Defend Truth


Flashback as Regina Mundi article triggers PTSD memories of another election, 30 years ago


Kathy Berman is standing in the 2024 elections as an independent parliamentary candidate affiliated to Build One South Africa (Bosa), led by Mmusi Maimane, after years in journalism, community and public service, corporate and social entrepreneurial ventures.

A young child walked up to me and handed over a camera. ‘It was left behind by the dead photographer.’ Dead? We used our satellite phone. The beeped message back from AFP confirmed that it was my friend, Abdul Sharif. A casualty of a revolution that was theoretically already over. He was dead.

The beautiful, evocative, bittersweet Daily Maverick piece by Hamilton Wende resonated deeply as we drove past Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto during the recent voter registration weekend.

Thirty years ago, we were in the grip of a violent war for democracy. The townships around the “PWV” were in insurrection, and the majestic KwaZulu-Natal mountains were dripping with blood – tragic killing fields. 

December 1993 had finally seen the installation of a Transitional Executive Council, a culmination of the exacting “talks about talks” which had commenced with the convening of the fractious Congress for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) which had kicked off in December 1991. We were finally on our way to an election in April of 1994.

Not that it was something to celebrate: as volatile as Codesa and Codesa II had been, our country was a war zone. Still vivid for this writer was the break in Codesa II, with the tragic Boipatong Massacre of 17 June 1992.

At that time, there were no cellphones. We, as journalists, relied on our trusty beepers, or pagers, which broadcast messages 24/7. We would grab our flak jackets, cameras and race to “get the story”.

That cold winter morning I remember encountering the indefatigable head of the Detainees Parents Support Committee, Audrey Coleman, and her husband, Dr Max Coleman, on their daily vigil in downtown Johannesburg. Their son, Keith, had been detained in the notorious John Vorster Square from October 1981 to April 1982 – he later provided testimony at the inquest into the death of fellow detainee, Dr Neil Aggett (former parliamentarian Barabara Hogan, so brutally maligned by President Jacob Zuma later, was also one of that “generation” of detainees).

Overnight, the IFP – which was working closely with the state-led “third force” – had attacked residents of the Joe Slovo informal settlement. The wails from the charcoal cinders were indescribable (these were not the first wails, and would recur over and over – in reality and in our heads).

But this was just ONE incident playing out in a post-Mandela, post-ANC-unbanning South Africa: according to one commentator, “from the start of the negotiations in mid-1990 to the election in April 1994, some 14,000 South Africans died in politically related incidents… The Human Rights Committee (HRC) estimates that between July 1990 and June 1993, an average of 101 people died per month in politically related incidents in Kwazulu-Natal – a total of 3,653 deaths – while the HRC estimates that between July 1990 and June 1993, some 4,756 people were killed in politically related violence in the PWV area.”

But back to the present. With 30 years under our belt, and so many wins, but also sadly so many own goals, we were now on the road, not to record pre-election stories for global broadcast, but to solicit support for our own election campaign – and regrettably no longer for the green, black and gold party.

As we drove along the impressive Chris Hani Highway into Soweto, I reminisced with my younger companions about the days when the beautifully tarred road, with the glass-blast mural-bedecked Rea Vaya bus stops, was a rough and dusty ring road, tarred crudely for the security force ratels or Mellow Yellows to traverse (upgraded thanks to the 2010 World Cup legacy project).

I spoke about Vilakazi Street, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu had his home (in 1986 he was ordained as Archbishop of the Anglican Church in Cape Town), and where Mandela’s house awaited his return. We went there regularly in the 1980s to solicit a pithy soundbite from “the Arch” to send across the world.

In those days, we shot on large-format video, raced to the SABC, and then sent the footage via SABC satellite – “the bird” – to global news channels. My memory is fuzzy, but I think it must have been with the announcement of Mandela’s release that we found the Arch outside his home, in his flowing purple robes, dancing euphorically among the neat row of flowers lining the donga-filled dust road – a far cry from the gathering spot of the Soweto Harley Davidson brigade of the 2020s.

Some months later, during a typical Highveld thunderstorm, I recall observing his son Trevor, with the same joie de vivre, traversing (or was it dancing in) a mud puddle the size of a fire pool.

To this day, no matter how frequent, the drive into and through Soweto along Klipspruit Valley Road in particular still evokes memories, and still leaves chills. Just as, to this day, the sounds of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica wells up deep, deep emotion. But how to express it? Hamilton Wende did that. And so this is a bolt-on. Another memory for the bank.

As we drove past Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, we were greeted by a 40m-plus banner strung across its front wall advertising the ANC. I recalled how we were the first team ever to get sponsored ads into the townships – in the form of community murals after 1994 – in Soweto, on the very same wall, opposite the taxi rank; in Alex; in Katlehong, Limpopo, and the Eastern Cape – nine in total.

Post-democracy, in 1996, this project was little understood. Albany (whose billboard now is a few kilometres down the road opposite Maponya Mall) agreed to sponsor us on just one. But every other advertiser was mystified by our proposal. Who would want to advertise in the townships? Nicky B, then artist, now African music broadcaster, coordinated the campaign which eventually advertised a youth show on SABC 2.

That was a special project in a special time. Soon electricity, tarred roads and advertising crowded into the townships. Soweto was graced with new learning centres, clinics and theatres – the University of Johannesburg, iKasi Hub and the truly brilliant celebratory landmark in the colours of the flag, the Soweto Theatre.

Moving past the massive, self-indulgent billboard, concealing the busiest hospital in the southern hemisphere and facing a massive taxi rank – both desperate for maintenance – we marvelled at the iconic Twin Towers, one now proudly bedecked in a (Born-Free) Karabo Poppy design, and celebrated our flawed democracy. Little did we realise how soon we would bash into past trauma.

Our visits with residents were joy-filled and uplifting. It pains me to be working to unseat the ANC. But it never ceases to surprise me about how far our governing party has moved from their mandate and their connection to their communities. Many revolutionary, significant governance wins later, the people are tired of the new dysfunction, disillusioned and restless.

We headed on to the Merafe Men’s Hostel. Not an easy venue for a white woman. But we’d had such warm receptions from our fellow party promoters. So we greeted the IFP representatives as fellow democrats.  Naive.

A large man, with the late Chief Buthelezi’s face printed on his shirt, walked purposefully towards me. We had already noticed the IFP poster pinned (illegally) alongside the IEC banner. We were in hostel country, IFP territory, a day after IFP leader Velenkosini Hlabisa had exposed conditions elsewhere in Gauteng. 

We were door-stopped before we could even enter the registration station. The IFP leader instructed us that we needed to get permission from “the Induna” before we could enter this space. I remonstrated politely and spoke about my relationship with his leaders, but moved away as my young colleagues mollified him. We decided to depart quietly – which is not my usual approach when confronted by abusive violators of democratic rights.

As we drove to Gogo Susan, it all flooded back. I began to shake – PTSD still with me, 30 years later. I calmly told my companions about the 1980s, the war between the IFP and the ANC, the killing fields of then Natal. My visits to the grieving mamas there.

And, finally the day, 9 January 1994, when Ronnie Mamoepa, our late-night coffee bar companion who was part of ANC communications, led us as a phalanx of journalists one Sunday morning with venerable leaders Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and Cyril Ramaphosa on a visit to Thokoza – straight into an IFP ambush.

I was freelancing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) that day, taking a break from my full-time role as assistant general manager heading SABC TV News global broadcast, Election ’94.  

That Sunday, our pagers had summoned the burgeoning foreign media to the then Shell House. South Africa was a great gig for the foreign correspondents: one or two set themselves up for the year in the luxurious Carlton Hotel, others opted for “digs” in Westcliff. It was just a hop and skip away from swimming pools and beer to searing war footage.

Looking like a promotional outing for German automotive luxury, we diligently followed the ANC leaders through the rough-dirt infamous Khumalo Street, which marked the division between the ANC and IFP in Thokoza, to a burnt-out part of Katlehong township – alongside the hostels.

We alighted. I greeted our leaders, and a fellow freelancer, Abdul Sharif, a photographer who was delighted to share that he was working for Agénce France Press (AFP) for the elections. We had all foolishly left our flak jackets at home as this was going to be a visit to the cadres.

Without warning, a barrage of bullets rang out. I was pulled to the ground by one of the “protectors” of our then unionist and later president (yes, they had them already in those days). The smell of fear surrounded us.

I realised that an SABC cameraperson, Charles Mokganyang, had been injured and bundled into a car. Our CBC correspondent, adrenalin pumping, stayed behind to do a “standup” piece to camera, bullets still flying. Mamas and gogos in their blue and white uniforms continued to head to Sunday church through the bullets.

On the interminable eighth take by the shaken Canadian correspondent, a young child walked up to me and handed over a camera. “It was left behind by the dead photographer.”

Dead? We used our satellite phone. The beeped message back from AFP confirmed that it was their freelancer – my friend, Abdul. No contract. No insurance. A casualty of a revolution that was theoretically already over. He was dead.

And I, thanks to a protector dragging me to the floor, was alive. When the IFP warlord, the infamous Themba Khoza, arrived at Abdul’s memorial, later that week, I chased him out of the hall.

That night, relieved of my gig with CBC, I headed back to SABC TV for the evening broadcast. Nelson Mandela arrived with the full ANC comms team around him: Ronnie (Mamoepa), Gill Marcus and Carl Niehaus. He was there to calm the nation.

I could not contain myself. He knew me. But even if he did not, I was greeted warmly and had my moment to share my news: I told him that his team had not only led the journalists into an ambush, but had carelessly risked the lives of his top ANC leaders.

That night, sharing a coffee with a future politician, I was informed that it was still a war, and there would always be casualties. It was that day, in January, that I realised there was no reason in 1994 to either die or be injured for life as a freelancer – not for the ANC, or for democracy.

After delivering Election ‘94 peacefully to the world, after a tumultuous half year of sending unsuspecting journalists into the Shell House killings, and to the Bophuthatswana insurrections (BBC correspondent John Harrison lost his life racing back to deliver footage to the bird), the foreign media moved on to a new story: the Rwanda genocide.

I remember the night they returned from Rwanda, crazed out of their minds. They could not get rid of the stench of death.

I chose to leave hardcore journalism. I did not want to be a casualty with no income.

A short while later an official inquiry, which if I recall correctly was headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, proved my assumptions about January 1994 correct: young ANC cadres had gone into the hostels earlier in the day, with tragic consequences.

And on to 2024:

The deaths of civilians and journalists continue to this day.

Politicians continue to wage war across the world.

Judge Goldstone went on to deliver the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict in 2009 and suffered calumny from his local Jewish community.

Judge Navi Pillay today heads the Human Rights Council inquiry on Palestine and Israel.

Diligent witnesses to the pre-1994 carnage – lawyers and peace activists – have gone on to assist in the construction of democratic institutions, and constitutions, and mediate with the skills and wisdom born of the Mandela generation.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission absorbed the testimonies of our people. Archbishop Tutu, Dr Alex Boraine and their fellow commissioners absorbed the relentless pain. As did the reporting teams: Max du Preez, Antjie Krog and others – now slammed on X. As that indomitable chronicler of apartheid evil, Jacques Pauw, sardonically noted recently, those perpetrators of prime evil are more likely to die than be punished.

And, irony of irony: Today, in a post-Mbeki and post-Zuma world, Nelson Mandela is deemed to have let down the country, while our current crop of politicians have done little to dispel the belief that politicians truly don’t give a Louis Vuitton stiletto for their people.

I was reminded of that as my then comrade, the ex-unionist, now president, sped past us in his blue-light brigade, having met and greeted the people, metres from the Regina Mundi Catholic Church which served as a sanctuary from the Soweto war zone.

At that moment, exiting Soweto, I realised that the time has come, not for us, the people, to give way, but rather for opportunistic, cynical political leaders across the world to move over. And for us, the people, to truly own and navigate our long roads to freedom. For the next 30 years.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024 Knowledge Base

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

For those gogos, mamas, and children who lived through apartheid. For those gogos, mamas and children who still struggle to realise the rainbow dream: it is up to us to continue to fight for democracy (an awful concept that), to build a reality that we all dreamed about, continue to dream of, and can be truly proud of.

May we never suffer under the tyranny of apartheid and the mendacity of the political opportunists who sadly continue with that tyranny to this day. That choice is ours. DM

After years in journalism, community and public service, corporate and social entrepreneurial ventures, Kathy Berman is standing in the 2024 elections as an independent parliamentary candidate affiliated to Build One South Africa (Bosa) led by Mmusi Maimane.


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