What does an imprisoned man think about in his spare time?
Amongst other things the ocean, its vastness, its deadliness, “because a sea is the opposite of a prison cell.
1992. Slap bang between the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the end of apartheid. A time of impending justice, chaos, fear and illation. While the men and women of the country’s townships raced towards democracy armed with AK47 rifles, white police officers scurried backward towards their fading glory wielding whatever power they had on whomever they could. A time of confusion for many South Africans. But nobody could have been as confused as Fusi Mofokeng, a retail worker at the local Shoprite in the sleepy town of Bethlehem, whom on the morning of 2 April 1992 was taken from his bed and charged for a murder he did not commit.
The central theme of the narrative is justice. In a macabre sense, justice is best understood where it cannot be found. Fusi Mofokeng and his friend Tshokolo Mokoena never saw justice. Both men served a nineteen-year jail sentence having been accused, trialled and sentenced for the murder of a young, white police officer named Lourens Oosthuizen. Mentioning the officer’s name is an important sentiment as Oosthuizen too never received justice. The men who admitted to an MK conspiracy which led to his murder; Clement Ndabeni, Mandla Fokazi, Sikhalo Ncala and Donald Makhura, walked free after testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997 on the grounds that they had murdered Oosthuizen in the interests of their country.
Contrarily, Mofokeng and Mokoena, who testified their innocence before the same panel, were sympathised with and then returned to their cells. Neither would confess to a crime they did not commit and as such neither could be granted Amnesty. The narrative seems to be chipping away at the all-encompassing question: “If the injustice of the past is obvious and tangible, what do we have to say for the injustice of the present?”
Another theme explored is hope and its power against adversity. There is no doubt that Mofokeng was failed by the apartheid justice system, to the extent that he was framed in court; but the real betrayal came after he was failed once more by post-apartheid institutions including the Human Rights Commission and the TRC. By the end of the book, we can see that everyone involved with the case was convinced that Mofokeng and Tshokolo were innocent, however tied up in a web of bureaucracy, 19 years passed before they were released. It could only have been Fusi Mofokeng’s optimism and belief in himself that saw him get through those years and come out alive.
One Day in Bethlehem, Jonny Steinberg’s latest offering, haunted me. I could not get myself to put it down, but I also struggled to read it and often found myself arrested by a single sentence or a single paragraph that would captivate my mind for days. Steinberg’s clean and poetic retelling of the story of Fusi Mofokeng kept me under a spell, while the content angered me to the point where I would have to bend the cover shut and busy my mind with other thoughts lest I too found myself engulfed by the depth of that ocean of grief.
One Day in Bethlehem is the kind of book that evokes riots in the minds of its readers and leaves them changed forever.