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At Fire Hour – Barry Gilder


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At Fire Hour – Barry Gilder

Barry Gilder unpacks his novel 'At Fire Hour' (Camera: Shadwyn Dickinson; Editing: Darlene Creamer)

27th September 2023


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From the acclaimed author of The List and Songs and Secrets, At Fire Hour is a sweeping, soulful novel that tells the story of Bhekisizwe Makhatini, a young black South African writer, detained and forced into exile, who undergoes a creative writing masters in the UK and military training with the ANC in Angola and in the Soviet Union, and faces the angst of choosing between his writing and his passionate desire to pit his new military skills against the apartheid regime.

But Makhatini faces another challenge – suspicion by his ANC comrades that he was released from detention in return for spying on the ANC, that lingers throughout his exile life and beyond. But, is he a sellout?


In the words of Mandla Langa:

Despite its celebration of other writers, musicians, poets – the cultural workers, to use the parlance of the liberation movement – this, in the end is a story of betrayal and intrigue and, like Gilder’s earlier works, especially, The List, is a novel that dredges up the shameful betrayals by people whose actions precipitated incalculable losses and reversals.


The writer takes a lot of risks in telling this story, going deep into his imagination to recreate a series of landscapes which form the staging grounds for acts of courage, love, commitment and of course, the very obverse side of this coin. For verisimilitude, he recreates platforms, such as the Culture and Resistance Conference that took place in 1982 in Gaborone, Botswana; Culture in Another South Africa (CASA) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1987, to name a few.

The scenes are believable for the simple reason that the writer was present in almost all these arenas and captures the texture of the interactions among the vast gallery of players. He reconstructs conversations between the attendees, for instance, in Amsterdam writers such as the late Lewis Nkosi and Wally Serote exchange views with Bheki Makhathini and his partner Pumla, an underground agent of the ANC.


Barry Gilder went into exile in 1976, joined the ANC and MK, underwent intelligence training in the then Soviet Union, served in the ANC underground leadership in Botswana in the ‘80s and returned to South Africa in 1991. He was Deputy Director-General of the South African Secret Service from 1995 to 1999, and of the National Intelligence Agency from 2000 to 2003, Director-General of the Department of Home Affairs from 2003 to 2005 and South Africa’s Coordinator for Intelligence from 2005 until his retirement in 2007. He served as Director of Operations at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection between 2010 and 2019. He has served as South Africa’s ambassador to Syria and Turkey from 2019. His memoir, Songs and Secrets: South Africa from Liberation to Governance, and debut novel, The List, are both published by Jacana Media.


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