Nineteen sixty six

2012-10-04 00:00

I WAS in Standard 2, Grade 4 in today’s talk. I had all the bragging rights of a senior class pupil as Jabula School in Lidgetton was at that stage a junior primary school. I remember fondly that in that year, 1966, I had my first affection for a girl. She was a quiet and petite little girl in my class of about a dozen. Jimaimah was her name. I wonder how my life would have been had we made it to marriage. Maybe I would be writing a different story today, like: “Forty-six blissful years”. But life being what it is, such thoughts will forever reside in the realms of fantasy.

In the mornings, we held our daily assembly in the open where we sang hymns and recited prayers, usually “Our Father Who Art In Heaven” or any recital from our repertoire of the Psalms of David. The principal would address us on any subject which would invariably end with a moral lesson. Routine would then take us to the only two classrooms in the school which consisted of two rondavels with two classes in each. A single-roomed stone house was the principal’s bedroom-cum–living-room–cum-office. Once a week, girls would apply cow dung in the rondavels and the “office” as floor polish, as was done by Africans of years gone by.

One day, soon after settling in class our teacher, Madam Caluza, ordered us back to the assembly area, obviously at the beck and call of Mr Wela, our only other teacher and principal. “Sergeant”, as we called him, was a former policeman who never failed to exhibit the traces of his erstwhile profession, as evidenced by his passion for discipline and order. On arrival at the assembly point, he was already waiting and soon began to address us.

“You see kids. I pity you because you are still very young and may not fully appreciate the picture I am about to draw for you” he began.

We listened attentively with our main concern being whether at the end of it all there would be punishment. Hastily called meetings like this were suspicious and had a nasty history. He took out a ruler and held it in a stabbing manner. It must have been a 12-inch one.

“Do you see this?” he shouted, to which we yelled “Yes” in unison. “A man of God, the leader of our country was stabbed to death with a knife of this size,” he continued. To say we were afraid is a proverbial understatement. The drama in action was beyond anything we had ever heard in that forum.

“The Prime Minister, Mr Verwoerd, is dead. He was stabbed to death by a certain man called Tsafendas.”

A hymn sprouted from the side of the soprano girls and we all joined the choral. Loud prayers abbreviated the singing and dwarfed the music. When the recitals subsided, I could hear that there was crying all over. Even Madam Caluza was crying. I cried.

I had not heard the name Verwoerd before. I thought the ruler of our country was the king of the Zulus, King Bhekuzulu. With Tsafendas, it took me a long time to know that this was actually a white person. The pronunciation of that name sounded like Shangaan to me.

There we were, as ordered, moving back to our classes to take our belongings for a day of mourning, which the principal said was granted to us by the government.

I went home buoyed with excitement considering that I would be the first one to break the news. I knew that my sister, who was doing Sub-standard 1, would not dare beat me in eloquence stakes.

But when I related the story to my family, I realised, with disappointment, that there were no surprises for my listeners. In fact, my father had been told about the tragedy by the farmer’s wife the previous day. My pride was rescued by the fact that I was the only one in the family who could pronounce the name Verwoerd correctly. They called him “Velevutha”, which in Zulu literally means a person who appeared and was burnt to death.

It is interesting to note that Tsafendas’s name took root and was appreciated by township gangsters for a long time. For more than a decade you would still hear someone saying “Ngizoku Tsafenda”: meaning, “I will kill you with a knife”.

My people! My comrades! Let me tell you today, “I cried for Dr H.F. Verwoerd”.


• Stories by the finalists in our True Stories of KZN competition will be published in The Witness before the winners are announced in the first week of December.

About the writer:


Mokgotsi Ngcobo grew up in Lions River, KwaZulu-Natal. He is a legal consultant and resides in Westville. He was one of the finalists in last year’s competition. He swears he has not been urbanised after 40 years in the cities and still longs for life within the farming community in the Midlands.

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