Help us find the history boys

2014-02-09 06:00

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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.

We had little to go on – just the captions that accompanied the photographs in a bumper new book and exhibition, Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, which opens this week at Museum Africa in Newtown, Joburg.

Today we share the story of how we tried to identify the ‘History Boys’ and invite you to join the search.

If you have any clues about the identity of anyone in these pictures, get in touch with us at

The Peacemaker

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

This search was complicated by the incorrect date on the caption: Piet Koornhof was given the freedom of the township by then Soweto mayor David Thebehali on October 15 1980, not June 16 1976.

The first step was to track down photographer Noel Watson to see what he remembered.

A quick call to The Star newspaper’s current photographic manager, Theresa Skosana, revealed Watson was alive and well and living in California.

Watson had been a news photographer at the Rand Daily Mail when he took the picture. We tracked him down to his home in the small town of Garberville, 200km north of San Francisco, and nudged his memory about what happened that day almost 34 years ago.

“Those were chaotic days, driving into the townships in the boots of cars [photographers were police targets], being tear-gassed and harassed for doing our jobs.

“I remember arriving at this scene – I don’t remember exactly where it was – seeing a crowd of kids standing around and then that young boy stepping forward.

“After that I think the police started popping off tear gas and the crowd was breaking free with the cops chasing them, jumping over walls and into people’s houses.

“And then the cops started getting heavy with us [blaming the photographers for inciting the students].”

Watson never had the chance to find out who the boy he photographed was.

“Thinking back on the day, it struck me the way this person came forward ... stood the among this police intimidation ... defiant!”

Working with a Nikon F2, Watson shot dozens of frames of the scene, but the young man’s gesture was the moment that no other photographer captured quite as well.

“I knew I had good stuff that day,” he says.

“I always try to capture that one instance, that essence of the situation.”

And the fleetingness of the moment makes the young boy’s identity all the more elusive. We tracked down more reporters who had been present that day.

Former Rand Daily Mail photographer Robbie Tshabalala says the protest was outside the Jabulani Urban Bantu Council (UBC) offices.

“Piet Koornhof was inside addressing councillors and we were [photographing] the protesters outside.”

The late photojournalist Alf Kumalo shot a well-known image on the same day. In that shot, the UBC offices are clearly visible in the background.

We found a column written by Jon Qwelane, a columnist well known for his biting humour, which described the events of that day, from a rather different angle.

The irony of the mayor of Soweto giving a white cabinet minister the freedom of a township that was still enslaved to the apartheid state, did not escape Qwelane’s notice.

“I have seen dozens of cranks in my life,” his November 1980 article in Kwasa magazine began. “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.”

Reporter Chris Marais, who was also there that day, took a sideways view of events too. “I just remember [Koornhof landing in a] helicopter, dust, and everyone in the press corps being very hungry at lunchtime and Chuck Mitchell of UPI and I having off to the old Uncle Charlie’s to buy a boot-load of burgers to sell to the media guys.”

In trying to establish where the protesters had come from, we looked at nearby schools.

The closest school to the UBC offices is Jabulani Technical School. But according to current principal Themba Ngwenya, in 1980 it was a teachers’ training college so the schoolchildren in the picture could not have come from there.

The next closest school would be Morris Isaacson in Central Western Jabavu. Former pupil and Soweto youth leader Murphy Morobe was happy to help and circulated the image among the alumni of his time, but no one has recognised “The Peacemaker”.

Naledi and Orlando West high schools were unable to help.

Lots of memories, but as is the case in most fast-breaking news stories, no one recorded the name of the young man. And how could he have known that more than 30 years later, his brave and hopeful gesture that day would call across generations to remind us how history is made by ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Perhaps he’s still out there...

The Protester

A crowd near the Drill Hall on the first day of the Treason Trial, Johannesburg, December 19 1956. Picture: Eli Weinberg/Times Media Collection/Museum Africa, Johannesburg

Treason Trial, opening day, Johannesburg December 19 1956: this should have been easy, right?

Everyone who was anyone in struggle politics was there that day, so someone would be able to identify the odd boy out, squished among the front row of formally posed protesters, looking benign if slightly bemused by the moment.

The first clue as to his identity came through exhibition publicist Lesley Perkes, who said Cape Town photographer Paul Weinberg (no relation to Eli Weinberg) thought the boy might have been the photographer Eli Weinberg’s son Mark.

Mark had died tragically in his 20s while both Eli and his wife Violet were in detention.

Authorities had refused the Weinbergs permission to attend the funeral and their younger daughter, Sheila, had been left to cope with her brother’s death on her own. She went on to become a staunch activist and named her only child after her late brother.

“Mark is around, ask him,” suggested Paul.

A few calls later we found Mark Weinberg, the junior, at his job as campaign national coordinator for the freedom of information campaign Right2Know. He was not immediately familiar with the picture and when we mailed him a copy and asked, “is this your uncle?” the trail seemed to go cold. “I don’t recognise him,” was his response.

But Mark junior thought close family friend Ilse Wilson, the daughter of Nelson Mandela’s defence lawyer, Bram Fischer, would know for sure.

But Ilse was holidaying in Hogsback, a far-flung Eastern Cape village with poor cellphone network coverage, and she wasn’t receiving emails, calls or messages.

Perhaps fellow Rivonia Trial defence lawyer George Bizos would remember something?

He mailed us back: “I do not know the boy in the photo, but I do know that Eli had a son of approximately the age of the boy. The photograph was probably taken by him in the beginning of the Treason Trial in ’56, at the preparatory examination held at the military barracks at Joubert Park. Eli was very friendly with Bram Fischer and his children, particularly Ilse.”

Scholar and political analyst Raymond Suttner suggested former Robben Island prisoner Denis Goldberg might have the answer.

Goldberg mailed back to say he did not recognise the boy, though he found the time to write a moving tribute to his former fellow prisoner Eli.

We found a poem written by the author and TRC commissioner Hugh Lewin, dedicated to Eli Weinberg.

If Lewin had grown up as the Weinberg’s neighbour, surely he would recognise Mark? But this was his reply: “I’m sorry but I can’t help with this because I don’t know who the young boy would be. Have you tried Ilse Wilson?”

More calls, more emails, no Ilse.

We tried her friend, ex-communist Myrtle Berman, who was imprisoned during the state of emergency after the Sharpeville massacre. Another blank: “Sorry, but I can’t recognise him. Hope that you find an answer. Myrtle.”

And finally Ilse, calling from a hilltop in Hogsback, on a broken signal.

“I don’t think it’s Mark,” she said, “besides he would have been older – 14 or 15 – at the time.”

She was at Drill Hall with her mother, Molly Fischer, on the day the picture was taken and remembers chaotic scenes. “My mother spotted Bishop [Ambrose] Reeves in the crowd. He had rather large ears and my mother said: ‘Come on, if we follow those ears we’ll be alright!’

“I’ve asked Barbara Harmel and Toni Bernstein, and they don’t think it’s Mark either.”

Back to square one.

We consider the boy could be a child of one of the trialists. But a clatter of further calls and mails turned up nothing.

Author Paul Trewhela, who edited the underground journal MK Freedom Fighter during the Rivonia Trial, is tracked down in London. He goes into sleuth mode immediately and deduces that, from the age of the boy in the photo, it could be Mark after all.

“I was born in 1941, and was 20 when I first got into the Congress of Democrats in Joburg in mid-1962. I remember Mark from that time, who was deaf, caused by a car accident when Violet had been driving. My memory of him was of a young man – a little younger than me – who always seemed to be wearing a beret à la Che and Fidel with a left-wing badge on it, with a beard, and quite chubby.

“Eli did take photographs of the children of white Communist Party activists on Congress demos in Joburg. In the book of his photographs, Portrait of a People [International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, London, 1981], there is a photo on page 73 taken in Joburg at the founding conference of the Federation of South African Women in April 1954, showing Sheila as a young girl with Barbara Harmel and one of the Slovo girls, I think Gillian. In the photo, Sheila looks much younger than age 8, which she would have been at the time.

“So my feeling was that the boy in the photo could have been Mark, especially since there aren’t any other white children in the photo.”

Communist Party member Leslie Schermbrucker, who was imprisoned with Violet Weinberg in Barberton, agrees. Her daughter, Professor Jill Murray had shown her the photograph, asking: “Who do you think that is?”

“I said that’s Mark Weinberg. It’s how I remember him, he was a big boy and Eli often took Mark with him on jobs, he was around a lot. They were a very close family.

“Well, that’s my opinion, but it does worry me that Ilse Wilson does not recognise him, so I won’t say 100%, but it’s my best shot...”

Trewhela suggests we contact the Slovo sisters, Gillian, Shawn and Robyn, but Robyn writes back: “We knew the Weinbergs well – but none of us can identify the boy.”

Back to Lesley Perkes, who asks me one morning: “Have you tried Albie Sachs? He would know if it’s Mark.”

He did. And it wasn’t: “Great picture! But I don’t recognise the guy. Can any of your readers identify the boy and the women standing just behind him? Rica Hodgson probably helped organise the poster protest ... she might recognise them. Definitely not Mark Weinberg.”

And so a visit to the Waverley, Joburg, home of struggle stalwart and the author of Foot Soldier for Freedom, Rica Hodgson, now in her 90s but as sharp and feisty as ever.

Our boy did not look familiar, and no, she said, she raised funds for the campaign, but did not organise the poster protest.

“But ask my dear friend Ruth Mompati, she may know who he is.”

After a stellar struggle career, Mompati is now 88 and living in Vryburg (now Naledi), where she was most recently mayor.

She was working as a typist in Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo’s law firm in ’56 and was indeed one of the organisers of the protest action that day.

“The police were pushing us around very badly. Every now and then one of the women would say: ‘We need protein’, and that was the sign for someone to throw a rotten egg [or sometimes an overripe orange] at the police. The police would get so furious because they could not see who had thrown it, and then they would really go for us.”

As for the boy, Mompati has other ideas ...

“I know the picture well. The women in the picture were members of the Federation of South African Women and I’ve always thought that one of the women from the federation had come down to the court from her day job with the young boy from her employer’s family.”

Ilse Wilson and Barbara Harmel had also briefly entertained this thought, but Toni Bernstein had disagreed.

But maybe Mompati’s on target. Was he a young lad on an unexpected adventure, unaware of the magnitude of the events taking place around him, and perhaps looking pleased at the prospect of appearing in the newspaper the next day?

We put this possibility to Trewhela: “I don’t for a minute think that a nanny passing by a high profile political demo in central Joburg in 1956 would have even slightly considered putting a white boy in her charge into a photo of that kind.

“White political parents’ kids from that time more or less followed their parents’ wishes, so my guess is that the most secure bet is on Mark.”

When we say it is Mompati’s view, he responds:

“I wouldn’t gainsay Ruth Mompati on this!”

Every day, people who formed the spine – or even those who found themselves hovering shyly at the sidelines – of tumultuous events that led to the birth of our democratic nation, puts the anti-apartheid struggle into intimate perspective. Almost 60 years after this photograph was taken, is it a cold case? Or are there missing pieces of the history puzzle waiting to be found within its frame?

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