Slain and unknown. Neither gathered up by forgetfulness
nor dispersed by memory…they’re forgotten
Slain and Unknown — Mahmoud Darwish
Matshidiso Maloisane had recognised her brother Lehlohonolo by his legs.
“Our family all have thin ankles,” Maloisane explains, “the bodies were stacked on top of each other and his corpse was underneath another one. I recognised his ankles and I called for the caretaker to pull his body out. It was him. I collapsed. I will never forget it – they killed them like dogs.”
Sitting in her front room in a house in Batho location in Mangaung (Bloemfontein), Maloisane still appears distressed as she casts her mind back to 1982. She clenches her hand and bites into it, remembering her brother’s lifeless body in a Maseru mortuary.
Lehlohonolo Cambridge Maloisane had been killed when the then South African Defence Force raided across the Lesotho border into Maseru on December 9, 1982. He was one of 30 anti-apartheid activists who, along with 12 locals, were staying in a cluster of homes on the outskirts of the city.
Matshidiso, who had hitchhiked to Maseru from Bloemfontein after hearing news of the raid, remembers the first body she saw in the morgue: a woman who had been shot in the head. It was summertime and the smell was unbearable. “I jumped from one corpse to another, looking for him. A fisherman, when he fishes, just throws the fish in a pile next to him, that is what the bodies looked like,” she said.
The South African soldiers had been indiscriminate in their murder, according to Phyllis Naidoo in her account of the massacre, Le Rona Re Batho, the killing spree including a pet dog satirically named Verwoed.
What the South African government had code-named “Operation Blanket” was one of several cross-border raids, perpetrated by apartheid’s security apparatus, into the front-line states around South Africa in the 80s. These included the January 1981 attack on Matola in Mozambique that left 17 dead and the 1985 raid on the ANC offices in Gaborone where 12 people – five of them ANC members, the rest civilians – were killed.
ANC president Oliver Tambo, who had flown from Lusaka into Lesotho for the funeral, captured the sensibility of not just the apartheid regime and its murderous foot soldiers in his eulogy, but also, white South Africans: “The white people have not learnt their lesson,” he said, “perhaps because they are not allowed to by the publicity services of the racist regime.
“While the murderers were shooting machine guns on the 9th of December, that unthinkable butchery, while it was going on, news of it seemed to fill the majority of the whites with great jubilation. They congratulated the assassins, the perpetrators of the massacre of Maseru.
“Perhaps they need only be told that it is a terrorist we are killing. And because of what they have been told is a terrorist, they believe that these are creatures to be eliminated in the world. Perhaps that is why the women, the mothers of white children were so happy when African mothers and their children were being butchered by criminals armed by Pretoria and directed by them.”
Matshidiso Maloisane still wears the pain of loss, and the trauma of violence endured, on her face, and in her habits. She admits to drinking too much and to “living with a ghost.” Despite her being two years younger, brother and sister had “looked like twins” and had been very close before Lehlohonolo had left for Lesotho with many other activists, following the 1976 student riots in Soweto.
Matshidiso had visited her brother as often as she could, frequently enduring harassment and torture: “If I went there on a Saturday, the Security Branch or army were waiting for me at the border gates. They did everything that they could do to me. They even tried to rape me, but I resisted and was fighting like a wildcat,” she said.
Lehlohonolo’s nickname was “Lucky Boy.” His nom de guerre was Khanyile Lesedi. In 1979, he left Lesotho for Angola, where he underwent military training and, a year later, to the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, for specialist military training. After being appointed camp commissar for Vienna Camp in Angola, he was, in 1981, redeployed to Lesotho, where he served in the intelligence unit of Mkhonto We Sizwe.
Around that time, Matshidiso was working as a teacher, but her life was spiralling into depression. The constant harassment and intimidation by the apartheid state, she admits, had turned her into “a bad influence by then, in school and everywhere, to all the people I came into contact with.”
She was eventually fired from her teaching post in 1982 – before the Maseru massacre. Her brother had encouraged her not to get involved in politics, but Matshidiso’s mere presence was now political. As was her sibling love: “I just wanted to see him,” she said of her constant trips across the border that were monitored, “but he always complained that my life was in danger when I went to visit him. When we spoke on the phone, he always said that his life was in danger, so he said that if any word arrived of any MK soldiers who were dead, that I should go and look for him.”
Lehlohonolo was killed, along with 41 others, on December 9, 1982. He was one of over 11 000 South Africans living in Lesotho as political refugees.
Matshidiso’s life spiralled even further after her brother’s death: “I was very aggressive. I was drinking too much,” she said.
When “freedom” came, she attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and saw some of the men who had harassed her on her visits to Lesotho. Among them were black members of the Special Branch: “I hated them,” she said. “I didn’t want to hear anything that came from their dirty mouths,” she added.
“At the TRC they said it was the South African Defence Force that killed my brother. Then they did nothing,” Matshidiso says bitterly. “Most unfortunately, Mr Nelson Mandela said ‘lets forgive and forget’. That was wrong because the murderers are getting away scot-free and we don’t know what happened to my brother. We should have searched for the murderers. I was very happy when we had freedom, because I thought that we would be able to arrest the murderers and kill them. The boers have not changed. Apartheid is not over.”
Suffering weight-loss and sent to hospital for “observation” because of her “emotional state,” Matshidiso’s relationship with her family broke down. She felt increasingly isolated. Therapy didn’t help and her psychologist told her that “I didn’t want to believe that my brother was dead […] I separated from my husband, because I was blaming him for everything. I was crying all the time and [was] very bitter. Just two weeks back, I was crying and saying that ‘If he was still here, life would be better.’”
In 2009, a video circulated around South Africa. Shot in 2007, it showed four white male students from the University of Free State (UFS) performing a series of initiation-type ceremonies.
The video included five black female cleaners – Mothibedi Molete, Mankoe Naomi Phororo, Emmah Koko, Nkgapeng Adams and Sebuasengwe Mittah Ntlatseng – on their hands and knees eating food placed on the floor. The food had apparently been urinated on by one of the white male students.
At his inauguration as vice-chancellor in October 2009, Professor Jonathan Jansen announced that the university had withdrawn charges against the four students involved, Danie Grobler, Johnny Roberts, Schalk van der Merwe and Roelof Malherbe.
In his speech entitled “For Such a Time as This”, Jansen said:
“I also feel compelled to say this to you tonight. Those four students who committed that heinous act, are my students. If I may borrow from another leader, I cannot deny them, anymore than I cannot deny my own children. The four Reitz students are children of this country, they are youth of the province, and they are students of our university. They are, I repeat, my students.
And so I have made some decisions.
In a gesture of racial reconciliation, and the need for healing, the University of the Free State will withdraw its own charges against the four students. The University will therefore not pursue any further action against the four young men implicated in the Reitz incident. In this spirit of toenadering, the University will go further, and invite those four students to continue their studies here.
2. In recognition of our institutional complicity in the Reitz saga, and the need for social justice, the University of the Free State will not only pursue forgiveness but will also pay reparations to the workers concerned for damages to their dignity and their self-esteem.
3. In a determined commitment to the urgent task of reconstruction, the University of the Free State will re-open the Reitz residence and transform it into a model of racial reconciliation and social justice for all students…
As we seek to close the book on Reitz, we are determined to open the book on a new and reconstructed future for the University of the Free State.”
The move was lauded by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the TRC chairperson who had conceived of the idea of the Rainbow Nation. A 2011 reconciliation between black workers and white racists was “headlined” by American media icon Oprah Winfrey who said the process was “nothing short of a miracle.”
Five years after the attempted reconciliation at UFS, Tambo’s Maseru 1982 observation that white society had failed to transform itself and its ideas of racial superiority echoed into the contemporary. In February 2016 student protesters who had invaded the Shimla Park rugby field during an inter-university match to protest the out-sourcing of university jobs were beaten and kicked by white thugs — punters off the streets, university students and, reportedly, academics too.
Two years ago the Free State provincial government declared Lehlohonolo Cambridge Maloisane’s grave a Grade II heritage site. When we visited it in Mangaung cemetery’s Heroes Acre, the tombstones in the area around his were crumbling. He was reburied here in 1994. The gravestones of some of Lehlohonolo’s fallen comrades had been desecrated. Two Nyoape-heads sped past with a trolley filled with bits of metal, wire and stone. A cemetery worker in overalls said the local junkies scavenge whatever they can to sell for scrap metal or tombstone re-sales. He has been helplessly looking on.
“We are living in a fucked up society,” says Matshidiso Maloisane. “They have no shame to steal from people who are asleep.”
The Cambridge Maloisane Park in Batho township does not look like it costs R34-million. A steep, poorly built entrance road means only 4X4s or kombis should dare enter the parking lot.
The park’s stretches of brown grass are interrupted by a few lines of roses wilting in the sun. There is a braai area for the boot-bar brigades on weekends and an amphitheatre of sorts made from cheap concrete bricks.
Shade is minimal, as is art or aesthetic. There is a statute of a cheetah, which looks like it was mass-produced in China, its leprotic skin already peeling off, fading quicker than time.
Matshidiso Maloisane has neither use, nor care, for this park. It symbolises less her brother, his struggle, or the ideal that “his blood would water the tree of democracy.” It is a sign of money “eaten” by a corrupt government. “The municipality has eaten the money for this park and it makes me very angry […] People are so hungry in this country, even me, I am hungry but the ANC has given me nothing […] When I have problems, when I am hungry, I think about him. I think about him when I am hungry,” she said.
Main Photograph: Matshidiso Maloisane by Mpho Khomari
* This piece is part of The Con’s partnership with the Visual Arts Network of South Africa in a project, 2014 Ways of Being Here, which seeks to explore notions of participatory democracy and public art.