For the last couple of days, I have been musing on the heady, awful and wonderful days of the mid-1980s. At the moment, there’s a kind of pall hanging over South Africa which is a function of the nearly fifteen years of electrickery drama, ongoing corruption and impunity, only the surface of which Zondo has scratched. This is compounded with a growing sense of unease. The crime rate is burgeoning country wide. Closer to home, in the village, it seems rife. That is contradicted by the actual statistics that the local police presented at a recent village meeting. However, in a small community, each crime seems personal: the perpetrators are often habitual criminals who grew up here, and we know by sight, and have fallen by the wayside. The victims – rich and poor – are often people we know.
It began on Sunday
My reflections began on Sunday with the news that Jessie Duarte had died. Not quite ten years my senior, she was a significant character the South African political landscape – that the general (white) public knew about – just before and since 1994. My connections with her are vicarious: I had reason to deal with both of her brothers in the 80s. One, because of his drive behind establishing a coalition of non-governmental organisations. The other, well, it’s not important now. What is important is that at the time, we all had a single goal: a South Africa where people of different races had the same rights and suffrage. Somehow, through it all, we were young people who had fun and lived life to the full. Regardless.
Monday, that’s yesterday, was Mandela Day. For the first time since its inception in 2009, I did nothing remotely connected with its spirit. I can’t remember what I did in 2020 – blame it on Covid. In 2021, and when we were in yet another lockdown, I played a minor role in a client’s campaign for the day. At least. This year, I sort of reflected more on how Nelson Mandela would have been profoundly sad at how his legacy has been destroyed.
A death on Mandela Day
Yesterday afternoon as I thumped away at my keyboard to meet an already missed deadline, I heard the announcement that gangster-turned-poet, Don Mattera, had died. I only had one encounter with him. I was all of 22 and it was in 1986 and on a day that was significant in the “struggle” calendar. As I carry on reflecting, and his particular brand of politics, I think it must have been Sharpeville Day in March. He addressed us – staff of a “struggle” organisation. I don’t remember what he said or the poem he read, but I remember things about that day like it was yesterday. Of the man, I remember his presence. Not because he was a hulking man but rather because of his loud, clear message of peace at a time when South Africa was on fire. Already a devout Muslim, he had a gentle strength about him that gave a lie to his past life as a gangster. The room was filled to bursting – probably nearly a hundred of us, hanging on his every word.
Why is this significant, today?
Much of what we did at work in that organisation, every day (and at home), in 1986, was illegal in South Africa. It was illegal for people of different races to work together. It was not the done thing to create equal education for folk of other races. What that meant: an education that encouraged questioning, free speech and genuine intellectual development. It was illegal, that day, for many of the folk in that room to gather in numbers greater than 10, let alone sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. And we did. Both. With sombre delight and gusto.
Work and play hard
This photo is of me, sitting at a black colleague’s desk, that same year. We were young folk
from across the spectrum of South Africa’s race groups who worked together and had fun together. We’d have “seminars” at Jameson’s on Commissioner Street each Friday afternoon. When we were done, and the band was not to our taste, we’d adjourn, often to Soweto and continue the
discourse and debates party until the wee hours of the morning. White folk were not supposed to venture into the townships, period. Let alone young white women – as one policeman at a road block one evening delighted to advise. He also tried to terrify my friend and I with stories of what would happen to us if “black men got their hands on you.” We figuratively closed our ears, let him finish his tirade, wound up the window and drove back to Yeoville in silence.
Part of my “play” included volunteer work with Johannesburg’s street children. The detail’s not important and again, we were an eclectic bunch of people living the future South Africa.
Looking back to look forward
I’m grateful for the reflection that the news of both Duarte’s and Mattera’s death foisted upon me. Yes, things are difficult – very difficult – in this country. But there are things that today’s young people – mercifully – will never experience:
Two particular memories live with me. One, as a child, I never understood why, when my father took our helper home on a Saturday at lunch time, she – a grown woman – had to sit on the back seat and I, all of about 7, sat in the front next to my father. Just in case, I learned as an adult, they had “relations” across the “colour bar”.
The second is more like a series of bad dreams and they’re all associated with buses like the one in the photo. We used public transport. Sometimes, colleagues from “another” part of town headed to “our” side of town for a visit after work. Some bus drivers simply looked the other way. Others – one in particular, and whom we referred to as the nazi – took great delight in making sure they couldn’t get on the bus. Except when in the company of white colleagues. One afternoon, a friend (the tall one with the white hat among the street kids) and I hopped off on the way because he said –
Why don’t we stop for a beer?
So we got off in Hillbrow which, at that time, was already quite cosmopolitan even though it was designated as a “Whites Only” residential area.
first only place we chose didn’t turn us away, and although I knew it was an all hours joint (for e-ver-y-thing), the server said we could only have lemonade. We left. Got back on the bus and went to my house. And ate, drank (beer and wine) and made merry.
That is the type of experience to which South Africa’s youth can never be exposed – or shouldn’t, anyway. That kind of discrimination is now illegal. They never have to spend their lives looking over their shoulders for fear of just living their youth.
This is Mandela’s legacy and which we should celebrate. Every Day.
Until next time, be well
The Sandbag House
McGregor, South Africa
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