City Press readers find one of our ‘History Boys’

2014-02-14 18:32

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Last Sunday, we asked readers to become City Press sleuths and help us find our “History Boys” – the two unidentified youths we dubbed the “protester” and the “peacemaker” who featured in two intriguing old photographs we published in our 20 Years of Democracy launch edition.

Security forces with dogs hold back a crowd protesting against minister Piet Koornhof being given the Freedom of Soweto, October 15 1980. Picture: Noel Watson

That same day we received an email from City Press reader Japie Sedie. It said, simply “kindly be informed that the peacemaker is alive and kicking and resides in Naledi township, Soweto.”

We couldn’t believe our luck. By Monday evening we had confirmed that it was really him.

On Tuesday morning we had an appointment to meet him at his house. And so that young man whose courage one long-ago day in 1980 had reached out across time to make us wonder, Who was he?, What happened to him?, Is he still alive?, was about to satisfy our curiosity. This is Thabo Sefatsa’s story.

In 1980 Thabo Sefatsa was a fiery, rowdy and foul-tempered 17-year-old with a healthy disdain for authority.

Like many Sowetan teenagers in the early 1980s – during the height of the apartheid regime’s crackdown on dissent – he lived life in the fast lane.

Running battles with the police, mass protests by pupils from different schools and “targets” (the practice of ambushing small delivery trucks and looting their payload) were a daily reality for Sefatsa.

His contempt for authority gained momentum during the 1976 student uprising in Orlando West when he was struck by a rock while fleeing from the police. It was an injury that forced him to quit soccer, a sport he loved dearly.

Often, he sailed too close to the wind. And so was the case on a spring day in October 1980. He and his friends had heard that then Soweto Mayor David Thebehali would bestow the freedom of Soweto on the then Co-operation and Development Minister Piet Koornhof.

That day, Sefatsa, who lived in Moletsane, but attended the Thomas Mofolo High School in Naledi, skipped school and hurried to the municipal offices in Jabulani where Thebehali was hosting Koornhof.

And that is where news photographer, Noel Watson, captured his now fabled shot of Sefatsa stepping out from the crowd to face down cops and snarling dogs while making a peace sign.

It appeared the next morning in the now defunct Rand Daily Mail.

Sefatsa, now 51, is a self-employed electrician living with his wife and four children in their modest home in Naledi, Soweto.

He has never forgotten the events of that fateful day.

“Our intentions were to disrupt the meeting. We wanted to go inside and cause havoc. The police told us to leave, but we refused.”

Sefatsa vividly remembers how he stepped forward from the ranks of student protesters to face the police whose dogs, he says, were itching to be unleashed.

“I stepped forward to talk to them and I raised two fingers on both my hands to signal that we were not fighting. But the police would have nothing to do with it. They sprayed us with tear gas. We ran and they followed me. I jumped into somebody’s yard, but they cornered me”, he said, adding that he later learned he’d been targeted because police thought he had picked up a pistol mistakenly dropped by an officer.

“They beat me up with batons and kicked me all over my body.”

The following day when he arrived at school his teachers, who had bought the Rand Daily Mail and had seen Watson’s picture, reprimanded him.

“They told me to stay out of trouble.”

Looking at the picture now, he says: “I didn’t realise I was so close to the police. I was brave. I guess when you are young you don’t fear anything. But I could have died that day.”

The photographer who took the picture was stunned to learn that we had found and identified “the peacemaker” 24 years later.

An emotional Noel Watson, who now lives in the US, sent us a letter to give to Sefatsa in which he wrote “Oh this news brought tears. Thabo ... the defiant! He made it ... completes the circle. Sooo happy he’s alive.”

Watson also said “please tell him that on that day he became my hero.”

Like many youth of his generation who were forced to put “liberation before education”, Sefatsa failed matric in 1983.

The following year he enrolled at the Molapo Technical College where he qualified as an electrician before embarking on an apprenticeship at Rustenburg Platinum Mine.

Reflecting on the consequences of that chaotic era in the decade before apartheid fell, Sefatsa says South Africans learned violence from the police.

“I have noticed that these days service delivery protests have become very violent, and protesters are always armed with stones, knives and missiles.

“But it is all because of the police. During our time we never carried weapons. We confronted the police empty handed but every time they responded with brute force.

“I think South Africans later realised that they have to be armed in order to protect themselves.”

As the country celebrates 20 years of democracy Sefatsa says he is disappointed with the current ANC government.

“I’m stressed by our government; there are e-tolls and all sorts of things. Is this the country that we fought for? I think in five years we will be like Zimbabwe.

“Let us be honest, the Guptas (President Jacob Zuma’s patrons) rule us”, he said, adding that he will vote because “complaining will not change anything”.

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