June 16, 1976 – I am 10 years old. I have a copy of Trompie en die Boksombende and a glass of guava juice in my hands. I flop myself on the bed and continue reading the Afrikaans novel. It is beautiful. I finish it.
I stride into the kitchen looking for mom, ready to share with her the delightful narrative of the Afrikaans novel. I find her there, but mom looks sad and morose, so I decide to take a pause on sharing with her my Trompie delight. So, I ask her why she looks so sad.
Then she tells me that she was worried about my brother and sister, Douglas and Nomonde, at high school. So I ask why she was worried and I explain that as far as I was concerned, high school is a cool place and me, one day, I was also gonna go to high school.
We lived in Victoria West, you see. So, after passing Standard 6, Xhosa children had to leave town and go to a place with a high school. My brother and sister went to a school called Themba Labantu (People’s Hope) in a township called Zwelitsha (a new world) near King Williamstown in the Eastern Cape.
Then, mom tells me, that she heard from Bantu Radio news that pupils at high schools right across the country were protesting against Afrikaans, and the police were shooting them. So I asked, “shooting them dead with guns like in the movies?”. She said yes. I decided to shelve my Trompie narrative because I did not feel okay to narrate a story about a white Afrikaner boy at that time.
Weeks later, Nomonde arrived in Victoria West and told us that she left Douglas in detention in King Williamstown. She said they were protesting against the government forcing them to study everything in Afrikaans. After listening to my sister’s narrative, I felt guilty about having read Trompie en die Boksombende on June 16. Worse, when my brother Douglas arrived from the Eastern Cape, weeks later, with a swollen eye and various injuries from his detention, I decided not to tell anyone about my Trompie stories. My brother abandoned high school and ended up working for an earth-moving company to take the rest of us through school and to university. I went to Wits University in 1983, where I studied law.
June 15, 1986, I am 20 years old. Unemployed at Lwandle Hostel near Strand and Somerset West. At Randile’s place, a shebeen in room 86, I found Ngxubevange and Vido sitting with the late Thozi, who was having a rather wondrous lone narrative on freedom fighting and guava juice. I decided not to stop him. Frankly speaking, Thozi was not really an activist. His brother Silindile was.
He was with me in the executive committee of the then Lwandle Youth Congress. I was secretary of the organisation. But Thozi captured our attention by repeatedly mentioning that the following day people would learn to respect a guava juice. I asked what a guava juice was, only to discover that I was not the only one ignorant. Thozi promised that he would show us, and bought some more whisky.
Later, he led us to the bushes. “Wait here”, he commanded as he disappeared behind some shrubs. We waited until we heard him calling us to come. Holding a petrol bomb, he shouted, “This is a guava juice”.
The following day in Lwandle hostel we had a mass gathering that reminded us of June 16, 1976. After the mass meeting, we left the hall and went our ways. Hours later the police arrived in hippos and private cars. I saw them approaching and I disappeared into a public toilet. But they waited for me. And when I came out, I was detained under the emergency regulations.
I was initially held at the Strand police station, then Somerset West. Later, in an agonising journey, they drove me through the Boland and I could recognise the Paarl landscape. I was scared, but told myself, “I am not going to show my captors”. I wondered where they were taking me, but resolved not to ask and show my fear.
Entering the Paarl landscape in the company of apartheid security cops is not really fun! Between me and you, I did not enjoy that trip in 1986. Mind, different from my initial detention, this was a solitary ride with two security cops smugly reminding me that “you are in deep s***”. As if I needed reminding!
After some endless time we entered Victor Verster Maximum Prison. I remember that this was where Mandela was brought later. Why were they bringing me here? I asked myself. The geography of Victor Verster is, in my opinion, not suitable for a maximum prison. I know I am not the only one who thinks so. But then, hey they tried the same with Robben Island.
Is it worth thinking that Nelson Mandela was held at both these institutions? With all humility, ladies and gentlemen, I am not boasting – and I hated it then, but let me humbly confess that I never thought I would feel like this; there is something inside me about having been in the same prison where Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was.
At Victor Verster I started writing poetry. When I had finished a poem, I memorised it and at night I recited it through the window. After memorising it I flushed the paper in the toilet, thanking the Bantu education moments that taught me to memorise guys like Alfred Lord Tennyson. Later, when I was transferred to Macassar police station, on a hunger strike, I continued writing and reciting through my cell window. Now, mind, at Macassar there were not only political prisoners. While on hunger strike, the normal prisoners there (drunks, thieves, assaulters and more) said they liked my words.
I was amazed! My first poem was Guava Juice, obviously inspired by Thozi at Lwandle Hostel. Okay, there was also Hell Protection, which was a narrative on the jail experience and my solo cell moments. Later at UWC I was again reminded that poetry was not as boring as Bantu education tried to tell me. I have now travelled the whole world because of poetry. Honestly. Check my passports.
I don’t feel like boasting, but it is difficult not to remember that my first moment in poetry was as sweet as a guava juice. When I read the poem the first time at UWC, I was declared a superstar. To be honest, I really enjoy guys liking my poetry, but between me and you, women have a particularly fond way of saying how they are touched by your words. Whenever women expressed a comment on my poetic lines, I was touched. I am still touched.
There are moments in my international travels that are unforgettable; reciting poetry in a language that they do not speak, they come to you to say, “I love your lines”. During those sweet, extra sweet moments I recall having said with revolutionary sweet essences, “I love you too”. I was sometimes reminded that she did not say “I love you”. And then, humble as I am, I would retort an apology and excuse the poetry, walk on air!