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Authors: Sandy Blackburn-Wright

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BOOK: Holding Up the Sky

Eventually, we disembarked from the train in Jo'burg. After spending several days there with other friends of Matt's, we continued our journey on to Pietermaritzburg, which was to be our home for the next few months. 'Maritzburg, a quiet university town in the Natal Midlands, is sometimes referred to as Sleepy Hollow. But we were soon to discover that nothing could be further from the truth.



But its natural beauty belies a bloody past. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Zulu warrior Shaka was forcing allegiance from the Nguni-speaking farming communities who had lived scattered through the region for centuries, forming them into the powerful Zulu nation. The first white settlers in the province were the English who established Durban as a trading port in 1824, a few years before Shaka was assassinated. The Zulus tolerated this minor incursion into their kingdom as it provided a useful trading opportunity for them. However, less than fifteen years later, several thousand voortrekkers–farmers and adventurers of Dutch descent– had crossed the mighty Drakensburg ranges and settled in the province. A series of bloody wars followed as each group fought for domination of the land the Zulus called ‘heaven'. The small city of Pietermaritzburg, just under an hour from Durban and the coast, was now a city divided. The predominant language in town was English, though Afrikaans was spoken at the many government institutions. The Zulu-speaking descendants of the once great kingdom lived in shanty towns on the outskirts of the city, burdened with the various pass laws and work restrictions that ruled their daily lives. The descendants of the indentured Indian labourers who arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century to work on the sugar plantations along the north coast also now lived in their own segregated townships, as did the mixed race or ‘coloured' community who developed their own distinct language and culture. But we were yet to understand the complexity of the situation, and the harshness with which it was enforced.

It was almost dusk as we drove into Pietermaritzburg. We took the first turn-off as instructed and drove along Bush Road as it wound up into the hills. We finally saw the sign, ‘Centre for African Renewal', and stopped the car; the tar road gave way to a dirt track with the seemingly appropriate name of ‘Nonsuch Road'. As the mist fell, we followed this track through a forest filled with the screeching of monkeys, finally rounding a corner into a clearing. Lights glowed from the windows of a cluster of white-washed Dutch Cape buildings peppered across a sweeping green lawn. We had arrived.

Following the sounds of laughter, we climbed the broad stairs to the dining hall in the largest building, crossed the wide veranda and entered through the French doors that were open to let in the cool evening breeze. The hall contained a number of long wooden tables and around these tables sat the thirty or so people we would be living with in the months ahead. Ernie was the first to jump up and shout a greeting, ushering us over to the nearest table and introducing us to those seated there. Within a few minutes, we were surrounded by people enquiring about our drive down from Jo'burg and inviting us to join them for supper.

Steven, the program director, was at home with his family and we would meet him in the morning. The group of trainee youth workers with whom we would be living and working came from all over southern Africa and from many different communities. They introduced themselves as Vusi, a Zulu-speaking guy from Natal; blonde-haired, blue-eyed Gary who had been studying at Rhodes University; Xhosa-speaking Msizi from Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape; Kedrick from Zambia; Mary-Anne, an English-speaking woman from Cape Town; and Tshidi, another Zulu speaker from the north coast of Natal.

That first night, I found Msizi quite hard to talk to. Whether it was my own self-consciousness or his natural reserve, I'm not sure. The rest of the group was warm and welcoming. Over dinner they told us stories of the first six weeks of the year-long program. Because it was church-based the theory included theology, bible study, prayer and meditation, and the practical component allowed them to engage in community issues, trying to make a contribution. There were, apparently, mixed views in the organisation about the nature of the practical work as some felt it was a little too political. We didn't really understand what was meant by that but Gary assured us that Steve would give us a full briefing in the morning.

After dinner, we were shown to our rooms. Matt, Chook and Charlie would be staying in a cottage near the dining hall, bunking in with one of the many volunteers who came to work with the organisation. Bee, Liz and I would be living with the trainees in the big house up the hill. The trainees' house, once we finally reached it, was almost a kilometre further up the road from the main cluster of buildings, deep in the forest near the home of Steve and his family. The house was newly built, as this was the first year of the program. However, given its remoteness, the electricity was yet to be connected. So we unloaded our gear into a dark house as our new housemates lit candles in each of the rooms. I was shown to a small room in the back half of the house while Bee and Liz opted to share a larger room off the front lounge. I unpacked and fell into bed, very happy to have arrived at last.

I awoke to a morning as misty as the night before and lay snuggled in my warm bed. Within moments, a blood-curdling scream propelled me out into the corridor. Gary was quietly reading in the lounge, seemingly unperturbed. Calmly, he explained that the screaming was a morning ritual in the house.

‘You see, it's not only lights we are missing, it's also hot water. Msizi has a theory that if you scream, the water doesn't feel so cold.' Nodding towards the nearby bathroom, he added: ‘Seems Kedrick agrees with him'.

A few minutes later, I experienced for myself just how cold water can be in the first week of autumn, even in Africa. While I was tempted to try the screaming theory, I settled for a land speed showering record instead. My mother would have been proud.

I walked down to breakfast with Gary. Of average height and build, with a kind face and demeanour, Gary had a peacefulness about him that put you in the mood to talk. After studying theology at Rhodes University he had taken an extra year to do this program in preparation for his future ministry in the Methodist church. On our walk down to the dining hall I learnt about Gary's interests and the love of his life, Vicky, who was still finishing her studies in Grahamstown. He heard from me about the chain of events that had brought me here, including details of my childhood fascination with all things African.

After breakfast we walked across the wet lawns, leaving our footprints in the dew, past the small lake with a chapel on an island in its centre, and up the gentle slope to the meeting room that was attached to the office block. All staff and volunteers met each morning for devotions. I was surprised at how many people worked at the centre. Some were paid staff, but many, like us, were volunteers from all over the world. Despite its seeming remoteness, it was a surprisingly cosmopolitan environment.

After devotions, we met with Steve for introductions and a briefing. Steve was an impressive character. Originally from England, he met and married Beth, a South African woman, at Bible College. They had been living in South Africa for seven years. Steve and Beth had two children, an angelic blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl and a boy, dark-haired and devilish, in whom the trainees invested serious effort trying to avoid. Steve was charismatic and articulate, with a dry English wit. He spoke passionately about the current situation in Pietermaritzburg.

A township is an area on the outskirts of each South African town where ‘non-white' families were allowed to live. It is near enough to the town to allow black workers to service its industries, shops and homes, but not so close that white families have to see it. There are also separate townships for each of the other racial groups that call South Africa home. During the apartheid era, each was divided up neatly into its own areas, to live and prosper in what was called ‘separate development'. It might have been an interesting social experiment if each racial group had been given the same level of resources to work with. That's where the experiment came undone.

When we arrived in Pietermaritzburg, the townships were like war zones. The two warring parties were the African National Congress, or ANC, whose leader was Nelson Mandela; and the Inkatha Freedom Party, or IFP, under the Zulu tribal leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Steve told us that the South African police were working in partnership with Inkatha to bring down the ANC in the area. Thousands had been killed in the violence to date and thousands more were currently detained without trial. It seemed almost impossible to believe that only fifteen minutes drive from our idyllic community centre in the forest, such events were taking place. But from the looks on the faces of our black fellow trainees, this was real.

Though Buthelezi had once been a member of the ANC, during his student days he revived a Zulu cultural organisation which refused to support sanctions against the South African government or respond to the ANC call for arms. Being of royal Zulu blood, he chose instead to lead the Buthelezi clan and ultimately the IFP down a different road, one that allegedly had close ties with the national government and other foreign governments sympathetic to the apartheid regime. In so doing, he set himself against the ANC and the other liberation movements in South Africa. His Inkatha constituency was largely based amongst the rural, more conservative Zulu people, as opposed to the urban dwelling Zulus in the townships. So the lines were drawn and the blood would flow.

Steve completed the briefing by explaining more about the program and what we would be doing over the next few weeks, before we all piled into the centre's kombis and were driven into town. The director of the organisation, David, was holding a lunchtime prayer meeting in the Town Hall in an effort to bring the attention of the white community to the lives being lost on their doorstep. The media was not covering the murderous events in its own city and most white people had few avenues for finding out what was really going on. At first, I found this almost impossible to believe. How could someone not know what is happening ten minutes from home? Only later did I realise how separate people's lives were. The only black people your average white South African was likely to meet were those who worked in their homes. I learnt that it was rarely in the interests of the blacks to educate their employers about the bloodshed that was all around. It was far safer to smile and say nothing.

At the end of the prayer meeting, David invited all those in the packed hall to take part in a peace march that church leaders were organising in two weeks time. It struck me how different this event was to the prayer meetings I had been to in Sydney. The events that we prayed for here were in our backyard, not safely thousands of kilometres away in some vaguely defined part of Asia or India. I also understood that joining a public march here in 'Maritzburg would put each person under the gaze of the police. Steve had explained on the way into town that the police kept an eye on anyone involved in the peace talks, as David was, or in any cross-cultural or township work, as Steve and the trainees were and we soon would be. It was a sobering thought for a law-abiding Sydney girl who had never even had a school detention.

So from our first day, I realised that South Africa was going to be ‘in your face', that I would be constantly confronted with the question: ‘What do you stand for?' Not only that, I would have to decide what price I was prepared to pay for standing up for my beliefs. It's one thing to hammer on about what is right and wrong from the safety of the family dinner table; it is another thing altogether to risk your personal safety by taking a public stand on issues in front of a line of armed security police. At that moment, I could have opted to remain a tourist, but like a coffee lover smelling the aroma of the day's first brew, I sniffed a sense of purpose in the air and found it irresistible.

In the days that followed, we fell into a routine: meals in community, drama rehearsals and late nights up at the house. Steve and the team were already doing work in schools and were keen to incorporate the drama performances we had used in Zimbabwe. They also had some music prepared, and a few workshops on different issues as well as opportunities for members of the team to talk about their lives. Steve felt it was particularly important for kids at white schools to hear from the black trainees and understand a little more about them. As Msizi was a particularly gifted speaker, and both Vusi and Tshidi were quite shy, he was often given this role. Sometimes he spoke about his thoughts on hot issues such as conscription of young white men into the army, other times he read some of his poetry. Either way, he always had an impact.

When I first met Msizi, he took my breath away. He was tall, broad shouldered, dark skinned and beautiful. He had a quiet confidence that few of his peers possessed. He was also articulate and intelligent, always ready for a robust discussion on politics, sport, life and love. And lastly, he had a deep commitment to justice and the poor. I was in trouble.

Msizi was given his name by his mother. He was the second born son in his household and she named him ‘the one who helps' in the hope that one day he would. His youngest brother, born a few years after him, was named Jonga, ‘to look after', though it was mostly Msizi who ultimately did the looking after. He had grown up hard. His mother worked long hours in the homes of white families to support her own. His father was rarely around and if he was, rarely in a state to work. While Msizi grew up very close to his mother, he was frustrated by her tolerance of his father's behaviour. Until he moved to Pietermaritzburg, Msizi had lived with his family in Rini, a small township over the hill from Grahamstown.

The Eastern Cape produced more than its fair share of ANC leaders, the most notable of whom was Nelson Mandela. I have often wondered why this was the case. Some say that it was an old boys' network among Xhosa-speaking men. However, I think it was something to do with the harshness of the region and the harsh characters it produced. Perhaps the extremes turned blood into steel, forging the creation of both uncompromising activists and hard-nosed racists who were often in conflict with one another. Either way, Msizi was a son of the soil and his many childhood experiences of prejudice created a man who was deeply committed to the struggle for change and also deeply angry.

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