June 1976: One Family Expresses Their Pain
June 1976 and the aftermath was a time when the dead and the disappeared were not counted too carefully by authorities intent on eradicating dissent in the most violent means possible. We have since begun to redress the gaps in our history, especially with the work of the TRC. After researching the work of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the writer went in search of individual stories in an attempt to understand the overwhelming picture of mass destruction and cruelty that had emerged at the time.
So often when conducting research on the resistance against apartheid in South Africa, areas such as Gauteng are given more prominence. When I think of student resistance, the Soweto Uprisings come to mind immediately. When I research the anti-pass laws resistance, the Women’s March of 1956 is prominent. Even public holidays to commemorate events centre around those in Gauteng.
There will be a huge and cruel gap in our history if we do not tell other stories and if we do not focus on the unsung heroes who played a role in attaining the freedom we have today.
As we are commemorating the youth of 1976 and others in the years to follow, who took it upon themselves to resist the laws that oppressed them, we should broaden our gaze.
I remember a certain family I visited in 2011. The aim was to tell stories of women. It became evident from my research into the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Victim Hearings that stories of women were often untold. Although there were a number of women who came before the TRC, they often related stories of their loved ones, i.e. husbands, brothers, sons, and uncles.
On A Mission
Many years after the TRC had ended, I went on a mission to discover the story of the women. The Mnyazana family story is probably not unique. But these are essential pieces of the fabric that we need to weave into our own wholeness.
On 23 July 2011 I visited Victoria Mnyazana in Newcastle, KwaZulu Natal. I learned of this family through my cousin who – at a young age – went into exile to train as an Umkhonto weSizwe cadre. Because my research centred on the TRC, the Mnyazana family had been before the Commission hoping to find out what happened to their brother and son, Blessing “Mazambane” Mnyazana.
Victoria is Blessing’s sister-in-law. She gave me a warm welcome and as we did the customary introductions and inquiries about our backgrounds, we soon discovered that we are distant relatives. It broke the ice. She referred to me as ‘daughter’ and showed me around the house. As befits a daughter, I helped her finish cooking the special lunch she had been preparing for me. Before going too deeply into the business of the day, Victoria shared invaluable advice about men and marriage. I felt at home.
Blessing was an 18-year-old student at Ohlange High School in Durban. He was involved in politics and took part in the student boycotts that were part of the nationwide protests after the Soweto Uprisings of 16 June 1976. He and other students were arrested at their school and taken to KwaMashu police station. He was later released so that he could write his final year exam. He passed matric or Standard 10 at the time (Grade 12). After his exam, he went back home to Newcastle. When he was home, Blessing was expected to report to the Madadeni police station twice a week – Tuesday and Thursday. These were conditions of his release as his case was remanded and he was never convicted.
A few days before Christmas in December 1976, Blessing left home. Mrs Mnyazana says she didn’t suspect anything was wrong. He acted normally. It was the following morning they realised something was amiss.
Blessing often woke up early. His family became suspicious when they didn’t see him the next morning. He had a bedroom at the back of the house. As they knocked, they realised that it was not locked. They went in to inspect his room. Then they saw that Blessing had taken all his belongings from the wardrobe.
“We realised that his clothes and other belongings were not in his wardrobe”.
The family then reported this to other relatives hoping that he may have gone to them. Later they reported it to the Madadeni police. At first, the family’s report was ignored and the police didn’t conduct any investigations.
One evening when the family was having supper, the Security Branch (SB) policemen surrounded the house. They entered and demanded to know the whereabouts of Blessing while they ransacked the house.
And that is when the Mnyazana household became the playground of the SB. They frequented the house in large numbers. Mrs Mnyazana says the SB often addressed or questioned the family in Afrikaans, totally oblivious to the fact that the family did not understand the language.
“They often came at night while we were having supper. Spilling the food, ransacking our wardrobes. They often went straight for the wardrobes and never did find anything”.
When asked, the SB said they were looking for any clues that would point out where Blessing was hiding.
Mrs Mnyazana spoke about one particular night when she was coming back from work. She was a teacher by profession and gave classes at a night school. She said that when she got back home, heavily armed SB policeman were inside the house. They turned her bedroom upside down because the suitcase she was using had Blessing’s name on it. The police assumed that he could have returned. She spoke about how she fought them that night because they were really invading her privacy and she was tired of the SB tormenting her family in this way. This harassment continued for six months straight. One time in 1977, the SB came to the house and claimed that they had captured and detained Blessing. They refused to disclose where he had been detained, at which police station.
The Mnyazana family was last visited by the SB in 1979, when they realised that the entire endeavour had been an exercise in futility. Throughout this time the family was clueless about Blessing’s whereabouts.
Memorial Stone In the Living Room
The Truth Commission could also not find Blessing.
It was after a fruitless visit to the TRC that the family expressed their pain in a way that gave them some closure. They erected a memorial stone in their living room. It reads:
“In loving memory of our beloved Thembinkosi SB Mnyazana. Born in 1958 and went missing in December 1976. We honour you brother, Long live. Message: IMINI INGEDLULA IZINYEMBEZI ZOME KODWA THINA ASISOZE SAKULIBALA (Days may pass, tears may dry, but we will never forget you).”
The Mnyazana family have accepted that Blessing will never come back home. According to Mrs Mnyazana, when the TRC told the family that they could not find any evidence that could lead to Blessing’s whereabouts, they lost all hope.
South Africa has many, many Blessing Mnyazanas. Hearts heavy with tombstones everywhere. People who will never know but who have to give up hope and move on.
Ntando P Z Mbatha is a Heritage Co-ordinator at the Department of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation in the Free State. You can follow her on Twitter at @nthandz09