Sounds of South Africa's Anger and Expectation
Black youths mourn a fallen fighter in all-night vigil of song and speech - a letter from Sebokeng township
SEBOKENG, SOUTH AFRICA — CLOUDS of dust rise gently as mourners pound the earth to the rhythmic cadence of the toyi-toyi, a traditional protest dance.
Bright spotlights shine from behind the matchbox house, penetrating the darkness that envelops this township. Up and down the street chimneys belch pungent coal smoke thick with the aroma of sulphur.
Friends and relatives pack together on narrow wooden benches beneath a makeshift brown plastic awning, sheltering each other from the cold with the intensity of their collective chanting. Beyond the reach of the lights, figures huddle in heavy overcoats, whispering in hushed tones.
Another all-night funeral vigil is taking place in Sebokeng township, south of Johannesburg. A young member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), has fallen, and the tribute becomes an occasion for militant black youths to vent their anger against the white government.
Since the ANC was legalized in 1990, roughly 400 people have died in brutal slayings in this township, but none of the perpetrators have been prosecuted. Faceless gunmen, directed by elements in the security forces bent on sabotaging the country's painful transition to majority rule, have often chosen funeral vigils as targets for massacres.
Only a month ago, on the eve of the funeral for the militant black leader Chris Hani, 19 people were killed in their homes by unidentified gunmen firing from a moving vehicle.
Hani was general-secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and a former high-ranking official of the ANC. His popularity among township youth was unparalleled, and anger over his assassination six weeks ago has stretched the ANC's authority and influence to its limits.
Apart from several spectacular sabotage attacks on South African nuclear, military, and industrial targets, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or MK as it is known among township youth, never posed a direct threat to the powerful South African Defense Force. But it became an important symbol of resistance to apartheid.
The scene of the vigil, the township's Zone 12, is known as Angola - a tribute to the war-torn country that hosted the ANC's military bases through more than a decade of its 30-year exile. Adjoining neighborhoods have names like Cuba, Palestine, and Beirut.
Our arrival creates a flurry until the guards realize we are accompanied by ANC and SACP officials. Wami Nhlapo, secretary-general of the ANC's Sebokeng branch, leads us to the center of the huddled group of mourners. The 22-year-old MK member, Mzwakhe Stuurman, is said to have died of malaria about a year after returning from exile.
The vigil consists of speeches and more speeches, interspersed with war dances and songs, and culminating in a religious service in the early hours of the morning.
"Viva the spirit of no surrender, viva," bellows Lebohang Mahanta, SACP convenor and local ANC official. "Viva," replies the youthful crowd.
An ANC youth leader, who keeps reminding the crowd of about 50 mourners that he is a communist, strikes a militant but repetitive tone. He tells the crowd that malaria is a disease of the colonialists.
He praises the role of the SACP in the struggle and urges the mourners, many in their teens and younger, to join MK and the SACP.
"Capitalism and money are the root of all evil," he bellows to the crowd. "That is the situation, comrades."
He then names some suspected warlords of the ANC's rival, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, and police collaborators in the township, and adds: "They must be killed, comrades. They must be killed. That is the situation."
A YOUTH near the front of the crowd breaks into another war song in Xhosa, the vernacular of the majority of ANC leaders.
The song calls on the MK members to answer the call of the people of Angola to fight the rebels of Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. Another song bids farewell to the fallen soldier and exhorts those left behind to kill the Boers (Afrikaners).
"The spear has fallen, comrades," says regional ANC Youth League general-secretary Sakhiwe Khumalo in the traditional tribute to a fallen MK member. "I pick up the spear."
He continues: "There is going to be war comrades. If the government does not agree to an election date and a transitional executive council by the end of May, there is going to be war."
In the early hours of the morning, we travel eerily deserted streets to the relative seclusion of Mr. Lebohang's house in Zone 13.
Just before dawn, I am awakened by the sound of melodic chanting - the finale of another funeral vigil. As the melodic voices fade, the shrill screech of crowing roosters takes over.
The sounds of Sebokeng are still ringing in my ears. They are the sounds of anger and expectation.