It’s 1986 and I have just been elected as the class representative of my standard six (Grade 8) class. Not sure what it all means, but I meander towards a meeting called by the president of the Student Representative Council (SRC). Here I am introduced to the rest of the class reps. We total about 40 representatives.
It’s much more political than I anticipate as we discuss the school boycotts in and around Mitchell’s Plain and the planned mass action in Cape Town the following day. A smaller group of us are given the task of developing detailed plans of how we will hijack a train at our local station and make our way to the city centre to participate in the protest action. I inquire about why people are protesting. The answer is “the non-delivery of textbooks in the township schools, comrade”.
I notice everyone is referring to one another as a comrade, not sure what it means. I’m not about to show anyone I’m stupid, so I fall in line and say, “thanks comrade”.
Just as I think the meeting is ending, another comrade asks about contingency plans for the eventual police attacks. Attacks, I think, what have I got myself into here?
The comrade next to me realises that I’m slightly alarmed. He whispers in my ear that usually when we hijack a train, the train driver communicates with the authorities and they instruct him to stop the train between stations in an open designated area, where the police shoot tear gas or nerve gas and attack us inside the train with dogs, sjamboks and batons.
What the heck, they shouldn’t call it the SRC, they should call it PMC (Paramilitary Council), I think.
The next day I’m on the train. You are responsible for your grade’s learners, I’m told. So, don’t screw up and keep an eye on all of them, comes the instruction. True as Bob, the train stops after about 30 minutes, in the middle of nowhere.
“This is it, guys,” comes the shout. What happens next is mind-boggling, to say the least. Most of the girl students start emptying their backpacks and I notice they are filled with lots of water bottles. Next, some students take rags out of their bags and start using the water bottles to wet them. Others take out bandanas.
I inquire about what is going on. Someone tells me it’s to counter the tear gas. I’m handed one and instructed to wrap it around my nose and mouth. The more senior comrades take out Molotov cocktails and when I inquire as to what those are, I get an indignant, “petrol bombs”.
Jesus, this just keeps on getting better and better, we now use bombs. I ask again. This time I’m simply pushed aside as most comrades move towards the windows. We can now clearly see how the police are advancing. There must be roughly 200 of them. The next thing we hear a voice over a loudhailer, instructing us to get off the train and disperse. “You have five minutes,” says the voice. Over the years I have come to realise that their five minutes and my understanding of five minutes are vastly different because hardly a minute later, all hell breaks out.
Tear gas, dogs, petrol bombs and lots of screaming. The train starts moving again, making its way towards Cape Town. The aftermath is horrific, blood everywhere. Some of my learners look at me with faces that say, “What am I doing here”?
This was to be one of the hundreds of such engagements over the next five years of my high school life.
In June of the same year (1986) as we contend with the State of Emergency in Mitchell’s Plain and many other affected areas in the Western Cape, the SRC informs us that it’s that time of the year again, when we decide on who from the SRC executive will attend the ERIP (Education Resource & Information Project) Winter School at the University of the Western Cape. I can sense that most are eager to be elected. In the end, I am one of the lucky ones.
The winter school comprises not only the 14 high schools in Mitchells Plain, but all the high schools in the Cape Peninsula, meaning there are about 1,000 students in attendance. And for the next two weeks, your education begins.
No one says anything about political education, though. The week starts with how to conduct a meeting, the rules governing meetings, how to raise your hand if you want to ask a question and how to object to someone saying something you perhaps do not agree with. At this school, we are also all comrades.
This is also the first time I am introduced to the African National Congress and what the organisation stands for. First lesson, what does the logo of the ANC mean? A flag with the colours, black, green and gold. A spear and shield next to the flag and finally, the wheel with its four spokes.
The trainer begins. Black refers to the black majority of South Africans, meaning, black Africans, black coloureds and black Indians. This is the first time anyone refers to me as black. This is liberating, to say the least.
Next, he says, green refers to the fertile land in South Africa, our evergreen velds in the Kalahari and the Klein Karoo. Gold refers to the mineral wealth of South Africa, platinum, diamonds and of course, gold. These are the essential three elements required for us as the black majority to attain our freedom, he continues, we the people, our land and our mineral wealth.
He then proceeds to the spear and shield. We are all hanging on his every word. The spear refers to first the early wars of resistance to colonial rule and second, the armed struggle through the people’s liberation army, uMkhonto weSizwe (The Spear of the Nation), while the shield refers to us as a people having the right to defend ourselves against any aggression from the racist apartheid state.
Finally, he concludes with the wheel. Each spoke in the wheel refers to a very important alliance partner: The Transvaal Indian Congress, the Coloured People’s Congress, the White Independent Democrats and the African Native Congress. Together in a partnership, they became the Congress Alliance.
The birth of the ANC, we are told was as a direct result of the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Hence the founding fathers met in Bloemfontein and christened the African National Congress in 1912. The rest, as they say, is history and before anyone says yes, let’s look at the ANC now.
Over the past 25 years, the ANC government has made sure that we have five successive free and fair general elections, the hallmark of any mature democracy. It has christened the first democratic Parliament, where the world-class South African Constitution was adopted and signed into law. Yes, in that chapel of democracy in Cape Town, where a Bill of Rights was also signed into law. A democracy where opposition parties are free to function and fulfil its erstwhile tasks, a free media and all general basic rights assured. An independent judiciary. Where gay and lesbians, in fact, all sexual orientations, are not only guaranteed rights in law, but any and all persons caught violating such laws are dealt with harshly, unlike in other parts of the world.
This is an ANC that has recognised, in the absence of meaningful jobs, to restore our people’s dignity, to roll out the most comprehensive social security network for the poorest of the poor in our society. Where primary health care is free.
Is there crime? Yes. Do we have an ailing economy? Yes. Is there load shedding? Yes. Do we have a world-class banking and financial system? Yes. Have we managed over the years to build up a handsome foreign reserve? Yes. Do we still stop at red traffic lights? Yes.
The ANC might have lost its way over the past nine years, but we have managed to capture it again. The new dawn is indeed upon us. Thuma Mina!
We have our challenges — no South African is oblivious to this, but we have come a long way since the dark days of petrol bombs, sabotage, explosions and death squads.
So, for me the question is not should I vote ANC, but after I have voted ANC come 8 May 2019, what is it that I can do to further participate in this amazing transformation project in South Africa? In other words, how can we build South Africa together?
- Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular.
OPINION: Oscar Van Heerden