A different isolation

Forty years ago, on 1 June 1980, so I was reminded when reading Ian van der Waag’s A military history of modern South Africa, the ANC’s military wing Umkonto Isizwe (MK) attacked the storage tanks at Sasolburg. This marked the start of attacks on other installations such as Koeberg nuclear power station and military bases.

I was too young to remember much about it other than the concern and anxiety this fostered but more significantly it marked the start of withdrawing from a life outdoors. Until then, together with neighbours and friends, we would ride the streets on our bicycles without a concern in the world, play football and catch across the road (thankfully outside of peak hours, the streets were quiet), walk a few blocks to visit each other and to catch the bus to school. All of a sudden, this was stopped, although as a group we could still walk to catch the bus and later, so long as we weren’t on our own, could work home from school – about 30 minutes. Now, we had to phone when leaving somewhere or arriving, parents would stand at the front door and watch us go across to the neighbour to play etc – to the extent that we gave up on this and rather scaled the 6 foot wall between our properties at the back. One didn’t question it, one just got on and did…unaware of the wider picture as young children tend. It was only on arrival in England in the mid-1990s that I realised how restricted our lives had become. A weight literally lifted off my shoulders. Today, when visiting home, I make a point of walking the streets despite the cautions – it’s an opportunity to engage with thought and reflection, to put myself in the shoes of others and to imagine what their lives were/are like. Had I not had the privilege of being able to do this in other African countries over the years being able to discover the commonality and humanity of man, I probably would not be so bold today.

But there’s another side to learning the start date of the attacks and one which, as an historian, raises questions about the validity of memory on the one hand, and the need to verify facts on the other. By 1980, I was in my third year of primary school (we start later in South Africa compared with Britain), and have clear recollections of sitting in a classroom, which would have been my first year – ie 1978 – of barricading ourselves under our desks in case of bomb attacks when a certain alarm rang, and evacuating in orderly fashion when another rang suggesting fire. Surely, we would not have started taking such precautions two years before any major attack… had there been smaller attacks that resulted in our school having started these actions. My slightly older husband who grew up in Pietermaritzburg doesn’t recall doing such things at school, but did raise the possibility of our school reaction being related to the Soweto riots of 1976, where the students objected to the education they were receiving.* Was the Broederbond controlled Boksburg that fearful of the future? or has my memory conflated different scenarios. I would go for the latter, had it not been for the specific visual of the classroom. In my later years at the school, 1984, we no longer barricaded ourselves but did evacuate for bomb and fire drills regularly and at least one teacher used to have a firearm close at hand – he was in charge of security. This evacuating practice which we continued at high school never made sense given the scenarios we had explained to us as justification for these actions. Logic told me we were being put in danger going out onto school fields along the perimeter rather than staying indoors, but who were we to question?

Looking back and watching life in England over the years, while I’ve been reclaiming the freedom of walking the streets, I see so many withdraw, concerned to allow their children play in the park and ride their bikes (this, before the restrictions placed on us in March 2020). We lived in a time of fear and some do now, but I wonder how much of that fear we created ourselves. My life in SA was easy compared with the woman who travelled in by taxi and train three days a week to clean our house and the man from Malawi who worked on the mine during the week and did our garden on a Saturday or Sunday depending on what day he had off, and our older males who had to ‘go to the border’ and do ‘call ups’. While I was aware that times were anxious in the 1980s and I knew instinctively not to ask any questions, my parents ensured a mental freedom and social liberation which later life experiences have built on – and when the going gets tough and I want to withdraw into my own secure world, my dad’s words haunt me – get on with life, when it’s your time to go, you’ll go, you can do nothing about it (but don’t be reckless) – and he was the worst at worrying when we didn’t phone in or get home when he thought we should have arrived.

It’s incredible what one sentence in a book can trigger – for those interested in reading about the development of South Africa’s military and its three amalgamations within 100 years, Ian’s book is a good place to start. Between the narratives of historical event which set the scene, his insightful analysis (of which I’d have liked more) demonstrate the commonality of man across time and culture. The players may have changed, but the issues and challenges remain the same.

* (A year earlier, in 1977, Steve Biko was killed in police custody – and Boksburg was the home of anti-apartheid activist and Communist Party leader Chris Hani – later assassinated in 1993).

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