Sharpeville Cemetery outside Vereeniging is a desolate place, even as cemeteries go. Most graves – and many are paupers’ graves marked by a rusty stake – are overgrown with colourless, poky grass. There is scant shade, save for some trees alongside the rocky dirt road through the middle of the cemetery. Today, gardeners from the Sedibeng council are sawing at the long blades of grass with buzzing Weed Eaters, so the small area where the Sharpeville 69 rest looks slightly decent. By the end of the day the Sharpeville graves will have received a makeover.
One worker, Alinah Mkwanazi, has grabbed a rusty metal marker from grave No 1719, and is painstakingly digging weeds out from among a scattering of white pebbles. She has brought along an Energade bottle filled with Oros, as she often gets thirsty in the sun. She is 67 years old this year and, remarkably, one of the younger Good Samaritans present.
The smiling old man bending over the grave next door is in his 80s and is wearing a T-shirt that explains their affiliation – 1960 Sharpeville Survivors. Another survivor stands nearby, pausing for breath before taking up her spade again. When she does, it is evident that her wedding ring finger has been shot off.
Elizabeth Chabeli, 59, laughs at the irony. She divorced her abusive husband last year, so not having a ring finger is not exactly a problem. She was just 12 years old when she lost it, searching for her mother in the crowds. Moses Dhlamini, 70, a priest of the Ethiopian Church in SA, also doesn’t complain about the slightly impaired use of his arms because of the two bullets that have left ghastly scars in both.
But Johannes Modise, 66, is more prone to complaining, mainly about the unsightly long gash that cuts across his skull. He can describe in intricate detail the brown, steel-toed police boots that tore into him on March 21, 47 years ago. It happened when the shooting stopped, right next to the Sharpeville police station, just a kilometre or two from the cemetery. He talks angrily about the “black blood” doctors removed from his back, internal clots that formed after the harsh beating he received as a youngster of 19.
The clean-up is a yearly ritual for the survivors and a necessary catharsis. Most of them still need regular counselling. About 100 survivors are still around. Selloane Phethane, Khulumani Support Group co-ordinator for the area and counsellor to many of them, clucks her tongue at the figure. Only about 50 have made it to the cemetery on Wednesday morning. Phethane says the survivors were initially loath to talk about their past and “hid in their houses” before the support group intervened in 1995.
“By speaking out, many of them were healed,” she says. Phethane works from a hot little shipping container, draped in blues and yellows, in the parking lot of the Sharpeville police station. She counsels young teenage girls about HIV when she isn’t counselling elderly survivors about forgiveness. One of the last real gogos in the settlement, Hildah Masudubele, turned 93 two weeks ago. She has benefited greatly from Phethane’s kind words and can recall the day, when she was a fashionable 46, that trigger-happy policemen killed her daughter-in-law, Mampu Lekitla.
Masudubele still lives in the tiny brick house she came home to in 1960 and it’s a stone’s throw from the bright orange Sharpeville exhibition centre and memorial, where an imprint of Lekitla’s name joins 68 others. Her fingers gnarled with arthritis, Masudubele struggles to point to her right ankle where steel pins beneath her skin are the only proof of the bullet wound she got that day.
She remembers the types of guns used, what the police armoured vehicles looked like, how the crowds had sung Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika at an all-night vigil the night before. She remembers, too, how the sky filled with low-flying jets and how the shooting had started just after people had been told to assemble calmly for a 2pm response by police to their ardent wish to be free forever of “dompaste”.
“One of the policemen then went inside one of the ‘hippos’ with a small bag in his hand. We thought, maybe, he was carrying his lunch. “But then this long nose came out of the hippo, slowly, slowly, slowly. And I heard the commander say: ‘Shoot!’ in English and police started shooting with this thing like a wheel of bullets that just killed people,” Masudubele says. “I just ran and kept running. I didn’t even know I was shot.
“My friend, John Mailane, was running next to me and then he was gone. He was shot in the back of his head and I saw a part of his brain fall to the ground next to him.” Memories like these are a dime a dozen in Sharpeville. Nobody really cringes anymore when they tell the stories either, so many times have they played the scenes over in their minds.
Masudubele says she played dead while police walked among the fallen with revolvers, “finishing off” those who were injured. Phethane, herself a survivor, relates with embarrassment how she had posed for the jets that flew above the area, shouting: “Take my picture!” and frantically waving a white hankie at the air force pilots.
Dhlamini recalls that after doctors removed the two bullets from his arms and stitched him up, police later rounded him up along with scores of other survivors. “We were charged with public violence and many other funny charges. I spent a year in Boksburg’s Cinderella Prison.”
Masudubele is one of a handful of survivors who think the once-off compensation grant they got from the government in 2004, ranging from R2 000 to R30 000 depending on the injuries sustained, is enough. But, sharing her home and her pension with nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, the money is long gone.
Phethane says many survivors have letters from the government agreeing to compensation of between R16 000 and R26 000 for six years but that this hasn’t happened. But none of the survivors will likely raise their voice in protest today, when Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa comes to Sharpeville for a Human Rights Day commemoration ceremony. And they will nod appreciatively when he talks, like he did last year, about the R300billion three-year provincial upgrade programme that includes Sharpeville; the nearly-new sports stadium; and the new toilets standing starkly in the veld.
Back in the cemetery, Johannes Sefatsa, 66, is quietly smiling at mutterings nearby about the “too fancy” Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto and the big celebrities who visit it and keep the Soweto riots fresh in the world’s eye. He is certainly not fazed by the heated mumblings. Standing over the grave of his brother Samuel, he talks instead about the old Sharpeville bioscope they visited together for just 12 pence and the lively game of soccer they had played on the Sunday preceding “Black Monday”.
“What a brother he was,” he says with glistening eyes. “He taught me songs like Love me tender, love me sweet. “He left me with music so I sing when I feel sad and it makes me forget about all these horrible times.”isplayAds(‘SquarLAV’,12,124);