Guy Berger – 30 years after imprisonment

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He gets anxious if he’s inside for long periods of time. Gyms make him claustrophobic while the sight of an expansive night sky is a comfort. Although he’s reticent to emphasise his own struggle during apartheid, Prof Guy Berger admits that his restlessness is a vestige of political oppression.

He gets anxious if he’s inside for long periods of time. Gyms make him claustrophobic while the sight of an expansive night sky is a comfort. Although he’s reticent to emphasise his own struggle during apartheid, Prof Guy Berger admits that his restlessness is a vestige of political oppression.

Thirty years ago last week, six government security police officers burst into Berger’s home in Grahamstown. They dragged the 24-year-old junior lecturer from his bed and arrested him. The police were intent on proving his involvement in anti-government activities.

For two years Berger had been receiving correspondence from the ANC and was being watched. “Is you coloured, or is you white?” the police asked him.

At the time, Berger’s white anti-apartheid liberalism baffled them. “They had to find some explanation of what was happening in the world,” says Berger why a white person would risk his position of privilege for the freedom of his fellow South Africans.

Today Berger is the head of the Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies. He lectures on media and society and is well-versed on theories of the media.

But Berger’s understanding of media freedom comes from real life experience, not so much the walls of academia. For three days and nights, Berger was interrogated by police.

“It’s a game, breaking you down,” he says, explaining how he inadvertently supplied police with the ammunition they needed.

Assuming they already knew about it, Berger mentioned a trunk full of banned material he had stashed at the home of a friend.

This was exactly the kind of evidence they needed to implicate him. Each piece of paper in the trunk had to be accounted for.

Berger will never forget his attempts to dispose of one particular communist document given to him by an activist in East London.

It had been printed on old-fashioned copy machine which used a particularly nasty ink. In order to protect the distributor, he tore the paper into little, bite-sized pieces and ate it while the investigators weren’t looking.

“It was the most foul tasting, poisonous thing you could eat,” recalls Berger. This was just the beginning. Berger describes the muted grey, windowless cell where he spent the next seven months in solitary confinement while awaiting trial.

He stretches his arms to convey its width. In the cell – which was furnished with a single light, a mattress and a bucket with a plank which served as a toilet – Berger could hear the shrieks of other prisoners who were being slowly starved so they would talk.

He believes that those months of solitary were far worse than his subsequent two years in jail. Berger was found guilty of furthering the interests of the ANC and of  possessing and distributing banned material.


He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but appealed and the sentence was reduced to two years. He describes this as the “parking ticket” of punishments – others were in prison for life.

In 1983, Berger was released and three days later married his girlfriend, Jeanne, who had remained loyal and supportive throughout his imprisonment.

“What happened to me wasn’t very exceptional,” says Berger, “Eighteen million people were arrested under pass laws.” Although the memories might have compressed themselves, Berger doesn’t gloss over their significance.

He is disturbed by the  recent arrest of journalist, Mzilikazi wa Africa, along with the ANC’s proposed Protection of Information Bill and Media Appeals Tribunal.

The tribunal will make it possible for journalists to be tried and charged for defamatory matter, and the Bill will make it harder for journalists to access information from the   government.

“That’s not what I went to jail for,” says Berger. “This [proposal]happened under an ANC government and nobody in the ANC said it was reprehensible.”

He thinks it’s dangerous when a society brutalises people for their beliefs, political or otherwise. “It’s not like you’re committing rape or a violent crime – these are ideas.”

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