Johannesburg – For Paulina Buyeye-Mohale there is a terrible circularity about struggle, sacrifice and broken promises that has dogged her family for a century.
Her great uncle was on the Mendi; Selaelo Daniel Maredi. He didn’t perish in the icy water in the English Channel on Wednesday February 21, 1917, but he may as well have. He was rescued but his health was ruined. After recuperating in Europe he was sent home.
“(The survivors who were medically unfit) were told to go back home and say thank you to their chief,” she remembers. “They just left them, they didn’t know where they were. They got nothing,, no recognition, no aftercare, no medals, no pension.”
She’s bitter, unashamedly so.
“In other words, they said to them ‘go home and die’. It is just fortunate and by the grace of God, that he got home.”
He died shortly afterwards. The family doesn’t know when or how. For years they didn’t even know where he was buried. Buyeye-Mohale went to look for his grave back in Limpopo, but it was difficult.
“Because of colonialism, people were moved from one place to another. When I went there, people were putting tombstones up and we found him in among other people (who were not relatives).
“We lost a generation from him. He never married, he never had children.”
Her own father served in World War II, when he came back, he got a bicycle and an overcoat, a jas, and campaign medals.
There were houses too in Masoleni, Dube, Soweto, put up by the SA Legion. It was supposed to be a gift but they were told there was a 30 year lease, then a 99 year lease. Buyeye-Mohale stays there now with her 86 year old mother, Tryphina.
“My father was integrated into the police on his discharge from the army,” she remembers. He served around Johannesburg before moving to Soweto where he was at Meadowlands, Orlando and finally Moroka police station, where he died in service as a senior sergeant, of which the equivalent today would be station commander.
He was a tortured man by all accounts, like others in Masoleni. It was a conservative area of ex-servicemen and their families. Some of the veterans would get up in the middle of the night, put on their old uniforms and medals and march up and down the street.
“We lived next to Sexwale’s place,” she says, pointing out beyond the kitchen.
Buyeye-Mohale was conscientised at Orlando West High School, in the Christian Students M°°°ovement, where they would speak about the realities of their existences, of aunts working as maids in white areas, cooking food for white families but forced to eat mielie meal in outside rooms and about the apparent subservience of their parents in the face of the oppressive system.
She was soon recruited into the ANC after leaving school and she in turn became a recruiter and an escort for new recruits leaving the country via Swaziland, many of whom would have found a haven in the house she still lives in today.
It was there in 1976 she was arrested, with 11 others including billionaire and former cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale, trying to go into exile because the security police had found out what she was doing.
She would be tortured and held in solitary confinement, made to ensure a living hell, threatened with being beaten to death or thrown out of the 10th floor of the notorious John Vorster Square in downtown Johannesburg for almost two years.
When she wasn’t being tortured she was held at Pretoria Maximum, near the gallows an unwilling witness to others being hanged, in the full knowledge that she too would be in the dock and face a possible death penalty.
When the trial was over, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict her so she walked free. Sexwale and five others were sent to Robben Island.
The damage though had been done. She was deprived of seeing her three-year-old son. Humiliated by police taking her to her mother’s home in handcuffs and then totally trashing the house looking for evidence against her.
The community turned against all of them. Even her mother was summonsed to John Vorster and interrogate – at one stage being brought face to face with her daughter to shame her – it failed.
Buyeye-Mohale though suffered a nervous breakdown. There was no one for her to turn to, nowhere to go for help. It was only when she appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission almost 20 years later that she could tell her story and get the help she so desperately needed.
“The entire family needs cleansing,” she says. “My great uncle needed help, my father didn’t get counselling either. It’s only now that I understand.
“Our country needs to take care of its veterans – and their families. We have had a lot of veterans (from the war of liberation) being forced to eat out of dustbins. If you go to the funerals of veterans you can cry tears.
“A lot of the students I helped leave, come back hoping to find me in a better position, but I’m still here in the same position.”
But despite all of this Buyeye-Mohale is undaunted. The mother of four has educated herself all her life, now at the age of 66 she’s back at college doing more courses. “I want to live my dream,” she says, “I’ve been delayed by circumstances.
“The struggle continues, we are not free yet, we won’t be until our children are self-sustaining.”
She’s going to Britain to take part in the Mendi commemoration.
“I hope to achieve the truth about our parents. I hope our families will be recognised. We joined the struggle because we were expecting better, just like my great uncle and my father before us.
“I want to come back and tell their story, to say just how precious it is.”