Sleepless in Soweto

Restlessness caused by the weight of history surrounding me

It was exactly a week before Winnie Mandela moved to the other side. I tossed and turned all night in my bed at the Soweto Hotel and Conference Centre. I reckon I had no more than 30 minutes of sleep that night.

The restlessness perplexed me as I usually drift rapidly into dreamland the moment my head touches the pillow. Not one who is ever prone to premonitions, the pending demise of the mother of the nation could not have been responsible for my epic battle to get some sleep.

Perhaps the adrenaline from an event in Jabavu that morning was responsible. I was part of a team from the Deputy Ministry of Home Affairs that hosted a programme at the Adelaide Tambo School for the Physically Challenged.

A young learner recieves his ID smart card from the Deputy Minister and the school principal

More than 200 learners and their teachers gathered with representatives of the Tambo Foundation, Home Affairs officials and representatives of the Soweto community in a programme filled with joy, hope and positive vibes.

The majestic voices of the members of the 30-strong school choir injected a glorious energy into the school hall, a young girl delivered a powerful poem accompanied by soft beat boxing from her fellow learner and a group of youth did an incredible Zulu dance, completely uninhibited by their physical limitations.

About a dozen of the children received Smart Card IDs, thanks to preparatory work done by officials from the Home Affairs offices in Orlando and Maponya Mall. The Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Ms Fatima Chohan and the principal of the school, Mr Lindela Memani, handed over the cards to the children as they beamed with pride.

A Grade 10 cultural group does a zulu dance

Ms Chohan urged the children and adults to emulate the characteristics, values and ideals of Oliver and Adelaide Tambo which included service, non-racialism, humility, equality and justice. She announced that the ID roll-out campaign would continue for the rest of the year until all the school’s learners of 16 and older have their cards.

But inspiring events have not really kept me awake before. I eventually concluded that my restlessness was caused by the weight of history surrounding me.

Immediately beneath my bedroom in Kliptown was the square where the Congress of the People had taken place in 1955. It was right there where 2 884 delegates and 7 000 observers had gathered to adopt the Freedom Charter. It was arguably one of the most critical and important developments in modern South African history. The delegates had come together with great difficulty at a time when the apartheid state was at the peak of its powers. I remembered the historical records of this period and could almost see people arriving from all corners of the country to formulate their vision of a future society.

Wikipedia describes Kliptown as “the oldest Black residential district of Johannesburg and first laid out on land which formed part of Klipspruit farm”.

It further states that the “future Soweto”, which came into being in 1963, was to be “laid out on Klipspruit and the adjoining farm called Diepkloof”.

White City, Jabavu, where the Home Affairs event took place, is just three kilometres South of Kliptown. The suburb is named after John Tengo Jabavu, a pioneer of African journalism and a strong proponent of education for black people, including women. We came to know the name and the history through our journalistic journey, as we sought to unearth hidden stories in an apartheid society that exclusively held up white men as makers of history.

But Kliptown and Jabavu are just a small part of the walk through history in this sprawling township over more than one million people. Over in Orlando East is the Hector Pieterson memorial, which brings back painful memories of 1976 when thousands of youth stood in rebellion against a system declared a crime against humanity. Fear stalked the streets and young South Africans were despatched to violently quell the aspirations of other young South Africans. There was teargas, guns and casspirs everywhere.

Within walking distance of the memorial, you find Vilikazi street which produced two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Further to the south, is the Orlando Stadium, home of the 75-year-old Orlando Pirates Football Club.

The school choir renders an item.

One is unable to process all of this, and more, in a visit that spanned no more than 30 hours.

In that time, we had also started the foundations of a relationship with the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation. They introduced us to the school for the physically disabled and they have suggested we work with them on a youth project in Pondoland from where Oliver Tambo hails.

This will be one of the more than 20 projects the Deputy Ministry does countrywide, working with the elderly, with youth, women and the disabled around issues of citizenship, identity and human rights.

Learners at the Department of Home Affairs Soweto event.

And so, not so long from now, we will head to Kantolo in Bizana, the birth place of a man who was eventually to become the global face of the anti-apartheid movement.

Another deep encounter with history beckons. And in all likelihood, another sleepless night.

Mansoor Jaffer is the Parliamentary and Media Liaison Officer, in the Deputy Ministry of Home Affairs.

BACK TO TOP

Discussion