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Endings & Beginnings
A Story of Healing
By Redi Tlhabi
Jacana Media (Pty) LtdCopyright © 2012 Redi Tlhabi
All rights reserved.
Orlando East, where I grew up, was the oldest and most densely populated part of Soweto. The Urban Areas Act prohibited black people from owning or occupying property in cities or towns. So all across South Africa, black residents were forcibly removed and scattered across remote, outlying areas, often far from any mode of transport or economic centre. Soweto's first township, Orlando, was founded in 1931 when a group of evictees were settled on a piece of farmland. The settlement was named after the first township administrator, Edwin Orlando Leake.
I learnt about the history of our neighbourhood as a little girl by badgering Papa with questions. It began when a friend of mine, Thobile, announced that we were all going to die.
'But why?' I asked her.
'It says so at the bottom of our road,' she said. 'Sofasonke Street, see?' Sofasonke indeed means 'we shall all die', although in this context it meant 'we all die together'. I went home with a deep sense of foreboding, and pictured my family and our neighbours all dying at once. Who would be left to take care of our houses, our pets and our dolls?
'What's wrong?' my parents asked that evening, noticing that I was troubled.
'You didn't tell me we're going to die.'
'Where did you hear that?'
'Thobile told me. It's written at the corner of our street.'
My parents laughed, but seeing me on the verge of tears, my father took time to explain the origin of our street name.
Sofasonke was the motto of a civic party that was started by a local hero, James 'Magebula' Mpanza. Born in rural Zululand – now KwaZulu-Natal – in 1889, he had moved to Johannesburg like most of his contemporaries in search of work. But in his twenties Mpanza was sentenced to death at the Pretoria Central Prison for the murder of an Indian merchant. Sympathisers claimed that the merchant was abusing black women, but others believed Mpanza was just a thug.
In prison, Mpanza became an active Christian. He began preaching to his fellow inmates and wrote a small book called The Christian Pathways. This evidently helped in his quest for clemency, and he was finally pardoned after nine years in jail. He then settled in eastern Johannesburg, where he began agitating about the appalling shortage of housing for black people, writing numerous letters to the authorities and warning of social unrest.
In 1944, fed up with the lack of response, Mpanza led a group of homeless people to invade some unoccupied land, where they erected a squatter camp near what is now the Orlando Stadium, and named it Masakeng after the thick material for carrying coal from which they built their shacks. Mpanza became the camp's unofficial mayor and made a colourful character riding around the camp on horseback while most people walked or cycled.
When heavily armed police arrived to evict the squatters, Mpanza and his wife were thrown into prison, where their baby died and Mpanza suffered a heart attack. He recovered and was later let out of prison.
But the government had seen the might of the people and the following year a new site was provided to house the homeless. Robert Oppenheimer visited Masakeng and loaned the city of Johannesburg six million rand to build Soweto's legendary matchbox houses. This was a breakthrough, but conditions were hardly luxurious. Ablution facilities and sanitation were inadequate, and residents endured the much abhorred bucket system until toilets were finally built in the mid-fifties. My mother remembers the buckets in the back yard with deep repugnance. 'You got used to it,' she said. 'But the stench enveloped the township.'
The buckets were collected in the late evening, and parents would immediately order their children indoors. Nobody wanted to be in the way of those buckets of human excrement.
Mpanza continued to agitate for improved conditions. When the authorities tried to deport him to KwaZulu-Natal using a bogus legal process, he won an appeal and remained in Soweto, still riding his horse and going about his crusade. Later, a civic movement called the Sofasonke Party was started, its name evoking the tenacity of a united people determined to fight to the death. Mpanza lived until 1970, and was loved and revered by everyone.
'Did you know him, Papa?'
'He used to visit here.'
'In our house?' I asked in awe.
'Right where you're sitting.'
I was overjoyed that this great man had actually known and visited my dad.
'And which is the best soccer team in the world?' asked my dad.
'And what is our chant when we face other teams?'
I made the Orlando Pirates sign with my small arms and shouted, 'Ezimnyama nge nkani, ezi ka Magebula!' meaning 'Magebula's black ones', as black was the team colour.
Soweto was a wonderfully eclectic mix of languages, cultures and traditions. Since the discovery of gold back in 1886, Johannesburg was always a magnet for men desperate for work. They streamed in from the rural areas and neighbouring states like Lesotho and Swaziland to provide cheap labour for the mining industry. Leaving young wives and children behind, they risked life and limb in search of the gold whose profits they would never taste while the white man ruled. As the city grew more prosperous, many rural women also arrived to serve as domestic workers.
Although the apartheid government tried hard to segregate black people according to ethnicity, their plan failed dismally. The different groups attended the same churches, migrated freely within the confines of the township and intermarried. My own parents were a reflection of this: Papa was a Motswana and my mother an umXhosa. Some areas of the township were so fully integrated that you couldn't work out which group was in the majority. Most of its citizens spoke more languages than their own, and the easiest way to tell if someone was new to Soweto was if they couldn't converse in more than one tongue. But there were a few who felt superior and wouldn't bother to speak another's language. Since the military reign of King Shaka in the 1800s, some Zulus still considered their tribe superior. A popular joke had a Zulu character responding to anything and everything with a boast about his fighting skills. 'My neighbour's child is clever.' 'But I can beat him in a fight.' 'My brother found a job.' 'But I can beat him in a fight.' 'My friend is getting married.' 'But I can beat him in a fight.'
My upbringing in Orlando East was very loving, but firm discipline was a big part of it. Disobedience was always punished with a hiding. Afterwards I usually felt wounded, not just from the physical pain but from the adults' lack of trust that I would do the right thing if I knew what it was. If an adult told me to do something, I did it, and if they told me not to, I didn't. So I never felt I deserved the hidings I got.
Religion was also a mainstay of life in Soweto, and weekends were filled with weddings, funerals and church services. Many believed in ancestor worship, but Christianity was paramount, and even those who didn't go to church still believed in God and Jesus. On Sunday mornings the streets were a parade of colourful church uniforms. The baZion wore green and yellow, the Methodists red and black, the Anglicans black and white and the apostolic churches blue and white, with a big white cross embroidered on their backs. The Catholics had three uniforms: purple and black for the St Anne's grannies; blue, black and red for the middle-aged Sacred Hearts; and blue and white for the Children of Mary.
Especially formidable in our community was the Zionist church, and the khaki overalls and white shoes of its male members were ubiquitous in the township. This church was known for its ancestral beliefs and for evoking the spirits of the departed to guide services and impart wisdom. Zionists were rumoured to believe in muti, witchcraft and spiritual powers, and there were stories of making people disappear, solving mysterious murders and detecting evil intentions at a glance. But they often had no church to worship in and would simply rotate their services among members' homes.
I was raised in the Catholic faith of my mother. My father wasn't a regular at his Methodist church, but he always woke us for church, made sure our clothes were nicely ironed and our shoes polished, and gave us money for offerings. I loved church because I loved dressing up. But as an altar girl, although I loved my solemn role in the mass, I was sad to hide my nice clothes beneath our unflattering red and white uniform. Papa used to brush my hair every morning, and on Sundays he took extra care to put in multi-coloured ribbons. He'd kiss my lips and remind me to pay attention in church. And I had to, because afterwards Papa would ask my older brother and me what we'd learnt at church. If we didn't know, we got our ears pinched or were denied a treat – it was a serious matter.
When we returned from church Papa would make us all breakfast, and then he'd call us to relate the day's lesson. I'd pray that my brother wouldn't pick the same lesson I'd picked, or it would seem as if I hadn't been listening while Father Lodi was giving his homily.
Easter weekend was the most sacred period in the Catholic calendar, and the Good Friday service was long and solemn, with different people preaching as we built up to the final crucifixion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Especially haunting were the Stations of the Cross, which highlighted Jesus's suffering on his final journey. I was most moved when Jesus cried out from the cross 'I am thirsty'. Our choir conductor always recited this with great drama and pathos, shouting so loudly that the walls of our church seemed to shake. 'Ndinxaniwe, ndinxaniwe, ndinxaniwe. I am thirsty.' He sounded so desperate that I wanted to get up and fetch him some water.
One Good Friday, a big Xhosa man with a booming voice recited the part when Jesus, about to die, addresses his mother Mary and his disciple John. Jesus says, 'Woman, this is your son,' and to his disciple, 'This is your mother' (John 19: 26 – 27). But instead of saying mama and baba for mother and father, he used the formal terms, which my friends and I had only heard used in cursing. All the youngsters erupted in shrieks of astonishment and laughter. Deeply shocked, I looked to my mother – always the epitome of morality and decorum among the adult choir – and found her also laughing, along with most of the adults. So when Papa enquired about church that day, my brother giggled but I was distraught.
'Papa, a naughty father called Jaxa was swearing in church!'
'Hawu, Zanazana?' Papa said, using his special name for me.
'Yes, and people were laughing.' On cue, my mother laughed again.
'What was the naughty father saying?'
I looked at my mother, wondering whether to risk a hiding, but Papa wanted to know. So, imitating Jaxa's gestures, I said, 'Nanku unyoko, nanku uyihlo! Here is your mother, here is your father'. When my parents roared with laughter, my brother, a great mimic, began acting out the scene. Their reaction was very confusing, but it was a joy to see them so entertained.
While Sundays were filled with church services, Saturdays were taken up with the weddings and funerals of relatives, colleagues, fellow church members and neighbours. Children would only attend a funeral if it was a very close family member. But on one occasion the funeral was for a friend of mine, Zanele, who'd lived on Sofasonke Street.
At first Zanele and I hadn't hit it off. I didn't mind her, but her adoration made me uncomfortable – I hadn't earned it, I felt, and I wanted a more equal relationship. So I often hid from her and asked my dad to say I wasn't home. To my frustration, Papa would say, 'She's home, but she said I should tell you she isn't.' I'd then be forced to come out and play with her. My father would make us food and give us some dough to 'bake cakes' for our 'babies'. Once, while I was hiding from her, my father took me aside.
'Why don't you want to play with Zanele?'
'She follows me everywhere, Papa. It annoys me.'
'That's because she loves you. Sometimes, my baby, it's good to love someone just because they love you.'
After that I loved her. But she left Soweto in 1986 to live with her mother's family. I never saw her again until her father's mother, who lived a few houses away, came to tell my dad that she'd gone to bed with a headache and died in her sleep. Her funeral would be in Soweto that weekend.
That Friday afternoon all her friends were invited to view her body and say goodbye. Had my parents been home, I knew I wouldn't have been allowed, so I went quickly before they got back. But as soon as the coffin was opened I panicked, and would have left if the doorway hadn't been blocked. First her father looked in, and then her mother, who wailed and began kissing her over and over. Finally someone pulled her away, saying, 'It's enough now, it's done.' As if it could ever be enough.
Then we children were called over. My throat was sore and heavy as if I'd swallowed a bag of oranges. People were singing hymns, everyone was crying, and some even collapsed in theatrical displays of grief. Everyone who returned from Zanele's coffin was wailing, so I thought she must be in pain. But when I looked inside, it seemed as if she was sleeping. I kissed her mouth as her mother had done, and when she didn't respond I left her. On my way home I hummed the hymn I'd just heard. 'Nje nge mbali e qhakaza namhla, ngakusasa isifile nya. Like a flower that blooms today, and tomorrow is all withered, don't cry my brethren, we are parted for a little while. In heaven we will see each other again, when all our sorrows have passed.' It sounded good, but the oranges in my throat were still choking me.
Weddings were my favourite Saturday activity, and around the festive season there could be as many as three weddings at once in our street alone. We would then move from one to the next, dancing and singing as we went. Everyone was invited to a wedding, and those who weren't often came when they saw the celebrations and commotion in the streets. For that was where weddings happened – in the streets where everyone could watch and join in. A typical wedding invitation went like this:
'Hey, you look smart, where are you off to?'
'How are you related?'
'Haai, I'm not sure.'
'Where is it?'
'Somewhere in Orlando East.'
'Oh, I know Orlando East, I'll come with you.' In Orlando East they'd soon get lost and ask a passer-by where the wedding was.
'Haai sisi, which one?'
'What's her family name?'
'What does she look like?'
'Dark, with big eyes and short hair.'
The passer-by would look uncertain and then ask, 'Who are her friends?'
'I'm not sure.'
Another moment of thought would be followed with, 'Try that way,' while pointing randomly.
My mother loved to sing at weddings, and I learnt all the wedding songs from her. One of my favourites was Iqhude we ma, la khala ka bili ka thathu. Se ku sile amanzi awekho. The cock crowed, twice, thrice. Morning has broken and there is no water. Why it was a wedding song I have no idea, but it was certainly popular. Women would ululate and jump around, giving the newlyweds advice in the middle of the singing. Often the entourages of the bride and the groom would both start a song simultaneously and then compete to drown out the other. The loudest group would prevail and everyone would take up their song. The most popular wedding song for grooms had the crowd answering each line with siyavuma; we say yes:
Umakoti ngo wethu. The bride is ours. Siyavuma.
Ungo wethu ngempela. She's really ours. Siyavuma.
Uzosiwashela a siphekele. She'll wash and cook for us.
Asimufuni emaparthini. We don't want her at parties.
Asimufuni emadodeni. We don't want her around men. Siyavuma.
Simufuna emabodweni. We want her around pots. Siyavuma.
I loved playing outside with my friends but I was always happiest at home with my parents. I adored Papa and was proud of his constant presence in our lives. Few friends had a father like ours. Most fathers either regularly beat their wives or passed out drunk in the streets. Many of our friends didn't know their fathers and envied the way Papa played with us and made us yummy food to share with them. I was also proud of my mother, who was pretty and clever and worked as a nurse at Baragwanath Hospital. But I missed her a lot because she worked long hours. I felt sorry for her when she was on night duty and missed our evening games of snakes and ladders. When she returned home in the mornings Papa would make her a cup of tea, and when my brother and I clambered all over her, Papa would insist that we leave her alone because she was tired.
Excerpted from Endings & Beginnings by Redi Tlhabi. Copyright © 2012 Redi Tlhabi. Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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