Story by Anathi Nyadu and Images by Unarine Ramaru
The police man’s finger hovers precariously on the trigger.
Nomfundo sings. She claps her hands and stamps her feet to the rhythm of the song. Her heart is a drum of fear. She is afraid, but she sings. The song helps in taking away her fears. She knows that singing and toyi-toying so close to the police is a dance with the devil. A dance with the devil that never ends right.
The youth of 1976 had danced to close to the devil. And how did that end? A child carrying a bleeding child in his arms, running to where nobody knows. After the sound of police guns had subsided and the crowd of school children had dispersed, the dust of Soweto revealed a mass of dead young bodies sprawled on the floor. Others it left with bullet wounds, marks to remind them of their bravery for standing up to an unjust education system. Others went to prison, fetched by police men with guns. Airplane searchlights in the dead of the night. Others left their homes in the dead of the night and never came back.
Nomfundo knows this. She didn’t learn it in class. At Thuto ke Lesedi, the school where she studied, they taught her about, forgiveness and reconciliation, the War to End All Wars, the War of Hitler, but the chapter about the student uprisings of 1976 was skipped. The teacher was sick. The people who wrote the textbooks had simply overlooked the 1976 student protests as a significant historical moment and had left it out of the textbook. Whatever the reason was, she doesn’t recall Mrs Maphumulo, the short History teacher who limped when she walked, teaching them about the gallantry of the youth of 1976. Nomfundo wasn’t one of those who either played truant or slept in Mrs Maphumulo’s classes, because ‘well, history is boring.’ History is not boring. It teaches us about our past, where we come from, so that we don’t forget, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before us. So, although Mrs Maphumulo’s monotonous voice had the effect of making half the class sleepy, Nomfundo never slept. She remembers the History lesson Mrs Maphumulo gave about how Jan Van Riebeck came to South Africa in 1652. She remembers also how in 1948 apartheid became an official policy aimed at separating the people of South Africa into racial categories. She remembers vividly how Mrs Maphumulo told them, as if she was there herself, about the day that Tata walked out of Victor Verster Prison, after 27 years of imprisonment.
She also remembers how her own mother, MaMokoena, told her about that day, when she had stood in an unending, zigzagging line to vote for uTata. Apartheid had ended. South Africa belonged to all those who lived in it, black or white. What Nomfundo doesn’t remember is that she was there too. On her mother’s back. A child born into a new South Africa: the future held endless possibilities of success.
1994 was the year of hope. Hope that things were going to change, that those who were previously disadvantaged will now compete fair and square with those who were previously advantaged. Hope that the doors of learning would open for all.
In life one doesn’t get to choose how to be born. One cannot dictate where she wants to be born. It just happens: you’re born. And that’s it. You cannot argue otherwise. No amount of kicking and screaming will change your fate.
When Nomfundo was born, like all children, she introduced her arrival to this world with unearthly, heart-shattering wails. The Dr passed her to MaMokoena who held her daughter close to her, to create a bond between mother and daughter. But even in her mother’s arms, her crying didn’t stop. MaMokoena whispered to her, begged her, negotiated with her, but Nomfundo’s crying continued. It continued for three straight days and nights. She would suck milk from MaMokoena’s breasts and cry at the same time. She would sleep whilst crying and wake up crying. The Dr had no explanation for it.
It was her maternal grandmother who named her Nomfundo. Education was the key to all the doors of opportunity. During those heady days, it was believed that it was only through education that a daughter of a peasant can become a doctor. So, as soon as Nomfundo was of school going age, her grandmother made her a black dungaree uniform and personally took her to Thuto ke Lesedi Primary School. On the way to school, her grandmother told her about the importance of going to school and learning about the world so that one day she can be a better person. Her grandmother made her make a pinkie promise that she’ll never give up on school.
“Nomfundo, child of my child, you didn’t choose to be born into this poverty. This is your only chance, don’t play with it.” She promised. She kissed her grandmother goodbye and didn’t cry on her first day at school like other kids.
Nomfundo remembers the last day of school just as she remembers her first day. She remembers standing outside the gates of her school and wondering what the world she was venturing into had in store for her. She remembers the poem she had scribbled on the exam question paper. It was a poem about the last day of school, about the comforts of being inside a school yard, sheltered away from the drugs and the gangs that roamed the township where she lived, where a woman could be raped in broad day light. A poem about the joys of laughing at Venter’s jokes and pranks; about playing netball and not having to worry about anything, but a bell that rings and disturbs the joy. The poem was about writing the last exams of high school; a rite of passage of sorts; and about seeing friends and teachers for what could possibly be the last time. In essence, the poem was about the treacherous and unpredictable roads that awaited her and her grade 12 classmates beyond the gates of the school.
That day she watched as her classmates signed each other’s school shirts with red, blue, black, green koki pens. No one asked her to sign. No one signed hers. Not that she minded or cared. Instead, one question was on her mind: So, where to from here?
University. College. Work. Gap Year. The possibilities were infinite and unpredictable. The road ahead was not clear.
But amongst her classmates, Sindi’s road was the most predictable one. Sindi, the tall one, the one who once spat at the principal for calling her a ‘nincompoop’, the one who didn’t like school and wasn’t the brightest human creature that God had created, was going to be a superstar. There was no doubt about that; she was going to fill stadiums and break longstanding records. If there was anything that God had given Sindi in abundance: it was the voice. Sindi could sing as if she was possessed by an angel. Those who knew her father personally said she had taken her voice and her height from him and those who knew her mother said she had taken the dislike she had for authority and officialdom from her.
It only made sense that she should sing. The teachers had already agreed in the staffroom that she’d amount to nothing if she carried on like she did; if she kept on bunking classes to attend shows and music rehearsals; if she kept on writing lyrics in any paper that was set in front of her. Education was the key to success, but not for her. For her, education was an unnecessary formality, a boring task she complied with only to please her aunt, who had long threatened her that should she drop out she would send her to the orphanage. Music was her key. Music was her everything. It was the only way she could express how she felt. The agony of losing both her parents before she could know them properly evaporated when she sang. Music filled the empty holes in her heart. It only made sense that she should sing and sell out stadiums.
What didn’t make sense was why Nomfundo’s classmate, Pinkie — the fat one, the one who could draw the human body without referring to any Biology textbook, the one who knew the periodic table of elements like the back of his hand — was more likely to spend the coming year sitting at home and eating and eating the food that his mother brought from her work until he’s so fat that he can’t get out of the toilet-sized shack he shares with his mother, MaRadebe.
There was no way that Pinkie was going to university the coming year. There was no way that MaRadebe was going to be able to pay his fees; not with the meagre pay she gets as a domestic worker. Little pay doesn’t cover exorbitant university fees, and buy groceries and clothes, especially since Pinkie was getting fatter by the day since exams started. MaNgobese, the principal of Thuto ke Lesedi said that if he passes well she might get him a government bursary at the Department of Education. But still it made little sense why Pinkie’s future zigzagged into infinite uncertainties.
It made no sense why a person with such a bright young mind was going to sit at home and waste away. Join a gang. Drink alcohol from one of the shebeens that brew toxic mixtures. Die. Die without achieving his full potential.
Nomfundo sings. She claps her hands and stamps her feet to the rhythm of the song. Her heart is a drum of fear. She has seen the videos of the brutality meted out by police and private security on student protesters on YouTube. She remembers what happened to Andrias Tatane for standing up for what he believed in in Ficksburg. The Marikana Massacre is also not too distant a memory. She knows what happens when you dance to close to the devil. She knows, too, that out there in South Africa, in the townships, in the rural areas, there are many like Pinkie: bright minds who cannot afford education because it’s exorbitantly priced. The previously disadvantaged who are still disadvantaged. So, she sings and she claps her hands and she stamps her feet and she thinks of where she comes from.
Her history. Her past.