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- June 20, 1988
- Vol. 29
- No. 24
Life in the Eye of the Storm
Four Portraits from South Africa Show the Fear, Despair—and Strange Hope—of a World Divided
Another of South Africa's significant dates is the July 18 birthday of imprisoned black leader Nelson Mandela, who will turn 70 next month and whose long-sought release was to be a rallying cry at last weekend's anti-apartheid concert in London. Then there is the second anniversary of the state of emergency—which was declared June 12, 1986, after nearly two years of boycotts, strikes and protests by South Africa's black majority.
The emergency restrictions, which severely limit press coverage, have made it increasingly difficult to get news of South Africa. A headline event—be it a killing, a bombing or an arrest—will still get through somehow, albeit in censored form. What has been lost is a sense of everyday life under apartheid—of how the climate of racial tension has affected the ability of South African blacks and whites to live, love, raise a family or pursue a career. PEOPLE sent correspondent Vivienne Walt back to her native South Africa to report on life behind the headlines. None of the people profiled in the following pages is a political activist. Yet like Regina Sefatsa (with daughter Masefatsa, left), who has spent more than three years and all her meager income trying to get her husband, Reginald, out of prison, they have been touched profoundly and permanently by apartheid and all that springs from it.
A FAMILY IN THE SHADOW OF A DEATH SENTENCE
The snapshot of Reginald Sefatsa standing next to his vendor's cart is now limp and dog-eared. In times of stress, says his wife, Regina, 28, "I just keep taking it out of my bag, putting it back, then taking it out again." The photo got particularly heavy wear during the third week of March. On Monday of that week, Regina was informed that her husband had been scheduled to hang on Friday along with four other men and one woman collectively known as the Sharpeville 6. By Wednesday, the six defendants had been measured and weighed so that the hangman could accurately gauge the drop that would kill them quickly.
That same day, when Regina arrived at Pretoria Central Prison, 70 miles from her home in the black township of Sharpeville, the warden handed over her husband's clothing and toilet articles. Then she was allowed to talk briefly with the condemned man through a glass partition in the prison visiting room.
"Don't cry," said Reginald. "You were always by my side. Now there's nothing we can do. Let's just accept it." Regina choked back tears. The next day, when she came to make her final goodbye, she told her husband, "Greet my ancestors. And don't forget me and the child."
Just six months before his arrest, Reginald Sefatsa had scraped together the cash to set up his own business selling fruit to commuters at the railroad station in a nearby white neighborhood. He was not known to be a political activist nor to belong to any organization banned by the white South African government. Essentially, his lawyers argue, he was sentenced to hang for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
On Sept. 3, 1984, shortly after black officials in Sefatsa's township had announced a rent hike, residents vented their outrage on Sharpeville's deputy mayor, Jacob Dlamini, by pelting his home with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Then the mob dragged Dlamini out of his house and set him on fire. Most residents of Sharpeville have paid no rent since that day.
The only evidence produced to link Sefatsa directly to this grisly crime was an allegation that he had at some point been in possession of Dlamini's gun, though he did not have it at the time of his arrest two months later. But the government, mindful that the Sharpeville uprising—which launched more than two years of violent clashes in black townships throughout South Africa—had been televised worldwide, was determined that Dlamini's death not go unpunished. So authorities rounded up Sefatsa and five other Sharpeville residents alleged to have been in the rampaging crowd and charged them with murder.
The case dragged on for two years and became an international cause célèbre. Sefatsa's lawyer, Prakash Diar, would eventually become so discouraged by the government's stubborn perseverance in what he considered a "flimsy case" that after eight years as a civil rights lawyer he has decided to close his practice and emigrate when the case is finally at an end. First, though, he is determined to pursue every avenue of appeal in the hope that international outrage will somehow bring the state to its senses.
Fortunately there is still time. On Thursday, March 17, just 15 hours before her husband's scheduled execution, Regina Sefatsa heard that the court had granted the defendants a temporary stay while it considered an application to reopen the trial. A few days earlier, President Reagan and other Western leaders had made a special plea to the South African government for humanitarian treatment of the six. That night, Sharpeville residents, who had just staged a general strike to protest the hangings, erupted in celebration. Amid the blare of honking horns, a singing, dancing crowd carried Regina Sefatsa and relatives of the condemned on their shoulders. "It was like a wedding," says Regina. "I lost my earring in the crush."
Yet her husband's sentence has not been commuted, and now her bleak vigil continues. She worries constantly, never knowing when the state might choose to make her a widow. "Even if he were given 20 years," she says, "I could wait, because I'd know he was coming back. But this sentence is terrible."
She and her daughter, Masefatsa, 3, live in a tiny wood-and-metal extension built on to her sister's house in Sharpeville; their only income is the $100 a month provided by a church charity. Masefatsa, who was born two weeks after Reginald's arrest, has seen her father only once, through a prison partition. Regina wonders how she would explain Reginald's death to the little girl, who may eventually know her father, or "Jaja," only as a friendly face in a photograph.
A MOTHER, ALMOST DRIVEN TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE
Returning from school to her family's small, sparsely furnished Krugersdorp home outside Johannesburg, 9-year-old Chantal van Zyl is in tears. She rushes to bury her head in the lap of her mother, Rosa, then explains that her teacher spanked her for not wearing the regulation school sweater. Quietly, Rosa, 27, tries to soothe the child. It has been many months since the van Zyls have had the money for things like school uniforms, and Rosa knows that the unrelenting poverty is difficult for the children to understand. "They come home from school and say, 'Ma, we're hungry,' " she says. "They can't believe there's nothing in the house."
The trouble began two years ago, when the children's father, Sampie, 38, lost his job. Last March the burden of the family's struggle to survive on Rosa's meager earnings as a nurse led her to plan a final solution. One afternoon, when Sampie was out looking for work, Rosa took a tablet of Valium, broke it into four pieces and gave one to each of her three children. The fourth piece she took herself. Then, when the children had dozed off, she loaded her husband's 9-mm pistol and pointed it at a sleeping child. "I wasn't scared," she recalls. "You don't feel anything at that moment. I thought I'd kill the kids first and then myself."
But just as Rosa was about to pull the trigger, her mother, Lassie du Toit—concerned because her daughter had not stopped in as she usually did after taking the children to school—knocked at the bolted front door. "Go away!" Rosa shouted. "This is my life and I can do what I like."
Alarmed, Lassie ran around to the back door, kicked it in and disarmed her daughter. Then she sat her down for a talk. "She said, 'What if you didn't kill them? What if you just put them in a wheelchair or spoiled their faces for life?' " Rosa recalls. "I started crying when I realized what I'd almost done."
Rosa's desperate act was shocking, but not without precedent. In recent years there has been an alarming rise in the number of murder-suicides among South Africa's poor whites—a macabre symptom of the fear and insecurity engendered by the country's faltering economy and soaring political tensions. In this supercharged climate, every personal hardship is heightened by a sense of national crisis.
Ten years ago, when the van Zyls were married, their future seemed secure. Sampie had steady work as a pump fitter at a local gold mine, and he and Rosa had all that they needed. Then, in 1986, Sampie, who had been drinking, crashed into three cars while riding his motorbike. Seriously injured, he lost his job. Medical expenses and liability for the damaged cars left the family $10,000 in debt.
Though Sampie no longer drinks, he has had difficulty finding another full-time job. Like many poor whites, he blames the government, which he believes is trying to placate South Africa's black majority. "My grandfather started in the railways as a train driver and went on pension when he was 75 years old," he says. "Seventy-five years old! That's how short of people they were. Now blacks are being trained for white people's jobs." Sampie recently switched allegiance from President Pieter Botha's National Party to the more hard-line Conservatives, who, among other policies, favor reserving skilled jobs for whites.
Alarmed by the easing of some segregation laws, Rosa and Sampie no longer go to the local movie theater, which has been opened to blacks. "I just can't imagine a black sitting next to me or in front of me," says Rosa. Yet she is trying to prepare her children for changing times. "I tell them, one of these days the blacks will be going to school with you, and they'll lay in the same hospitals we lay in," she says, "so it won't be any use to hate them."
Meanwhile, the van Zyls' finances are at last on the mend. Sampie was recently hired as plant foreman at a hydraulics plant, and Rosa dares to hope that the family will someday be rid of its debts. With his first paycheck, she is planning to buy school sweaters for the children.?
AN ARTIST, PUTTING THE PAIN TO WORDS AND MUSIC
The stage set re-creates a scene that Cape Town would like to forget. Against the unmistakable backdrop of Table Mountain, the neighborhood known as District Six lies in ruins, the tidy Victorian houses that were home to a community of "mixed-race" South Africans demolished by government bulldozers to make way for a new whites-only suburb. Downstage, Nines, the chief mobster of the district's dreaded Sexy Boys gang, lies dying of a bullet wound, his impeccable clothing soaked with blood. "I love this place," he says. "This is my home. How can they do this to us?" In the audience, mixed-race families weep, while the whites sitting next to them squirm uncomfortably in their seats.
District Six was declared white and slated for demolition in 1966. Two decades later, a musical about its destruction has become South Africa's longest-running show, packing audiences of all races into Cape Town's Baxter Theatre night after night. The brainchild of singer-songwriter David Kramer and his friend and collaborator Taliep Petersen—whose family home was one of those bulldozed—District Six's both unabashed pop entertainment and a provocative political statement. "I've seen whites come out crying hysterically," says Kramer. "They come up to me after the show and say, 'You have made me ashamed to be white.' That is what I wanted."
Yet Kramer, 36, is no doctrinaire white dissident. Born and raised in Worcester, an Afrikaner town in the mountains outside Cape Town, he expresses in his songs many of the conflicts felt by white South Africans. Combining Afrikaans idioms with African rhythms, he writes of racist paranoia, suburban ennui, white feelings of isolation and fear for the future. In one of his recent hits, Kramer sings, "Driver, Driver, Driver, I'm sure that we are lost. Tell me why they're burning down the bridges we've just crossed."
In the process of becoming a widely imitated cult hero in South Africa, Kramer has managed, at various times, to offend both conservatives and liberals. His 1981 hit album Bakgat was banned from the country's radio stations because it mixed English and Afrikaans and twice used the word "God" as an expletive. "They thought I was pulling the whole language down," he says. Yet when Kramer subsequently recorded an all-Afrikaans album, liberal critics accused him of pandering to the government. "I was [the liberal] darling for a while," says Kramer, "but they wanted me to sing songs that were politically explicit."
Instead, Kramer prefers to explore his own rural heritage, even bringing a kind of backhanded chic to South Africa's stereotype of the Afrikaner hick from the Boland—as the arid interior region of high country and low culture is called. Right now, his musical hero is Klasie Louw, a poor Afrikaner sheep farmer whom Kramer spotted playing a concertina on television. "He was howling like a jackal," says Kramer, who immediately flew up to remote Cape Province to meet him. "We had a hell of a jam session. He's like the Woody Guthrie of South Africa for me."
In 1977, after the bloodily suppressed Soweto uprising, Kramer, like many other young white South Africans, considered emigrating. With his girlfriend, Renaye, now his wife, he drove across the U.S. in a Volkswagen bus, looking for a place to settle. But after a brief stay in Raleigh, N.C., working as a textile designer, Kramer decided to go home. "I had an urgent need to write about things that were troubling me," he says, "and I knew I would have to be in South Africa to write about them."
Since then, Kramer's one platinum and 10 gold albums have brought him a satisfying mix of lofty stardom and homey comforts. He and Renaye live with their two daughters, Jesse, 8, and Amy, 5, in a charming whitewashed house above Cape Town. For now, the government has decided to tolerate District Six's irreverence—perhaps because so many government supporters have seen the show and found it entertaining. But four of the show's songs have been kept off radio and TV, including one in which the Sexy Boys' female groupies bump and grind to the words "The law, the law, signs on the benches, signs on the doors, what are all these laws for?"
"I still have that sense of freedom that I am able to say those things," says Kramer. But he worries that "eventually the whole machine will start to crack. The worst I fear is a chaotic scenario in which things as I know them will fall apart." Yet he can't just walk away. "This is my home," he explains. "This is what nurtures me. This is what I understand."
A MAN AND A WOMAN, IN LOVE AGAINST ALL ODDS
For many years Jerry Tsie's first love was the martial arts. He practiced for hours at the local gym and dreamed of training in the United States so that he could return to the black township outside the small mining town of Odendaalsrus as a certified teacher. Every few weeks Jerry would hop the bus to a photo shop on the white side of town to drop off pictures of himself and his friends in karate competitions. On every visit he would find himself warming to the young woman behind the counter. They exchanged pleasantries, a fleeting smile. Gradually Jerry realized that he had a new passion—for a pretty, freckle-faced young white woman named Annette Heunis.
On Valentine's Day 1987, Jerry, then 21, made his move. When he entered the shop that day, he handed Annette a printed card that showed a woman gazing into a crystal ball. "Just read it," he said. Inside were the words "My future is in your hands." And in case that message was too cryptic, he returned next week and told Annette right out: He was in love with her.
Annette's first reaction was one of confusion. Her father, Tiny, a bartender and staunch churchman, and his second wife were both exceedingly strict. Even Annette's romance with Klaas Odendaal, a perfectly suitable Anglican seminary student, had to be conducted on the sly because her stepmother had declared that she could not date until she was 23. A black suitor would be out of the question. What would you do, she asked her stepmother a couple of weeks after Jerry's declaration, if a black man came to the apartment? The answer was swift: "She said she would first shoot him dead," recalls Annette, then 19, "and afterward give me the biggest hiding of my life."
But Jerry and Annette were drawn to each other. They spent so much time chatting over the photo-shop counter that Annette's co-workers hung a mirror on the wall so they could keep an eye on the pair. After six months, Annette, who jogged in the evenings, changed her route to pass by the gold mine where Jerry worked as a security guard. Those stolen moments in the guardhouse were the lovers' first time alone. Finally, in September, Annette moved into an apartment and then into Jerry's family home in the black township.
Thrilled to have his palesa—or beloved flower in the Sotho language—with him at last, Jerry trumpeted the news to a black newspaper. Overnight, the pair were local celebrities—and Annette's parents knew at last of their relationship. "They were furious," recalls Annette. "After that article, black people came from all over the place just to look at us and say hello. They wanted to see us kiss."
Their life together was precarious and often terrifying. It is illegal for whites to live in black townships, and "every time a car pulled up outside the house," says Annette, "I thought it could be the police." She and Jerry were harassed by anonymous callers, and even a simple shopping trip became an emotional gauntlet. Strangers would stare; Annette's closest friend from high school cut her dead. That hurt "very, very deeply," she says. Taxi and bus drivers in the township are not licensed to transport whites, so Annette had to give up her job at the photo shop. Instead, she tended to domestic chores with Jerry's mother in the cramped little house, which is shared by 15 people, without electric lights or an indoor bathroom. "Everyone accepted me," she says. "They opened up their hearts." Still, it was a monotonous, painfully isolated life for a young woman who had hoped to study nursing.
Twice in that first year, Annette ran back to the comforts of family and friends. She missed her secure life, and even, on occasion, the loyal Klaas, who has sworn he will wait for her to regain her senses. Annette also hoped she might be able to convince her parents to accept Jerry, but they were unyielding. Finally, last January, after one last failed attempt at reconciliation, she crawled out her bedroom window as her parents slept and left home for good. She has spoken only briefly with her family since. "I could choose Jerry or I could choose my parents—I could not have both," says Annette, an only child whose natural mother died when she was a baby. "It was terrible, because I love my parents very much."
In February, hoping to escape at least the fear of arrest, Jerry quit his job at the mine and hired a taxi to drive himself and Annette the 200 miles to Bophuthatswana, a black homeland where mixed-race couples are allowed to live together. They are lodged temporarily with a minister's family, and Jerry occasionally takes a taxi into Johannesburg—50 miles away—to audition for parts in martial-arts movies. But the couple's resources are meager, and the cab fare is a source of friction between them. Jerry would still like to study in the U.S., but there is no money for airfare or tuition. Annette still hasn't learned much of the Tswana language spoken in the area. She feels depressed, lonely and overburdened with housework, often scolding Jerry for not helping out. "I've never seen an African man make tea for his woman," she says. The couple cannot marry until November, when Annette will turn 21, and together they wonder how they will ever manage to raise a family or make a living within the narrow and constricting boundaries of life under apartheid. Jerry knows how much his bride-to-be misses her family, and he worries about her. "Only the fittest survive this," he says.
—By Ron Arias and Montgomery Brower, with Vivienne Walt in South Africa
November 26, 2015
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