1984: A?bygone year

2014-09-09 13:45

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Mondli Makhanya attends the 30th anniversary of the Vaal uprising and finds resentment amid the commemoration

Sometimes it takes a journey back along the road to understand the distance you have travelled and appreciate the hazards you have encountered along the way.

In the case of South Africa’s struggle for freedom, that road is a hazardous one. It is marked by uprisings, massacres, assassinations, torture and many other tragedies. The people of the Vaal walked down that road this week, remembering a day when they lit a fire that was to engulf the nation and burn for years.

The occasion was the 30th anniversary of the Vaal uprising, which began on September 3 1984. It is a little-recognised date on the South African calendar, but one that deserves pride of place in our history.

It was on that day that residents of Sebokeng, Evaton, Sharpeville and surrounding townships took to the streets to protest against the local council.

The year-old local council had responded to a rent boycott by locking residents out of their homes and throwing furniture out on to the streets.

In protest, the people organised a march, a general strike, and a school boycott for September 3.

The day happened to coincide with the first sitting of the Tricameral Parliament and PW Botha’s swearing in as executive president under a new Constitution.

The United Democratic Front (UDF) had planned protests against the Cape Town events, but was caught by surprise when the Vaal went up in flames.

Sedibeng mayoral committee member Shaka Radebe remembers that day well. “We did not sleep. We camped all night planning for the next day and in the morning, we were stopping people from going to work.”

By mid-morning, thousands had descended on Sebokeng’s Catholic Church to begin the march on the Houtkop offices of the Lekoa council where they would hand over a memorandum and tell the body that under no circumstances would they pay. Tensions began to rise as reports filtered through that police were harassing people on their way to the march.

A puppet named Zuma poses with people at the anniversary commemoration

Then the townships exploded. Government buildings were razed, businesses were looted and cars stoned. By the end of the day, 26 people were dead, including four councillors who had been killed by angry residents.

In the days, weeks and months that followed the Vaal eruption, township after township around the country caught fire. Hundreds died. With more than 200?000 school pupils on almost permanent school boycott screaming “Freedom Now, Education Later”, war raged on the streets.

Youngsters left the country in their thousands to join the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, and returned as trained soldiers to undertake sabotage operations and assassination missions.

The Botha government was forced to pour troops into the townships and enforce a draconian state of emergency. Thousands of activists were locked up. There were terrorism trials and a few leaders were charged with treason.

Reid Mokoena, who was Accused Number 2 in the famous Sharpeville Six trial, was one of those who found himself at the sharp end of the apartheid government’s crackdown. Convicted of murdering Sharpeville mayor Jacob Dlamini, he and five other protesters spent four years on death row before their sentences were commuted to life. They were released in 1991. The trauma of the torture and living on death row lives with him to this day.

“I don’t eat much. I don’t sleep. I drink a lot because I am trying to forget,” he says.

The government crackdown was to no avail as greater repression bred fiercer resistance. Unlike previous uprisings, this one would not yield to the crushing hand of the authorities.

Images of the brutal security state in action went around the world, fuelling the global anti-apartheid movement. It gave impetus to the sanctions and disinvestment campaign against the country, as well as sports and cultural boycott drives.

Just less than 10 years later, South Africa became a constitutional democracy after lengthy negotiations.

For 50-year-old Benjamin Mtshitshibe, the significance of that day is not lost. He was among a few thousand Vaal residents who this week staged a symbolic march in remembrance of the events of that day. This time though, some of the marchers accompanied the procession in fancy cars such as Jaguars, BMWs, Chryslers and Range Rovers.

“That day was a victory for us. It was a victory for the UDF because it generated momentum. It is thanks to what happened on that day that this country is here now,” he says.

His friend, Stanley Gqiba, concurs. But he says the day needs greater recognition. “The born-frees must know what happened on this day. They must know how it changed the direction of the struggle, which had lost speed after the 1976 uprisings.”

It is a sentiment shared by an Umkhonto weSizwe veteran who says: “Born- frees must have a history of where we come from”.

“Some tell us it is their right to do this or to do that, but do they know where that right came from?” he asks.

The lack of recognition of the significance of the day is a source of much irritation and resentment in the Vaal where many feel too much glory has gone into the role played by Soweto in the fall of apartheid. There are even suggestions for a public holiday to be declared in honour of the uprising.

The fact that the day was overlooked was evident in the low-key nature of the 30th anniversary, even in this 20th year of democracy. Organised by the Sedibeng municipality, the event attracted scant attention from national leaders. The most high-profile leader present was parliamentarian and ANC Gauteng chairperson Paul Mashatile.

The areas where the revolt began are barren sites and give no idea that something historical happened there. Sedibeng mayor Simon Mofokeng says there is a plan to build memorial squares at significant sites to remember the uprising and those who died in the conflict.

“We want to memorialise different epochs of the struggle,” says Mofokeng.

But for Mtshitshibe and Gqiba, honouring the heroes of the uprising must be accompanied by an acceleration in service delivery, development and job creation.

Gqiba says: “Our people are too reliant on social grants. Although grants are good because they fight poverty?–?and we are grateful to our government for them?–?it is, however, not what we fought for. We should also be giving people self-respect.”

So, 30 years down the line and 20 years into democracy, was it worth the pain, the death and?–?in the case of many?–?the loss of youth?

No, says Mokoena, who?–?like some of his fellow Sharpeville Six comrades?– feels betrayed by leaders he believes have become greedy and selfish in the post-apartheid era.

“My sacrifice for the country seems to have been for some people to have big cars and big houses,” he says angrily.

But Radebe, who spent years in prison and exile and is now a councillor, believes liberation has brought about opportunities that people must seize. He says people must not always wait for government to help them.

“One looks back with pride that one contributed to the liberation of the country. Emotionally, our people are free and physically, our people are free as well,” he says.

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