A family member of a victim of the Sharpeville Massacre says she dreads election season because she feels used by the governing party to garner votes from the community.
“We are told to tell people to go and vote ANC and give out T-shirts, and [tell them] they will get a better life, after that, ah,” she says shrugging. “We keep voting, but we get nothing”.
Mphonyana Matsabu, 64, says an official from her local municipality usually calls her when they are doing door-to-door campaigns or voter registration, encouraging her to reel in more voters.
“When there is voter registration, I am there. When there is voting, I am there. When they start counting, I am there. But I get nothing.
“My children did not even get good jobs, but they use me. When they want me, they use me,” she complains. Despite this, she says she voted, hoping to bring about change in her community.
Matsabu says her son and his wife now live in the house she was living in when the massacre took place in 1960. She does not feel taken care of by the government after the trauma she and her family went through.
In 1960, a protest was staged against the carrying of the dompas– a document Africans had to carry at all times – which severely restricted their movement. The pass included information about any encounters with police, an employment record, a photograph and the holder’s place of origin.
The protest was part of a larger defiance campaign in which many agreed that they would hand themselves over to local authorities in defiance of pass laws.
On 21 March that year, 69 people were killed – mostly shot in the back – and Matsabu says that although many community members were aware that a protest would take place, they did not anticipate any deaths, or that the deaths would be commemorated with a public holiday known as Human Rights Day.
What set the Sharpeville massacre apart was that it led to the effective banning of the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) and the ANC, and a state of emergency being declared. The following year, the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, was born and efforts to force the government to abolish the oppressive and discriminatory legislation were redoubled.
Speaking at the police station where members of the then South African Police (SAP) fired the fatal shots when she was five years old, Matsabu says she was not the same after losing her brother. James Buti Bessie was killed when he was 12 years old, while running with the crowd. She says her brother was not politically involved.
“We struggled because when my brother was shot, my father was already dead in 1956 … My mother was a ‘kitchen girl’, so we had to go to our grandfathers to raise us.” She continues, “We didn’t even get to further our studies because we were struggling.”
Matsabu says she wanted to be a nurse. “I wanted to see myself wearing epaulettes … Instead, I found myself working at Shoprite. I was still young,” she says sadly.
She had planned on going back to further her education, but when she got her first salary of R49 a month “there is no more going back to school”, because everyone in the house needed what she could provide to survive.
The greying, bespectacled woman feels guilty every time she is invited to commemoration functions, adding that officials always take the survivors and family members out of Sharpeville instead of contributing to the economy of the town.
“We ate first-class food, but when we got home our children were hungry because you can’t put the food in the bag,” she says, recalling a trip organised for them to Emerald Resort & Casino.
‘They are eating money’
The police station, which is in dire need of fresh paint, has since been turned into a cultural hub that hosts the Khulumani Support Group – a non-profit organisation that represents the victims of apartheid and their families – and doubles as a beadwork centre, among other things.
Elizabeth Mokoena, 69, whose brother Philimon Mokoena, was shot and killed in the Sharpeville massacre, still lives in the same house. The ceiling is falling down, but she was told the government would come and fix the houses.
“They are eating money with our name,” she says, lamenting the government’s empty promises. “All they did was erect the tombstones and they said they would change the stones, but it is still the same. We are tired of stories,” she says, flicking her wrist dismissively and looking away.
Mokoena is referring to the black headstones that stand out like sore thumbs from the unkempt grassy mess that is Phelindaba Cemetery, where it is tradition for the main commemorative event to be held. A huge boulder painted in green and yellow stands on the only clean patch, overlooking a broken PAC sign.
This is the Sharpeville Memorial Garden. The monument faces a row of low-lying graves, each marked with a red logo identifying them as part of a heritage site. The youngest person buried there was 13 years old.
‘A boy on the other side’
Mokoena was five years old when her brother died. “We looked for him everywhere, but he was nowhere to be found. Someone said there is a boy on the other side, and my mother went there and found him,” she says.
Mokoena quit school in standard 6 (grade 8) and quickly learned how to clean and iron to follow in her mother’s footsteps of becoming a “kitchen girl”. Her mother died in 1980 and she says that since then, things have remained the same.
“Things have not changed. Others got reparations, others didn’t get. What can you do with R30 000? “Most of the people are old … We are old and dying,” says Mokoena.
“What did they support me with? They only give us groceries in December, and we got R30 000 in April 2004. But most of the other families and victims did not get it during the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] … I was one of the lucky few. Government had promised us R16 000 [during former president Nelson Mandela’s time], but nothing,” shrugs Matsabu.
Matsabu’s youngest son is receiving financial aid from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to pay for his studies and she says this should not be the case.
“We want our generation to be given access to free education … We also want our children to go to school so they can also work in Parliament and be alright, because we have only been given empty promises,” she explains.
Two months after the Sharpeville celebrations, the town has returned to normal, an image that does not fit with its historical importance.
“When the event is nearby, you see [them fixing] potholes, cleaning… But after that, they are gone. They will not be here,” says Matsabu.
She is not looking forward to the 50-year celebrations next year.
“We want the government to do something about us because they are in Parliament because of the blood of our family members. If it was not for them, where would they be? They eat peaches and we eat nonsense … After the 21st, we are nothing,” says Matsabu.