“Sawuboma, Baba, Sir, can I talk to you please?”
I open my eyes, my chin still on my chest where I had dozed off, and stare at the white socks and black shoes in front of me. I lift my head, the pain in my chest is not so bad today, and look at the gingham dressed pupil in front of me who must be about sixteen. She has a school bag on her shoulder and a book clasped against her chest.
“Of course, but why would you want to talk to a tramp like me?”
“May I sit down, please?”
I move the paper bag containing the bread roll to my shopping trolley next to me: my world in a portable metal container. She swings the bag off her shoulder, placing it on the ground before sitting, smoothing her dress over her thighs. The smile on her face is one I seldom see from people on the street when they look at me and it reminds me of that of my mother.
“I have a history project and I need to do research, Sir. May I call you Sir or is there another title I should use?”
“Well, my mother called me Philemon so why not use that?” I replied. Nobody has called me that for many a year.
“Philemon, as I said it is a history project and I need to research what effect the dismantling of apartheid has had on the South African population. I need to talk to people like you who were alive in the 1970’s, find out what their lives were like then, where and even if they went to school, what they did for work and how that has changed since 1994 with the first democratic election.
“Would you mind if I conducted an interview? It will only take a few minutes?”
She opens her book and I can see some writing on it, the questions I assume.
“An interview? I can tell you about an interview I had in the 1970’s. It had a big effect on my life.”
“OK, Philemon. Oh, by the way you can call me Sara.” She puts the pencil on her book before extending her hand in greeting. I gently touch it; I don’t want to dirty her hands with mine. She picks up the pencil and stares at me. I can feel her mind focussed on the task.
I sat upright bringing my feet closer to the bench and hid the loose sole on the right shoe.
“I was living in Soweto with my mother and my uncle. My uncle didn’t like me but he wanted me to be involved with the underground movement, the struggle you might call it today. He told me one night that he had someone who wanted to talk to me.
“He introduced him as Tshepo. I remember we sat across the table. A lonely candle cast long, flickering shadows on the wall spot lit by the menacing flashes of lightning outside. An ominous Highveld storm was fast approaching with the night darkening and the humidity rising.
“Why do you hate white people? was his first question.
“This is not the question I had expected and I got more nervous. I clasped my hands in my lap to stop the shaking. I ran my tongue across parched lips and gently drew a deep breath. Tshepo stared across the bare table, he had a spiral notebook in front of him and a pencil in his right hand. His eyes burned into mine with a dark intensity. I had never seen anyone stare so long without moving.
“I remember keeping my eyes on his chin. My uncle had introduced him with enormous respect, if not reverence, when he came in before going into the bedroom with my mother.
“You see, Sara, I didn’t hate white people. I had grown up with them.”
Her face whips from her book to look at me. “Oh!” Head down again, she finishes writing a few tidy notes.
“Where did you grow up with them, Philemon? I thought white people were not allowed in Soweto?”
“I was born on a farm. My parents used to work the land in return for payment, a roof over their heads and food on the table. My father spent the days on the tractor in the field, my mother cooking, sewing, helping with the harvest. She had more freedom then than later in Soweto.
“I spent days on the side of the river racing sticks between the willow trees on the sides. We swam for hours in the cold waters of the deep ponds, black and white kids together; I was very friendly with Ian and Susan, the farmer’s children. We dared each other to jump in from higher and higher vantage points on the rocks.”
“Where did you go to school then when you were on the farm?”
“On the farm was where I learnt to read and write with the other farm kids and the farmer’s own children in a corner of the large barn. The blackboard and chalk were tendered by the farmer’s wife, a kind woman who had qualified as a teacher before her marriage. I was allowed to take books home to read to my parents so they could revel in the adventures of Noddy and Big Ears. She encouraged me through the tables and offered suggestions with a smile in solving arithmetic problems.
“Her passion though was history. Not the old stuff of hundreds of years ago, but the modern events that led to the apartheid system of the seventies. She didn’t like it and never hid it from the class. It was very animated teaching that at times had her running up and down the classroom.”
Sara’s pencil snakes across the page. I am sure she writes down every word. I lean back with my legs stretched out and ankles crossed, never mind the loose sole. I haven’t relaxed with anyone like this in a long time.
She turns the page in her book and smiles at me. Her eyes sparkled like my mother’s used to do.
“How did you answer Tshepo’s question then?”
“Well I said, Nkosi, they have taken away my right to exist. They force my mother and me to live in this township. My uncle works hard to improve the house but he can’t choose where the house is. We cannot live in the white suburbs with acres of garden, no dirt roads and large cars. Instead, they herd us here into houses like this with mud outside and a long walk to the bus in the morning.
“My heart was beating hard in my chest after I said that. I knew the doctrine of the ANC, but did Tshepo believe me?
“The lightning flashed. The low roar of the Highveld thunder followed. The air was musty with the storm’s approach. You know what that is like. The roof vibrates, masking the moans from the bedroom.”
“I didn’t hate white people, I never have.”
I breathe out, a long exhale and then slowly breathe in again. My chest hurts less if I breathe slowly.
Sara turns back a page to her list of questions.
“If you grew up on the farm, why did you move to Soweto and why was your uncle sleeping with your mother?”
Sara is a very clever girl. I swallow to get saliva moving; my mouth is getting dry with talking so much.
“There was an accident on the farm. My father was working in the upper field, which was very steep and the tractor overturned and crushed him. They said he would have died instantly.
“With his death my uncle said he wanted my mother and me to move to Soweto, he was acting in accordance with tribal culture and protecting his brother’s widow.”
“Was it hard to leave the farm?” said Sara.
“It was. It was a sad day for the farmer’s wife and me. She had a special spot in her heart I felt for me. Always smiling more at me than the other children. Tears were running down her cheeks as she gave me a last hug.
“My mother was already in the back of the bakkie with our two bags of belongings ready to drive the fifty kilometres along the bumpy dirt road to the train station and a life of servitude. No freedom to do what she wanted.”
I shiver at the memory of that day, gooseflesh on my arms with the hairs on end.
“Are you cold, Philemon?”
“No, just a shiver of remembrance. It was a sad day.”
“What happened then?”
“Tshepo asked the same question. I told him, I went to school in Soweto. My uncle paid for school books and my mother did piecework here and there and looked after the house. Tshepo asked what do you want to do next year, Philemon?”
“How did you answer that?”
“I was seventeen, finishing school in a month with a Standard eight pass. I wanted to go on but my uncle said enough education. Time to get a job maybe in the mine or in a factory.
“So I told Tshepo that.”
“How did he respond?”
“Nothing at first. The first drops of rain were pattering against the tin roof. The wind blew and lifted the curtains away from the window. I could feel the chill of the storm on my arms, goose bumps on the flesh. The smell of dust and rain wafted into the room, you must know it, the smell of Africa. Tshepo asked, would you be able to distribute pamphlets at school to your friends? You would need to do it without being seen. Could you do that?
“Since we moved in, my uncle’s household was awash with African National Congress doctrines and philosophy. The pamphlets were always hidden from sight, but the ANC and its struggle to liberate the country was the only subject around the dinner table.
“My uncle said they offered training outside the country for those who were fit and wanted to fight to get their rights back. I was not sure I wanted to leave my mother.
“I said to Tshepo whatever you want me to do, Nkosi. I can read and write and I am good with figures. I will learn and do anything for the party.
“Did he say anything? and raised an eyebrow towards the cap. Do you know what we do?
“I said I know what my uncle has told me. I know the ANC is fighting to overturn the evil bastards’ government. He has said that some members have taken to fighting and planting bombs.”
Sara stops writing. I can see that her hands are shaking. I don’t know where these memories are coming from and I trust that it is helping her.
“Is this useful, Sara?”
“Very. Has your uncle forced you to listen to the ANC doctrines?”
“Yes he had. And after that Tshepo revealed what he wanted me to do.”
“Tell me more.” She smiled and wriggled to get more comfortable on the hard park bench.
“Well. The lightning was flashing all round now and the thunder was a non-stop roar. Tshepo leant forward beckoning me with his left hand. I leant in and Tshepo whispered. We are increasing the intensity of our actions and we’re going to do even more to throw out these white bastards. We are looking for dedicated individuals to help us do that. Yes, we are part of the ANC and the self-appointed government does not recognise us; they are terrified of us and they should be. They call us terrorists but we will make this country ungovernable. We have been, and will continue to spread the word to make all the population aware of the lying cowards of the regime.
“Tshepo was passionate. His body was shaking with it.”
“How did that make you feel?”
“I was excited, buzzing; my heart was pounding in my chest. Tell me more I said. We are also working with other governments in Africa to put pressure on South Africa to change. Now tell me, do you want to leave school at the end of the term or do you want to continue for another two years?”
Sara stops writing and looks at me, a worried look on her face.
“What did you say to that?”
I run my hand through my beard and sit back on the bench.
“Well I wanted to have another two years at school, that would make my mother proud but my uncle cross. He wanted me down the mines, which was not an attractive prospect. Too many people come back from there bent double in pain or coughing continuously with TB. I said to him, Nkosi, my uncle says I must get a job. He is tired of paying and my not contributing, so unless you know how I can stay on at school I will have to end this year.
“He was very still for quite a while. I remember the rain was falling hard and the thunder was rumbling in the distance. The worst of the storm had passed. His eyes bore into mine as he said Philemon, if you join us you would be of great use at the school. We need people like you to distribute pamphlets to the younger pupils to get them ready to start the fight for their freedom. We have a campaign well in the planning stage for next year that will get the entire world looking at us. You would be important in helping us realise our plans. If you agree, I will tell your uncle that you must go back to school as you have important work to do. What is critical is that you must be the diligent student we don’t want the authorities to be aware that we are planning a great event. Would you be willing to do that?
“I remember I grinned for the first time that night. Being in school made me very happy and would make my mother even happier.
“My teeth must have shone bright white as I told him I would like to do that. I said Anything to get those white bastards out of our life. Tshepo made a note in his book, stood up, extending his hand to me. I shook his hand, as the chair scraped the floor and that was how I joined uMkhonto weSizwe, the military arm of the ANC, You would know it now as MK.”
Sara looks at me. I am not sure if she likes what I have told her.
“Philemon, I have heard a bit about MK, what happened, did you get trained?”
“Not at first. I was involved though with the Soweto uprising in 1976. That was the big operation that Tshepo talked about.”
She turns her page and writes a new heading. “Tell me more.”
“June the 16th 1976 dawned cold but I didn’t feel the icy wind. It must have been adrenalin fuelled by the excitement of what we were doing. I was one leader in the march to protest the use of Afrikaans in black schools. A peaceful march that would wind through the streets of Soweto to the Orlando stadium. I started at my school, Naledi High. We had homemade banners and placards with slogans like ‘To hell with Afrikaans‘ and ‘We do not want Afrikaans‘. We held them high as we wound our way through the dusty streets. Other marchers from different schools joined along the way swelling the numbers to thousands until we confronted a line of police officers on open ground. They were armed and with armoured vehicles close by.
“We toyi-toyied with our feet, the placards taunting the police. We had smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts. We were making a difference in our lives.”
I paused to get my breath. I started to feel the excitement of that day over again. I adjusted my position on the park bench and leant forward to see what she was writing.
“Please go on. I want to know what happened next.”
“First the tear gas canisters followed by a single shot – and then a barrage of them. We rushed towards the baton-wielding police who could not contain us. I saw my work along with the others blossoming onto the streets in violence that the police could not control. Cars burned. Shops vandalised. Anarchy, the government called it.
“Tshepo was seated at the table when I came home that night.
“What have you done to your eye? screamed my mother throwing an evil glance at Tshepo, This is what will happen if you want to fight against the government. Sit down and I will get some water to clean it up.
“Philemon, you did well, said Tshepo, taking my scab encrusted hands in his. The police could not hold you back. Other townships are now rising up and our voice will echo round the world. This will bring the government down and you are a part of it. MK is proud of what you have done.
“Pride swelled in my battered chest as my mother wiped the blood from around my eye. My winces only resulted in her pressing harder, her lips pursed tight with anger. You might bring down the Government but they are more likely to kill you first. Why you want to take part in this madness I don’t know.
“Tshepo continued, it will get dangerous for you here in the next few months. The police will have taken many photographs and will look at the TV footage and identify the leaders of the march. MK recognises that you are a man, a fighter with a passion for change so we will move you over the border to Mozambique for military training. In a few months when you return, today will be a memory for the police.
“Yes, sir! I said. I felt proud of what I had achieved and excited at the prospect of the training ahead but disappointed that my mother didn’t recognise what I was doing.”
Sara stopped writing and stood up. “The bench gets a bit hard after a while. Don’t you want to stand for a bit?”
“No, No thank you. I am sitting on an old cushion. Would you like to sit on that? It is not too dirty.”
She sits cross-legged on the grass, “This will be fine. Please go on. What happened after the training?”
“It was a dark moonless night almost a year later when I smuggled my first guns and leaflets through Swaziland with Solomon. When I got home, Tshepo was waiting. Tell me about it, how did it go? My mother was cooking by the stove stirring a big pot of porridge to go with the chicken frying in the pan.”
I lift up my face with my eyes closed.
“I can smell it still. Whenever we had chicken in the training camps it reminded me how much I missed her.”
“What was it like smuggling across the border?” interrupted Sara wriggling to get more comfortable; I can see she is very excited.
“Firstly, the stars, so many more than in Soweto, were shining on us as we drove through the Usutu forest to the border gate. Tshepo asked what happened at the border? Were you recognised?
“I told him, No we came straight through. The police only glanced at the passports, they are good forgeries. The suitcases in the boot had leaflets, AK47’s and several grenades. They never even asked to see in the boot.”
“I knew something was up though when Tshepo asked, you came back with Solomon, Solomon Mahlangu did you not? He had a sombre expression on his face. I smiled.
“I liked Solomon. We met in the training camp and bonded immediately. He was well educated and had a passion far greater than mine to rid the country of the regime. MK said we would go far and be well rewarded for the work we were doing. Tshepo continued, Uhmm. Philemon I am sorry to tell you, they caught him in a warehouse in Johannesburg with another member of MK. They say he killed two white men. It will not be a good time for him in the months to come.
“Killing was not good. Killing white people was worse. When I looked up my mother had stopped stirring and was looking at me. Tears ran down her cheeks, grieving for another mother’s son, knowing it could have easily been hers. She asked, did Solomon shoot them?
“No. The other man did, replied Tshepo.
“Well then he should be all right, said my mother.
“There were many more trips across borders. Some of them trivial and some not. I remember one inside South Africa that saw me coming close to being arrested. Would you like to hear about that?”
“Yes please,” says Sara.
“A member had stolen explosives from a mine outside Welkom. I went to collect it and bring it to Pretoria. The drive there was without incident and transferring the explosives packed in wooden boxes was easy. The return was not as straightforward.
“The police had set a roadblock up a few kilometres outside the town. Every car stopped and the driver questioned.
“Where have you come from? the police officer asked shining his torch round the inside of my car.
“Visiting my brother in Welkom, Sir, I replied.
“Open the boot, he demanded, thrusting his rifle menacingly at me.
“I switched off the engine and got out of the car to open the boot with the ignition key. My hands were shaking. This police officer was not in a good mood. He shone his torch into the capacious boot filled with old clothes to hide the boxes at the back.
“Where did you get these clothes?
“Collected by my brother to take to the church in Soweto. The police officer bent down and moved some clothes away with the barrel of the rifle.
“And those boxes at the back? What is in them?
“He also collected some cups and saucers for the church, I replied.
“Take that box out on the right I want to see inside it.
“I moved some clothes to one side and lent in to drag the box to the edge of the boot.
“Using my knife, I cut the string securing the box, and removed the lid. The torch reflected off a stack of white saucers with newspapers between each one.
“Empty the box. I want to see what you are hiding beneath those saucers.
“Sara, my heart was now racing and despite the cold I could feel sweat on my brow. I lifted out the saucers to reveal some straw at the bottom.
“Move away I want to see what’s below that straw. He pushed me away with the butt of the rifle and moved it brusquely to one side to reveal the wooden base of the box. How many of these boxes have you got? I thought the interrogation would never end.
“Four, Sir, two with saucers and two with cups. I replied.
“For the church you say?
“Yes, Sir. We had a lot of breakages when the roof collapsed a few weeks ago.”
“I don’t care about your fucking roof! You can go tsotsi! and he shouldered his rifle as he moved away to inspect the next car. I straightened the straw, replaced the saucers, and then put the lid on. With the box secured at the back of the boot, I closed it and drove away.
“I was at least a kilometre away before my heart slowed down and I could wipe my brow. You see Sara, the box had a false bottom and if he had looked closer he would have seen it.”
Sara stops writing and looks at me.
“What happened to the explosives? Do you know?”
I think for a moment. Should I tell her the truth that two weeks later the bomb MK made exploded outside the air force headquarters in Vermeulen Street that is just a block or two from where we are now? I don’t think she needs to know that.
“I never knew what happened to them but most likely they were used in some or other bombing incident.”
“Tell me now what happened after Mandela was released and we had the election in 1994. My parents tell me it was a very exciting time.”
“Well it was exciting and I met with Tshepo once again at the kitchen table in my Uncle’s house.
“Philemon, you have done well. Freedom is what we have secured for all of our people. MK thanks you for what you have done but we will not need you to smuggle across borders anymore. Your time with MK is over, he said. This was not what I had expected. Where was the job in the new South Africa? Where was the public recognition for me that was given to those imprisoned during the struggle? I said I had buried my mother the previous month and I still needed to pay for the funeral. Tshepo did agree to pay for the funeral, but that day I realised that there are good and not good black people.”
“And that was the end of your involvement with MK. How do you feel about MK now? Was it worth it?” asks Sara as she stands up, brushing the grass from her skirt and running her fingers through her hair to catch it behind her ears.
I scratch the back of my head.
“Sara, I feel I did something that resulted in our freedom. My mother would have been happier and I think being away from her broke her heart. She died too young. If she were alive today, she would still be telling me what a waste of time it was. Maybe she was right, if I had finished school I might be working in an office now. Has that helped your history project?”
“Yes, thank you Philemon. I will need to write it up. Goodbye!” She put out her hand and I shook it. I watched her skipping through the park to the bus stop just beyond the exit. She turns and waves before getting into the back of the black BMW and the police escorts pull out, blue lights flashing.
The pain in my chest is worse now. Recounting my exploits has reminded me how excited I was in those days. Fulfilled in what I was doing. I didn’t see any point in telling Sara that I have not had a proper job since freedom came. I have done piecework, working in gardens sometimes compensated with accommodation and food but not a luxurious lifestyle. I have seen some who had been incarcerated given positions, houses and cars but for me nothing. Many of them go past this park, riding in their big black cars with a blue light escort. I have nothing. Nobody recognises my contribution not until now. Sara was grateful for what I could tell her. I often think my life would have been very different if I had not joined MK.
Solomon would have had a view on this. He always had a view on how life should be. He would have been one of those in power now.
Instead, in Pretoria Central Prison, he had climbed the fifty-two steps to the execution chamber with bracelets securing his wrists behind his back and dropped to eternity with a white bag on his head and a hemp necktie.
Solomon has the road outside the park named after him, I wonder if Sara made that connection. A reward, a remembrance for his bravery. I have what I see next to me. A trolley of collected items and a few ragged clothes, my meagre reward for smuggling.
Solomon I wish I could talk to you again.
The sun hits my eyes with a blinding flash that hurts my chest. I find it impossible to breathe and my eyes sink closed. My arms are immobile and I can’t speak. In my mind mother beckons me to her. My time is up.