A man who will not be silent

THE first time I met Zodwa Sisulu, we talked about finding preschools for our children and getting settled in our apartments. It was September 1985, and we were attending an informal reception in the picturesque brick courtyard of the Lippmann House, an 18th-century colonial home in Cambridge, Mass., that houses the Nieman Foundation for journalism. Our husbands had been among 12 American and seven foreign journalists who, with their spouses, were about to begin an academic year at Harvard University. Our conversation was just the usual one between two mothers who were busy getting their families settled in a new location. But that evening, the simple ordinariness of our conversation belied the fact that in Zodwa and her husband, Zwelakhe, I had met two extraordinary people who have devoted their lives to the struggle against apartheid.

Zwelakhe Sisulu is a well-known black South African journalist who is clearly comfortable with ideas. Whether he is asking a Harvard professor a question about an obscure point in economics or discussing jazz with Gerry Mulligan, he is knowledgeable and has a razor-sharp intellect. Zodwa is quiet and thoughtful and a good listener.

In addition to being one of South Africa's most respected journalists, Zwelakhe is also one of its leading political thinkers. Although his family has been active in the African National Congress, which advocates a multiracial approach to fighting apartheid, Zwelakhe advocates that blacks stick to themselves in the struggle. In recent years he has been seen as an important bridge between the two philosophies, because of his support for one ideology and his family ties to the other.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, ``Move Your Shadow,'' Joseph Lelyveld described Zwelakhe as a young man ``who might have an enormous following if he were allowed to lead....''

Zodwa and I took a class together, ``The Literature of Social Reflection,'' taught by Robert Coles, the eminent psychiatrist and writer. His course is an effort to present moral dilemmas through the use of literature. The class is sometimes referred to by underclassmen as ``Guilt 101,'' but Zodwa and I stuck it out. We both enjoyed the reading list as well as walking back from class together and occasionally stopping for coffee afterward.

I remember saying to her once that it seemed somewhat hypocritical of Americans to criticize the situation in South Africa when relations in our own country leave so much to be desired. ``You shouldn't underestimate the progress you've made here,'' she responded in her usual deliberate manner. ``Americans should recognize what they've accomplished. You've come a long way.''

A short time after that, Zwelakhe's mother, Albertina Sisulu, was detained by the South African police. Albertina Sisulu is a co-president of the United Democratic Front, the country's leading multiracial anti-apartheid coalition. For having sung freedom songs and repeating African National Congress slogans, she was charged with treason. (In September, the Pretoria Supreme Court ruled that she had been wrongly convicted of the charge.)

Her husband, Walter Sisulu, is serving a life sentence for sabotage, along with fellow-activist Nelson Mandela.

One late afternoon in the spring, Zwelakhe and Zodwa talked with our group about their life in South Africa. In the hushed quiet of the Lippmann House seminar room where we'd met throughout the year, they told in their restrained, matter-of-fact manner a tale of injustice and violence.

The turning point of Zwelakhe's thinking had come in 1976, when he was a reporter for the now-defunct Rand Daily Mail, a newspaper with a global reputation for courageous journalism.

After covering a major disturbance in Soweto, he returned to his office with a nightmarish story of police brutality, but he said the white editors would not print his story. Zwelakhe had seen piles of bodies being stacked up beside the police station. Some of the bodies were still alive and groaning; all were black.

His editors refused to believe his story, or that police had ordered the less severely wounded people and children to bury the bodies.

Shortly after that, Zwelakhe became president of the black journalist union. In 1980, while the union was on strike, he was banned, which is tantamount to house arrest.

A year later he was imprisoned without charge and held in solitary confinement. The police had come in the middle of the night, bursting through the door without warning, and forcibly took him out of the house.

Then Zodwa took over and as she re-lived the incident, her voice grew soft and almost distant. ``You try to get information, to ask where they are taking him. You remember to give him the kit you've packed for him in case they come. The children are crying and there is not time to get all the information. The men are shouting and the children are terrified.''

In jail a month later, Zwelakhe says, he was subjected to torture. Hoping to coerce him to divulge information or sign a confession, he says that police applied electric shock. They held his head in a bucket of cold water. Months went by before they would allow him to bathe, and he went without water for days at a time. The prison guards would wait until the fruits Zodwa brought had rotted before they gave them to him.

Zodwa continued working full-time as an X-ray technician in a Soweto hospital, and kept the family together. And then with no explanation, eight months later, they let Zwelakhe go.

AS the year in Cambridge was nearing an end, some urged the Sisulus not to go back. But they made it clear that they were ready - in fact, eager - to go home and rejoin the struggle.

When Zwelakhe was asked what kind of future he envisioned for Moyikwa and Zoya, his two young children, he answered that he didn't know if they had a future; he hoped that they did, but he didn't know.

Almost exactly a year later, we happened to be in Washington when we picked up the morning Post to see this front-page headline: ``Black Editor Abducted in South Africa.''

It was Zwelakhe. The article quoted Zodwa as saying that four white men in civilian clothing had broken through their gate and front door shortly after midnight and had refused to identify themselves. Two of them had worn ski masks, and the license plate of their car had been defaced. Zodwa had tried to demand more information, but Zwelakhe had dissuaded her, fearing the men might harm the children.

The chilling account immediately brought back the memory of that spring afternoon in 1985 when we sat together in the faded, Old World elegance of the pale blue-and-white meeting room of the Lippmann House as Zodwa told of being awakened in the night with the sound of the front door breaking away and her husband being dragged off.

Zwelakhe quickly appeared on Amnesty International's ``hot list'' as a prisoner in jeopardy of torture. Among the thousands of protests sent to South African officials was a telegram from Derek Bok, president of Harvard.

Zwelakhe was released a few months later, and he returned to his job as editor of the New Nation, a weekly newspaper for blacks funded by the Roman Catholic Church and considered one of the most fearless critics of apartheid.

But last December he was picked up again, and he has been held in the Johannesburg police station, again without charge.

In September, the Nieman Foundation announced that Zwelakhe had been chosen to receive the 1987 Louis Lyons Award for courageous journalism. But the good news was more than offset by a letter that said we should be gravely concerned about his well-being.

And so once more, letters and telegrams on his behalf are being sent to the leaders of South Africa.

As I seal the aerograms I've written, so thin and fragile against the brutality that is apartheid, I remember sitting in Robert Coles's class two years ago when he asked his students, ``How many of you in this classroom today have ever had to sacrifice anything for something you believe in?'' Next to me, Zodwa sat impassively and said nothing. And I thought to myself: Dr. Coles, if you only knew, if you only knew.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A man who will not be silent
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today