From the archives – Piet Freeman, Thebehali – and Ice to Eskimos! by Jon Qwelane

2014-02-09 09:19

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Two photos showing two boys who found themselves at the heart of two historic moments almost a quarter of a century apart.

Who are they? How did they come to be there? What happened to them? Are they still alive? These were the questions we asked when we first saw these images.

Read Jon Qwelane below on the day this picture was taken. Join the search here.

Hold up: 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

I have seen dozens of cranks in my life. Cranks who would carry coals to Newcastle, sell French fries to the French, market refrigerators to Iceland and even sell ice blocks to Eskimos.

The height of absurdity was reached last month when the paramount chief of Soweto gave freedom to a free man.

A lot of things have been said and written about [Soweto mayor] David Thebehali, but instead of disproving things, he goes all out to confirm them.

Otherwise how does one explain Thebehali’s action in giving the “freedom” of Soweto to Co-operation and Development boss Piet Koornhof?

It goes without saying that Thebehali, in giving the freedom of the ghetto to Dr Koornhof, was dispensing with a commodity he himself does not have.

I can only guess at the motives which prompted Thebehali to make so momentous a decision. I can think of only two. The first, and most obvious, was for personal recognition. Thebehali knew that by giving Piet Freeman his dues he would go down in history as the only black man giving white people their freedom.

In other words, he would be known as the only servant to give freedom to his masters. Even the Guiness Book of Records would not ignore such a momentous achievement.

I strongly suspect that the other reason why Piet Freeman became a citizen of Soweto was because of his good disposition towards Thebehali. They are known to have a very good working relationship.

In his welcome to Piet Freeman on the sacred day of his baptism as a bona fide resident of Soweto, Piet was told by Thebehali that “the people of Soweto regard you as their redeemer.”

Which is the other reason for the freedom award. As far as I know, the only resident of Soweto to be redeemed by Piet Freeman was Thebehali himself. Piet bought him a toy car to use on his “mayoral” rounds of Soweto, and for his efforts won himself the citizenship of the back streets.

Not that the freedom affair went off smoothly. There was a shortage of councillors to welcome Piet when he arrived in Soweto to grab his goodies. But that was no problem for the enterprising Thebehali, who grabbed a council messenger and a driver and tossed two gowns and in an instant he had ready-made councillors.

Piet’s freedom came at a very awkward moment, which strengthens my belief that the award was made out of gratitude. He had just agreed to shelve elections which would surely have ssen “Mr Six Percent” booted from office because of his bad handling of the rents issue.

Talking about rents brings to mind the increases and evictions. While Thebehali’s township superintendents were serving people with eviction orders, they conveniently overlooked the fact that he himself was in heavy arrears and did nothing about it.

He must be chortling with relief now that black newsmen have gone on strike. The man simply suffers an indescribable allergy [to] the media fellows, and sometimes makes a dash for it when they confront him.

As for Piet Freeman, well, that’s another one. He promises the people of Soweto their freedom, and ends up grabbing it for himself. While he goes about serenely enjoying his freedom of the ghetto, one wonders whether they did not forget to issue him with a reference book [pass] as well.

Perhaps Pretoria is still processing a citizenship certificate for him for [an] as yet unspecified homeland.

» Kwasa, November 1980, as quoted in From Protest to Challenge, a Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa

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