Scars from the past

2011-09-29 00:00

IN my previous life, I worked for the National Department of Correctional Services as a communications officer responsible for content development. As things were, as long as you were not at a director level, you were required to go through three months of training as a correctional official. This training included physical training, going to a shooting range, assembling and dismantling a pistol and many other activities that in all fairness were not relevant to me as a communicator.

During lectures, there was a trainer who I think was called Mr Hlongwane who was specialising in what I am going to refer to as correctional theory. Every time Mr Hlongwane came to the subject of the death sentence, he would not finish the lecture. He would weep and leave the lecture hall.

When he had mustered enough strength to talk a bit about this matter, he related that he cannot count the number of prisoners whom, as a prison warder, he had come to be acquainted with who went unjustly into the gallows. He told of how as warders they were only told in the morning that prisoner X, who “was the first person you saw every morning sometimes for more than four years”, was going to hang. He told of the pain and anguish of losing a person who, in his judgment, did not deserve to hang. Mr Hlongwane told of how these prisoners always laughed and sang their way to the gallows. “Not a single one of them would be saddened by the sudden news of going to the gallows,” he said sadly.

Mr Hlongwane is among many South Africans who carry deep-seated scars as a result of the past dispensation. As things stood in 1994, everyone was expected to forget the past and forge ahead to the future that was a result of the “miracle” political settlement. I am not sure what was supposed to be done regarding our past terrible experiences. What I do know for sure is that these experiences did not leave us the same.

I grew up in KwaMashu during the turbulent eighties. I did my matric for the first time when I was 16 years old. This means from the age of 13, I was a high school pupil. During those times, high school pupils in KwaMashu and many other townships in KwaZulu-Natal were on the receiving end of what was called black-on-black violence. We were targeted to such an extent that at first we resolved that all schools should wear black and white uniforms as some schools were more targeted than others. At some stage even wearing black and white was inviting trouble.

There are many things that I witnessed during those years (from the age of 13 to 16) that I would not wish on my greatest foes. I wonder if those things made me a normal person or if in my late adult life I will turn out like Mr Hlongwane and weep at the slightest thought of the days gone by. I am not sure if, like Mr Hlongwane, I carry deep-seated wounds, but I remember everything that happened during those days, like it happened yesterday.

I remember how my mother used to hide me in the blanket drawer of her double bed every time the sound of the vigilantes’ chants was heard approaching from the KwaMashu B section male hostel. I remember hiding in that dark drawer for hours until they had passed down Mangeni Road where our four-room corner house was. I remember the fear that engulfed me then as if vigilantes were in front of me right now.

Nqabakazulu High School where I went was not far from Lindelani township and in fear of the vigilantes who mainly resided at Lindelani, I remember how as young pupils we would push our desks forward so that at the back we could pack our petrol bombs, home-made guns and bricks for protection against the attack from the people from Lindelani. Now imagine learning — if learning is what we were doing — while sharing the classroom with petrol bombs and home-made guns. Whether these experiences put me in the same category as Mr Hlongwane, I do not know.

I remember vividly that at one stage, I could not eat meat for months after seeing an old man burning to death asking for forgiveness for the sake of his children. Every time I think about it, the nauseating stench of that man’s flesh is as fresh to me as if the burning tyre is still around his neck today. During those years, I saw many people being stabbed, being burnt and attended a countless number of fellow pupils’ funerals. All this notwithstanding, we had what we thought was a fairly normal childhood.

No, I don’t seek pity from anyone. If anything, I experienced much less than what was experienced by other black South Africans elsewhere in the country. I was not even what one could call an activist back then. I cannot even claim to have been particularly harassed by the ruthless police officers of the time. I just happened to be a young school boy growing up in what I will now call an abnormal society of the township called KwaMashu.

I am just thinking of the effect these experiences had on the life of many black South Africans. Perhaps these experiences contributed to the violent nature of our society.

Whether or not we need to do anything about it, I cannot say. What I do know for sure is that our society is full of unknown individuals like Mr Hlongwane who did not recover from the injustices and unrest that came as a result of apartheid.

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