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A mother speaks

“I greet you with a broken heart.” This was how Cecilia Ngcobo began her story of how her children have been taken from her, by death and by detention.

She was speaking at APARTHEID ON TRIAL, an all-day protest meeting held at the University of the Witwatersrand on 23 April. It was organised by the Free the Children Alliance.

The ‘trial’ was held to show the world how the system of apartheid treats its children. And many ‘witnesses’ came to tell their story. There were doctors, lawyers, social workers, priests, mothers and, of course, the children themselves.

They spoke about detention, torture and vigilantes. They spoke about children coming out of detention and not being able to sleep at night. They spoke about what apartheid has done — and is still doing — to the children of this country.

The meeting heard that since the government brought in the first state of emergency in 1985, over 8000 children have been detained. At the moment 300 children are still in detention.


Cecilia Ngcobo from Soweto was the first ‘witness’ to speak at Wits. She is the mother of eleven children.

Ma Cecilia, who has worked as a night cleaner in Johannesburg for the past 20 years, told the meeting what it is like to bring up children under apartheid — and of the hardships mothers have to suffer when their children are part of the struggle for a better South Africa.

She spoke of the heavy price her children have paid. Three have been detained. One of them is still in detention. Another is dead. Her eldest son, Jabulani, was killed in Swaziland by soldiers from South Africa on 16 December 1984.


When Ma Cecilia heard that Jabulani was dead, she went to Swaziland to bring his body home. “His body had more than 100 bullets. There were bullet-holes even in his hands,” she told Learn and Teach after the meeting.

“At first they wouldn’t give me the body. I had to fight for a long time to get it. I felt very hurt. I just wanted to bury his body.”

It cost her R784 to bring the body back to Soweto, and R356 for the coffin — more than three month’s wages.


Ma Cecilia’s suffering began in 1982, when her second son Chris was arrested at Fort Hare university in the Ciskei. Chris was a member of the Azanian Students’ Organisation (AZASO). He was detained for eleven months.

At that time Cecilia didn’t know about organisations like the DPSC that helped the families of detainees — so she went to the Ciskei by herself. She was not allowed to see him.

When Chris came out of detention, he went to study at Wits university. He was detained again in June 1986. The next day they took her third son, Bheki. At this time Ma Cecilia did not sleep.

At night she worked — and in the day she went to police stations, and to lawyers and the DPSC for help and advice. Her husband Maxwell, who works as a driver, was not able to help her. He works during the day — and if he does not work, there will be no food for the family.

Cecilia went from one police station to another looking for her sons. “They wouldn’t tell me anything. I tried for a whole week. In the end some students phoned. They didn’t give their names, but they told me where my children were.”


In June 1987 Bheki’s twin brother, Gerry, was also detained. Gerry was an organiser for the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

But Ma Cecilia’s problems didn’t end there. The “blackjacks” and the army raided the Ncgobo home again and again. “They turned the house upside down — stoves, fridges, everything. The blackjacks couldn’t read, so they took everything, even my church book. When I complained they threatened to beat me.”

Gerry was charged with keeping banned literature. The SACC paid his R300 bail, and he was released in August 1987. He was then charged and found not guilty in February 1988. Bheki, was released in July 1987. Chris is still in detention at Diepkloof Prison, 21 months later.

But even when the children come home from prison, there is no peace. Three days after Bheki came out of prison, the SADF came to the house at four o’clock in the morning. “They took me and beat me up,” says Bheki. “The next day they brought me home. Now I don’t like to sleep in my house. I am afraid they will come back.”


Ma Cecilia Ngcobo has been through a lot with her children — but like a true mother, she has stood by her children through thick and thin. It has not been easy: now she has high blood pressure because of all the worry. Her doctor has told her that she will have a heart attack if she is not careful.

Ma Cecilia’s health has suffered — but that does not mean her spirit is also broken. One good thing has come out of all the suffering. She is no longer afraid.

“I used to be afraid. Now I am not,” she says.

The same is true for many of the other ‘witnesses’ who spoke at Wits university. They had also suffered, or seen suffering. But like Ma Cecilia, the fear is gone. They are not afraid to stand up and talk about it.

They were not afraid to say that the children of this country have suffered enough. They were not afraid to agree with the speaker who said: “A country that destroys its children is destroying its own future.”

The verdict at the end of the ‘trial’ was clear. ”Apartheid: guilty as charged!”

NEW WORDS alliance — when different groups work together to fight for the same thing witness — a person who speaks about something they have seen torture — when people are badly treated, like when they are beaten, given electric shocks or kept alone for a long time in a prison cell threaten — to scare somebody with words banned literature — books, magazines and papers that are against the law release — to set free verdict — the decision at the end of a trial: guilty or not guilty


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