Maverick Citizen Youth Reflections

The ropes that tied the future and the present: Young people’s reflections on the meaning of sacrifice  

By Siphokazi Mahlangu, Bonginkosi Zengele, Dudu Makhubo and Bongani Masanabo 30 July 2021
Caption
The men would walk up 52 steps leading them to the hangman's noose, Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre, Gauteng. (Photo: Zaakirah Vadi / Ahmed Kathrada Foundation)

On Youth Day, members of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Youth Clubs engaged with like-minded young people interested in making a difference within their communities. On a tour to the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre, once known as Pretoria Central, they discussed the feelings it invoked. 

Siphokazi Mahlangu, Bonginkosi Zengele, Dudu Makhubo and Bongani Masanabo

Our tour kicked off at the chapel where families once gathered to say their final goodbyes to their loved ones. What struck me was hearing how the families were not allowed to see the deceased, who would only be identified by a name tag, and were sent to paupers’ graves. One can only imagine the feelings of grief and disbelief that engulfed these families.

Then, quietly walking up the 52 steps to the gallows literally gave me shivers and made my heart pound fast. It felt like I was going to be executed myself. I could only imagine how terrified the actual prisoners were or what their thoughts were as they walked quietly to their sad and final destination.

The feedback room was the scariest for me because that’s when we saw the actual structure that was used to hang their bodies. It felt so real when the prison warder began explaining how the actual hanging was done. It was as if it was taking place right in front of us.

The youngest person to be executed at the gallows was 18 years old. My only thought was the realisation that here we are marking Youth Day, remembering the likes of Hector Pieterson, but what about the sheer cruelty, what about the sacrifices? I was humbled by the words of Solomon Mahlangu who was also executed there in 1979 when he said:

“My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the struggle.”

The struggle has not ended. Our country is faced with issues of corruption. Are we not the nourished trees that Mahlangu bravely referred to? It is our duty to protect and defend the freedom they fought for yet never lived to see or enjoy. Corruption breaks the trust of people in communities and causes a complete loss of hope. I have seen this in my own community, particularly among my peers.

As we continue to hear stories of corruption, we must remember that silence is not the easier option and that no one will fight our battles for us. 

In this regard I applaud all of the whistle-blowers who refused to remain quiet, hiding away with the truth. These really are our national heroes as we know now what we know because of their bravery.

I am reminded of the Latin saying “qui tacet consentire videtur”, which means that “silence implies consent”. I commend all of those who also spoke out and continue to speak up against gender-based violence no matter how much it hurts for them to relieve these moments, and those too who stand up and speak out against racism. These are ills we are confronted with in our society and the voices that are emerging through movements such as #MeToo are saying we have had enough – and indeed we have.

I am also reminded of the words of Maya Angelou who said, “I come as one, but I stand as ten thousand.”

This is what these voices symbolise to me. They speak for so many who refuse, with reason, to be silenced. At the Union Buildings, where our programme concluded, we stood representing thousands from our respective communities. Here we are, as young people afforded the opportunity to express ourselves and our voices on what needs to be done to defend our democracy.

I would love to see more young people standing for our future. As the youth we need to do something, we need to take action. This can be alone or collectively but we need to stand for a better future. – Siphokazi Mahlangu   

Members of the Kathrada Youth Clubs got a chance to connect with history as they commemorated Youth Day at the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre, Gauteng.
(Photo: Zaakirah Vadi / Ahmed Kathrada Foundation)

 ***

This year, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation challenged me to pay tribute to the youth of ’76 differently. My experience had become typical, what with adults proudly donning school uniforms, going to social gatherings supposedly in memory of June 16. Had it not been for the old film Sarafina!, I am ashamed to say that very little awareness of the meaning or history of the Soweto Uprising ever featured.

However, it was during our educational tour of the then Death Row that I felt I got close to experiencing the cruelty and hardships that young people such as Solomon Mahlangu, who had been executed at this very prison, faced.

Over the high prison walls and down to the streets back home, my peers were most likely out and about in their old school uniform on such an important public holiday.

When they say that walls cannot talk, walking around the gallows room, it felt as though the sombre message was loud enough, permeating through these walls. They closed in on over 3,500 souls who lost their lives here between 1902 to 1989. A plaque mounted outside will inform you that a teenager, 18 years old to be exact, was executed here. I could not begin to imagine the kinds of thoughts the late teen must have had as he climbed up the 52 steps leading to his execution.

As a young South African today I feel that we are capable of doing so much more to honour the names written on those walls. The images, insights and discussions I engaged in are far from leaving my mind. Our justice system has evolved from the previous way of capital punishment, but still our Constitution and democracy require protecting from the forces dead-set on eroding it.

Young people are faced with several issues today. These include unemployment, the bitter effects of corruption, inequalities such as racism, rampant and often violent expressions of homophobia and a general sense of despondency.

For my community of Finetown, I want to do better by being of service and an agent of change. I would encourage my peers to begin reading more about our liberation history to better understand that the life we enjoy today, with its challenges, came at a great cost and that our democracy should not be taken for granted. – Bonginkosi Zengele 

A tour guide and warder at the Kgosi Mampuru Prison explains how the condemned men were hanged at the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre, Gauteng. (Photo: Zaakirah Vadi/Ahmed Kathrada Foundation)

 *** 

The trip to the dark and gloomy gallows reconnected me with a very important part of the South African liberation history, yet one I was never aware of before. When the warder-cum-tour guide took us around I felt short-changed that for the longest while I had missed out on an opportunity to understand and appreciate my own history.

A few years ago, I recall how in the aftermath of the #RhodesMustFall movement there was a major debate around the demolishing of statues and other symbolic monuments associated with apartheid. Here I was, emotional as can be, at the gallows, but appreciative that sites such as these existed to help preserve our significant history.

I, for one, am guilty of taking our democracy for granted every now and then. My perspective changed when I had to walk up the steps, all 52 of them, and tried to figure out how condemned prisoners felt and possibly thought. I ask myself if I would have made the very same choices as those before me knowing what the consequences of my resistance and activism would be. 

In the same breath, I was reminded of my burning desire to involve myself with servant activism. As a young person, I took the pledge to become a voice for the voiceless and refuse to be silent against all forms of injustice. 

My heart was shattered to learn that the bodies of the executed men lay with no sense of dignity in paupers’ graves. Some of the families had to wait for more than 30 years just to find the remains of their loved ones.

Climbing up the 52 steps could not have been easy knowing that your final destination awaits you at the top. We have a moral duty to ensure that the ultimate sacrifices by martyrs like Vuyisile Mini and Solomon Mahlangu are never in vain.

With this in mind, we should all hang our heads in shame at the fact that corruption across different layers of government has become the norm in South Africa. We are constantly made aware of new and damning revelations of looting and the embezzlement of funds with very little accountability. We are biting our own tails by dragging our gains down the drain. Self-serving interests have taken priority over those of the communities they ought to be serving.

Today we need to commit to making a difference one community at a time. Sitting back and waiting for unknown salvation is just as horrific as turning a blind eye to the corruption and maladministration that became a norm some years ago. I take my hat off to the thousands of women who marched to the Union Buildings as a strong stance against apartheid’s oppressive pass laws. 

The student-led #FeesMustFall protests saw activists gathering at the Union Buildings where lifelong activist Ahmed Kathrada lent his support. In 2021, I was proud to be upon those lawns where I reiterated my support for the Defend Our Democracy campaign.

Our rich history will be overshadowed by all this corruption. What a complete shame that funds meant to assist as we struggle with Covid-19 were shamelessly swindled to benefit selfish pockets. As we shout slogans aligned to the legacies of Solomon Mahlangu and Hector Pieterson let us remember them by honouring their sacrifices and safeguarding the ideals and visions they died for. – Dudu Makhubo 

Young people tracing the trail of the notorious death row gallows at the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre, Gauteng. (Photo: Zaakirah Vadi/Ahmed Kathrada Foundation)

***

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation’s Youth Day event in Pretoria was for me an eye-opening experience. Imagine having your last meal, being expected to eat it knowing that the next day would be your very last sunrise.

A mere tourist, it broke my heart walking through the autopsy room and seeing the indecent coffins used at the time for some of the lifeless bodies. Seeing the ropes that cut between body and soul, I could not help but reflect on the fact that our fallen soldiers fought a good and noble fight.

Political chants, Hippos, tear gas, constant running, hiding, lives of exile, shootings, dogs tearing flesh, sjamboks, lamentations, broken families and friends lost is what I remember from the stories shared with me by my parents and grandparents. As a youth myself I am disgusted by how we’ve turned June 16 into a festival of dressing in pimped-up school uniforms, taking to the streets with glasses filled to the brim with alcoholic beverages, having to walk back home in the dead of night, drunk.

Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu left us with these words: “…they must continue the Struggle”.

Do not get it wrong, he did not say: “continue to struggle”. However, we have a different struggle today as the youth. We face limited access to institutions of higher education and training, growing unemployment, limited access to public resources and a threat to our democracy. This can be attributed to young people not playing an active role in their communities, holding the government and politicians accountable.

It is time we demand a seat at the table, for our generation will soon grow old and what then would we have accomplished?

I chewed on the last bone in my thoughts… was it all worth it, did they fight a good fight, was this the freedom they fought for? After taking the 52 steps and seeing the seven looped ropes, I still ask myself, how long are we going to suffer under the oppression of corruption, if this was the sacrifice for us to have freedom?

It cannot be that the only tears shed for those who died here were the silent tears of families deprived of viewing their loved ones in those coffins one last time. Our freedom was not free, as Ahmed Kathrada often alluded to. Our freedom came at a great cost.

Seeing the ages of the executed – 18, 22, 24 – got me shivering, thinking of the trauma these families went through. As a 20-year-old, the way has been paved for me to fight for social justice and economic freedom, to defend our democracy and restore human dignity. I choose to stand for calls to end violence against women and children, to fight the brutality of the police towards the marginalised people when voicing their concerns.

The Union Buildings united the young people of the various Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Youth Clubs in Johannesburg and Pretoria, to pay homage to our many heroes. This made me see the potential we have as a unit. There is more we can achieve together beyond our differences of race, gender, language, sexual orientation and disability.

Today, 45 years later, should be a wake-up call for young people to take their rightful places and practise active citizenship. I am concerned at how many have made a mockery of our fallen brothers and sisters, instead of using their ultimate sacrifices to fuel the fire in themselves to seek social justice and build a legacy for the next generation that follows us. The Vulindlela brothers, all five hanged at the same time, are among the many unsung heroes probably looking down on us with teary eyes, broken hearts and utter disbelief.  

If they were in a boxing ring, the past versus the present, the present would fall in shame, disgusted at what we’re doing. The past is marked in the books of history; however, that ink is fading. – Bongani Masanabo DM/MC

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