Lest we forget a hero of Willowfountain:David Cecil Oxford Matiwane who inspired the leaders of the struggle

2010-03-31 00:00

A PROJECT that speaks to the heart and soul of a community has been quietly on the go in Willowfountain, Edendale, thanks to the province’s first lady Dr May Mkhize Mashego and Thami Matiwane, the grandson of struggle stalwart the late D. C. O. Matiwane.

Started in 2002 and involving the community of Willowfountain, the first part of the project has now been completed with the renovation of Matiwane’s house that is soon to be established as a museum. Mashego is the chairperson of the D. C. O. Matiwane Memorial Project and her committee includes Matiwane family members such as Thami and other young people from the area. Funding so far has come from the Independent Development Trust (IDT). The grant has not only provided for the renovations, but has also helped build a bridge to the museum. Previously access to the house was via stepping stones across a river. The bridge now allows both pedestrian and vehicle access to the site.

Mike Mabuyakhulu, currently MEC for Economic Development, who was on the KZN cabinet when the project started, was supportive of the community’s initiative and pledged his support for the project. Recently, the Department of Agriculture has also given an undertaking to get on board.

The Msunduzi Museum is providing technical expertise on the project which is envisaged as ultimately including an art gallery, conference centre, and a coffee and curio shop that will sell local arts and crafts. An indigenous recreational park is to be developed around the museum to preserve the local environment and take care of a wetland situated in the vicinity. According to the Project Committee, the plan is to landscape the park attractively so that it is suitable for other uses, such as a wedding photography or birthday parties, for a small fee or donation.

The committee sees the market potential of Willlowfountain, a serene, scenic and semi-rural setting only 15 minutes away from the city centre. Another attraction of the area is its significance to French tourists as this was where the French Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, was killed in a raid by a Zulu impi.

What’s exciting about the endeavour is that it is more than an effort to promote tourism and create economic opportunities for the community. There is an underlying philosophy driving the process, which is that a community that does not acknowledge its history loses part of its soul. The heart of the project is that young people need role models. Who better than Matiwane, a colourful character and political activist whose one- man protests against racism and injustice were legendary in Pietermaritzburg. Matiwane himself inspired a host of young people to get involved in the political struggle and a special tribute to him was the establishment of the D. C. O. Matiwane Youth League back in the eighties, which was run from the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre. Justice Minister Jeff Radebe, who spoke at the Lay Centre earlier this year, said academic pursuit, political activism and community service dominated the lives of the young members of the club. “The list of these youth members who came out of the D. C. O. Matiwane Youth League is endless, and I count, among others, Ben Dikobe Martins, Lucky Payi, Sipho Xulu, Sipho Shezi, Mzamo Hadebe, the Gqubule children and many others,” he added.

KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize, who grew up in Willowfountain, once said his own activism was inspired by Matiwane. Mkhize had a close relationship with Matiwane while growing up and credits him with teaching him his initial political lessons and encouraging him to attend school and pursue his education.

Over the years, the Mkhize family have been involved in uplifting the Willowfountain area and a highlight is their annual Christmas party that brings young and old together, and celebrates the life of the community. The D. C. O. Matiwane Memorial Project is a natural progression of that involvement.

David Cecil Oxford Matiwane was born in Edendale in 1918. His grandfather, Noziwana ka Soqaya Matiwane, was among the first Christian converts of the Reverend James Allison. Known as the Amakholwa, this grouping went on to become farmers, entrepreneurs, evangelists and teachers. His mother was a school teacher who later became a nurse. Matiwane trained as a school teacher at St Francis College in Mariann­hill. His teaching career, however, was short- lived. He taught with the late ANC leader Harry Gwala in Howick. Both were members of the Communist Party, a political association frowned upon by the authorities and they soon found themselves dismissed from the teaching profession.

Matiwane held various other jobs, including being a court interpreter in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court and working in the Department of Native Affairs. It was while he was in this job in Estcourt and as a member of the ANC that he organised a milk boycott, an action that also left him jobless. He went on to work as a clerk for a legal firm Drummond and Company in Estcourt and while there he started studying law. His studies were disrupted when he was imprisoned during the 1960 State of Emergency and on his release months later was never able to complete his degree. This did not deter him from representing himself on the numerous occasions that he was hauled before the courts, facing charges under the plethora of apartheid laws. He won most of his cases or succeeded in having the charges withdrawn.

In 1977, he was charged under the Riotious Assemblies Act for carrying a placard. The charge was later withdrawn. He was arrested in 1979 for demonstrating in commemoration of the Sharpeville shooting. Conducting his own defence he sued the then Minister of Police, Louis Le Grange, for wrongful arrest. An out-of-court settlement was reached and Matiwane was given an amount of R5 000. These arrests did not deter him and going into the eighties, when all political protest was banned, he continued his role as the political conscience of the city. On June 16, 1980, he staged a one-man protest at the old Supreme Court gardens (opposite the city hall) to mark the fourth anniversary of the Soweto uprising. Later he, together with ministers from the Lay Ecumenical Centre, staged a protest against political repression. They were arrested and charged but the charges were also withdrawn.

Mkhize recalled Matiwane being a perpetual irritant to the local police and their special branch unit. He would arrive in town dressed in a well-worn suit that had pamphlets and press cuttings pinned to it from back to front and along the sleeves. Matiwane was once charged with distributing political pamphlets. He told the police he was engaged in earnest prayer with his eyes firmly closed, so how could he be blamed if people were helping themselves to his belongings

For the premier a lasting impression was seeing the old man being transported home by a convoy of police vehicles after one of his many city- centre protests. The dust had hardly settled on the retreating backs of the police cars when Matiwane would hop onto the next bus and head back to town to continue his protest. Defiance indeed, but much more it showed the young Mkhize what it meant to have the courage of one’s convictions.

Matiwane was deeply committed to education as a process that would help people escape poverty. Mkhize said he spoke Latin as if it was his second language and whenever he saw young people he would spout the Latin saying vita sine libris mors est — life without books is death. He adapted it to ‘the life of man without education is death’.”

When his political activism made it difficult for him to get a job, Matiwane tried his hand at entrepreneurship. He bought a bus and for a while operated a transport service in Estcourt. Later in 1965, he moved back to Pietermaritzburg where he was employed by the bus owners, Maharaj and Company. His foray into the transport business made him particularly aware of the hardships that people suffered because a large part of their meagre earnings went to pay bus fares to get to and from work. He was involved in constant negotiations with the Pietermaritzburg Municipality over bus fare increases and successfully challenged the municipality to reduce fares for the Willowton area.

Matiwane died on April 25, 1982, at the age of 65. He left a wife, two sons and four daughters.

Members of the D. C. O. Matiwane Memorial Project feel more comfortable talking about the project, now that they have something tangible to show. They say their first discussions started in 2002, more than eight years ago. This was followed by registering the project as a Section 21 nonprofit organisation and drawing up proposals for funding.

With the renovations completed, the next phase is working with Msunduzi Museum on setting up the museum. Work on the park has also started with a memorial tree garden. Trees have been planted by Mashego, uMgungundlovu mayor Yusuf Bhamjee and Dr Bandile Mkhize of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. May Mkhize thanks two young people, Thami Matiwane and Brian Mdletshe, who have been so patient and passionate about the project. “He gave all of us the strength to persevere. Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and we are proud,” she said.

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