On April 24, after spending more than two and a half years in prison and sitting through an 18 month trial, Moses Mayekiso, his brother, Mzwanele, Obed Bapela, Richard Mdakane and Paul Tshabalala — all from the Alexandra Action Committee — were acquitted on charges of treason, sedition and subversion. A few hours after their release, the “Alex Five” drove home to Alexandra for the first time in three years. Here, one of them, Obed Bapela, describes the journey:
It takes about half an hour to drive from Jo’burg’s city centre to Alex. But the journey seemed to take forever.
We were all impatient for we had missed our homes. We were longing for the township life. The life we were used to. We ached to see the simple things — like little girls playing “goops” and the boys kicking a ball in the streets.
As the two “Zola Budds” carrying us and a few of our friends and supporters travelled down the M1 North, it felt like we were making the trip for the first time. “Ha ke tsebe hore ke tla fihla lapeng.” (I don’t know if I will find my way home), I said out loud.
My comrades were silent, but as soon as we crossed over the bridge that leads from Louis Botha Avenue to Alex, they started a song. It was a victory song, a song celebrating our acquittal. Our vehicles started hooting to announce our homecoming. Onlookers stopped to stare at us and traffic came to a standstill.
At first people didn’t know what was happening. Then an old woman recognised us and shouted: “U’Mayekiso na Ma-comrades akhe, U’Thixo una mandla, imithandazo yethu ivakele.” (It is Mayekiso and his comrades, God is great for our prayers have been answered.)
Women ululated, men clenched their fists and the youth toyi- toyied after us as we slowly moved along the bumpy streets of Alexandra. In return we saluted our people. The word spread and more and more people poured out of their houses to greet us.
THE SAME OLD ALEX
In prison, we heard much about how Alex had changed in our absence — we were the ones, they said, who delayed the re-development of the township with the work we had done.
So I was excited, expecting to find a completely new Alex. I had a vision of a very bright city, with tar roads, a proper sewerage system and water- storm drains. A vision of a happy community.
But my dreams, hopes and visions were destroyed as we drove down 7th Avenue in the
“Mayekiso Section” of Alex. I saw the same old Alex I always knew. Houses in bad condition and overcrowding in the yards. Streets with potholes, with uncollected rubbish lying all over the place. The smell of dead dogs and cats, mixed with the stink from the buckets of night soil that stood outside the houses in the street. Some lay overturned on their sides, spilling into the little rivers of dirty water that is the drainage in Alex.
Yes, I was in the Alex I knew — the same Alex I left three years ago when I was detained one chilly winter evening in June 1986. The scars of bitterness were still written on the faces of many people. They were happy to see us but deep inside their hearts, they were sad. They poured out their problems to us, and said: “You are now back and you should immediately resume your leadership, for we want houses we can afford.”
By now it was getting difficult to see — and I remembered how Alex becomes dark as soon as the sun sets. The street lights — those that are still working — are weak. The smoke from the coal stoves and braziers, together with the blowing dust, pollutes and darkens the air. It is not for nothing that Alex is called the “Dark City.”
NO TURNING BACK
The next morning, we took a stroll through the streets of our township. The feeling of being with our people was there. So was the custom of being greeted by one and all — even those you don’t know. People greeted us in their different languages. “Dumelang, Sa ni bonani — Heyta daar coms — Ab’xeni, mo’lweni!”
The unity, the laughter, the bitterness, the frustrations, the pain, the hardships, and the neverending hope of the community — we all knew and had missed, slowly came back to us. And we asked ourselves: “Why were we jailed and why we were robbed of so much time?”
For the majority of people in Alex, nothing had changed. There have been some “improvements” — like the houses that have been built on the East Bank — a new area east of Alex.
But they are expensive and many residents cannot afford them. “Nothing is being built that we can afford,” one resident told us. “Life is going to be expensive for us in the “new” Alex. Now they want us to buy flats — but we don’t want a flat life!”
In a few parts of the “old Alex” roads have been tarred, some yards fenced, and there is electricity and drains for sewerage. These are the things which the community has been fighting for, all along. It is only now that the Council is providing them. Even so it is dragging its feet.
The Alex Action Committee was formed by residents in 1986 as a voice of the community. It called for the improvement of living conditions and an end to apartheid. The government saw our work as unlawful and charged us with treason, sedition and subversion.
But Judge Van der Walt found us not guilty. The work we did — like forming street committees — was legal.
My coming back into Alex was my happiest moment. The people were pleased to see us. We had been away a long time. Now we were home where we belonged — in a place where the desire for a bright future still burns strongly in the hearts of the people. The hope and the courage were still there.
We, together with the people, united as one, will continue where we left off. We will rebuild our organisations. We will once again come together in yard, block and street committees. Yes, that is what we will do. There is no turning back!
NEW WORDS to be acquitted — when a court finds you innocent of the charges against you and lets you go onlookers — people who gather to watch something re-development — to make a place better resume — to start again where you left off frustrations — when you are angry and upset and feel you can’t do much about it