Despite the brutal humiliation of apartheid, it could not suppress the vibrant culture which developed in the townships writes Greg Alexander Mashaba
Two weeks ago I attended together with my brother Juba the funeral of the father of a close family friend. The funeral service which was held at Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Protea North, Soweto was that of Daniel Rammuki Moketeli, who was affectionately known as “Bra Mocke”. Sad and solemn events as funerals invariably are, the event was punctuated by eruptions of laughter as speakers recounted their experiences with Bra Mocke.
By way of introduction, Bra Mocke, an avid sportsman, was specifically brought to Johannesburg from Thaba Nchu in 1967, to play for an amateur football club, Army Rockets. He played football with legends like former Kaizer Chiefs star Ryder Mofokeng. Mofokeng himself gave a moving eulogy of Bra Mocke, relating how they played football under the most humiliating conditions. Amongst the incidents related, by yet another speaker, was how they had to travel to Westnoria in the far western Transvaal , sitting in the back of a truck to play against another amateur club based there. During the game, Bra Mocke had humiliated their opponents with his ball-juggling skills. This resulted in a mini riot involving both players and spectators.
Like millions of his black compatriots all over South Africa, Bra Mocke was denied access to all the social amenities which were however built in abundance for our white oppressors. He played soccer on a dusty field, without the luxury of wearing proper football boots. In sharp contrast to that, our white oppressors had access to state of the art facilities. Even white school children had beautiful and well-constructed football and rugby fields within their school premises. The notorious Reservation of Separate Amenities Act was specifically enacted to ensure that the best amenities available, the football and rugby fields, the parks etc were reserved only for use by white people. The only time a black person could access such facility was strictly only as a cleaner or a gardner .The sick irony this policy is portrayed in a scene from one of the Irishman , Dave Allen’s comedies, wherein a Catholic priest walks into a chapel and finds a young black man polishing the floor. The conversation which ensued between the two was more or less along the following lines:
Priest: “What are you doing here? You know that you are not supposed to come into this chapel!”.
Black cleaner: “ I am very sorry Father but I am only polishing the floor…”
Priest : “ Ok, but remember, I must not catch you praying! “
The architect of apartheid , Hendrick Verwoed was unambiguous in describing the fate of the Africans : “…the white man, therefore , not only has an undoubted stake in – and a right to the land which developed into a modern industrial state from denuded grassland and empty valleys and mountains. But – according to all principles of morality- it was his, is his , and must remain his”.
I am relating this particular story of Bra Mocke because it is my intention herein to bring back to mind, to those of us who were around then (very young as we were), and to inform the generations which come after ours, of the vibrant culture, lifestyle, and attitudes which informed the way of life of our people during that particular period. The story of Bra Mocke tells us how a simple young man was prepared to leave his ancestral family seat and travel to the big metropolitan area which is Johannesburg, far from friends and family, simply for the love of football. He endured the humiliation of travelling long distances sitting on the back of a truck to play a rival football club simply because he loved the sport. There was no remuneration of any kind . Money, flashy cars, and so-called celebrity status did not feature at all in the equation. Selfless sacrifice for love of both community and the country informed the attitudes of that generation.
The brutal system of apartheid could not suppress the vibrant culture which developed in the townships which were situated around all major metropolitan areas. We had great musical legends such as Simon Nkabinde “Mahlathini”, Mahotela Queens, the Dark City Sisters, Izintombi Zomgqashiyo, Izintombi Zesi Manje Manje, Hansford Mthembu , Mpharanyana and The Cannibals, Babsy Mlangeni, The Movers, The Beaters, Isibaya Esikhulu and many others.
The visits to my paternal grandmother’s place in Rockville were particularly a revelation of the high level of sophistication of our people. You see my dear comrades and you, our beloved readers, my grandmother Lydia Bandes operated a sophisticated sheebeen situated in Makupso Street, Rockville. It was frequented by prominent figures such as Casey Motsisi, Can Themba, renowned reporter Bob Mafuna, Reggie Mbhele etc. Those high-end clients were accommodated in the lounge and they drank spirituous alcohol such as brandy and gin. They normally conversed in English. In the kitchen, Ouma ( as our grandmother was affectionately known), accommodated the ambulance and bus drivers . Among these were people like Ntate Letsapa who had apparently served in the Afrika Corps during the Second World War. People like Ntate Letsapa generally consumed beer. A third group of patrons, the poor working class had to sit on benches and stools outside, under Ouma’s grapevine. This last group was generaly-speaking served only traditional beer, umqombhothi. Young as I was, this sensitised me at an early age, of the nature of class structure, a reality even amongst Africans. But another reason for serving spirituous alcohol only to Ouma’s more sophisticated clients was simply because Africans needed to have a special permit in order to buy and consume spirituous alcohol. Whether one got such permit depended on the applicant’s level of education . Thus my father being a school principal had such licence even though he himself did not drink alcohol. He used his permit to buy spirituous alcohol for those of his friends and relatives who did not satisfy the legal criteria.
Visitors to Ouma’s place often drove those long convertibles such as the Chevrolet Impala ( which was dubbed “six mabone “ because of the six rear lights), the Biscayne (which my father also once owned), the Plymoth etc. They dressed in the finest linen and stepped out in the most expensive of shoes. My dad himself bought most of his clothes from Hepworths, which was renowned as one of the best gentlemen’s outfitters in South Africa.
Despite this level of sophistication, the isolation from the rest of the world which came about as result of the policy of apartheid had the effect of sowing the seeds of ignorance in the psyche of the suppressed black masses . The fact that black people in general and Africans in particular were regarded as being inferior to their white oppressors simply by virtue of their race and cultural beliefs made some of our people to lack pride in their African identity. One manifestation of such ignorance was the rampant use of skin-lightening creams by Africans. The radio broadcasts on Radio Bantu, the station which was meant to cater for Africans, were often punctuated by advertisement of such skin-lightening creams like Ambi, Karoo, Aviva and many others. A lot of our poor African compatriots were severely disfigured as a direct result of use of such creams.
Being light-skinned was associated with being beautiful. That is probably how an old wedding song which was sung in the African townships as the bride emerged called on all to come see the beautiful bride, a bride whose beauty made her look like a coloured ( ie a person of mixed race). The lyrics in SeSotho were more or less as follows:
“Tswang, tswang, tswang le mmone. Ngwana o tshwana le le-coloured! “
It was largely due to the campaign by our comrades in the Black Conscious Movement and the Pan African Congress that our people were gradually discouraged from singing this song.
Another manifestation of ignorance was the use by the oppressed themselves of racist and derogatory terms such as “ i Kula” (ie “coolie”) and “i bossman”, the latter being the derogatory term used to insult compatriots of mixed race. As I recounted in one my articles on the question of the coloured people in South Africa, some of our coloured people themselves believed that they were racially superior to their African compatriots.
Years later after our family had settled in Swaziland, we were dismayed to hear one of our South African compatriots using a racist and derogatory term during an interview which was screened on Swaziland television. That interview followed the conclusion of a big musical concert held at Somhlolo National Stadium which had featured many prominent musicians from both South Africa and abroad. Upon being asked to give his assessment of the festival, this compatriot, resplendent in his permed afro and bell-bottomed trousers, remarked: “Asibafuni laba bebekhona….next time sifuna balethe ama negroe afana nabo Diana Ross…(!)” (i.e. “we were not impressed with the line-up of artists….next time they must bring negroes like Diana Ross…..”).
I had already joined the ANC and was always at pains to impress upon our Swazi hosts the fact that we were politically and socially more advanced. This compatriot who spoke on Swaziland television exposed the falsity of such claims. It really was a very embarrassing episode.
Before moving to Swaziland, my father had acquired a post as principal of Lindile Secondary School, situated in Wesselton, Ermelo, about a hundred kilometres or so from our traditional family seat of Witbank (present-day Emalahleni). The conditions were particularly harsh there, more so because we lived in those infamous “matchbox” houses. Unlike the “matchbox” houses in Soweto which were made of face brick, those in Ermelo were made from a mixture of cement and ash. Thus on a cold or a rainy day the occupants would be exposed to the strong odour of ash. Small wonder my elder bother Martin and myself would a few years later develop asthma.
Apart from bearing daily insults and threats from our white oppressors, two historical factors remain a grim reminder of the tough conditions under which we lived in Ermelo.
The first was the yearly walk on Republic Day, 31 May, when we were forced to walk in straight lines to the ground adjacent to the community hall in Wesselton where we were given small bottles of Coca Cola, one bun and a packet of sweets. Although we despised the holiday which marked the establishment of the racist apartheid republic, we grudgingly looked forward to sitting on the grass in tight formations and consuming the refreshments we had been given, under the watchful eye of dozens of police. Coca Cola was a luxury which most of us could not afford to buy. Attendance, from what I can remember, was compulsory. We choked on those buns and Coca Cola largely because we consumed them in fear of the dreaded squads of policemen who monitored us from the backs of trucks and lorries.
The second major event (and that is strictly from my own personal experience), was the outbreak of a terrible skin disease. That skin disease spread virtually through all of the African townships in South Africa. The major symptom was very intense and severe itching all over the body. Temporary relief could only come about as a result of one rapidly scratching oneself all over the body. For that reason , the epidemic was called “ lekker krap” in the townships. There was even a song about “lekker krap”. I am personally not sure what the cause of this epidemic was. However it seems to have come in the wake of a prolonged draught which had in turn led to the scarcity of white maize. The racist authorities then rolled out yellowish mealie meal. It was largely believed that the epidemic was caused by a chemical which was to be found in the yellow mealie meal. It was also largely believed that the racist authorities had put that chemical in the mealie meal so that African males would loose their virility, suffer erectile dysfunction, and our women counterparts would become barren. The logic followed was that this would cut down the size of the African population. Whether that thesis bears any credence is of no consequence to myself, suffice to say that I bore intense pain and suffering as result of that epidemic. Even after we moved across the border to Swaziland, I still regularly suffered from the effects of that disease. Thus to this day, the lower part of both of my legs still bears scars of that illness.
As for the notorious architect and implementer of the policy of apartheid Hendrick Verwoed, he met his fate when he was stabbed to death while giving a speech in the racist parliament. His killer was Dimitri Tsafendas, an assistant in parliament whose duty was to serve tea and water to our racist oppressors while they discussed strategies of enforcing their barbaric system upon us. Although I had not even started my primary school education, I remember very well how the townships erupted in celebration at news of the death of Verwoed. In our own home it was my dad, though a devout Catholic, who correctly led us in the celebration of the death of Verwoed. As in the case of “lekker krap”, a song on the stabbing of Verwoed spread like wildfire in the townships. A new phrase also arose whereby the act of stabbing was called “ukuTsafenda “ ( ie “to Tsafenda”). Thus if someone threatened one with a knife, instead of saying “ I will stab you”, the new threat was “ Ngizoku Tsafenda”, ( ie I will Tsafenda you!).
There are many stories to be told of life under apartheid. Some are stories of joy and celebration while others tell of humiliation. Indeed every black South African can write volumes regarding their own personal experiences. I wrote these few pages as a way of getting other compatriots to do the same. We owe it to future generations to preserve our history , with all its humiliation, joys and suffering.