As part of the Cape Times’ special series on 20 years of democracy, Leila Samodien spoke to former activist Brian Mphahlele about reconciliation.
Cape Town - It was a chance encounter in the 1980s at Garlicks, a department store in the city centre.
Brian Mphahlele looked at the man shopping nonchalantly with his wife and daughter. He froze. He looked the man straight in his eye.
“I wanted him to say something,” says 59-year-old Mphahlele. “Anything.”
But the man carried on shopping.
He ignored Mphahlele.
The last time Mphahlele had seen the man was many years earlier – when he had forced him to lap up his own urine from a carpeted floor. Mphahlele was involved in the struggle against apartheid. The man was a policeman – one of several people who tortured Mphahlele to extract information from him. He remembers him only as “Coetzee”.
Mphahlele believes Coetzee didn’t acknowledge him because he pretended not to know him to avoid a scene, or because Coetzee had tortured so many people that he couldn’t remember all the faces.
This was the closest Mphahlele came to confronting the man who had tried to get him to talk.
If Mphahlele had talked, he would have begun his story on March 9, 1973 when Steve Biko spoke at the civic hall in Langa.
Mphahlele was 17 and, at the time, knew nothing of the inferior Bantu Education system.
Biko’s talk had such an impact on him, he says, that he decided to drop out of school.
He attempted to influence his peers but found it difficult.
He believed there was no point in getting an education that would count for nothing and get him nowhere.
“I felt inferior, not just my education, but as a person because education is what makes you a better person.”
After he dropped out, he lazed around.
It wasn’t until after the Soweto uprising in mid-1976 that Mphahlele became politically active and got involved with the struggle in earnest. He was about 20 years old.
The uprising spread to townships in Cape Town, including Langa, by August, 1976. He and his comrades used fire, petrol bombs and dynamite to destroy government establishments in Langa.
Mphahlele’s life, however, took a dire turn in the early hours of January 10, 1977.
He and his family were sleeping when they were wakened by knocking – as if with a rifle butt – at the front door at about 3am. Then there were more knocks, this time at the back door.
Mphahlele’s brother opened at the front.
Their house was suddenly full of soldiers and security police.
“They said they’re looking for ‘Bangladesh’. That was and still is my nickname,” he says.
He was hauled from his mother’s house by the scruff of his neck. Outside, a convoy of cops was waiting.
“They put a flashlight on my face and a person who I couldn’t see said: ‘Yes, that is him’,” recalls Mphahlele.
He never got to find out who the person was, but he is sure it was one of his comrades who betrayed him because he could no longer bear the torture.
Mphahlele was transported in the back of a truck with several other activists to Caledon Square police station. He knew torture awaited him and all he could think of was not to testify against any of his own.
Once there, he sat in a corridor and waited for an hour. They were called in turns.
When his name was eventually called out, Mphahlele was taken into an interrogation room and grilled by four policemen, three white men – one of them Coetzee – and a black man.
“I was asked a lot of questions: ‘Who is behind all this? Who burnt this or that?’”
His answers – “I don’t know” or “I wasn’t there” – didn’t satisfy them.
He was forced to take his clothes off, then blindfolded.
The policemen put him in an office chair, handcuffing him to the armrests.
He couldn’t see but he could feel someone put electrical wires around his fingers.
“I was electrocuted,” he says, his voice and expression matter of fact.
“I’m not ashamed to say that during the electrocution, I wet myself.”
It was then that the blindfold was removed and Coetzee demanded Mphahlele kneel down and lick the wet carpet.
He still remembers Coetzee’s words: “Kyk hoe nat jy die plek gemaak het met jou pis. Jy sal dit droog maak met jou mond. (Look how you wet this place with your (urine). You will dry it with your mouth).”
He got down on his knees. Someone kicked him then – a boot in the face, loosening a few of his teeth.
What happened next still baffles Mphahlele. He was put in a tiny room, just about big enough for him to fit into.
“On the wall in front of me, there were little multi-coloured globes. They left me in there and a minute later, they took me out… To this day, I don’t know what they were trying to do.”
Mphahlele was given his clothes and taken to the cells where, for the next few days, he got regular beatings. They would ask the same questions and he would give the same answers.
After six days at Caledon Square, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and locked up in solitary confinement.
“The silence was deafening… after some time, you end up talking to yourself.”
It was a year before his case went to court, he says. His trial ran for two weeks in Malmesbury. He got five years in jail with no hope of parole or a reduced sentence.
For a couple of years, Mphahlele carried out his sentence at Allendale Prison, digging out tree trunks in a vast field, before being transferred to Robben Island.
“We were in F-section, far away from the leaders, such as your Sisulus, Mandelas and Kathradas.”
Mphahlele was released on July 12, 1982 and, he says, he continued where he left off.
“I was never caught again because I was careful,” he says.
Mphahlele also found work; though he never kept a job for any length of time.
To get one job at a warehouse, he told a lie – a business venture gone sour – to explain the five-year gap in his life.
He left the job because, after the workers were told the company had made hundreds of millions of rand in profits for the year, their hard work was rewarded with a packet of biscuits.
Mphahlele hoped he would finally get justice when he made a statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1996 soon after it was established. He also went for trauma counselling.
But Mphahlele would never get to testify or confront his torturers before the TRC. He was told the commission “ran out of time and money” in the Western Cape because it had more than 2 000 cases to handle in this province alone.
He received a few thousand rand in reparation but doesn’t believe this has in any way aided reconciliation.
“I can’t reconcile with my perpetrators. I cannot,” he says firmly, shaking his head. “They have ruined my life.”
Mphahlele, who is now the Cape Town secretary at the Khulumani Support Group, described the TRC as “a bloody big joke”, saying it avoided the use of punishment for those who committed apartheid atrocities.
Then when the TRC closed its doors, he says, thousands of victims were left out in the cold because they weren’t included in the process.
“If you count how many perpetrators came forward and how many are languishing behind bars, it’s a handful,” he says.
“The majority of them are living such happy lives compared to those who risked their lives for democracy. We’re still living below the breadline in this so-called democracy.”
Mphahlele now lives in a room in someone else’s house. He applied for a house in 1997 but nothing has materialised. He still receives counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder.
This, he believes, is not the life he deserves.
* This story is part of the Cape Times’ six-part special series on 20 years of democracy. On Friday the newspaper will look at what has happened to the members of the country’s first democratically elected government.