Judas Iscariot is one of the most fascinating figures in Christian scripture. Used horrifically in Church history sometimes to promote anti-Semitism, he has never been understood. Just why did he do it? Did he betray Jesus because he was ambitious, envious of the other disciples? Was he disillusioned with Jesus’ methods, perhaps mistakenly imagining that by betrayal he would force Jesus’ hand to launch an insurrection against Rome? Was he possessed? Or was he simply a crook, in it for the money? There is even a fanciful and marginal school of thought, expressed in a non-official text called the Gospel of Judas, that he was assigned to betray the Lord by Jesus himself! Whatever his motives, he remains to this day the archetypal traitor, the figure of treachery.
South Africa’s history is filled with ‘traitors’. Some were honourable people acting out of conviction, like the deception practiced by the likes of Bram Fischer: officially a senior lawyer and member of the Johannesburg Bar, unofficially a top figure in the 1960s ANC underground who contributed to freedom in South Africa. Others acted out of convictions that were misguided, or simply wrong. Others were ‘traitors’ because they collaborated with the system, or were ‘turned’ by their personal weaknesses (alcohol, women or money). In many cases, people were wrongly labelled as traitors because they challenged authoritarianism or corruption in movements, or simply refused to conform to the Apartheid system. And in a few cases (echoing the language of heresy in Christian history), they were traitors simply for holding dissident opinions.
The language of ‘traitor’ was contentious in South Africa. It still is.
In today’s more democratic climate, the idea of traitor as dissident is less common between contending parties and movements than it is within such organisations. You are more likely to be called a traitor for publicly holding positions contrary to the party ‘line’, or sometimes for revealing corruption that brings the organisation (often rightly) into disrepute. In the latter case you are both a ‘whistleblower’, a person of conscience, and a ‘traitor’. Unlike Judas, the line between being a patriot and a traitor in South Africa can be very thin. (Come to think of it, wasn’t this also the case in the old South Africa?)
Much of the time it all comes down to a sense of conscience, which the Church has taught must always be formed and informed. Sometimes, in situations of great personal cost, the truly heroic patriot must become a ‘traitor’ to serve the common good. Unlike Judas, this is the path of many modern martyrs.