Living on the other side

2016-12-20 08:26
Fedsem families setting up the children’s playground on campus in 1981.

Fedsem families setting up the children’s playground on campus in 1981. (Fiona Bulman)

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A short break at a guest farm during the school holidays in early 1980 was to send us on a journey to living on the other side for nearly 10 years. At the table next to us in the dining room was a family with two daughters who were fascinated by our little daughter in her high chair and so we got chatting. Lesley talked of the nursery school that she was running which had an intriguing mix of children. Namibian children who spoke only Damara, among the South African children there were Xhosas who spoke English with a cockney accent, Zulu children who spoke very little Zulu and with an American accent, Sotho and Tswana-speaking children. In fact, the whole spectrum of South Africa was reflected in the little preschool she ran, as it also included children of European and Indian descent. This was our introduction to the Federal Theological Seminary of Southern Africa (Fedsem).

So some months later, an advertisement for the post of registrar at Fedsem sparked our interest. It came at a time when we were questioning the direction our lives were taking and in December that year we changed that course. Rod’s application for the post was successful. We took our little white family, left our home in Estcourt and crossed to the other side of the apartheid divide to a new life on the Fedsem campus at the top of Sithole Road in Imbali.

For the first few years that we lived in Imbali, we had no interaction with the community outside the campus. Our focus was on being part of this new kind of community enclosed within the seminary campus, unique in South Africa at the time. The seminary president, Rod’s boss, was black. Our neighbours were black, coloured, Indian and white. Thus as the stranglehold of apartheid tightened in the rest of the country, as troops were sent into townships all over South Africa, as bannings increased, as activists were dying in detention or being hanged, we lived in a microcosm of what many dreamt of for South Africa.

For our children during those early childhood years, the campus was paradise with its open spaces, large trees, and undeveloped bush area with mounds of earth left behind by the builders. For Rod and me, it was a time of learning, coming to understand the true pain of apartheid, but also experiencing the richness of engagement and new friendships across the apartheid divide.

I learnt two life-changing lessons during that time. The first came in a conversation with a clergyman who was staying with us while attending a Seminary Council meeting. I asked him how he was able to persevere in the face of the cruel and ongoing vilification of him that was broadcast on the daily SABC Current Affairsprogramme. His response was a very firm: “I am a Christian, I must hope.”

That has become a lifelong challenge for me. No matter how things may be changing for the worse in our country, they are nowhere as bad as they were then. I must hold on to the hope of my faith. The second came through a Fedsem student who helped me understand something of black consciousness through the approach of the man who had been his mentor, Steve Biko. I gained a little understanding of the contribution of the Black Consciousness Movement to our view of ourselves as a people. Even I, as a white woman, could contribute. I could not liberate black people, but could work to liberate myself from the elements that separated me from the richness of the people of this country.

Although the seminary community was closely monitored by the Special Branch, as whites we moved relatively easily between the black township and the white city of Pietermaritzburg. However, life was not all roses and before long, tensions began to grow in Imbali, across the Edendale Valley and up into Vulindlela. For me, the turning point came one lazy Sunday afternoon while the children were down the hill playing in their “fort” with the other children.

About 300 members of the Imbali community, armed with spears, knobkerries or guns, arrived at the campus gates. Their purpose was to tell us that we must all leave the Seminary by the following Friday “or else”. They gave no reason, just demanded that everyone must leave. A few months earlier, students had been attacked and several stabbed to death in the dormitories at the University of Zululand, so the Fedsem community took this threat very seriously.

A week of frenetic activity followed for Rod as the registrar: a hastily convened Seminary Council meeting, appointments with lawyers to apply for interdicts, phone calls and faxes to the offices of political party leaders while the students, seminary staff and their families hunted for accommodation and packed to leave. I felt as if I had walked through the looking glass. As Monday dawned, I got the children up, dressed, breakfasted and drove across to the apartheid side where school and work in the city continued as if my life had not just been turned upside down. At the university there were the usual tutorials, marking, discussions with departmental colleagues, while all the time running through my mind was the question: “Is this the end of life on the other side?”

We recognised there would be no resolution by Friday’s deadline and we needed to be sure that our girls were safe. The home of teacher Lesley, who had started us on our journey to the other side, became the safe place for the children to stay for a few days. The Seminary Council decided everyone should be gone by the Friday while the lawyers continued working to address the matter.

Friends in the city offered us temporary accommodation, but the question was did we really need to pack up and empty our house? Move out completely? If we, as a community, had left and there were no people on the campus, what could hostile people from Imbali do? For me it was now a question whether to pack pots and pans, curtains and beds — or not. We recognised that our home might be ransacked or even fire bombed, but that seemed a little over dramatic to me. So we decided that we would take our precious things, photographs, wedding presents and family mementos, but leave the rest behind. Now my task was to sort out what was precious and what not, and then in the morning I would cross back through the looking glass to Scottsville and my day’s work.

On Thursday morning, there was a final prayer service ending as the students processed, singing, to the gates. By evening, the campus had emptied. We and one other couple slept on the campus in our home that night wondering what the next day would bring. Early on Friday morning we packed the car, hitched up our trailer loaded with our precious things and drove out through the gate. As we stopped for Rod to lock the gate behind us, an old woman, who had been leaning on a stick, came to stand beside us and exclaimed in Zulu in wonderment at what was to become of us all.

Even in the crazy world that was apartheid, I could not believe that a small, local gang could be allowed to close down a fully operational education institution. But they did. However, it was only for a few weeks as the Fedsem Council decided to bring the winter holidays forward by about three weeks and by the time the new term was to begin a temporary interdict was in place enabling students, staff and families to return safely. It took some months for the final matter to come to court and with the help of the judge, the Imbali warlord and his gang came to accept the final order restraining them from threatening the Fedsem community.

So, life settled back into its rhythm of Fedsem campus community, university work and raising children, but things were never the same for me. As the political conflict grew, I came to realise that I could not remain aloof from the community around us. This led me on another journey, this time beyond the seminary fence to a whole new learning and friendships with some wonderful women, but that is a story for another time.

This incident and story of Fedsem has been captured by academics as historical record and church history. They do not capture the daily lives of a different kind of community, of children growing up in a free society within that little world. That story lies in the memories of those of us who lived it on the other side.

About the author

Fiona Bulman came to school at Russell High in the fifties and, apart from a time teaching at Estcourt High School, has lived most of her life in Pietermaritzburg. She is an activist for social justice through education and enjoys time with her grandchildren, friends and reading the newspaper with a good cup of coffee in the local coffee shops.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  true stories of kzn 2016

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