Not easy now that I am older

2009-06-16 00:00

WHEN I was 14, I took celebrating June 16 very seriously. I would spend hours dressing for it: black jeans, black boots and a black T-shirt that read “Black like Malcolm, Mandela, Martin and Me”. (That shirt was the envy of my peer group, although most of us had to check with our moms who Malcolm was.) Then I would turn Ziggy Marley up loud – everyone knows Bob was only into a good melody, if you were after a real revolution you had to listen to Ziggy – and I would slouch down to our school common ground.

During apartheid, our school would always give us part of the day off to remember the Soweto uprising, even when other schools were diligently learning maths. And I would spend it lying around on quilted blankets, with other enlightened pupils – pupils who also knew that cutting your hair and wearing make-up were all ploys of the establishment, to force boys into the army and girls into marriage.

But now that I am older, and now that I have my own children, I find it harder to celebrate Youth Day.

The picture of Hector Pieterson, lying limp in a fellow school boy’s arms, eyes unfocused, breath slowing down, arms flopping from side to side as the boy runs – I can’t just see that as a museum piece any- more, as a mere record of our history. Now that I have my own children.

Now that I have my own children, I can’t look too long at Mbuyisa Makhubu’s face, as he scoops Hector up and as he runs for the press car. Or at Hector’s sister, Antoinette, as she runs beside him, shouting: “Who are you? This is my brother.” She said later: “I recognised the front part of his shoe.”

I can’t think too long of how, before the shooting started, Antoinette waved at her 13-year-old brother in the crowd. Of how she called him aside to scold him. He was too young to be there, she said, what was he doing there?

“There were younger children at the march who shouldn’t have been there. I don’t know why they were there – Hector was one of them,” she explained afterwards.

I can’t think too long of how she made her way to the clinic, where Hector had been pronounced dead on arrival, so that she could give the nurses his details, the details of her thin little brother. Of how her greatest fear was explaining this to her mom, that her only son was dead. Of how she answered her dad, who saw the photo in the paper, and wanted to know why she wasn’t in school. She was, after all, only 17. I cant think too long about this, now.

Now that I am old. Now that I have three children, all alive, now that watching Finding Nemo makes me weep, it is not so easy to celebrate Youth Day. How do you celebrate a day when young children were killed, children like yours. How do you celebrate a day when children, as one child was described, “looked like chicken mesh, after the machine guns flattened him”.

Perhaps you can only celebrate it the way Antoinette does; perhaps you can only remember it like this:

“To me and my family, Hector did not die in vain.”



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