1994 (a symphony in two parts)

Part one

This is about friendship, love, reaching out and allowing my heart and mind to explore other ideologies and viewpoints, it is also about unpacking and squaring up to the myths and lies I was fed…it is about being curious, and in that curiosity finding myself and others.

Many years ago I bumped into two very dapper looking elderly gentlemen, standing on the pavement in front of an office block where we all worked.  I was employed by a public interest law firm as an Admin Clerk and the two old men were very famous old ANC stalwarts.

I greeted them and flirtingly I enquired, “What are two handsome chaps like you doing standing here on the pavement?”. One of them guffawed loudly and heartily, while the other man’s laugh was more genteel, almost shy.

I think Oom Raymond Mhlaba and Oom Govan Mbeki were somewhat taken aback at this white woman acting in such a bold manner towards them, secretly, I think they enjoyed it.  I introduced myself; we exchanged pleasantries, and went our separate ways.

Two days later a young man who worked for the African National Congress came down to my office, he told me that Oom Ray wanted to see me.  A few days later I met with him and we chatted for over an hour, he wanted to know who I was, where I was born, who my parents were.  He mentioned that he was so taken aback at my how I had greeted them, nothing forced or false, unperturbed, almost as if I was talking to my own father. I “saw” them and that mattered greatly to him.

Oom Ray and I chatted to each other on a daily basis, he kind of appointed me as a daughter, organiser, shopping companion and student.

During one of our many conversations, we decided to start a discussion group; Oom Ray would lead the sessions, answer questions and guide us. Once a week we, along with some of my friends and acquaintances, met in my apartment, where we, discussed the Freedom Charter, Communism, Socialism and Capitalism, as well as working towards a society free of racism, prejudice, hunger, unemployment and the like.  These discussion groups were well attended by housewives, students, budding politicians, trade unionists and businessmen.  It was always lively, interesting and a safe space to express our thoughts, fears and hopes and in the process we all came away learning so much about so many things.

Some members of the local ANC regional committee were of the opinion that Oom Ray and I were out of line; we should have discussed our idea with them first.  They wanted some input into our discussions. Needless to say they were firmly told to butt out!  This was a South African Communist Party initiative, an informal discussion group where people could share ideas, opinions, transform and reach an understanding of the other.   I was for a time a card carrying member of the SACP.  We were living history!

I was privileged to meet so many kind, interesting and wonderful people.  I also came to the realisation just how badly some people, for example Chris Hani, had been demonised by the press.  He was a very interesting, caring and principled man; if it wasn’t for the struggle I do believe he would have become a priest.

One Sunday, Oom Ray invited me to join him for lunch at a friend’s house, what a rare privilege it turned out to be.  There I was in the company of the host, Oom Ray, Oom Govan and Walter Sisulu.  What an awesome experience, listening to these old chaps talking about their time on Robben Island, teasing, laughing and joking, sometimes serious, but mostly loving and playful. For as long as I live I will never forget that encounter.

Apartheid Museum (photo credits: Michael Schofield)

During one of our many discussions Oom Ray related a very interesting piece of personal information. 

Me:  “Oom Ray when and how did you meet Dideka Heliso fondly known as Ma Dixie.

Oom Ray: “You are being cheeky” and then he laughed:

He mentioned that one day Ma Dixie came to visit him on the Island, he was so excited to see her, however, he was a bit taken aback when Dixie, out of the blue announced that it was time to for them to get married.  After her visit he went to bed, Nelson and Walter were very shocked and they asked him why he was so upset, after all he should be excited about a visit from a certain “young lady”!  He told them that Dixie proposed to him and that it was a ridiculous idea, what was she thinking?  The two chaps were ecstatic and encouraged him to marry Dixie.  And so it came about, Dixie and Ray got married on the Island, with Walter and Nelson in attendance.

Nelson Mandela (Photo credits: Ashim D’Silva)

What a life!  What a shocking indictment on an evil system that sent good and decent people to prison, all because they asked to be treated fairly, to be able to live respectfully  by being able to share in the goodness of everything life had to offer, equally and fairly. I have to admit I was very annoyed with my parents, aunts and uncles for believing lies, plain and simple!  On the other hand some of my family were embarrassed by my behaviour and beliefs. 

In all of my dealings with that wonderful wise old man, my Oom Ray, I was  struck by the fact that he was not bitter, he did not seek revenge, and he was fair, forgiving and very loving with a wicked sense of humour.

I will be eternally grateful for time spent with him and his wonderful wife Ma Dixie.

O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,

For you the bougets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores a-crowding.

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning”  Walt Whitman

I have to admit that sharing these memories of encounters and experiences is not an easy task for me – I am struggling at the moment, I just don’t think folk would find this interesting, however, my beloved George has assured me that it is very interesting and that I need to share all of this, our experiences shape who we are and what we have done. 

To be continued…

Johannesburg City Centre (Photo credits: Jacques Nel)

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