A luta continua

A Freedom Day Reflection during COVID-19 Lockdown 2020

I was born in 1964, three months after Nelson Mandela and seven comrades were jailed for life.

What is now the Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital, but then was the St Joseph’s Nursing Home, run by German Catholic nursing sisters, at the foot of Devils Peak, Cape Town, sounded like a strict place to be, from my mother’s telling of it. The fact that the nurses hurried her out of the loo, where I was nearly born, gave my existence an almost unseemly start, perhaps that’s why I was constantly found guilty of behaviour ‘unbecoming of a lady’ by the nuns who educated me. I was too loud. But not loud enough when it mattered.

The historic tragedy of the Rivonia Treason Trial that year though was unlikely to have been marked in my white, middle-class family, where my father was more conceivably focused on reading in the newspaper about the Springboks’ victories against touring French and Welsh rugby teams, or his own cricket matches at the club, while my mother was almost certainly consumed with caring for a toddler and a new baby. Johannesburg and race politics of the time were not even on their radar, both seemingly thousands of miles away. That’s one of the shocking realities of South African apartheid-era history: white people in the main, were not affected by the brutality and racial injustices being perpetrated in the country and life went on as ‘normal.’

I first heard about District Six when my father, a formidably fierce man, yelled at some pesky children taking delight in walking atop his newly constructed boundary wall in middle-class Pinelands, ‘What do you think this is?! District Six?!’ he roared out the window at them. I had no idea what District Six was but it seemed to be, from his attitude, a place where children got away with doing fun things. He of course had bought into the propaganda which saw the colourful, cosmopolitan area on the slopes of Table Mountain as a slum, resulting in the horrifying social and economic disaster of forced removals of black and coloured people in 1968. (Not that as an English-speaking United Party supporter, he would ever have seen himself as pro-government, an irony still playing out still in the English-Afrikaans divide in older, white South Africans.)

District Six’s fate was sealed in October 1964, a week after I was born when the Minister of Community ‘Development’ (one PW Botha!) set up a committee to re-plan and ‘develop’ District 6 and surrounding Salt River and Woodstock. The plan fell under CORDA, an acronym for the Orwellian Committee for the Rehabilitation of Depressed Areas, a plan which left communities decimated and precipitated ongoing poverty and crime although its stated intention was to eradicate crime ‘caused by inter-racial mixing.’

30 years later, however, on 27 April 1994, pregnant with my own second child, I stood in one of thousands of snaking queues in our nation’s first democratic election. Even though at the advanced stage of my pregnancy, I could have voted days before, I wanted to celebrate that special day and make sure my small son and unborn daughter would be there as part of the moment when we stood on the head of the snake of apartheid.

The people I queued with are dead now, the old man in front of me, almost certainly from old age, but my companion for the day, Kefilwe Ratsweu, passed away in 1999 from AIDS-related illnesses, following her rape in a field by a mindless, opportunistic thug, one mild Sunday afternoon.

She had five short years of ‘freedom.’

She, like so many women in our country, had lived a brutalized life of poverty and spent much of her divorced life away from her children. She recalled for me once how when she first moved to Johannesburg to find work, police vans would routinely pick up young women supposedly on pass law[1] offences and remembered the absolute terror she felt in being considered one of the ‘young, attractive ones’ who were offered an impossible ‘way out’ of their arrest. Many women saw the option of being gang-raped by policemen as a better option than imprisonment and loss of income for their families.

The abuse she suffered at the hands of authorities didn’t end there though. She married a taxi driver, who, when he drank, assaulted her repeatedly. Eventually, when he began to inflict his violence on her five children, she took them one dark night and fled home to her mother, who raised them in the country, while she worked in the city. And yet if I remember one thing about her, it was her capacity to throw her head back and laugh.

I visited her the day before she died in the Johannesburg General Hospital, stepping gingerly over used syringes on the lift floor of a state hospitial groaning in its need for public funds, not wanting to acknowledge that she was dying. We held hands, hers always so elegantly long and soft, despite her years of physical labour, like her once rotund body was even thinner from the ravages of her disease. And we wept quietly together. I wept for the system that made her vulnerable; I wept for the children she was leaving behind; and that I couldn’t save her. Mostly I wept because I had been part of that system, simply by being white. No amount of university protest or liberal thinking and teaching prevented me from saving her.

And hers is just one story.

The AIDS pandemic has caused so much human suffering in South Africa. Just as PW Botha’s men razed District Six to the ground, so HIV and AIDS bulldozed through townships and families, orphaning countless children in the process. And today we face a new, more threatening disease.

At its height, nearly 3 million people died in South Africa, but so many deaths were recorded as TB–or-other-related that the figure is probably far more. Nearly 250 000 new cases of HIV infection are recorded annually, with over 70 000 deaths still in this brave new world of post-apartheid South Africa.

Today is Freedom Day, being celebrated in Lockdown from a new enemy, set to ravage our nation. COVID-19 is not Die Groot Krokodil, so openly evil that we can launch an armed struggle against it. This time we are faced with another unseen nemesis like the HIV virus. The coronavirus is a tiny microbe spreading its invisible armies throughout our cities and towns, swifter and more easily even that HIV.  And the people it is set to destroy are again the poor and broken of South Africa.

But this time we know what can happen if we don’t fight. This time we have a president who is leading from the front.

This struggle ironically cannot be fought by mass gatherings of protest or by an armed struggle. This enemy thrives on our togetherness, something the apartheid regime recognized about our struggle for freedom and that’s why they banned public gatherings.

But this time for the sake of freedom (and life) for our people, especially those we have failed, please heed our president’s call to stay at home.

I was a child during apartheid; I stood by while HIV ran rampant and killed Kefilwe; I did not protest her brutalization.

This time, I am staying the fuck at home so my country(wo)men can live to see another Freedom Day!

How’s that for being a lady?

‘They also serve who only stand and wait’

John Milton, On His Blindness

[1] The dompas in apartheid South Africa required black people to carry identification at all times, including permission to be within (white) urban areas.

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