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Soweto Burning: June 16 Remembered

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His face contorts slightly as he, slowly, but painfully, returns through the murky mist of 42 years. His hands tremble with emotion as he relives horrific images lodged in the corners of his mind. The birds singing in the blue sky over the idyllic garden of his family home in Roodepoort, Johannesburg, contrasting with the moody, mean, streets of Soweto of yore.

Eightythree-year-old Enoch Duma lived the slaughter of scores of schoolchildren on that fateful winter’s day in Soweto in 1976. It was his job to be there as a reporter for a Johannesburg newspaper and he had his own car. He knew serious trouble was building. Many of the schoolchildren involved used to call him “Bra E” and held him in high esteem.

“I just knew the previous night the people were uneasy as if something was going to happen, some people didn’t go to work. You had people like Tsietsi Mashinini, Seth Mazibuko and other student leaders coming to your house. I was always ahead of what was happening,” recalls Duma.

On the morning of June 16, Duma was out driving through the tense streets of Soweto and saw a big crowd approaching.

READ MORE: How The Rose Of Soweto Rose

“They ran to my car. Tsietse said ‘hey! Soweto is burning – it is bad, it is very bad, just stay ahead of things. Hide if you can hide because there is going to be trouble tonight. If the police shoot we are going to answer with petrol bombs’. This was something new in Soweto.”

The mood turned ugly when news filtered through the crowd in Orlando that police had shot dead a young student, Hector Pieterson – a bloody killing captured for eternity by the famous photograph by Sam Nzima that he smuggled out through police lines to make the front pages everywhere from New York to Sydney the next day.

“When people heard it was Hector they were very angry. They armed themselves with Molotov Cocktails and started throwing these petrol bombs recklessly. They were just mad,” says Duma.

The birds outside tweet, incongruously, as Duma’s face darkens with the deepening story.

“I can still see the madness in their faces and their anger. They didn’t know what to do,” he says.

“I saw a burning body thrown into a dustbin. I couldn’t stand it I had to drive through. There were moments when I thought I wasn’t going to make it. It was difficult to see where the students were coming from. They were coming out of buildings with Molotov Cocktails and some carried dustbin lids as shields. Among the leaders were very young people. The real fighters were the little girls – they were ready to die.”

Among them, Susan Shabangu who spent months on the run in the clampdown that followed; like many of the survivors, she escaped into exile to fight the struggle and ended up as her country’s mining and social development minister.

READ MORE: Walking Into A Day Of Horror

It was a horrific chapter of a rich career that saw Duma, the son of a Baptist minister, born in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, work his way from reporting the courts in his hometown to working on a national newspaper. He joined The Post in Durban through a friend, who was a reporter on the paper, called Duke Ncobo.

“The newspaper wanted a young cub reporter and suggested I should write two stories for the editor. He read them and looked at me and read them and looked at me and said ‘did you write this or did someone write this for you?’ I said ‘no’. He said ‘go to Mr Ncobo’, who said ‘I think the editor likes you’!”

His first arrest came in bizarre fashion. Ncobo invited the young Duma to a party in a block of flats in downtown Durban belonging to the leading lights of the African National Congress including Fatima Meer and journalist GR Naidoo.

An elderly woman living below called the police complaining of the noise; the police, who suspected the party was a front for a political meeting among people of color, encouraged her to press charge. They arrested 27 partygoers including Duma and threw them in the cells.

The court case turned into farce. The elderly lady, in her 70s, complained that the partygoers had banged the floor above her as they danced. In court, the judge asked the lady to demonstrate the dance. There were titters in court as ushers cleared the chairs away and the lady did a high-stepping dance. The judge ruled she hadn’t made sufficient noise to convince him, yet Duma and his colleagues were held to have been a public nuisance.

Duma secured a job on the City Post, amid the bright lights and jazz of 1950s Johannesburg and arrived at Park Station with nothing but a suitcase. A van from the newspaper picked him up to take him to the newsroom buzzing with young journalists.

“You must pretend to be one of them, otherwise they will give you a hard time,” chirped the driver.

These were colorful and chaotic times for young black journalists at the City Post. A regular caller with stories was a young and vivacious social worker called Winnie Mandela.

“Winnie Mandela, she was very young used to come to the office and was very friendly with reporters. The gangsters respected Winnie,” says Duma.

Gangsters and guns were another part of newsroom life at the City Post. Gangs ruled many of the Johannesburg streets in the 1950s – the Spoilers, the Americans and the Msomi gang.

Their leaders used to waltz in off the street with wide-brimmed hats and long fine coats looking more Chicago than sub-Saharan Africa. Often, they carried small “baby brown” pistols, sometimes concealed in a bandage, to intimidate journalists for a number of sins.
It could be to force them to stay away from their girlfriends or stop writing about them or start writing about them. Often a gun up the nose proved mightier than the pen, until one day.

“One day, they came and they found the deputy editor having a meeting with the reporters. The gangsters introduced themselves and the deputy editor Henk Margolis, an American brought in to work on the paper, says: ‘Gentlemen, can I help you?’

“They pointed a gun at him, Henk noticed this and was not scared. ‘If you think you can intimidate me you are wrong, I was born in Chicago, so I have not time for small fry’. That day we thought there was going to be a showdown. Henk grabbed hold of the leader and pushed him outside. That was the last time the gangs came to the office,” says Duma with a smile.

It turned out that gangsters with police uniforms on proved to be Duma’s downfall. He was arrested numerous times and ended up spending nine months in prison. He went into exile in the United States (US) and with his wife of 56 years, Kitty, he was a prime mover in the divestment campaign – encouraging US firms to pull out of South Africa – that helped usher in the end of apartheid.

A system that stoked the fiery horror of June 16 that people who were there will never forget.

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A Country On A Roll

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The tiny country of Rwanda is now producing factory-fresh Volkswagen cars from its rolling hills. Next up are ride-hailing and public car-sharing services by the German carmaker.

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The Heroes Among Us

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Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.

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The Power, Humour And Anger Of Mandela

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It is a century since Nelson Mandela came kicking and screaming into a world that he would change.

In one hundred years, his name has been spoken with pride from the paddy fields of Vietnam, through the savannahs of Africa to the smoky steak houses of New York. His legacy appears more contested with every passing year.

I was fortunate to have a front row seat in the Mandela years and saw the power, humour and anger of the man. I used to feel 10 feet tall at press conferences when he used to greet my questions with: “Mr Bishop, how are you?” Once I was walking to a TV interview with him, at an African Union summit in Harare, the day after I had ruptured my knee playing football, he noticed I was hobbling far behind – something he was not used to. He turned and inquired of the cause of my pain.

“May I suggest you take up boxing, it’s safer!” says the old man with that million dollar smile. I shall take the warmth of that smile to my grave.

Make it clear, I am no Mandela worshipper. He was no saint and certainly didn’t want to be one: he could be angry and petulant with the best of them; his past was chequered by domestic troubles; a man of the people, yet distant from his own family, according to many close to him. A man who promoted press freedom, yet like many of the lesser politicians who followed him, wanted his picture on every page of the morning newspaper. Mandela drew the line at the sports page – he joked that he didn’t want to risk being associated with losers.

The greatest fear Mandela had was that his ideals – not his name – would be forgotten after his death. Not for Mandela the greed of rule, nor the trappings of power.

Yet it is very fashionable these days to run Mandela down as something akin to a sell-out. Those who claim, erroneously, that Mandela sold out his people. They say he didn’t stop poverty overnight nor right the wrongs of the past with the wave of his wand. They need to talk to those who were there in the negotiations for a new free South Africa.

“People say we gave up too much in negotiations yet we had nothing to start with,” Denis Goldberg, a man who faced death with Mandela at the Rivonia Trial in 1964, once told me.

READ MORE: Mandela Through Their Eyes

The negotiations with an entrenched elite – that held most of the cards and only grudgingly acknowledged Mandela and his comrades – were difficult to say the least. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) could not even threaten to go back to war because the depleting arms of its military wing posed little or no threat to the state.

Even so, a deal was hammered together somehow. In the next two years, in the run-up to the 1994 elections, Mandela won his leadership spurs as he steered South Africa away from the civil war that many feared was inevitable. He flew to Durban and told bloody-thirsty faction fighters to throw their weapons into the sea and they listened. When revered freedom fighter Chris Hani was gunned down on his front drive, in 1993, many were ready to take the law into their own hands.

Mandela barged into the SABC studios in Johannesburg that night and made a broadcast to the nation to calm down and put its weapons away. He wasn’t even in Parliament then and I wonder to this day how many lives that broadcast saved with this canny display of leadership.

Then, when into power with a virtually bankrupt Treasury, Mandela steered the National Development Programme that built millions of homes and schools; electrified the homes of legions of poor people and rolled out roads to connect the nation. Yet, the money was never going to stretch far enough and millions still have no roof over their heads and too many schoolchildren attend classes under trees.

It is fashionable these days to say the majority of South Africa must rise in a civil war in which the nation will be cleansed of its past, restored of its land on the path to righteousness. It probably sounds even better after a few drinks.

READ MORE: Celebrating Mandela From Where It All Began; Soweto

I say this is bunkum and anyone who has ever seen or smelt a civil war will agree with me. How a vile, stinking trail of dead fathers, raped women and children, destruction and disorder, can lead a country to the light beats me. Those who scream for war have clearly never seen it.

The first time I clapped eyes on the great man, at the Harare Agricultural Show, on his first foreign visit to Zimbabwe in August 1994, he walked alone, without a security man in sight. I didn’t ask for a selfie – they didn’t exist then, anyway – I was tongue-tied. We merely smiled at each other in passing.

So when people in political circles told me that South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t care for wealth and power – he merely wanted to put his name up there with Mandela – I smiled like I did on that August day in Harare.

This does seem feasible as President Ramaphosa – a millionaire in his own right – was the man who stood next to Mandela, holding the microphone, on the town hall steps in Cape Town, on February 11 1990, during his famous address on release from 27 years in prison.

“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” said Mandela to deafening cheers on that bright summer’s day.

Clearly this humility and willingness to serve rubbed off on President Ramaphosa on that fateful day in 1990. In his first 100 days, he has made manful attempts to stop the rot in South Africa by merely enforcing the rule of law. A course of action he made no secret of even before he took power on February 15.

“There are no holy cows. Anyone who is caught doing wrong things will end up behind the bars of a jail,” says Ramaphosa, with microphone in hand and humble service in mind at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

True to his word, Ramaphosa cut swathes through the corruption of the past. Former president Jacob Zuma ended up in the dock on corruption charges something that many – including me – thought they would never see in their lifetime. He removed the rookie finance minister Malusi Gigaba and replaced him with the people’s choice Nhanlha Nene who has staved off more downgrades of the economy. A clean-up of the state-owned enterprises and the institutions is underway and many who thought they were invincible six months ago have been cut down to size.

I am sure the old man, who must have been spinning in his grave over the last few years, would approve.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” says Mandela at his inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

As we mark 100 years since his birth, it is time for cool heads and clear thinking to make sure this utopian ideal of liberty and tolerance lives on after his death. Our grandchildren will judge us harshly if we don’t.

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