Screaming silently in a burning house

2014-12-14 15:00

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I guess I’m defined by the struggle I was born into. My freedom fighter guerilla father, Mathabatha, escaped South Africa to Lesotho in the early 1970s after being hunted down by apartheid forces.

There, he met Bunie Matlanyane, who was already conscientised and active in the struggle to free South Africa. Their liberation movement of choice was the ANC.

From a young age, my dad would play war games with my older sister Matsobane and me – as well as Nomagqabi Sokupa, a daughter of ANC comrades who lived with us. My dad taught us how to react to imagined gunfire and bombs. “Down!” was our cue to throw ourselves to the ground and stomach crawl or play dead.

The 1982 year-end school holidays had just started, and us kids were taken to an aunt of ours in Ha Tsosane township outside Maseru. There, we frolicked with our cousins and didn’t have a care in the world. I remember being taken home on the evening of December 8 under protest.

I had a bad habit of falling asleep while watching TV in the lounge, and my parents would leave me there to get cold and go to bed without prompting, hoping to teach me a lesson to go to bed when tired. That tough love was luckily not practised that evening and I voluntarily went to bed, exhausted. If I had stayed in the lounge, I wouldn’t be here to tell this story – I would have been shot. The SA Defence Force soldiers entered our house by shooting down our lounge door.

At 1am on the 9th, I was woken up by a loud bang. There was fire all around us and the windows in our bedroom were shattered. I have never heard so many different scary sounds since: gunfire, bombs, grenades and a helicopter flying above the house. There was a green liquid oozing from my numb thigh. I only found out later that it was actually blood and just looked green because of the orange blaze of the fire.

It seems funny today, but our instincts when waking up in shock were to practice the fire drill techniques taught to us at school. As Nomagqabi and I argued about how to cover the shattered windows with a duvet to starve the fire of oxygen, my father materialised at the door of the bedroom with ammunition around his chest and an AK-47 in his hands. He shouted: “Down!” We knew our worst nightmare was unfolding. We knew this was not a drill.

Instinct from the war games kicked in, and we followed his lead and crawled on our stomachs to his bedroom, where my mother was lying flat on the ground with my sister and aunt.

My dad exchanged gunfire with the commandos. At some point, everything went silent. He ordered us to lie very still. We heard the terrorists shout commands to each other in Afrikaans and suddenly there was silence. Then more grenades, and silence again. We lay there in a ­burning house for what felt like an eternity and my father eventually led us outside.

In the sad light of day a few hours later, we learnt that 42 people were dead. One of them was our neighbour, a new mum who had put on a light to see what the commotion was about. They shot her for peeping through a ­window. I almost lost a leg that night, but it was saved by East German doctors weeks later. I lost something far bigger though: my innocence.

Sexwale is a communication strategist and social ­commentator living in Johannesburg

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