Soweto. June 15, 1976.
“Don’t do it, Bhekithemba.” I stared into the face of my brother. His bright eyes shone back at me through the darkness as we lay opposite each other on our mattresses of cardboard and tattered sheets.
“I must,” he said, his voice thick with determination. “Don’t you see? This is something I must do.” We spoke in a whispered hush, so as to not wake our mother and father who slept beside us, though we need not have worried. They rose before the sun to traverse the twenty-three kilometer road to work in nearby Jo’burg and did not return until long after the moon rose, casting its silvery light onto the rusted metals roofs of the township. They slept soundly each night, even when the police came with their dogs and banged their batons against the corrugated iron walls of the homes of our neighbors. The shrill echo pierced our ears, but still our parents slept.
“But it is just words, Bhekithemba. It doesn’t mean anything,” I pleaded.
It is unsettling when your younger brother looks at you as if you are naïve, especially when you know he is right. “It is not just words, Nomvula. It is who we are. They are trying to make us act like them and be like them. And if we don’t do it, they push us out. Even in our own homes and our own schools they push us out. They push so that the only choice is to pretend we are just like one of them. But I am no Afrikaaner!” He spat the word like venom from his mouth. “We are Zulu. We go to English schools. We speak Zulu. We speak English. This is as it should be. We will not speak the words of the oppressor.” With that promise, I knew the conversation was finished. We both slipped into an uneasy silence and when I dreamed, it was a dream of violence.
The next morning, I wanted to plead with my brother again. But on this day, he was a different person. Instead of my joking, jovial brother with a laugh like music, a man of calm stood before me. He wore his best button-down white shirt and ate his mealie-meal in studied silence. He was only fifteen, but he was preparing for war. I straightened my school clothes and gathered my schoolbooks and my tattered, hand-me-down copy of Macbeth. It was missing half of the third act, but in class, I could share books with my schoolmate to read what happened. I stood at the doorway and looked at him. When he finally met my gaze, I said, “Uhambe kahle.” Go well on your journey. His eyes melted a half-degree and he nodded, and I turned into the sun.
I had always been the good daughter, everyone’s pet child. I could be counted on to do my work and smile, even when there was little to smile about. My mama’s boss would always give me treats when I helped mama work, and said I did such a good job with the cleaning. I played with their daughters as if we were siblings too, and my mama said this is how things should be. We were lucky to work for a family who cared so well for us. We would be fools to break their trust.
But Bhekithemba had it harder. He smiled, but people saw mischief in his eyes. He was the troublemaker. The one who could not keep quiet. He looked at the family of mama’s boss and said to me, “You want to be like them? You think they are free? They drink the milk of the same tainted cow.” I warned him this demonstration against the Afrikaaners sounded too much like trouble. I warned him that little good could come of it. But he said, “We will be peaceful. Tsietsi has insisted upon it. We will only march. We bring only our words to counter their words. Even if they bring guns, we march in peace.” This mantra was his armor and he felt secure in its weight. This time it is the children who will stand up, and maybe it will work – for who could ignore the words of the innocent?
I nodded and waved in greeting to Mama Shabala, who shuffled barefoot down the dirt road, her skirt and blouse a bright cacophony rustling in the breeze. Her hand steadied the basket on her head and I adjusted the weight of my books, clutching the used copy of Macbeth to my chest like my own clumsy shield as I passed by.
As I drew nearer to the school, a melee of voices carried towards me on the wind. The children were gathering. I found my feet moving, not in the direction of my class, but instead towards the voices. I wound my way through the makeshift homes and came upon the gathering of students. My jaw dropped in stunned silence.
I had expected a hundred, maybe two hundred students. There were thousands. As I watched they began singing, the vibrant tones of “Nkosi sikeleli iAfrika” ringing through the streets. And in one long mass they began to march. I followed, unwilling to join them, but unable to turn away. They marched, voices raised in song, their black bodies drumming a rhythm that reverberated through the earth beneath them. Black fists raised in the air, with cries of “Amandla! Ngawethu!” Power to the people. Power to us. Their clothes were tattered, shabby and brown with dirt, but they walked with pride. Soon, students from Naledi, another high school, also joined in with their voices and their feet.
The demonstration did not go far before it reached a police barricade. The police pointed their weapons and raised their shields, preventing the students from going along their intended route. Some of the children began to call out. But Tsietsi warned the crowd not to provoke the police. He and other members of the student action committee tried to move the marchers down another route. They reminded everyone to stay calm and remember to the way of peace. I strained to find my brother in the thronging masses, but it was impossible to see.
Then, with a crack that pushed my heart out of my chest, a gunshot ripped through the air. Children screamed and began to run. Thick clouds of tear gas rushed over the crowds, the dogs began to bark, and the clatter of gunshots ricocheted and echoed all around us. It was chaos. Our eyes began to tear while our skin itched and burned, and we could not see which way to run as the police began to shoot indiscriminately into the fleeing crowds. Some of the kids threw rocks and stones in defiance, but most tried to run away.
But I, I did not run away. I dropped my schoolbooks and ran into the crowds. There was no thought, no plan. Only my brother. “Bhekithemba!” I screamed, calling out for my brother. “Bhekithemba! Where are you?” I ran through the pulsing masses, searching for my brother. I called his name, though I could not hear my own voice over the din. But I did not have far to run.
With a fist of iron clutching my chest, I saw the white-buttoned shirt of my brother. I ran to him, to where he lay in the street. I pulled him to me, staring at the gaping black red hole in his chest. I watched the stain spread, eating its way across the white. I watched and his hole became my hole. His wound became my wound. Where he had always seen, I had always turned a blind eye. But when the blood on your hands is the blood of your brother, it is your heart that bleeds. It is your blood, your hands, and your shame, no matter who pulled the trigger.
I clasped him to me, lifted him up and carried him, my tears mixing with his blood. He was too big for me to carry, but just then, I found strength I didn’t know belonged to me. Rioters and looters swarmed around me as I walked, but my ears were deaf to the broken glass. Patrol cars shepherded their way through the streets, but my eyes did not see them. I carried my brother through the stained streets of Soweto, singing a lullaby softly under my breath.
We came to an emergency clinic, where the staff was already overrun with the wounded and the dying. A medic came up to me, but he took one look at my brother and I saw the sadness in his eyes. Together, we laid his body down and the medic took notes on a clipboard. Cause of death, he wrote: abscess. Abscess: the pus that fills inflamed and diseased flesh. To protect the families of the protesters, he did not even bother to write a disease as the cause of death, he only wrote the symptom. The disease itself could not be fought directly; you can only ease the pain by drawing the poison out. The disease is too big, too great to cure all at once. We can only try to kill it, abscess by abscess.
I passed my hand in prayer over my brother’s closed eyes. “Uhamba kahle,” I whispered into his ear. I raised my head and looked at all the wounded bodies in the clinic, and saw all my brothers and all my sisters. “Uhamba kahle,” I said again, louder, to all my brethren, and as I did so, I watched the guilt seep out like sweat from my open pores. And tomorrow, when the police come with their dogs and their mace and their tanks and their guns, I will stand. I will stand for my brother, tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
Author’s note: This work of fiction is based on real-life events. On June 16, 1976, students marched in Soweto to protest the Bantu apartheid government’s law dictating all lessons must be taught in Afrikaans. Most students and even many teachers could not speak Afrikaans, only English or Zulu or other tribal languages. The law not only sought to force the Africans to conform to a language they saw as the language of the oppressor, it effectively cut them off from their education until they learned to speak Afrikaans. So the students marched. Their plan was to just walk through the streets of Soweto, sing the national anthem (which is in Zulu), and then go home. They emphasized peaceful demonstration and non-violent civil disobedience. But when the students met the police barricade – it is unclear what exactly happened, a student might have thrown a stone – the police responded with gunfire and teargas. Even as the students began to run away, the police continued to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. An estimated 20,000+ students marched that day, and over 360 children were killed in the ensuing violence. Doctors at emergency clinics wrote false claims on their medical files because writing “gunshot wounds” would have made the families of the victims targets for the authorities. This tragedy caused a massive shift in anti-apartheid sentiment and is seen as one of the major catalysts for the movement to overthrow the apartheid government, which did not happen until almost 18 years later, in 1994.