John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the US, was assassinated on November 22, 1963 as he drove in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas.
They would even tell the exact time it happened - 12.30pm. Those born in the new millennia have replaced the question with: Where were you on 9/11?
On that Tuesday morning of September 11, 2001, a series of attacks were unleashed on the US by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda as two hijacked planes were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York.
It is a day engraved in the memory of the American people who lived through it.
The South African equivalent is February 11, 1990 when, after 27 years in prison, mostly on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was released.
Some people would tell you what was on the plate of food they left untouched as they were glued to the television screen, watching as the iconic Mandela walked hand-in-hand with his then-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela out of the Victor Verster Prison (now the Drakenstein Correctional Centre) a free man.
Three years later, on April 10, 1993, former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) commander and general secretary of the SA Communist Party, Chris Hani, was killed in the driveway of his Dawn Park, Ekurhuleni home by hired hand, Polish immigrant Janusz Walus.
Pictures of a weeping Tokyo Sexwale are etched in the collective psyche of the nation.
Chris Hani’s daughter, Lindiwe, then only 12, has a book out titled Being Chris Hani’s Daughter, which she co-wrote with Melinda Ferguson. In the book, which was launched in Rosebank on Thursday, she refers to these examples of the iconic happenstances, her father’s death included.
What were you doing when Chris Hani was assassinated became the new refrain, she writes. A few people quizzed remember the day. ANC veteran Essop Pahad says of the day, 24 years ago: “I was at the Kruger National Park with my wife. When we got back from the drive, we switched on the TV and got the tragic news of Chris’s shooting.
“We immediately left to come back to Johannesburg. And that was the last time I was ever at the KNP.”
The SACP was vocal against Clive Derby-Lewis and Walus being granted parole. Derby-Lewis, who died in November last year, was instrumental in arming Walus for the assignment to kill Hani.
SACP spokesman Alex Mashilo remembers where he was: “I was in the small village of Romogwerane, outside the small town of Groblersdal.
The news broke through the radio and sounded like an invitation to war.
“As a young militant, I became very angry when our movement did not accept the invitation but instead called for calm. I strongly believed that we had to go to war and fight. I only appreciated later, and after a long time of anger, how devastating that would have been.
“The event was life-changing. There was a Before and After the assassination. Tributes became political education. Personally, that was when I started learning more about communism.
“I then chose to follow Hani’s philosophy and steadily developed in student leadership to (become) a Marxist-Leninist activist.
This took a long time but it became firmly entrenched. Hani was a hero.”
He would spend a lot of his urban life articulating the SACP view of letting the killer and his handler rot in jail. After numerous bids for parole, Walus, now 63, was finally granted his wish.
Lindiwe Hani writes in the book about meeting her father’s killers.
Another decorated MK man, a former commander of the Natal Regional Command and a member of the SACP, Ronnie Kasrils, knows too well where he was on the day his fellow communist was mowed down by a hail of bullets.
Red Ronnie, as he is known affectionately, recalls: “I was playing football at a park near my home when my wife appeared, waving her arms and calling me. But the ball was passed to me and I ignored her.
“Suddenly she was on the pitch and I thought she was crazy. ‘Chris has been shot’, she cried. Pallo (Jordan) had phoned with this dreadful news.
“She didn’t know if he was dead. She had come by car and we drove straight across Joburg to the Hani home - me in my football gear - to join the comrades keeping vigil there. What a dreadful day.”
Former political activist Willie Hofmeyr, widely known for his role as head of the Asset Forfeiture Unit, has a story of memory to tell too.
“I’d just left for my first break from the most intensive and exhaustive work in my life, working 18-hour days, seven days a week for months on end trying to rebuild the ANC in South Africa as deputy secretary of the ANC Western Cape.”
He was also co-ordinating input from the province into the constitution-making process that was deadlocked at the time, he says.
“For Easter, my partner and I rented a cottage in a vineyard two hours’ drive from Cape Town.
“We took a radio with us as I was a news junkie and always worried that the world may end and I would not know.
We only listened to the news on the Saturday morning and heard the terrible news - the world as we knew it had indeed ended.
“We rushed back to Cape Town in some of the heaviest rain I had ever driven in.
It was as though the heavens were crying with us.
“Cape Town was exploding with rage on the streets - we battled to keep some control, rushing from one hotspot to the other.
“Mandela’s world-changing address to the nation in which he praised the white woman who helped to identify the killers brought down the tension but we teetered on the edge of the precipice for weeks - until the election date was finally fixed.”
The Sunday Independent