Activist looks back on his apartheid-defying moment

2014-10-14 00:00

ALMOST 30 years ago, a South African black man did the unthinkable and stepped onto a bus that was designated “whites only”.

Yesterday, the iconic picture taken by Reuters photographer Billy Paddock went viral and The Witness tracked down the activist at the centre of the picture, Nhlanhla Dhlamini.

Dhlamini, now 56, was 28 at the time. He said he had braved the threat of being imprisoned and boarded the whites only bus from Glenwood to the CBD “as an act of protest”.

Although it was not his intention, Dhlamini’s actions echoed those of Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African-American woman who quietly refused to give up her seat that had been reserved for whites.

Dhlamini’s intention was to break the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 law, which stipulated that municipal buses, beaches, schools and hospitals could be reserved for a particular race.

“[At the time] I was being sheltered by the United Democratic Front’s Jeremy Rodley on Clark Road after my predominantly ANC-supporting family was attacked, my father was killed and our house burnt down by IFP supporters,” he said.

He said Paddock and the UDF where the first to arrive on scene and took him in when he had nowhere else to go.

Dhlamini said he was anxious before boarding the bus and had a restless night’s sleep.

“Billy and I discussed what I would do the night before. It was an act of protest against apartheid,” he said.

He said at 7 am they boarded a bus full of young people on their way to work.

“They were verbally abusive, used derogatory words and asked me why I was there.

“I thought I was going to be physically removed as confrontations were the order of the day,” he said.

The two had had breakfast at the Wimpy in the CBD and at 10 am boarded a bus back to Clark Road, when the picture was taken.

“The bus was filled with very unhappy women and while they did not say anything, they sneered and stared at me.

“Billy took the picture, which I was told has been published around the world.

“We were not allowed to live in Glenwood at that time and now I own the house next door. I bought it because of its sentimental value,” he said.

Dhlamini is now married and has four children.

He said the house had been a meeting place for activists at the time where he met the likes of Thuli Madonsela and Ian Mkhize.

Dhamini was working as an electrician at the time the picture was taken and is now a businessperson working with government supplying educational equipment to underprivileged schools.

He said young people today may not easily identify with the black and white picture as they live in a open society, but he urged them to seize their opportunities.

“People need to stop expecting from the government and instead work with them to create a better country.”

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