Why This Book
Write down all that you see of present happenings – Rev. 1:19
Nine months after my arrival in South Africa, John Knoetze, Chief Director of the Sebokeng Development Board, informed me as we sat in his plush second floor office: “You don’t tell us what to do in our country and we won’t tell you what to do in your country” – a reference to the troubles in Northern Ireland. It was on 6 November 1970 that this memorable counsel was delivered with calm, thin-lipped deliberation – more the thoughts of a man than an administrator, I felt – and it was offered in the wake of the deportation of Father Peter Shanahan, my predecessor in Evaton township.
Not many years later, Knoetze received favourable government recognition as a thorough, efficient administrator in the black areas south of Johannesburg.
He had effectively “pacified” the townships after the Sharpeville killings in 1960 by overseeing the construction of Sebokeng during the 70s. This township was seen as a model of black housing development, containment and, crucially, contentment.
Thus, understandably, the cumbersome relocation of communities to Sebokeng tended to have a palliative effect on the political aspirations of these communities. But by the early 80s the young people of the new Sebokeng and neighbouring townships were resurrecting old political questions. And there were no political agony aunts to offer solutions. The uprising of Soweto in 1976 and the Black Consciousness Movement were for them the Good News of change. In late 1984, the townships of Bophelong, Boipatong, Sharpeville, Sebokeng and Evaton imploded, and exploded, with far-reaching consequences for South Africa. The country’s apartheid structure began to shudder at its foundations, a shuddering and faltering that led to its demise in a smoke-filled shower of historical debris.
From my perspective as a white township dweller, the sights and sounds of this period were awesome. At some moment one early township morning, while sitting in a silent sunlit church, it flashed across my mind that this was the stuff of history. And it struck me that many court cases would follow, so it was important that records be kept. I began to write down what I saw and heard. It started as notes on scraps of paper, which graduated to diaries, journals and despatches. I hid them as they accumulated – here and abroad. It was the sensible thing to do.
Years later, by the time of South Africa’s first free elections, publishers were rushing out books in increasing numbers on recent apartheid history. Trawling the bookstores for accurate information on the events that I had witnessed in the Vaal Triangle led me to conclude that there was nothing of value or depth available. And yet it was in the streets, the homes, and churches of the Vaal Triangle where arguably the final solution to the scourge of apartheid was hammered into place.
I had stashed away my notes, reminiscences and diaries, and now I began to collect and organise them. The more I read over what I had written in the heat of the upheaval, the more I was amazed at what had happened. I had been privy to the making of a modern-day uprising. And a chance meeting with Father Sean O’Leary (of the Peace and Justice desk of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference) prodded me to explore the possibility of publishing.
What had happened was unique in national history. As the world turned its attention to the uprising, church ministers were on the spot, monitoring how the international and local media, the South African government and its opponents were reporting and interpreting events in our neighbourhoods. The situation strongly invited a response. We knew that it was imperative to create channels whereby news, untainted by the powerful apartheid media apparatus, could be spread to the world outside. The churches were determined that apartheid would not win the media war in the ghetto townships.
Since then I have often wondered why this life-changing experience seemed to awaken subconscious memories – impressions – of the subjugation of Ireland in centuries past. Perhaps it was the recalling of the “enlightening” remark of a British lord in the last century – that the Irish and the Hottentots were barbarians, uncivilised and incapable of government – that struck a chord, triggered by local events and the social attitudes of so many white people to the dispossessed of South Africa.
My personal experience of forced evictions during the non-violent rent and service boycotts of the 80s among Vaal Triangle residents seemed to trigger a long dormant consciousness of arbitrary and painful Irish turn-of-the-century eviction scenes. Indeed the word “boycott” (after the hated Captain Boycott) was coined in Ireland at that time. Irish peasants were the first to “boycott” their political masters as a method of resistance.
The Sharpeville massacre of 1960 both shocked and inspired as it resounded through most of South Africa. In 1976, the Soweto uprising both shocked and again inspired as it spread through most of urban South Africa. The 1984 Vaal uprising, however, was a volcano waiting to explode. Its effects were destined to seep into every city, town, township and dorpie of the land, culminating eventually in a new South Africa.
At a post-apartheid thanksgiving function at Mmabatho stadium in November 1996, distinguished human rights advocate George Bizos said to me: “The Vaal Triangle is where the liberation revolution began in earnest.” If so, I thought, there must be a story there.
Apart from Johannes Rantete’s important initiative The Third of September1 and Prakash Diar’s historical The Sharpeville Six2, nothing of note has been written about the events of 3 September 1984, or indeed about the subsequent turmoil in the Vaal Triangle. The following pages are an inconclusive contribution to the yet untold story of Bophelong, Boipatong, Evaton, Sebokeng, and Sharpeville in the 1980s.
I don’t pretend that I have written an unbiased history of that period and these places. I would be happy if this book spurs others to delve more thoroughly into the events of those extraordinary times. As Thami ka Plaatjie, secretary-general of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), told me – as long as the stories of hunting are told by the hunter, the real stories of the hunted will never be told.
I have tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to avoid the emotional neediness of “the self importance of being with the damaged”. It is, I’m afraid, the occupational hazard of those who choose to be carers and therapists in this wounded world.
The Vaal Triangle was part of the industrial heartland of South Africa. Five black townships – Sebokeng, Sharpeville, Boipatong, Evaton and Bophelong – housed the workers that made this possible.
These townships kept the factories going so that, bathed in horrific pollution, Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging became the most prosperous cities in Gauteng if not in the country. Sebokeng with half a million people, was the largest town – let alone township – in the area, Evaton established 100 years ago was next with up to a quarter of a million residents.
The people of these townships were also a close-knit community bonded by decades of feigned Submission to white law and order.
In the early 80s the Vaal Triangle, with its booming factories and settled populations might have seemed the last place for black resistance to grow into fierce anti government conflict. But the first shots in the final phase of the country’s struggle for freedom were fired there – by the police.
This area has intruded on national consciousness in different but powerful ways.
Sharpeville survived the infamous massacre of 1960, which saw 69 people killed in police gunfire. After that it became a household name. And one evening in the 80s Bophelong rang out with the sound of police fire which, as if on cue, rang in an uprising the very next morning when the residents of Evaton and Sebokeng marched on the Vaal Triangle centre of apartheid administration at Sebokeng. In 1992, a massacre at Boipatong stalled the delicate negotiations for a new South Africa for at least six months.
The treaty of nearby Vereeniging signed in 1902 brought peace between the Boers and the British. The indigenous peoples were excluded from these deliberations. It was appropriate then that the new constitution uniting the peoples of the country was signed into law in Sharpeville in 2002 before a large gathering of township people.