It was June 1990 and the release of Nelson Mandela in February had sounded a long-awaited clarion call to action.The people of the east Boland towns took to the street, registering their discontent through marches, consumer boycotts andgeneral acts of civil disobedience.
The revolution arrived in Ashton in the cold of winter.
The canning factories provided work for only a few. The rest of the community survived on mama’s pension, disability grants and foster care allowances.
On the farms, the workers bought on the book at the farm shop run by the nooi. The earnings of the first few months of the spring and summer were used to settle the accumulated debt of winter. The well-intentioned commitment of our dorp-based congregations to provide food parcels containing only the basics had to be abandoned after the farmer threatened the recipients with eviction.
Revolution marches on an empty stomach and the memory of contempt.
As Chiara and I drove home, we passed the burnt-out tyres from the previous night’s barricade. A group of policemen in riot-control gear scowled at me as I neared the spot where they stood outside the community hall.
Chiara had been singing since she had kiss-greeted me outside the gates of the crèche. Now, as we drew parallel to the gathering of cops, her voice increased in volume. No, it was not a revolutionary song. That would come later in 1993 when she and her siblings, Andile and Khanyisa, would burst into a strident, toyi-toyi paced chants whenever they saw policemen.
On this day, her song was an unsentimental idiom of the rural proletariat sung to a simple tune of the kindergarten: “Sussie skud haar tette en Boetie lag soe lekker.” My own laughter burst out in a happy roar. The cops, reasonably assuming that I was mocking them, glared at me. My first-born, rubbing salt into an opening wound, shouted, “Naughty policemen!”
Retribution came swiftly a week later. Local amenities were still reserved for the exclusive use of whites, so the opening up of libraries and municipal swimming pools topped the list of grievances.
A crowd numbering about 200 had assembled in front of the town’s municipal offices. Some had entered the boardroom and demanded to see the town clerk. The latter dutifully arrived, backed up by the local uniformed and shot-gun toting dieners.
The flames of revolution are sometimes easily doused. When asked to leave the boardroom or face arrest, the keepers of the barricades retreated. Tear-gas canisters and a volley of rubber bullets drove the militants further off site. The remnants of the once-surging-with-zeal crowd were three young women, representative of Zolani and Ou Kamp. I had been remonstrating with the town clerk and, not being much of a runner, found myself numbered among the faithful.
We formed a small circle and sat down on the ground next to the fish pond. The hyacinths and water lilies seemed to defy the moment.
I feared what was to come. I had once been trapped along with others in a police van parked in the backyard of Wynberg Court. We had refused to stop singing the freedom songs that had filled the van all the way from Pollsmoor Prison. A constable had squirted tear gas into the van. We could not breathe. The Methodist bishop, Abel Hendricks, had an intense asthma attack.
This time, the women seated on either side and in front of me, calmed and focused me.
A tear-gas canister was placed at my feet. I was wearing red socks. I came to as I was being dragged to a police van. I heard the bemused voice of the colonel who gripped my right wrist: “This chap is rather heavy.” Okay, I understate. He spoke in Afrikaans and included the word “pig”.
* The Very Rev Michael Weeder is the Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.