How many bullets will it take to kill us all

By Mphutlane wa Bofelo

Mphutlane Bofelo was detained for a week at the age of 17 in 1985. The severe trauma of the experience has not left him and he has written a poem for those who did not survive the human rights abuses of the apartheid government and where we find ourselves in this political moment.

I have vivid memories of being detained a week before I was to sit for my standard 10 examinations in 1985. I was just 17 years old at the time. The police assured me they were taking me to the Sasolburg police station for a brief interrogation and will return me. The so-called brief interrogation turned out to be long hours of torture. I fell unconscious twice during the interrogation.

I remember one policeman telling me he will cut off my testicles. I remember another policeman boastfully claiming to me that he once tortured my president, Saths Cooper, until he was wet; drowning in tears. I remember this policeman rattling the names of several leading Black Consciousness activists who supposedly cracked while ‘interrogated’ by him. I guess this was aimed at rattling me psychologically.

I was later taken to Viljoensdrift police station where I spent weeks alone in a cell. A day after my arrival at Viljoensdrift police station I was taken to a doctor because the police had bitten me to a pulp. One would expect that a medical doctor would be worried to see a seventeen year-old boy in that state. This medical doctor spent more time interrogating me than attending to me.

Back at Viljoensdrift police station I had to deal with a moron of a ‘non-white’ policeman who – upon seeing the medicine I was given, complained that it is the wastage of state money to give such expensive medicine to a little terrorist. All these times the police were telling my parents they don’t know about my whereabout each time they went to the police to ask about me. This was because the police did not want my parents or anybody to see me in the state I was in. Once the police thought I had sufficiently healed they took me back to Sasolburg police station for more questioning and beating.

At one stage, when the police were driving me back to Viljoensdrift prison, which is a stone throw from the Vaal River, the police asked me if I can swim, and told me they were going to throw me in the river.

“Kan jy swem?”.

At this point I thought about Bantu Stephen Biko, Ahmed Timol and Imam Abdullah Haron. I thought about the many comrades who died at the hands of the police and those who ‘disappeared’ without trace.

I could go on and on about my experiences at Leeuhof Prison in Vereeniging and in detention at Bougroep Maximum Prison in Potchefstroom. But I am alive to tell my story. Stanza Bopape, Griffith Mxenge and Ruth First did not live to tell their story.

I live in a country in which I, at least, have the freedom to heal myself and others with writing. Farouk Asvat’s poem in which he mourns the killing of a dearly beloved friend was crucified brutally at Zinyoka village. This so-called poem is a song for Farouk Asvat. I am alive to write this so-called poem. Mohsin Jeenah did not live to write his story.

This so-called poem is me healing myself, as much as it is a song to Farouk Asvat, whose writing urged me on, as much as it is me remembering Shamimah Sheik, who made her home a laboratory for the kind of Azania she dreamt for, as much as it is my tribute to Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe and Bantu Stephen Biko who died so that we may live!

Forgive we may and should because forgiving is a divine act, but forgetting we cannot, because for the future not to resemble the past, amnesia must fall and memory must keep us vigilant. This was supposed to be a poem for Biko and Imam Haron. It chose to be a letter to Farouk Asvat.

ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE

i thought
i hoped
i desired
i dreamt
to find a jazz tune
to sing a melody
to hum a song
for the son of man & the man of God
for the blood on the prison walls
for the blood on the prison floor
for the blood on the prison windows
for the bucket of water
for tons of cloths
for the poor hands that wiped off the blood

i thought
i reflected
i meditated
i hoped to sing a song
for consciences slaughtered
to whitewash manslaughter

*

here i am
walking all over Zinyoka village
digging the ground
to resurrect words buried
deep down six feet
to deny a man
the right to remember a friend
to trace the steps of their friendship
how brick by heart
pillar by soul
hands in love
a village erected a community clinic
on the firm foundation of unity
how a village candled its streets
with the light of consciousness
how people with meagre resources
moved by a force Bob Marley called One Love One Heart
put minds & cents together
to build a trust for detainees; amid hopelessness & trouble

*

the world asked what does it take
to rehumanize people condemned by racial hatred
Farouk, you, Biko, Asha
the men & women of Zanemipilo
replied tongue in heart
“all you need is love
instill self-love in a people
that they may radiate that love
to embrace all humanity with love”

*

how the power of the gun
feared the force of your love songs
how your love beyond boundaries
exposed the fickleness of artificial identities
how they feared the eternal truth
in Sobukwe’s love song
“there is only one humanity”
here we are, bro Frooks
looking back to move forward to the world of love
where the hungry
the sick and the frail
enter a place of worship
to come out filled
with love & trust in humanity
not with volumes of books on the forbidden
not with verdicts on the chosen and the frozen

*

here we are, grooving; toyitoying
marching growing
rising back in time
in Fordsburg in a meeting
to discuss the future
of our activism
in a South Africa
after formal apartheid
the always spirited Haroon Patel
forever young like a green leaf
comes in looking substantially miserable
“they killed Mohsin’
the Mail & Guardian confirms it all
how many bullets shall it take to kill us all?
what lie are they going to tell?
they can’t say he slipped on the floor like Timol
they can’t say he squeezed off his neck with a shawl like Hafejee
they can’t say he fought with the walls like a certain Bantu called Steve Biko
they can’t say he volunteered himself out of the window
like Imam Haron the immovable force
behind tiny fists up in the air
shouting takbir alongside Amandla
for how long shall Azania sing your name
each time she speaks of the people’s doctor
Abu Asvat who sacrificed
middle-class luxury
to live and work in squalid squatter-camps
to give love, care and hope
to those condemned to ghetto existence
Hurley who with Hassan Howa & Reggie Feldman
taught us there can be no normal sport in an abnormal country
that the politics and economics of sport
are in your face in a society
where one child is chauffeured
in a limousine to the field
after a three-course meal
& the other walks thirty kilometers
on an empty stomach
to school and straight
to a gravel ground called soccer field
each time she sings of Haroon
Xolisile Ka Mnyaka a victim of internecine violence
who fell in a no-go area
constructed by political intolerance
the longing and love for a mother
propelled him to walk
into a warzone armed only with a big heart
that stubborn hope that everything shall be o’ right
each time she remembers Soorya Bosch
disgusted by the treatment of women
as cattle to be kept
and disowned at the whim & whistle of a man
she advocated for a just Muslim Personal Law
each time she remembers Shamimah
who said God is not a man
the mosque should
not be a male club
each time she remembers
the son of Seepe
who suffocated from
an Islam that demanded
the massacre of his African
name for him to be part
of the Muslim community
each time she listens
to the Zimphonic
meditations of the son of Ngqawana
who blew the flute
like a mad man
remembering the early morning
song of the rooster
taken away from him
because the law said
chicken under the upkeep
of aBantu is a health hazard
when the municipality
did not even lift a finger
for refuse removal in the township
how he weaved the agonies
trances & hopes
of a people into songs that stirs
like Tatamukhulu Afrika taught
us like Saad bin Thabit
how to throw Molotov poems
and rocket propelled verses at an evil system
the way Johnny Mbizo Dyani
like Jimi Hendrix strummed
the guitar beyond Eric Clipton’s ear
played the Piano
beyond black & white notes
to tell in Blue Notes the sorrows and joys of Blackness
beyond skin color
to the consciousness of the self
that transcends itself
for the soul to prevail
over the tyranny of time and place
each of these sons & daughters of the soil
carry & sing the name
Imam Abdullah Haron
through your words & deeds
they learnt to sing
with their body, blood and soul:
“We are Africans
We are Azanians
this is our home
this where we live
this is where we struggle”

*

people will ask
why go back to the past
what is the significance of remembering
the activism & martyrdom of the dead???
we answer unflinchingly
because only the ignorant
think that the martyrs are dead
Farouk, i can hear you sing
with Biko’s children, the fallism generation
we must remember to remember
because amnesia must fall
because memory must prevail
for the future, not to resemble the past
for posterity to know
inkandla does not
begin & end
with the biography
of an opulent kleptocratic megalomaniac
the children must know how
like the foolish man who
moved the mountain
Kassim Ntombela dared
to dream of a center
of knowledge in the middle
of material want
like Ntate Sekoatle fulfilled

his vow to die
with a book in his hands
and exposed the trick
of the system to keep
the truth from my brothers and sisters
by hiding the books
that relate to their experience
only to spread the myth
that our people do not read
Philemon the Wiseman
of Evaton taught us
to question the weight
of math and logic
without philosophy and ethics
our Idris who urinated on the shrines
of the gods of bantu education
with a visionary mind
that turned his home
into a resource center
where the high and mighty
mingled with the poor
in search of the light of knowledge

*

i talk of Farouk the sage
Sekoatle who asked Dr. Spaddy
to explain how a schooling system
not embedded in society
and books talking to learners
and teachers in a foreign tongue
can offer an education
with meaningful outcomes
asked Kader Asmal
how can we move
into the future
when we gloss
over the ghost and burden
of the past on the present
how common is common
sense when it assumes that
the past is in the past
what kind of Masters of Philosophy in Education
does not help people
to see the heavy load
of the past on the present?
what kind of ideology
does not know that to question
the past is to interrogate
the present is to cast light on the future

*

Farouk, can i hear you
remind us to remember
that for the future not to resemble the past
we must remember to remember
because amnesia must fall
because memory must prevail
for the future, not to resemble the past
here we are, reflecting
back in time at Vlakplaas
brother Soegnoen left
with no feelings
to still feel pain
after all the beating
only for his heart to be left in pieces
by the voice of a brother leader
comrade in warm arms:
“tell them everything!”
the scene repeats itself
in neo-apartheid South Africa
students still shocked by teargas and gunfire
responses to their cry for the doors of learning & culture
to open in their lifetime
killed spiritually by the voice of minister comrade communist:
“Perhaps members of parliament Must form
their own movement and call it Students Must Fall”

*

Farouk, i hear you say
amnesia must fall precisely
because South Africa is still South Africa
memory must rise precisely because the wind still sings sad songs
sad songs for Andries Tatane who asked for water, housing and sanitation
and received a hail of bullets in his body
sad songs for children who went
to the toilet never to come back alive
sad songs raising troubling
questions like what do you call
a civilization in which children die from relieving themselves
what do you call an economy in which people die from drinking water?
what do you call workplaces in which workers die from falling buildings and no ventilation and light?
why is corruption called an accounting error, when it happens in a corporate entity like Steinhoff?
what is the difference between rape done by a white boy; and one committed by a black boy?

*

Farouk
i wanted to write a poem
for Saint Biko and Imam Haron
but this country still denies
us the luxury to write poems
they ask us why should we
harp on about the past
we answer bluntly
because we cry
for a time and place
in which boys and girls
can have the luxury
to write love poems

*

here you are, Farouk
addressed as a peer
by a tiny farm boy
who became an adult
and saw too many
things before his time
the doctor in you
tells you this letter is his
therapeutic stride back
to the childhood that never was
with the spiritual eye
you see this seventeen
year old kid in a court room
on a cold wintry free state morning
shaking from fear and cold
accused of a crime he can hardly pronounce or comprehend
“besit van ondermynende verklaaring”
the state has declared him a threat
to its security for throwing
infantile rhymes at machine guns
before the prison warder
throws him into a cell
full of common criminals
he makes sexual gestures to them
tells the boss of the cell
he has brought him a new wife
lobola is a bottle of whisky

*

this boy with water behind the ears
and mucus dancing in the nose
must learn how to use
every atom in his body
every tangible and intangible object
in his environment and beyond
to fight for his life
this little pikinini
must learn how
to go to bed with
one eye asleep
and the other completely awake
sharp razor in his hand
ready to cut marauding penises
this virgin bambino
must watch a knife
tearing a human belly
just to exhume
a swallowed fifty Rands
look at broken skulls
and see human brains
with a naked eye
and pretend it
is all a movie

*

this child must dig deep into
the interior of his soul
to come out of the dungeon
not a monster but a conscious human being
still pursuing the dream of
the world with a more humane face
the woman who marry this boy
now a man crying for lost childhood
must deal with reality
of sleeping with a man
who jump out of his bed
weeping like a child
talking about flying
and greening skulls
guns blasting in his dreams
and this child, Farouk
this boy-man, must be told by
doctors of literature
that talking about the politics and economics
philosophies and ideologies
behind his life experiences
is being polemic
that his writing is
too didactic
and prosaic to be poetry

*

this boy must find reaffirmation in reading
about poems and persecution
in Palestine
the trial of Dareen Tatour
languishing under house arrest & internet censorship
because the jury declared
her poems are terrorists
Farouk, I can hear you say
a song from a child crying
for freedom shall naturally
evoke terror in the ears
of beneficiaries of her unfreedom
but i am digressing, bro Frooks
let me go back to the
words that struck like an
acid jazz chord in the kid’s heart
the writer’s answer to the platinum question:
what makes a poem a poem?
a poem is a poem because the poet says it is a poem

*

the other way of putting it is
what makes a human being a human being?
a human being is a human being because
a human being is a human being
because She claims and defends Her humanity
She refuses to be a monster
She refuses to be a robot
a thing that is unaware of
its own makeup and making
a thing unconscious of its history

*

that niggling
question again, Farouk
why do we keep on about the past?
because the loss of memory is the loss of life
because we are human
we must remember
to remember because amnesia
must fall because memory must prevail
for the future, not to replicate the past

*

this kid was not there Farouk
when amnesty international
declared you a prisoner of conscience
but he did hear your cry in the 80s
when brothers and sisters
settled political differences
with burning tyres as necklaces
around each other’s necks
when kids settled family disputes with petrol bombs
& danced on the ashes of their ancestors
in a celebration of flames

*

this kid eavesdropped
on the conversation
between the feared
and fearless Peter Ramajoe and his wife
a day before judgement day
this kid saw the suppressed fear
behind the smiling face & joking voice:
“don’t come to the trial
I don’t want to see your tears
these days the boers
are sending people to the gallows”

*

a week before
Peter’s friend Njivane
had returned from the trial
with shoes without laces
shirt & jacket without buttons
& pants without a zip
straight to isolation cell
a sign known by all inmates
that a person has received a death sentence
old man Felumtweni who was in the van
returning from court
say when he asked Njiva
how his case went
all he could afford
was a sigh & head-shake

*

Farouk, they ask us, why should we bother
to reflect on the past
like mourn your poem buried in Zinyoka
here is our candid answer
because the past is not in the past
because the past is with us
because the future cannot
afford miss-educated politicians
who are so ignorant of the realities of structural & intergenerational poverty
that they can afford the confidence to publicly declare:
“every black youth below forty has no claim to affirmative action”

*

if this kid had the time
he would tell the beloved minister of amnesia
gloomy post-apartheid stories
like the story of this university girl
her friends wondered
why her meal-card ran out of money so quickly
why she hardly bought
perfume, chocolates & biscuits
only bought milk bread, sugar, salt, tin-fish & the like
it took a home visit of a sensitive academic registrar
to reveal that this student is
a head of a family & a breadwinner
that her meal-card and study
grant is the only source of income
for her and her siblings
one unemployed older brother
two sisters in high school
this story sufficiently provides the answer
to this persistent question
“why interrogate the past?”
because to interrogate the past is to understand
the present is to cast light on the future
because the past is not in the past
because the past is with us
we must remember to remember
because amnesia must fall because memory must prevail
for history not repeat itself as a tragic farce.

Contributors

Mphutlane wa Bofelo

Mphutlane wa Bofelo is a South African poet, essayist, social critic and cultural worker and a facilitator of Worker-Education and Popular Education. Bofelo’s socio-political activism began in the 1980s when he joined the Azanian Students’ Movement until he was charged and given a one-year prison sentence in 1987. He has since become one of the […]

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