OPINION | Sharpeville, Boipatong massacres give me hope we'll get through Covid-19, but it took memories I'd chosen to forget

SANDF personnel from various units gather outside the Rand Light Infantry on 23 March 2020 in Johannesburg. (Gallo Images, Dino Lloyd)
SANDF personnel from various units gather outside the Rand Light Infantry on 23 March 2020 in Johannesburg. (Gallo Images, Dino Lloyd)

Looking back at the past 28 years, I (and everyone who was affected by any violence, injustice or pain) have survived and living in a country that, as a child, I never thought could exist, writes Nthabi Nhlapo.

When I first heard how the coronavirus was crippling China, then Italy and the US, I became worried.

At the time, not much was known about the virus that was killing people in China, it was not yet declared a pandemic, and there were no cases in Africa. 

I read up about it but no amount of reading alleviated my concerns.

So, when the first case was reported in South Africa, my concerns skyrocketed despite it being reiterated continuously in news bulletins that "there are measures in place to fight the virus". 

It was when President Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster that I understood where my anxiety was rooted.

The country's fixation with the news and latest developments, as well as a local threat reminded me of a time when I felt the same kind of paralysing fear. 

I called my mother the morning after the president's announcement and asked her: "What does this remind you of?" 

"1992 and 1993," she said. "Do you know it was your grandfather who suggested that we put you in a bath and drench you in tomato sauce?" 

We both laughed when she recalled this deeply buried memory.

Not because it was funny, but all we could do is laugh now that it’s all in the past. There is a Sotho saying: Lefu leholo ke ditsheho - which, when loosely translated, means laughter is (the best) medicine in dire circumstances. 

What my mother was referring to were the events that took place in 1992.

At the time my paternal grandfather had suggested that they create a literal "blood bath" so that should our home be attacked, the mob would think that I had already been killed and pass us by. 

I grew up in Sharpeville at the height of political unrest, and on the night of 17 June 1992, Boipatong was attacked by a group of about 300 men affiliated with the Inkatha Freedom Party in what became known as the Boipatong Massacre.

Forty-five people were killed and several others injured. The attack was carried out with all manner of machetes and other weapons. 

Rumour had it that Sharpeville would be next to be attacked - and young children (especially boys) were to be targeted.

The two townships are a walking distance apart.

In fact, my mother finished high school in Boipatong, and she walked to school daily.

The fear was real; it was too close to home.

My brother, who was two-years-old, was sent to my mother's home in rural Mpumalanga as it was safer there.

I was nine-years-old and left behind in Sharpeville to attend school.

We spent almost two years trying to come up with the best strategies to avert the attacks. 

I vividly remember family members training me on how to "play dead" and eating most of our dinners under the bed - back then beds would be elevated on a couple of bricks so a small child could fit comfortably under one. 

During the day, I would hear adults share ideas about how to hide their children when the attacks come.

I heard stories that some children were made to sleep on the roofs of their homes (weather permitting) as that was assumed to be the last place anyone would look during a killing rampage.

Fast forward to 2020, and the coronavirus was giving me the same kind of anxiety.

My heart palpitated the way it did for most of 1992 and 1993, particularly in the evenings when the attacks were expected to happen.

People are always watching the news for the latest information and to assess how much closer to home the threat is - just as was the case in the early 1990s.

To me, even the air smells the same now as it did back then.

It's these similarities that have triggered me to go to previously "forgotten territory". 

After I spoke to my mother, I remembered my paternal grandmother.

Her sister, Elizabeth Mthimkhulu, was killed in the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1960, along with 68 other people. She wasn’t in the protest.

She had walked to the shops which are near the police station where the march that turned bloody was held.

When police opened fire she became one of the innocent people who died that day. She was 33.  

When I was born, some 23 years later, I was given the first name, Elizabeth, after my great aunt.

Almost every year, my grandmother is part of the government-organised Sharpeville Massacre commemorations, and I have accompanied her to my great aunt's grave many times. Her grave is one of the 'official graves' for those killed on that day.

This year we didn't visit the gravesite. 

When I turned 33, it was a challenging year for my grandmother. She wanted to see me often that year as she feared that I wouldn't make it past the age that her sister was killed.

I saw how anxious she was and did all I could to make her feel at ease by paying her as many visits as I could. It is now 60 years since the massacre, and she hasn't forgotten her sister. 

It's 28 years since the Boipatong massacre, and I, too, am feeling the same crippling fears of loss of life as I did in 1992 and 1993. 

Strangely, remembering all this is what gave me comfort in this challenging time of coronavirus.

Because this time, it's a united battle where the entire country in all its diversity is working together to come out victorious.

Looking back at the past 28 years, I (and everyone who was affected by any violence, injustice or pain) have survived and living in a country that, as a child, I never thought could exist.

The memories have never left - but for the most part, life has been lived.

And it's been good.

So, it makes sense that despite how we eventually overcome the pandemic, life will get better.

Yes, we may lose loved ones or be lost ourselves - but eventually, it will be alright.

We live in a country that has been through so much and decorated with scars and struggling to find resolutions to "unfinished business" from the past, but we go on. 

That knowledge has seen me being much calmer and taking each day as it comes.

It has been quite manageable since I remembered my story - I follow the guidelines to minimise the possibility of infection and ensure my family does too.

It's the best we can do.

My hope is for you to tap into a time in your life's journey when you came out of an impossible situation and let the fact that you're here to tell your story be a reminder that there's always hope.

- Nthabi Nhlapo is editor of W24

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