Brief Biography of Patric Tariq Mellet
There was no particular Damascus moment of deciding that I would engage in the struggle and follow the resistance road. It just emerged as a natural path to take from a childhood hallmarked by poverty and pain, and the Apartheid system that dominated our existence and reinforced hopelessness. Through the liberation movement a path of hope beckoned in my teenage years. In taking this path I experienced a profound transformation of my own life. There was no glamour in taking this path in the early seventies when one was branded as a radical terrorist by the establishment.
I was born in 1956 to a single-mother and grew up in the areas of Woodstock and District Six in Cape Town. My mother, born in lower Wynberg in 1917, was already almost 40 years old when I was born. She worked as a sewing machinist and laundry-shop attendant in District Six. She had four other children from a marriage which ended in the 1940s and had briefly cohabited with my father, originally from Bokmakierrie in Athlone. My father, born in District Six in 1922, a mechanical fitter, had eight children by four different women, thus I am one of thirteen half-siblings. My mother raised me to believe that my father had died tragically in a car accident. Her other children were all already working in my infancy, thus I was brought up as an only child. I was only to become aware that my father was not dead in my forties when I met my father and my other siblings for the first time.
Both my grandmothers were of mixed or coloured ancestry including French, Dutch, English and Irish Settlers, and slaves from Bengal, Sri Lanka and Madagascar, as well as indigenous Khoi. I trace my roots to the early 1700s when two slave sisters married two French brothers. I call this an African Creole ancestry. My grandfathers were English and Afrikaans respectively. The world that I grew up in had a street name for people who fell between the cracks of poor-white society and coloured society. We were called ‘halfnatjies’ and in time under Apartheid race classification our families had to choose whether we would stand with white or coloured. When Apartheid race-classification and group areas was enforced, members of my family were adversely affected with some moving abroad and others divorcing themselves from each other, never more to even communicate. The legacy of the 1950 Population Registration Act and Apartheid race classification resulted in many opting for the so-called ‘chameleon dance’, a euphemism for reclassification. Many passed for white, but a few opted to reject classification as whites. My own registration was always out of my control as a child but when I was old enough after my first year of employment I expressed my preference to be seen as ‘Coloured’ to the Department of Home Affairs. I was first ignored and then much later when I clashed with the authorities and the military, I found out that the authorities deemed my classification to be ‘Other Coloured’. In my teens right through to early adulthood I struggled with the contradictions that existed within the peculiar mixed poor-white and coloured community in which I had been reared. As I became more conscious about my tapestry heritage I became proud of my coloured ancestry which I saw as both African and Creole and from this my sense of identity was developed. Our inconvenient existence for the Apartheid state resulted in the peculiar Apartheid classification known as ‘Other Coloured’.
In 1959 my favourite Aunty, Aunty Doll, my mother’s eldest sister, took most of her children and grandchildren and left the country. My uncle who was classified as Indian had already died but as the tenets of Apartheid were steadily being implemented there was nothing but pain that waited Aunty Doll’s children who ranged from pale blonde with blue eyes to the darkest brown. Suddenly my cousins were gone.
My childhood was harsh. My mother’s life was unstable, moving from abode to abode, often boarding with other people and her income was a pittance. We lived a meagre existence. At the age of 18 months I was severely burnt when a pot of boiling milk on a primus-stove toppled over onto me. A year thereafter I was placed in the first of three foster homes that I was to live in over the next five years. During these years I was to see my mother for only a few weeks in each year. The third foster home where I was placed was as a result of a smalls-column advertisement that my mother was forced to place in a newspaper out of desperation. Through a newspaper advert she sought a family that would take me in and bring me up as one of their own. As a result I lived for two years with the family that answered the advert. After living with this family who had eight children of their own I spent 18 months with the Holy Cross sisters. I was cared for by one particular nun, Sister Mary Martin. She had a particular devotion to the saint of slaves and mullatos, Saint Martin de Porres of Lima in Peru. I was fascinated as a seven year old to watch this old German lady kneel before the statue of a black man, the son of an African slave, asking for his advice on a daily basis. Through this observation I developed a passionate interest in slavery and more specifically slavery in the Cape.
After the foster homes I lived with my mother briefly before being sent to a cruel Children’s Home. These were three years of beatings, all kinds of abuse, degradation and punishing manual child-labour in a Dickensian institution. Rather than offering a place of care the institution had the air of a prison. Many of the children went on into adulthood crippled by the effect of the Children’s Home on their lives and ended up as jail inmates, destitute street people or meeting an early death. Throughout this time the only kindness I encountered was on those intermittent occasions that I came home to my mother for a few weeks at a time and accompanied her to work in District Six. My father and his brother had been born in District Six and my mother’s eldest sister Aunty Doll was the well-known toilet attendant at Castle Bridge. Here on a street called Hanover I experienced life, love and hope, and a sense of identity and belonging that nobody could ever take away from me. Whiling away the hours at play amongst the laundry bags I would listen to the conversations of customers. At other times I watched the theatre of life playing itself out on the sidewalks outside, from my vantage point at the large windows of the laundry shop. Thus began my political education.
It was in District Six as a child that I came to understand the violation of Apartheid. And it was here that I first heard the names of those who stood up for the poor and against colonialism and racial oppression - names such as Abdurrahman, Kadalie, Mangena, Plaatjie, Gool, Kotane, Kahn, Alexander, Snitcher and many more. The stories of these great people together with the daily reminders of the poverty around me, the affects of Apartheid on my family, and the declaration of District Six as a ‘whites only’ area followed by its physical destruction, lit a fire within me to struggle against the aberration of Apartheid.
At age 12 as was custom with all male inmates at the Children’s Home, I was sent off to a trade school. It was while at this trade-school in 1971 that I first got involved in political activity. Our teachers, the priests, were enlightened and caring people who taught us about Apartheid’s crimes against humanity and prepared us to take up our responsibility when we were able to join a trade union. Destined to become artisans, we were taught that it was our duty to join a trade union and to speak up for those denied a union voice. By this time my mother was a pensioner and my contact with her was less frequent as I boarded at the trade-school. My first political action was when I organised a protest fast at school in solidarity with Fr Bernard Wrankmore’s marathon fast on signal hill in protest at the killing of Imam Haron while he was in detention.
I was forced to leave school just before I was 16 years old, when the Apartheid system withdrew subsidies from church welfare schools for the poor, such as ours, because the church was increasingly flouting instructions on segregating facilities. My mother said she could not afford my board and keep, bus fares and fees required for school.
My first job in 1972 was as an apprentice precious-metal worker in a jewellery manufacturer, at the grand wage of ten Rand per 60 hour week under harsh conditions. I was just a young boy; an angry child who ended up running away from this workplace. It was here that I joined my first trade union, the SA Congress of Trades Unions affiliated Jewellers and Goldsmiths Union.
After running away I then went on to work as a hospital storeman. Four years later I trained as a mechanical engineering artisan working for a cardboard carton-making and printing works in Epping Industria. It was during this time that I got even more involved in trade union and political activity, joining the then outlawed ANC and the SA Congress of Trades Unions. I cut my political teeth in the Trade Union movement and the Catholic Young Christian Workers Movement. I also joined the Christian Institute which was later banned as a proscribed organisation.
At this time I came to live at my mother’s house for the first time on a full time basis and felt like an alien. Right into my teenage years and adulthood my mother kept up the false story that she was a widow and that my father had died in a motorcar accident. She would even point out the spot in Salt River near the Locomotive Hotel and describe the accident. We had a kind of mother-son relationship but at the same time we were strangers. She was use to living on her own and seemed to resent the intrusion. My mother had become quite reclusive and conservative over the years and was not well disposed to the company that I kept or the ideas that I held. She believed that my friends were ‘skollies’ and I was out of control and needed the firm hand of a man to put me right. She complained to the Child Welfare Department who summoned me for an interview. Failing to have me committed to a reformatory, she wrote to the army to conscript me and put me on the right path with some discipline. I was extremely angry about this after the parental estrangement in my upbringing and because of what the Apartheid government had done to our family. I believed that I had done a good job in raising myself and through various mentors of my own choosing had developed deep and sound values.
In 1974 as a result of my mother’s intervention, I was conscripted by the SADF and immediately declared myself as a conscientious objector who wanted nothing to do with the military. The authorities just took me for a ‘malletjie’. I faced abuse, constant threats and assault as a result of taking this course of action. I was told that ‘nothing was stopping me from becoming a boesman or kaffir if that was what I wanted’ and that if I wanted to die, ‘that could also be arranged’. It was an extremely lonely time in my life. There were no anti-conscription campaigns or support structures during those days, nor had a broad-based anti-apartheid mass democratic movement developed. There was just the small underground and the exiled liberation movement which were far away from this young lad protesting in the heart of the beast. But I stuck to my beliefs and refused to take up arms or show respect for the military authorities even when threatened that I would “be sent home in the newspapers” – a euphemism for being killed and saying that I was killed by terrorists. On one occasion I was lifted by the throat off the floor, trussed up against some maize-meal sacks by a ruddy faced sergeant and had a gun put to my head. ‘Ophou met jou kak kommunis, jy gaan hell toe’, he spat at me.
Even after that incident I continued to make it known that I was in the SADF under protest. I expressed that the SADF was the arm of the oppressor and was not representative of my people or the country to which I owed allegiance. At this time my political articulation was not as developed as it is today. I was a youngster who expressed himself through a mix of religious-political utterances and a whole lot of swearwords. But I knew what I would or would not do. As a result I was arrested briefly on suspicion of being a left subversive and interrogated by the Military Police. At no time was the military able to make me fall in line and this only strengthened my resolve to carry on down the path of struggle. It was a peculiar time where a rather pale young ‘halfnatjie’ followed a path of black consciousness and the liberation politics of the ANC and SACP, surrounded by aggressive armed racists.
Having built up my resolve as a result of my military experience I emerged as an activist in Cape Town during the 1976 youth rebellion. Cape Town’s ‘Red September’ 1976 marked the beginning of a new type of struggle. It was also the year that I got married to a fellow activist, Maria Farelo. A year later we had our first child, Dylan Mtshali. The next two years were ones of many meetings, producing underground pamphlets on Roneo machines and organising young people. This was a time where there were no structures and civic movements. The trade union movement was still weak and the ANC was still deeply underground and was not spoken of, let alone seen in popular terms. I left the Young Christian Worker movement and started a small cell of young working-class politicos calling ourselves the All African Southern Socialist Working Youth and Students and saw ourselves as part of what was the loosely organised Comrades Movement taking our lead from the 1968 ‘What are we to do?’ statement of Oliver Tambo.
Led by the anger of my heart I developed an idea which I would later present to the ANC in exile. I had an elaborate plan involving a single co-ordinated sabotage bombing campaign which would bring Cape Town to a standstill. The plan had two pillars that included military and civil infrastructure targets and aimed to have a psychological, military, economic and media impact. The main road and rail bridges at Mowbray, Salt River and Foreshore would be blasted in the early hours when commuter traffic was at a halt, thus bringing Settlers Way, Main Road, Voortrekker Road and the N1 commuter arteries to a close. All rail links to the city would also be disrupted and the chaos would last for days. Coordinated with these blasts would be the second pillar of the plan involving symbolic blasts at the Castle, Youngsfield, Wynberg Military Base and Silvermine Military Communications base. The plan would have needed 8 units each having three members.
Later in exile when I put this plan to the ANC it was deemed to be too radical and may have resulted in a great loss of life regardless of precautions that may be taken. The movement was cautious and reluctant to take any route that could be deemed to be reckless. Years later in the grounds of the new democratic Parliament, one of our most senior leaders, Mac Maharaj, pointed at me and said to those he was addressing, that had they endorsed the angry path of ‘these chaps’ there would be no Cape Town left for the tourists today. With hindsight and the years of advice and training of the ANC, we can be proud of the wisdom and guidance of our leaders in those heady days. They groomed and developed us as responsible, thinking cadres.
Having already earned the wrath of the military police, I was briefly arrested by the SAP. Then my activism clashed with the security police, forcing me to flee in the early hours of a winter morning to exile in Botswana in 1978, where my family and I received political asylum. Initially we lived the lives of refugees living on a meagre UN allowance, collected after standing in long refugee queues every month. The ANC put us up in safe-houses and also provided some extra food. This went on for eighteen months and this is when I shared my revolutionary sabotage plan. But the liberation movement had other plans for me. Refugee life with an 18 month old toddler to care for in rural conditions without running water, electricity or ablution facilities and reliant on charity was not pleasant to say the least.
I was known as Patric de Goede at this time, also called comrade Pat, Oscar, Luis Emiliano, or by the nickname Zinto (Things – daai ding). As a member of the ANC, SACP and SACTU, I retrained as a lithographic printer and a communications operative while undergoing political training in the liberation movement, initially based in Botswana. My training in lithographic printing took place in the rural town of Serowe, under Danish and Surinamese instruction, at the Serowe Brigades Printing Press, Mmegi wa Dikgang. The 18 months in Botswana were rough. We, like thousands of other other young people, first faced the typical refugee experience of months of long queues, waiting for handouts and, filling in countless forms. The UNHCR provided the equivalent of R50 per month for a family of three. Without the additional support of the ANC one would have found it difficult to survive. To help make ends meet I also managed to get a gardening job with an expatriate family twice a week to earn another five rands. The Quaker and Mennonite missionaries also provided us with shoes, clothes and blankets. We moved to 12 different safe houses in five different areas. Our longest stay was in the rural town of Serowe.
Henry ‘Squire’ Makgothi, Pete Richer, Marius and Jeanette Schoon, provided my first formal political education outside of South Africa, with Bernard Molewa, Uncle Dan Thloome and Ray Alexander Simons following up from the SACP. Later I was sent to Serowe to join 12 other ANC cadres and 4 ZANU cadres on a 9 month training course. Thus began my first steep learning curve in the ANC. Most of the other ANC cadres were veterans of the Wankie campaign. They were called the Mgwenyas and we were called the Young Lions. Our existence in the frontline states was precarious.
The day after my birthday in March 1979, our premier camp in Angola, Nova Katenga was destroyed by an SAAF air attack. We had been set up in an isolated spot on the side of a hill just outside of Serowe and were quite jittery in the aftermath of the Nova Katenga attack. Our group was united in asking to be dispersed amongst the local population. Our life on the run in South Africa had been swapped for a life on the run in the frontline states. From July 1978 to June 1979, almost 17 000 people were convicted in terms of the various Internal Security Acts. Telephone tapping, stalking assassinations and cross-border raids became the order of the day. The entire region was gripped by low intensity war. In 1980 Zimbabwe threw off colonialism and the refugee camps vacated by ZANU and ZAPU were proposed as the new enforced homes for ANC cadres in Botswana. At this stage we were airlifted to Zambia.
In 1980 my family and I were sent to the ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. I was asked to set up a liberation printing press. For the first three years of exile we moved a total of seventeen times in different parts of Botswana and Lusaka. In Zambia I went to work setting up the ANC printing press at a place called Makeni about eight kilometres outside of Lusaka. Some years later this centre was jet-bombed. There were about eighteen of us who worked at the centre and about twelve who lived there permanently. President OR Tambo also had a private office, away from HQ, at the centre. The senior ANC officer of the centre at Makeni was Sisakele Sixgashe. We were constituted as the Department of Publicity and Information (DIP) in the President’s Office. To this day President Tambo remains my hero as the greatest South African to have lived.
On arrival in the middle of the rainy season at Makeni, I excitedly asked to be shown the press. I was taken to a partly renovated garage with no roof, windows or electricity and told that this is what I would build into a press. There also was no printing equipment, paper or supplies. Constantly warned of impending attacks we were equipped with grenades and small arms and I was given hasty basic training in the use of an AKM machine gun. We received weekly supplies of meat and pap – sometimes with a few vegetables. Each of us had a day-turn to cook for everyone. Once a month, we each received seven Kwacha as an allowance, and the women were given an additional sanitary allowance. We called this ‘arbeit’. Our lives were orientated around liberation movement work, cooking and guard duty. Building the printing press and doing the layout and design of ANC pamphlets and journals such as Mayibuye and Vow was my main preoccupation. I also did some broadcasting for Radio Freedom.
We lived a Spartan life and there was little by way of distraction. As the days went on, life became more difficult with a combination of food shortages and the need to vacate the centre at night due to warnings of impending attacks. Warnings of attacks, underlined by actual attacks such as that on Matola in Maputo, made us all very jumpy. Bringing up a child in these circumstances was also extremely trying. One was never able to give your child anything as you too were entirely dependent on the fortunes of the movement. Moving around at night after vacating premises with a child on your arm and some form of weapon in your hand was not easy. On one occasion my family and I were attacked under these circumstances and managed to fend off the attack. Equipment and supplies for the printing press were also not forthcoming. These were days where ones morale took a huge dive. The Apartheid regime seemed all powerful and our resistance did not seem to be making much headway. But we carried on regardless and in time the pendulum swung the other way.
Amongst my comrades at Makeni were Joel Netzhitenje known as Peter Mayibuye and Sankie Manyele then known as Rebecca Matlou. Today both serve in President Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet.
At one of our lowest moments OR Tambo called me into his office and spoke to me as a father would to a son. “How are you doing son? What problems are you having? How can I help?” This was the type of man that was our leader. South Africa has given birth to many great leaders which we celebrate - Nelson Mandela being the most renowned. But up there with Madiba, Oliver Tambo will always be the greatest for me. O R Tambo led the movement through many trials and tribulations and did so with a skill that few could have managed. In the process he took a battered movement onto the world stage and brought us through to go down in history as the most successful liberation movement of the twentieth century.
While in Lusaka, Oliver Tambo gave me the greatest gift in my life, when he asked Wolfie Kodesh to help us settle in at Makeni and provide guidance and mentorship. Wolfie carried out this role for the next 22 years until his death. He became a dear friend and father figure. There were others like Jack Simons, Uriah Mokeba, Captain Lerule and Ray Alexander, but only one dear old Wolfie. A true resistance man, who had grown up in my neck of the woods and understood District Six, Woodstock, Salt River and the Bokaap. He was a through and through socialist and anti-fascist who cut his political teeth during the second world war. He had been Nelson Mandela’s get-away driver and safe-house man. He was our logistics man in Lusaka and the ANC camps. He was a real mensch with whom I spent some of the most important moments of our history. He passed away at the age of 84 in 2002 having been decorated with three service medals, bronze, silver and gold, for over 50 years of service to the liberation movement. He was a patriot, a soldier, journalist, comrade, teacher and pal. He loved sport and everyone had to shut up and concentrate if there was soccer, rugby or cricket on TV. We also shared a love of the soapie, Isidingo. Life was simple and ‘cut and dried’. For Wolfie it was “Our guys” or “Our people”, and the “enemy”. No black, white, coloured, and Indian.
Wolfie helped me wrestle with my issues of identity expressed in a tug-o-war between my poor-white roots and my coloured roots. The message that he brought home to me was that we were a product of our experiences and not some kind of predestination. We needed to feel comfortable with what those experiences had made us. Identity was not related to pigmentation, labels or terms. Individuals could, in fact, construct their own identities regardless of attempts by society to create an identity paradigm based on pigmentation, caste, class or lineage. Identities that we create for ourselves can be drawn from nationality, ethnicity, religion, ideology, social class, economic wealth, community, gender, sexuality, mobility and a host of other things. Thus identity is something plural. At different times we make use of different identities by placing accent on one over the other. The Apartheid construct defied this plurality by focussing on race and ethnicity on the basis of which national characteristics were artificially created, forcing people into rigidly boxed identities. The tragedy is that many are now wedded to those imposed identities. Amongst Coloured people especially, even after ten years of the demise of Apartheid, there is an accentuated emphasis on colour and race in everyday discourse. Amongst some African people concepts of purity and chauvinistic “ethnic-pride” has also crept in to replace non-racial consciousness.
Wolfie was an unorthodox teacher who taught me to keep things simple while avoiding the simplistic and to reject jargon, blind anger, intolerance, grand-standing radicalism and other behaviour that brings the power of ones words into disrepute. He walked the talk and taught by way of example. He was not well disposed to sloganeering, banner waving, radical branding, making long boring speeches or projecting simplistic solutions to complexity. These left him feeling uncomfortable. He was a modest and humble person who embodied being a proud African and a proud socialist without shouting it loudly. In this there lay a kind of nobility. In those early days of our meeting I was a raw, hot-headed, angry young man who Wolfie patiently moulded over the years and I became a more whole person because of his intervention.
From Zambia the movement sent me to improve my education in the UK. During the course of my time in London I also travelled in the service of the ANC and the SACTU to Tanzania, Spain, Greece, Cyprus, France, Netherlands and USSR. After my period at the London College of Printing where I attained a Diploma in Lithographic Printing and Publishing I worked for a brief period for the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa and then was recalled to the full-time service of the ANC. At this time Maria and I were divorced. Maria and our three sons Dylan, Manuel and Vuyo left the UK for three years at this time for our ANC – SOMAFCO settlement at Morogoro in Tanzania. Fifteen months later after some bouts of malaria, Dylan returned to the UK to live with me.
South African agents had blown up our small ANC printing press located in the Penton Street ANC office in London. Remarkably the actual printing machine, although thrown through a wall, was repairable and was soon set to work again at new premises. A year later a new printing press was established at secret premises. Here I was to work for the next five years building up a well equipped press as part of a small team led by Gill Marcus, churning out millions of sheets of both our underground printed material and material for our increasing international campaign. At the same time we were training new printing and publishing personnel who had already done their basic training in MK. Instead of destroying the press, the regime had spurred us on by the bombing, to develop what was by far the most valuable and vital resistance tool in the ANC arsenal at the time.
It was here that the ANC logo was created. A call for designs was made to comrades across the ANC camps and settlements and the best of these was sent to us to process. None of the final few were usable on their own but each had elements of merit. A team made up of Gill Marcus, Patti MacDonald, Sello Moeti and I deliberated on merging designs. With this brief Patti MacDonald a highly talented comrade produced the final design which has withstood the test of time. Amongst some of my closest colleagues during this time were Mandla Maseko, Mafa Ngavela, Jabulani ‘Mzala’ Nuxmalo and Celeste Naidoo who I married. Part time volunteers drawn from the veterans also played a vital role in the press. Amongst these were Rika Hodgson, Ray Harmel, Winnie Dadoo and Dorothy Shanley.
The role that the printing press played in the liberation struggle should not be underestimated. The ANC’s success as a liberation movement and its diplomatic and solidarity work relied to a large degree on logistical support capacity within the movement such as that offered by the press. It was through our press that the ANC’s visibility within South Africa increased as well as its profile on the world stage. We were constantly producing pamphlets, stickers, posters, periodicals, international conference support literature and back up for international media campaigns. Statements of our leaders were in print within hours and when they travelled or addressed conferences, they were able to distribute our materials which provided support for lobbying. At home in South Africa, our work was in every township, factory, university and school. Visibility, communication and presence are nine-tenths of any battle. Our little collective, working flat out, was one of the best fighting units that the ANC had at its disposal.
Over 14 years every piece of printed material whether used in the underground or abroad originated in one of the printing presses which I played a key part in developing. While my principle role was as a communications operative, I also served in the diplomatic and solidarity fields throughout the UK and Mediterranean countries in particular. At the same time I worked for the South African Congress of Trade Unions representing it to the trade union movement throughout Europe as well as holding debriefing meetings with South African trade unionists brought out by European unions. While attending ANC branch meetings, working in the printing press and carrying out work for SACTU, I also regularly attended my SACP cell meetings where I learnt the strategic thinking skills which serve me well to this day. Some of the leading figures of the post Apartheid cabinet and government were fellow members of this cell; Aziz Pahad, Manny Brown, Stephanie Kemp, Gill Marcus, Norman Kaplan, Johnny Sacks, Norman Levy. My earlier cell in Lusaka included Jack Simons, Uriah Mokeba, Captain Lerule and Aunt Doreen.
There were many red-letter days and events over the course of these years. Too many to mention. Perhaps one of the most significant at a personal level was the assassination of Jeanette and Katryn Schoon on 28 July 1984. It hit deep and hard. Also the tragic death of Sello Moeti one of my colleagues at the press. There was hardly a week that went by without some tragic news, but work went on like clockwork. In addition to my technical duties I served on the editorial boards of Sechaba, Phakamani, Rixaka, Workers Unity and Mayibye at different times
After the Apartheid regime’s bankrupt attempt to establish a tri-cameral system of government based on race, the oppressed people rallied in defiance as at no time before. The United Democratic Front was established in August 1983 opening up yet another new phase in our struggle. Umkhonto we Sizwe attacks became more frequent. The trade union movement grew in leaps and bounds and mass demonstrations became the order of the day. Exiled and internal structures met regularly and all of us were involved in debriefings with internal cadres. By the late 1980s the frontline war in Angola had turned against the SADF. With their backs against the wall the regime became more and more vicious. But at the same time the ‘white power’ monolith began to fall apart. White South Africans who had previously either supported the regime or who had remained mute were now making pilgrimages to meet the ANC in exile for talks. White youth leaders, church leaders, business people, academics and politicians vied with each other to be seen as the most enlightened. Only a few years earlier the word ‘terrorists’ rolled easily of the tongues of many of these people when referring to the ANC. At the same time as events unfolded in South Africa, change was dramatically unfolding in Europe. Glastnost and perestroika had broken out in Eastern Europe and the cold war was thawing. Suddenly on 2 February 1990 the ANC, SACP and PAC were unbanned and on 11 February Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The path was prepared for our return from exile and the release of political prisoners. The countdown for democracy had began and at last we could also think about rebuilding our personal lives.
I returned to South Africa in October 1990, to face unemployment and the charity of comrades for food and shelter. While the leadership had returned to South Africa, many of us felt stuck in exile. We were working in posts as full-time ANC cadres and were seeing our jobs advertised in the Mail and Guardian. Our jobs were now at the new ANC HQ in Johannesburg and we could not even apply as we were still in exile. At this point I realised that everything that we knew as the ANC had changed forever. I applied for my family and I to return to South Africa and we were cleared by the ANC and told to report to the ANC office in Cape Town. When we did report to the ANC office we were received with blank stares, a simple welcome back and it is as if we were less than new recruits. The past twenty years of service seem to have counted for nothing. There was no one to introduce us and integrate us and our skills. There was also little in place to effectively assist returnees with repatriation. Trafalgar High School in District Six then took my son Dylan and over the next six years did wonders with very little resources to equip him to get an education despite the handicaps of his exile experience. Dylan entered standard six without having basic literacy and numeracy skills. Six months after my return I managed to find a job in the NGO sector where I spent the next 5 years working in communications and public affairs. At this time my wife Celeste Naidoo and I went our separate ways, yet remained good friends.
I got a job and worked for Grassroots Adult Education and Training Trust and rented a house in the Bokaap which I shared with fellow returnee, Philip Dexter. My two other sons returned to South Africa two years after my return. Here I started from the beginning again to make my political contribution at ANC branch level. The paradigm had shifted and we had all gone back to zero. I earned a modest salary and began to build a new life.
My work in Grassroots Adult Education and Training Trust was amongst the poorest of the poor in Cape Town’s informal settlement districts. We worked with communities living in shacks who were trying to educate their children in shack preschool structures. This work was a continuation of the struggle in a different form. It kept me focussed on the goals which I had set myself so many years before.
I began a process of learning new skills and improving my formal education in preparation for the democracy which we now knew would be ushered in as a culmination of our years of struggle. I thus took some time out to attend night classes and worked on a Diploma in Human Resource Management. To make ends meet I took on a second job serving as a consultant to the Levi-Strauss Foundation social responsibility program for two years in collaboration with one of my old comrades, Philip Balie. While still in the heady final days of resistance which included being arrested by police during protest action, occupations of buildings, and marches, our minds were engaged with the new way of living that would come with the transition and beyond. The old order desperately tried to maintain some kind of control but South Africa and indeed, the world, was hurtling down the tracks of change. What everyone had told us so many years before was now coming true. My personal life also went through dramatic changes as I tried to build some normality after so many years of upheaval. Two more unsuccessful marriages, first to Ursula Evans and then to Zainunissa Misbach, both wonderful people, was also part of my reintegration. Creating a normal life after years of upheaval was not easy. Trial and error dominated. At the heart of many of my most personal struggles were the unresolved questions that haunted me from my childhood days. I promised myself that these would be settled as soon as we had the democracy for which we had fought.
In the run up to the first democratic elections I was seconded from GAETT to the Independent Electoral Commission as Regional Director for Voter Education. This gave me a grandstand seat to view the culmination of a life of struggle. I felt elated and fulfilled to have played my part in the realisation of the overthrow of Apartheid and the establishment of a democracy. When the results of the election were announced, even although there was great disappointment about the ANC’s fortunes in the Western Cape, we raced down main road in cars with flags flying high. We had done it!
After the first democratic elections I took up the post of Director of Public Relations and Protocol at Parliament for five years. Reporting to the Speaker and Chairperson of the NCOP I earned the nickname amongst the media as the ‘Phantom of Parliament’s Opera’ as I scurried about the corridors of Parliament at all hours ensuring that every event was well managed. From this position I was a participant in a range of milestones involving the dismantling of Apartheid legislation. In this post I was, amongst other things, responsible for co-ordinating all ceremonials at Parliament and handling the protocols of official visits of Heads of State. Providing hospitality to presidents from Clinton to Castro, royalty and UN dignitaries such as Koffi Anan was all part of my charge at Parliament. But the post was also about recreating the image of Parliament and educating the public on how they can make Parliament work for them. It was about opening the doors of Parliament to the people and promoting an understanding of how the new democratic institutions worked. I often had to pinch myself and ask “have we really achieved what we set out to do?” I spent five years in this post and saw it as a celebration of everything that I had done with my life. It had taken seven years from my time of returning to get back to take my place alongside my former comrades. But it was a different ANC from that which I had known and even although I was working with the third highest office in the land, I still stood outside of the doors of the ANC in the Western Cape. I was not prepared to trade a life-time of proud service for the competitive political jockeying. I decided to continue to serve my country outside of the ring of professional politics.
While working at Parliament I married Cheryl Osborn also originally from District Six. I also studied at night over three years doing an MSc degree, and accomplished a distinction for my dissertation. My degree was a business degree in tourism development and management, and my dissertation looked at stumbling blocks faced by emerging black tourism entrepreneurs in Cape Town while also examining Cape Town’s heritage of slavery as a basis for a new cultural tourism niche product. I had come a long way from the standard-eight certificate attained at the trade school and the work in the sweatshop factory. The long resistance road had certainly delivered a transformation in my life. As I looked around me I also saw that a new and better life was slowly emerging for many around me. I say this without suggesting that there is not much more work required to bring about many more changes to improve the quality of life for all. There is just too much poverty and hopelessness all around me. We have changed South Africa dramatically in political terms but the social reality of the vast majority still cries out for fundamental transformation. Without this, political change will be as much of a luxurious commodity as any other manufactured commodity. “A bear in drag is a bear no less.” Political in-fighting over the spoils of public office that began to emerge at the turn of the 21st century is something our people just do not need and it taints the memory of our great heroes of the struggle. I can but hope that our ability as a people to produce quality leadership will once more come to the fore. We need fresh and astute leadership to take us forward to liberate our people from poverty, homelessness, joblessness and to build hope.
At this stage of my life I decided to try and discover the truth about my childhood, family and ancestry. This lead me to discover that my father was still alive and that I had eight other siblings scattered around the world in addition to my mother’s other four. I also discovered my true name and was able to track my full ancestry over the last 500 years. These discoveries rounded off my liberation struggle. Getting know my siblings was a new challenge. They like me had experienced much pain in life and unfortunately we could never really be able to retrieve the life-time that has past.
My mother was still alive, but the years of hard work, solitude and pain had taken its toll. Fact and fiction blurred easily for her as denial had become a way of life over the last fifty years. Faced with my discoveries she now acknowledged the truth. But when asked why she had hidden things and fabricated stories, she simply said “it was none of your business”. My mother was now a helpless old woman. A tragic figure, as was the man who I found to be my father. They died within two years of each other, almost to the day. I was able to lay the past to rest and to give my mother some care in the last weeks before she died. After her funeral I carried her ashes up the mountain where I laid her to rest at the Woodstock cave which looks down on all the areas of our struggles; Woodstock, Salt River, District Six and her last abode Observatory. My father remained a stranger in death as he had been in life.
In 2000 I decided to move on from Parliament to find a new use for my skills. I initially took up a post in the development office of the University of Cape Town and learnt a whole new set of skills while carrying out an international study of university development offices. I visited universities in Canada, USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland in the course of this study. As a result of what I had learnt in the process, I left UCT to collaborate with a former colleague in founding a new Institute.
In 2002 we jointly founded Inyathelo – the South African Institute for Advancement which went on to work across South Africa and across Africa, helping universities, colleges, museums, heritage sites and NPOs to wrestle with issues of sustainability and resource mobilisation while assisting them to establish development departments within their institutions. Within the Institute I had also established a cultural heritage centre celebrating our slave heritage, where we did presentations on the history of slavery and Creolisation in the Cape. My passionate struggle now, is to educate my fellow Capetonians and the youth in particular about the hidden history of our ancestors, the slaves, free blacks, the Quena and the unsung non-conformist settlers. There is a rich tapestry history waiting to be discovered. And in uncovering the illuminating stories of the past we can discover the ties that bind us and thus find the cement that will hold together the bricks of our future. If my life thus far had been to lay the foundations for a new liberated South Africa, my work now is dedicated to putting up a solid building on that foundation. I continue to work as a Managing director in a large NPO dedicated to serving the needs of children facing the challenge of HIV AIDS.
In celebrating ten years of democracy we see that the swords have been turned into ploughshares. In taking the resistance road, the poor uneducated boy from Woodstock and District Six rose above it all, and has taken quiet pride in participating in realising some of South Africa’s greatest moments. Though many aspects of my life were difficult in the extreme, in looking back I can only say that I have had a fortunate life and I would not have chosen a different path. Through taking the resistance road I have experienced a liberated life. When I look at a man like OR Tambo who rose to become a great leader from obscurity and poverty in the shadow of the Engeli mountains, I see that he started with a vision which became contagious and pulled in people from all walks of life like me. His example of reaching ‘beyond the Engeli mountains’ will go on to inspire many generations to come. We each have our own Engeli mountain that pins us in. I would encourage every young person to dream of life beyond that mountain and then take the road to the world beyond. But also always remember where you came from and assist others to realise their dreams. In so doing we connect with our own humanity in the circle of life.
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