Marievale Army base sits on the outskirts of Springs. Hidden from the main road, it inhabits a place where the city has given way to the country and where largely flat farmlands stretch southwards to the horizon.
It feels like a place of insignificance, yet yesterday it was witness to a military mission of national, if not international, import.
It was Freedom Day. Cold and rainy and most people were indoors, but not just to avoid Covid-19. Just before 9am, several army vehicles left the base and wound their way over dirt roads into an informal settlement, with the improbable name of Happiness Valley.
The vehicles stopped on a makeshift football field in the centre of the settlement, where a few residents linger in anticipation of something.
Soon after, an army lorry arrived loaded with food parcels, and before long an SANDF company of about 20 men and women got out of vehicles and were moving among the residents offering plastic gloves and hand sanitiser.
The purpose of the event, it turned out, was to deliver food parcels to 86 families. These were not official government-sponsored food parcels, but food parcels bought with money collected in donations of R10-R50 by serving army members at the base. The shopping and packing were done by the soldiers themselves.
The ceremony began with a salute, the playing of the national anthem from a makeshift speaker, the reading of the SANDF’s Code of Conduct which includes a pledge to “serve in accordance with the Constitution” and a prayer from the company chaplain.
Then Major Andre Meisner, the Acting Chief Co-ordinator for OPS PROSPER Marievale base, explained to the community that the food parcels were “to thank you for abiding by the lockdown; to thank you for remaining in your yards when we are at risk. Our call was to protect and serve. We know that you have lost jobs and have no income. We are here to help”.
On the side, Major Meisner told me that during their patrols of the area they had spotted the hunger:
“We asked the councillors to come and assist, but they didn’t come, every time they postponed, so we took from our own pockets. If we can make a difference I’ll be happy. We are not at war with the community.”
“Clearly not,” I said, but contrasted their conduct with the violence and abuse that is tarnishing the reputation of the SANDF in communities like Alexandra. His response:
“Even in a family there can be one person who misbehaves, but we have to show that that’s not the whole family.”
Meisner’s short speech was followed by community leader Sbu Mazibuko who thanked the SANDF, saying that “even though we have a history, it’s good you don’t take it personally, because some of us have nothing in our houses”.
By history, Mazibuko was referring to a bitter and violent conflict that had led to this communities’ illegal eviction from the Marievale military base, where many of them had lived before the SANDF forcibly reoccupied it in 2018. For two years, that bitter battle was fought out in court, before an agreement was eventually reached to relocate the community to a site in Duduza. They were due to move last month. But then Covid-19 came along…
The battle of Marievale, and now the burying of the hatchet, made the event even more remarkable.
With short and unpretentious speeches out of the way, family representatives lined up to receive hot soup, bread and a food parcel. First in the queue was 70-year-old Gogo Mantatisi Molefane, who has lived with this community for the past 10 years. She told me “we are happy the government is protecting us”. She was followed by other elders.
There was a military-like observance of physical distancing.
In a time of shortage, food can be a highly emotive possession. As the queue thinned, about 20 men remained on the edge of the crowd. I worried whether there was some invisible boundary that would now separate “would-haves” from “would-not-haves”. Perhaps, I was about to see something that would spoil the spirit of generosity; political factionalism or perhaps ethnic or xenophobic division.
Food as power? Food as retribution? We’ve heard the sad stories.
But today, my fears were unfounded. The 20 men were from families who had failed to register (people are suspicious of lists) and therefore made it on to Sbu Mazibuko’s handwritten and numbered list. They included one young man who petitioned me apologetically, seeking help, explaining sadly that his mother had “gone to town” and that he needed to collect the food. I saw hunger and a muted desperation in his eyes. I pointed him towards Mazibuko and saw him being served. He thanked me as he walked away, but I wasn’t the one deserving of thanks.
And then the event ended as innocuously as it had begun. People drifted away with their bags. The soldiers toyi-toyi for a few moments, obviously feeling satisfied with a successful mission in which no blood was shed and where only bread, not bullets were fired.
I got back into my car, with a bag of unusual observations to try to make sense of. Some argue, correctly, that there is an indignity in being the recipient of charity and food parcels. But this event was marked by dignity and decorum.
I realised that though it was Freedom Day, this was no act of public beneficence put on by politicians to celebrate values they have long surrendered. My presence there as a journalist was pure coincidence. Had it not been for a phone call from Sergeant-Major Sipho Mthethwa, a brave soldier-comrade I once represented in the battle against the HIV epidemic, it would have taken place out of the eye of the media.
That meant it was simply an act of generosity and solidarity.
When things like this happen, you can almost see the outline of a new dawn. DM/MC
The sound of Krakatoa exploding travelled around the earth three times.