The Making of a Young Radical. At murdered youth's funeral, blacks in Tumahole township vow to continue fight. SOUTH AFRICA: ANTI-APARTHEID ACTIVISM
TUMAHOLE, SOUTH AFRICA — THE legacy of this turbulent black township will live on long after James ``Stompie'' Seipei is forgotten. Just ask Gregory Mokoena, his buddy. ``Without him, we can and will continue our struggle against apartheid,'' insists Mr. Mokoena, kicking the dirt around near Mr. Seipei's grave. ``This just makes us all the more determined to fight.''
Tumahole is no stranger to the likes of Seipei, the 14-year-old anti-apartheid activist who was buried over the weekend. Known as the ``little general,'' the youngster captured the country's - indeed the world's - imagination with the political doings he packed into his short life before being murdered.
He was but one example of this tattered township's tradition of radicalism. For Tumahole looms large in the lore of black resistance to white minority rule: This is where the violent 1984-86 uprising - an event that has changed the course of both black and white politics - began.
And, as witness to the first explosion that millions of blacks fervently hoped would be the beginning of apartheid's end, the young Seipei couldn't help but be affected. Nor could those around him. ``I strongly believe,'' intoned a speaker from the Federation of Transvaal Women at his funeral, ``that there are many others like Stompie here in Tumahole.''
On the face of it, the township seems an unlikely flash point. Tucked into a corner of rural Orange Free State Province, Tumahole (population: about 40,000) is pretty remote. Folks used to say nothing ever happened in that sleepy part of the country.
But things were happening, mostly in response to conditions there. The township is a dismal maze of tin shacks and minute brick houses. There are few tarred roads; streets turn into fairways of mud during the summer rainy season. A stench of urine permeates the place. Hardly anyone can afford electricity or indoor water taps; one study puts unemployment at about 50 percent.
Against this backdrop, the Tumahole Student Organization (TSO) was formed in the early 1980s. As Maclean Skosana, a former member, explains: ``The government had been making promises to our parents for a long time about improving the township. So we decided it was time to do something about it.''
TSO started out as a cultural organization, Mr. Skosana explains, using plays to educate and mobilize the community. Gradually it branched out into other areas such as fund raising and advice centers. So by mid-1984 when the new town council proposed raising rents by a whopping 40 percent, Tumahole had become highly politicized.
To protest the rent hike, TSO members led residents on a march through the township on July 15 that year. During the demonstration, the police reportedly gave protesters 30 minutes to disperse, then opened fire with rubber bullets and tear gas.
THE place went wild.
Residents burned and looted shops; scores were arrested; one man died. It was a fire that was to ignite black areas throughout the country a couple of months later. Most township eruptions followed the same pattern as Tumahole: violent protests provoked by rent increases; boycotts of schools and white-owned businesses; retaliation by vigilantes.
A University of Witwatersrand political scientist who has studied the area says Tumahole had become one of the more chaotic townships by 1985. Which is when Seipei - then 10 years old - burst onto the scene. Skosana says he popped up one day and volunteered, along with a bunch of buddies, to protect activists' houses from attacks by vigilantes.
``The first time I saw Stompie he was so young, so short,'' Skosana remembers. ``But when he talked, I thought I was talking to a man.''
Seipei's background clearly primed him for Tumahole's upheavals. His father died when he was six months old, leaving his mother to support him. When she could find work as a maid in the nearby whites-only town of Parys, Joyce Seipei earned about $17 a month. They lived in a small shack of corregated tin sheets hammered together. Many nights, says his aunt Sarah Seipei, they went to bed hungry.
(Skosana recalls that the police used to ask Seipei why someone so young was so involved: ``He would say all these things affect me because they affect my family and the entire community.'')
Seipei's gang mushroomed over the year into the ``army'' known as the ``Fourteens.'' It became the stuff of legends. Take the name, for example. Some say it comes from its ``soldiers'' being under 14 years old. Others say it's in honor of Hector Peterson - the first fatality of a 1976 student uprising - who was 14 when he died.
Then there's the question of the army's size. Township lore has it that Seipi commanded 1,500 children. The political scientist says there were 200 ``soldiers'' at most. And so on.
Mythology aside, the political scientist maintains the ``Fourteens'' became more or less uncontrollable. With many older activists in hiding or in police detention, Seipei and his followers ``got involved in politics to a pretty scary degree, attacking councilors, petrol-bombing policemen's homes, and generally raising the level of violence.''
Detained several times, Seipei spent almost a year behind bars at one stretch: At age 11, he was the youngest activist to be jailed. With the uprising smashed by the government's 1986 state of emergency, Seipei went to live in Johannesburg at a Methodist church so he could resume studying. (Tumahole's schools would not have him because of his political involvement.)
For reasons still unknown, he and three other youths allegedly were abducted from the church last December by bodyguards of Winnie Mandela, a leading anti-apartheid figure. The three youths allegedly were assaulted, but ultimately freed; Seipei's body was found a couple of weeks ago. Two of the bodyguards since have been charged with murder.
Tumahole turned out in full force for Seipei's funeral Saturday. Thousands squeezed together round the grave site, some wiping sweat from their faces under the fierce summer sun, others wiping away tears. Over and over, they sang a slow refrain, ``We're marching to Pretoria,'' clenched fists held high in a power salute.
Suddenly, a young man wearing sun glasses raised his voice above the singing. ``Good-bye Stompie, wherever you're going, tell them about apartheid. Tell them about how we'll keep on with our struggle here.''