would leave her children orphaned before they followed their widowed mother into an early grave.

Then you could imagine how it would all change when pre-teen gunmen and soldiers with amulets rampaged through these places, exhilarated by sudden screams, mortal panic. Kigali, Geneina, Gulu, Bukavu, Sharpeville, Kolwezi. Names on a different map, unrelated to aerial navigation. A drumbeat of horror.

I thought I should make a note of these ideas in order to provoke debate at the conference by asking – mischievously, maliciously – whether it was only in wealthy lands like the one I was visiting that "Justice" and "Reconciliation" had meaning. Whether, elsewhere, such themes represented an impossible luxury, subjugated to the grim dictates of daily survival against hunger, sickness, poverty, oppression. As it turned out, I would need much more powerful navigational tools than an airline's digital gazetteer.

I finally opened the letter at that late hour when the picked-over meals have been cleaned away and the seats have been tilted back and the overhead cabin lights are dimmed; when the insomniacs commune with laptops and the cabin attendants pray for a quiet night.

The stamps were bright, gaudy, showing birds and fish identified in minute script as lilac-breasted rollers and coral rock-cod. The envelope, made of cheap paper, was smudged with much handling, as if too many people had wished to touch it, to speed it on its way.

The postmark was from a remote station in a province of South Africa. I did not really need to open it to guess who had sent it, and, by association, what it might say. Even if I had not broken its seal of sticky tape and failing gum, I doubt that I would have been able to – or wished to – side-step the events that came to inspire some of the more sensational accounts that I want to correct with this narrative, this testimony. One headline still rankles: "An American's Shame in the New South Africa."

There were two documents, one handwritten in blue ballpoint on a single piece of lined paper that might have been torn from a school notebook.

"Our Dear Tom," it began. My eyes prickled. I blinked to focus.

"We send you our warm greetings. We wonder if you will remember us, the Widows. We wonder if you remember that you said you would help us find why our great Husbands died. We remember you said you would find the person who betrayed them. We remember you said one day you would return and Justice would be done. So now the new clues are here so you can help with all the powers of your Great Country."

It was signed: "The Widows of the Cooktown Four."

Enclosed with the letter, a newspaper clipping offered what seemed to be a transcript or excerpted record of some kind of hearing or interrogation. One passage had been singled out with hieroglyphics of emphatic underscoring and exclamation marks in the same blue ballpoint ink as had been used in the letter.

Question: What happened then, Mr Theron?

Answer: Information was received that Nyati and a number of black activists would be there to meet the white liberals. The activists were identified by means of informers. One informer, really. It was important for us to know where and when the meeting was taking place because that would tell us whether the conditions were right to undertake the operation. And I reported that evening we would make an attempt or investigate the possibility of undertaking the operation.

Question: What were your orders?

Answer: We were ordered to ensure the permanent removal of Nyati from society. To take him out, eliminate him.


Once the letter was opened, so was Pandora's Box. Sleep became almost impossible, a restless semi-consciousness, veering between blank wakefulness and not-quite-slumber. A flickering peep-show from my past – names, faces, tennis parties, gunfire; still, cold bodies; live, warm bodies; funerals – left me grasping for the present before I slid into soft-focus replay of younger days.

South Africa had been the arena of my first diplomatic assignment. Not, as later, a nation feted by the world as a joyous experiment in rainbow harmony, (offset, of course, by the monsters of AIDS and criminal violence) but in more sombre days, when the sinews of oppression were taut and seemingly permanent. I had been sent to a country in the final, violent paroxysm of a bloody conflict, one defined in absolutes: black, white; Afrikaner, African; minority, majority; tyranny, freedom; capital, Kapital.

I had been sent there to represent a superpower that hedged its bets, insisting – how conveniently we forget this now! – that the oppressors could be persuaded to set the terms of their own demise, while the oppressed waited patiently for redemption.

Above all, I had been sent there in my youthful prime, prey to every intoxication of thought and flesh in a land that offered both in industrial proportions. It had been my testing period, before the required adherence to official policy built its carapace over raw instincts of spontaneity, hardened the rushing arteries of indiscretion.

I had been duped by the elation of the victims, suffering their only ticket to freedom, who foreswore their own present to deny their enemies a future. I had been entrapped by the passions of revolutionary times in the pell-mell rush towards a new order in which the sins of the past would be automatically expunged.

In short, I had believed freedom was indivisible. My commitment to the God of policy had wavered. I had loved and left and been left. I had arrived an innocent, an ingénu. I departed with scar tissue still raw.

The sun came up somewhere over the Kalahari Desert, and the sky brightened rapidly towards Cape Town. When I raised the window blind, the light was so piercing that I almost winced.

They came at me in a pincer movement as I stood impatiently at the immigration desk, annoyed after my long flight that it was taking so long to process my entry form and temporary visa.

There had been a delay when the immigration officer in her crisp, white uniform ran my passport through the computerised scanner. Furtively she moved a hand below the counter, presumably to raise some kind of discreet alarm to which the two men responded.

One of them was smooth skinned and slightly plump, the other stringy and lean, a hint of roughness around his knuckles. Initially, I hoped that they might be part of the reception committee, bearing an invitation to a quiet lounge with freshly brewed coffee and chilled fruit juice while my suitcases were picked off the conveyor belt and the formalities were taken care of, as so often in my diplomatic days.

"If you could just step this way, sir," the white officer said. "Nieuwoudt. Airport security."

"It will not take a moment, a minor matter," his colleague said. "A slight discrepancy. No cause for alarm. My name is Faku."

With some reluctance, I followed them, confused and ill-tempered. They had taken possession of my passport, my carefully filled-out immigration form, my currency declaration – in other words, they had taken control of me.

I walked between them, unblocking the muttering line that had formed behind me of passengers awaiting their moment at the immigration desk before the raised rubber stamp of official welcome formally descended on their passports with the quiet, satisfying thump of validation.

I carried my shoulder bag with its laptop and documents. The plainclothes men led me back from the row of immigration desks, away from the gateway to the baggage collection point. Strangers followed my movements with undisguised and faintly hostile curiosity.

What was I? Some kind of illegal immigrant, arms dealer?

"Discrepancy? I don't think I quite follow."

"Step in here for a moment, meneer," the stringy officer said. His use of an Afrikaans courtesy sounded like a sneer.

"You will soon be on your way," Faku said, adding as what he seemed to think was a joke: "One way or the other."

The room had no windows. Two chairs on one side of a Formica-veneered table faced a single chair on the other. A grid of neon lighting in the ceiling bounced back off a linoleum floor marked with burn marks from some phase of pre-history when people smoked indoors.

"Please sit down."

"What is all this? I really don't understand. I'm here for a conference. Officially invited by the sponsors, including your President."

"There is no need for temper, Mr Kinzer," Nieuwoudt said. "Just a few simple questions."


Excerpted from Permanent Removal by Alan S Cowell. Copyright © 2016 Alan S Cowell. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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