Velile Ben Mafani wants justice. He’s wanted justice since 1979 when armed apartheid police arrived on his doorstep, forcing his family into the back of armoured vehicles like animals. Mafani’s birthplace was declared a white area under the Group Areas Act. The regime forced them off their land and sent them to the furthest corner of the Eastern Cape, Glenmore. A wasteland. A dumping ground for black people.
Mafani refers to Glenmore as a ‘civic prison’. It sits 40km down a treacherous dirt road off the N2, between Grahamstown and Peddie in the Eastern Cape. One clinic, a primary school and high school are the only facilities for over 18 000 residents. The clinic has three nurses and is closed at weekends. If there are any emergencies it is near impossible to find medical assistance. The high school has a total of three teachers for over 200 learners. Unemployment is high and public transport non-existent.
Only a handful of people in the village own vehicles and by default they provide a taxi service to the closest town Peddie, almost 40 km away. It costs R70 for a two-way ride, making it tough to even go job hunting outside the village.
Mafani’s front door is collaged with stickers: ‘Fight for your right to know’ says one. ‘Here, have the finger’, reads another. Now 61 years old, the tall man with deep furrows on his brow and greying stubble has been dubbed the ‘Mandela of Glenmore’. He has been fighting for the rights of his community for the past 30 years. When words no longer seemed to work, he resorted to hurling bricks.
Mafani has written countless letters to government officials, requesting restitution for the forced removals and service delivery for the residents of Glenmore. After his numerous requests fell on deaf ears, he decided to take more extreme action.
In 2007 he walked 72 km from Glenmore to Grahamstown to throw bricks through the window of the High Court, to highlight the plight of the Glenmore community. This is the same court that had authorised the eviction from his birthplace Coega in the 1970s.
He was charged with malicious damage to property in 2007. His sentence was a R2 000 fine or a year in prison. He was handed a suspended sentence for five years, on the condition that he was not convicted of a similar offence. He was sent to Fort England Hospital for psychiatric evaluation and was released when the authorities could not find anything wrong with him. Just a few months later in 2008 he threw another brick through a High Court window. He was arrested and later released with a warning. It would not be the last.
January 2012 was the third and last time Mafani threw more bricks through the windows of the High Court… one white, one red and one black. A letter with his demands was tied around the bricks. He was charged and is set to appear in court in January 2015.
Mafani lights a cigarette, rubs his face and looks at the two young playwrights sitting in his living room, Xabiso Zweni and Anele Penny. They talk about the countless black people who died during the forced removals, the current state of Glenmore and the growing despondency of residents. They talk about the 3 000 people who lost their homes, their jobs and their cattle in the 70s. Mafani tells them about his wife and child who died during the removals. They are buried in a graveyard along the banks of the Great Fish River. Mafani often hikes to the burial grounds and sleeps in the cold veld to be close to his family.
Zweni and Penny sit on the worn couches in Mafani’s living room and listen attentively. Together with playwright Khaya Voko, the two actors have turned Mafani’s life story into a play called Ghost of Glenmore. The play is based on Mafani’s story as an activist. It was first performed at the Port Elizabeth Opera House in October 2013, before moving on to the National Arts Festival in 2014.
The play is set in Mafani’s home in Glenmore, on the night before he decides to throw bricks through the High Court window. His character, played by Penny, carefully packs bricks into a duffle bag while reflecting on his country, the wasteland that is Glenmore, and the pain of losing his family during the forced removals of the 70s.
Zweli and Anele have used Mafani as their primary source of information and inspiration for their play. They want to use protest theatre to tell and honour the stories of veterans like Mafani. During the play’s run in Grahamstown, Mafani saw the play and gave them one of his bricks which they now use on stage. It is painted black and reads: “I am crying blood of my people. Glenmore civic prison.”
The next performance of Ghost of Glenmore at the Athenaeum’s Little Theatre in Port Elizabeth is Tuesday 28th October 2014.
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