This is a guest post by author Donna Ruth Brenneis
Nearly thirty years ago, I look like a Muslim, arriving an hour late for a township meeting in Gatesville. Twenty South African Police (SAP) are there – armed with guns, waiting outside the mosque at Samaj Center. Entering the building, where more police gather, I feel light-headed –my brain resembles a cellular vacuum, with nothing in it. I am confused about what to do when my friend Naz disappears; her daughter Drizzie takes one of the few empty chairs available in a back row, next to a cop.
Suddenly, Naz reappears as quickly and silently as she left. Then, Farieda Omar escorts us to the front of the enormous assembly just as I consider my next step. All eyes appear to be bulging toward me; I cannot allow these courageous people to see my well-founded panic. Later, turning to face the standing and full-capacity seated crowd, I see the South African Police and Special Branch (as in Nazi Gestapo) upstairs with video cameras and finally understand the significance of wearing hats and scarves. As an aside, before leaving the U.S. my dad hung up on me when telling him I was going to South Africa. It was Father’s Day. Before slamming down the phone, he wanted to know why I didn’t “…go anywhere beautiful like Hawaii.” He never spoke to me again until right before his death a year later.
In October 1988, I flew into Cape Town to see my friend Naz who was one of tens of thousands forcibly removed by the government from District Six in central Cape Town to Gatesville in the Cape flats. According to former journalist, John Battersby (twice nominated for the Pulitzer), the district “…was always more than just another neighbourhood. With its multi-racial character…its strong sense of communal identity…it was a microcosm of everything that the apartheid grand plan wanted to prevent…a relatively harmonious racial melting pot in a country where racially diverse and multi-cultural neighbourhoods were not the norm.”
Gatesville is across the road from Manenberg that is also known as “kill me quick town.” Both represent two sub-areas of the Athlone township. I did not plan my trip to coincide with the country’s Tri-Cameral municipal elections, nor did we think about the historical period. I was in the middle of writing an oral history on Naz, a “Coloured” civil rights activist since 1979 who was also a wife, mother and teacher. Classified as Coloured, specifically Cape Malay, she called herself a Black South African, as did most people of color that identified with the Black African struggle.
During Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, Americans knew little if anything about oppression in the complex Coloured community due to years of South Africa’s press curbs, isolation and State of Emergency then in effect for three years. Nonetheless, with persuasive powers that only can be ascribed to Naz, I decided to meet her friends, see the Republic for myself, clear up manuscript difficulties and do additional research on her aunt, Cissie Gool – a formidable political figure committed to the community she served as a City Councilor in addition to the Black South African struggle.
Cissie was the first woman of color to hold a City Council seat (representing Cape Town’s District Six for more than twenty years) in any South African district as well as earn her Master’s degree. She was in her 30s and raising three children when she returned to do her graduate work at University of Cape Town. In her early 60s, Cissie became the first woman to break into an all-male legal system by becoming a judge. Though she went to Bien Donne prison many times for her outspokenness and activism against the British and pernicious apartheid system, she pursued her legal studies. Cissie was a woman ahead of her time and greatly influenced by Sarojini Naidu, a protégé of Gandhi, both of whom were visitors in her family home.
On my first morning at Gatesville, a military helicopter thundered over the township as Naz ran into the bedroom yelling, “Quick, Donna, get your camera. [They’re] tear-gassing the children.” Stunned by intense noise and Naz’s directive, I ran outside in my pajamas where I saw the pilot’s face. To say that terror struck my gut is a wild understatement. Students at nearby Rylands School were peacefully protesting the arrest of thirty-five youngsters the previous day. One arrestee was eight years old. Kids, intent on ending apartheid, opposed the municipal elections.
Insofar as it was illegal to protest and carry posters, military helicopters terrorized the Rylands pupils and the SAP tear-gassed them in classrooms. Police arrested nine Rylands minors – five had to appear in court. I witnessed the tear-gassed boys and girls leaving the school grounds, watching parents quickly rescue their offspring. None of the students with whom I spoke or saw was over thirteen. While creeping near buildings and peeking around corners, I pulled out my camera to take photos of the crowd and police. A young boy said, “You better put that away or they’ll arrest you and your camera.”
Three and one-half years after President Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, South African protestors and one organization are assaulting and targeting journalists in the “new” South Africa, reminiscent of the apartheid era. I may know why, but the answer is exhaustive and better answered by South Africans. For me, too much of the ANC government, under President Zuma’s leadership, is downright corrupt. According to John Badenhorst, Director at Rehumanise in Scotland, “The week saw the tragic death of Suna Venter…a seasoned journalist…who stood up to censorship. Despite losing her job for the defiance and then winning it back, Venter was the target of a series of… attacks and assaults. At 32, Venter passed away of ‘Broken Heart Syndrome.’ The stress and trauma of her job serves as a horrible reminder of the risks independent journalists must now face in South Africa.”
I too have concerns for South Africans and our U.S. journalists who could suffer the same fate – with the protections of our First Amendment. Is it possible a handful of people believe the Constitution is not good for the United States? All through the apartheid era, the majority of South Africans did not want the Constitution they had because there were no guarantees or promises for them. All laws were stacked against people of color.
Considering South Africa’s present state, three matters surge forward. I am reminded of the time I listened to Donald Woods speak at San Francisco in 1989. He was the former Editor of the Daily Dispatch in South Africa’s Eastern Cape who became friends with Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. Woods, and his family, fled the country for his anti-apartheid activities, handing the world Biko’s story. I became aware of Steve by reading a book setting forth his superb and distinctive testimony during a trial. Ultimately, white supremacists could not control any of the truly courageous – dead or alive.
I cannot overlook the press bans, bullying and violence aimed at the media in today’s recent America, and we have a Constitution 78% of Americans want. Why is the press at risk in the United States? The answer requires deep, private reflection about our history in what should be an enlightened country. There is always a plan when bans start to become overt and the press suffers demonization daily. We need our ethical journalists who bring us investigative news. Hundreds have died attempting to disseminate information. Moreover, I am glad to see citizen journalists surfacing at various levels of involvement. I want to honor all worldwide courage, particularly now.
It is impossible to forget a photo that came out of South Africa after the June 16, 1976 uprising in Soweto, revealing an adolescent (and small sister at his side), carrying a dying child. Apartheid officials tried to hunt down the photographic journalist in order to kill him. They didn’t want any heroes, who were not white, emerging because of Soweto; but press power showed us oppression despite the threat of personal harm. The news photo became iconic around the world, and some American citizens began to wake up regarding the brutality of apartheid. I feel we need to say thank you to the inspiring journalists who provide the opportunity to become better, more compassionate people.
I attended an anti-apartheid rally at Cape Town’s City Hall on October 25, 1988, with the British Broadcasting Company (“BBC” and others) in attendance. Dignitaries included the Reverend Allan Boesak, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dullah Omar (anti-apartheid lawyer) and Colin Jones, Dean of St. George’s Cathedral. Leaving the protest, I saw the SAP standing over journalists who were squatting on the ground, opening cases to show police. I do not know if film was confiscated. In apartheid South Africa, the government and its puppets behaved as if fake news was an external creation, despite the experiences of millions. Fake news began on the inside with the despotic National Party. Right now, too many apartheid-like procedures are beginning to surface in America. South Africa is but a reflection of what can happen any time to those who have no understanding of history’s interconnection between the past, present and future. I hope we find our way to the proper remedy.