Of Songs and Secrets


The room was swathed in maps crafted in rich hues of orange and yellow, with representations of the world both accurate and abstract. It was in this atmosphere that Barry Gilder shared a piece of his own world view, reading aloud from his book Of Songs and Secrets: South Africa from Liberation to Governance at Luce Hall on Wednesday, November 4.


“Everything I would want to say in a lecture is in this book,” he held up a copy, the cover a faded black-and-white photo of a people looking happy and defiant. Gilder’s tone, as he would later admit, was just that – “cautiously optimistic”. As someone who worked closely with the political system of South African and went into exile in 1976, composing songs at anti-apartheid events and eventually becoming deputy head of the South African Secret Service after the Apartheid, Gilder is aware of not just the facts, but the sociocultural changes, the emotional tumult of the people, and other nuances that shifted with South African’s modern history.


As Gilder read from his Author’s Note, this became increasingly apparent: “If you opened this book in the hope of enjoying the confidences of a disillusioned cadre of the South African liberation movement – close it, put it down…The author is not a disaffected intelligence officer exposing the secrets with which he was entrusted in revenge for wrongs done to him…”


Gilder’s book provides less historical record and more metaphorical and almost metaphysical analyses of the trajectory of South Africa and a place for his story to serve as a sort of “debriefing” on how South Africa’s past can be used to put energy into steering the future.  As he reads, he references that the “ship has sprung some leaks, that the rudder has grown rusty from long exposure to the waters of time”, but the songs and secrets revealed by the book “may add to the efforts of the crew to locate and repair the leaks…”


Though self-deprecating and soft-spoken, Gilder’s assertive optimism manifests itself in a sense of fatalism: he compared the path of South Africa, being weakened morally by the Apartheid’s racist policies and economically by the fall of the Soviet Union, to a waterfall with an irreversible path.


“Even if we tried going back where we came from,” said Gilder, “we couldn’t change anything.”


For today’s generation, there seems to be a change that to some seems troubling: the Apartheid does not mean to them what it meant to their parents. The rapid changes within Africa were apparent with the fall of the Apartheid regime, as soon as the private sector swelled with individuals draining from the public sector. The African National Congress (ANC), which had spearheaded and become the driving force of the anti-Apartheid movement, is now glorified as a virtual symbol of it. Pointing this out, one audience member asked if this was the case, and what could be done to alleviate the effects of it.


“The transition from liberation movement to party is very gradual,” commented Gilder. “It has to be understood that the ANC was there along the way, and that they’ll take that credit.”

As today’s youth travel along the South Africa’s history, unconsciously bound to the events of the Apartheid, the ANC seems to be that constant reminder of the past. How they will shape that future, or fix the glaring leaks by looking at the blueprint provided to them by history, has yet to be seen.

Vishakha Negi is a freshman in Morse college. Contact her at vishakha.negi@yale.edu.