Opinionista Greg Marinovich 30 November 2012

Sebokeng: The lessons of 1984

Veteran activists gathered in the Vaal triangle this November to celebrate the role of a priest in the struggle and to chart a way forward in the country that appears to be completing a full circle since the days of Apartheid, hunger and blood. By GREG MARINOVICH.

On a rainy and windswept November Saturday in the Vaal, the Roman Catholic Church in Sebokeng’s Zone 12 was packed to honour a remarkable individual, Father Patrick Noonan, a priest who has dedicated 50 years of service to the community. 

Father Noonan’s Irish accent is still replete with the frothy whip of the north Atlantic and sooty peat bogs, yet he speaks fluent Sesotho. The warmth and devotion of the congregation to him is evident, and is clearly reciprocated. It is an affection wrought through the furnace of oppression and sacrifice. The priest who stood with the community throughout those terrible times has become a struggle icon.

Worshippers danced and sang in the aisles as congregants carried up a new vestment honouring Noonan’s commitment to justice – on it was embroidered “If you want Peace, work for Justice”.

Once the Mass was over, the church reverted to another of its roles – that of a venue for community mobilisation. This church, more than two decades ago, was a centre of resistance to Apartheid, and was repeatedly petrol-bombed by the security police.

Last weekend the South African Council of Churches’ Rev Gift Moerane recalled those days: “Last time I was here, was the week before our leaders, the Delmas Treason Trialists, were arrested. This church was surrounded by security forces.”

An activist from the 1980s who was detained and held in solitary confinement for a mind-numbing two years, Richard “Bricks” Mokolo, recalls that the church was used for secret community meetings, and how the security forces repeatedly petrol bombed it. 

That was in the 1984, when the townships of this gritty industrial area rose up against the tyranny of Apartheid’s local municipalities and their black councillors during the Rent Boycott.  

For many, it was a bread and butter issue; they were not concerned with the larger picture, or the ideology of Apartheid. It was simply that they were unable to feed their families. 

One of the speakers after the mass, Clement Nkhumishe, elaborated: “Some of us were not even aware that we were oppressed. Father Patrick opened our eyes.

“Our Vaal history is rich, but it is unwritten. South Africa changed because of what happened here.”

From the Vaal, the uprising spread swiftly across the country, mostly through the civic organisations and the United Democratic Front, as well as the then powerful Black Consciousness movements. South Africa entered into a dark, violent period, with the white regime at its most powerful and most militarised.

Placed inconspicuously on one of the church pews was a yellow and black hardcover book, The Sharpeville Six, written by the advocate who represented them, Prakash Diar. This tells the story of an infamous chapter in South African history.

Six people, Ja-Ja Mojalefa Sefatsa, Duma Khumalo, Oupa Diniso, Reid Mokeona, Francis Don Mokhesi and the sole female, Theresa Ramashamola, were sentenced to be hanged for the brutal murder of deputy mayor Kuzwayo Jacob Dlamini, in Sharpeville, down the road from Sebokeng.

Not a single one of these six were politically active, or even politically conscious, before their trial. They just could not afford the ever-increasing municipal charges any longer.

None of the six whom the good judges decided should hang actually murdered Dlamini. The decision by Mr Justice Botha of the Appeals Court was that: “These accused shared a common purpose with the crowd to kill the deceased.”

What this common purpose meant to the Sharpeville Six back in 1987 was that if you are, perhaps, a young man to the rear of the crowd with your fist in the air, but without a view or an idea of what is happening at the front where a person is being murdered, you can – and will – be found guilty of murder under the common purpose doctrine.

Pretoria Central’s death row was not a place any normal human being would want to spend even a day in. Ja-Ja Sefatsa spent three years there, in the cell closest to the one that held the men destined to be hanged next: “They kill on Monday, skip Tuesday, kill on Wednesday, skip Thursday, kill on Friday.”

The years Sefatsa spent on death row were among the most horrific in our history. In 1986, some 100 men were sent to the gallows; in 1987 – a record year – 164 were hanged; and in 1988 the toll was 117. The gallows were designed to accommodate seven condemned men at a time. 

Before the rough rope was positioned around their necks, a pillowcase was pulled over the condemned men’s heads. After the hangings, it was the death row prisoners who had to wash these blood-filled pillowcases. They had to wash these in their showers. 

Under immense international pressure, president PW Botha eventually commuted their death sentences to jail sentences, and by 1992, the last of the Sharpeville Six were released from prison. 

Common Purpose. This doctrine insists that all of the participants in the protest should have reasonably foreseen that someone might have been harmed, and thus that all the participants were liable for the crime. It was plainly an imbecilic interpretation of legal responsibility, yet many learned judges upheld it. In fact, it was subsequently used as a precedent for several other political cases, including the “Upington 25”. 

Despite the appalling history of the common purpose doctrine, that is the same legal principle that prompted the National Prosecuting Authority to charge more than 270 Marikana miners with the murder of their own striking comrades, who died at the hands of the police, earlier this year. The police and NPA went so far as to charge those who had been wounded by the police with the murder of their friends killed alongside them.

It is tempting to laugh, except that our democratic state was serious about these charges, which have only been provisionally withdrawn.

It was the horror of South Africa’s death row and the judicial murder factory that led the African National Congress to fight tooth and nail to ensure the state never again had the right to commit judicial murder.

Yet that self-same ANC, now in power, allows its police to carry out extra-judicial assault and murder across the land with impunity. 

The owner of the Sharpeville Six book on the Sebokeng pew is Regina Morathi, Ja-Ja Sefatsa’s wife. This was not the first time I had seen Regina. The last time I saw here, she was standing on the street outside her house demonstrating against the government’s lack of decent service delivery.

That day, in 2010, she had to run indoors to avoid the state’s response to her complaints – gunfire and arrests. The astonishing fact of Regina having to protest against her living conditions 26 years after the Vaal uprising that saw her husband jailed is distressing.

Yet what of her husband? When he was charged with murder and sedition back in the 1980s, he had only ever had one brush with the law. He had been working for a white family as a gardener for R1.50 a day. He decided to steal their lawnmower to be able to make extra money. It was stupid, and he was seen pushing the mower along the road and caught.

Today Sefatsa makes ends meet by selling stuff at the side of the road in Sharpeville. Like many who suffered under Apartheid, life in a democratic state has not quite become the land of milk and honey. Activists are heeding these resonances with the past.

Nkhumishe asked those in the church to “Take note of what has happened, and of what has to happen. History has a habit of repeating itself. Now that our eyes are open, we do not want to ever repeat that history.”

Another speaker was Thabiso Ratsomo, a former Delmas trialist, who spoke about what drove the Vaal Uprising of the 1980s; that the interest of the black local authority was just to collect money, and not to develop the community.

He warned the current councillors that people were disappointed. There were no changes, he said, “the township looks exactly like it did before, when we took action against the Apartheid government. The roads are still bad, streetlights still not working.”

“We suffered through the treason trial for change. The Sharpeville Six nearly died for nothing because the situation is still bad.”

He challenged the people to stand up, warning local councillors to bring the needed changes to their communities.

The Sebokeng meeting was arranged by Richard “Bricks” Mokolo, who runs the Orange Farm Advice Centre, and was an ANC activist in the 1980s. Back then, he was detained and held in solitary confinement for two years before being dumped at the side of the road. 

Today he is still very active in the community, involved in everything from human rights issues to recycling for the poor and offering crèche for underprivileged children. He sees the struggle as one that is nowhere near over, “We fought oppression during Apartheid; and we will fight oppression now.” DM

Further reading:

  • Diar, Prakash (1990). The Sharpeville Six. McClelland & Stewart.
  • Noonan, Patrick (2003). They’re burning the churches: the final dramatic events that scuttled Apartheid. Jacana Media.

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