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Starting over

Brian Mashile is one of the few blind lawyers in South Africa. His story serves as an inspiration to us all …

It was six o’clock on a dark and smoky evening in Alexandra township. Brian Mashile – then a young man of 16 ­was standing outside a friend’s house, chatting to his schoolmates.

Suddenly, a gang of hostel dwellers came down the street. One of them hit Brian in the face, breaking his glasses. As Brian lay screaming in pain, his attackers ran away. They did not know that they had permanently damaged their victim’s eyes – and that he would never see again.

The weeks and months that followed the attack were a time of great suffering for Brian. It was a long while before he was able to find the strength and the will to fight back. Slowly but surely, he started to build a new life for himself. His courage paid off. Today Brian is one of the few blind lawyers in South Africa.


It was perhaps the hardship of Brian Mashile’s early life that prepared him for the long road he would travel after first getting a rare disease as a child and then being so cruelly robbed of his sight.

The youngest of seven children, he was born in Alexandra in 1963 to a poor family. His father became ill soon after Brian was born and had to have a leg amputated. He never worked again. Brian’s mother passed away when he was only seven years old.

“Because my father did not have a job, my two brothers, Steve and Edwin, helped to put me through school,” says Brian. “But money was always a problem and so I was forced to leave school and look for work.

“I took many jobs when I left school. I worked as a gardener and later as a messenger sending and collecting letters from the Post Office. Then I worked at a factory in Durban that makes planks. All the while, I was dreaming of going back to school. I was trying to save enough money, but it was not very easy since I was only earning R29.00 a week.”

Finally, in 1977, Brian’s dream came true and he entered the Ben-Matlushe Sec­ondary school in Bushbuckridge to finish his education. But his dream of completing his education was not to be. In June the same year, Brian fell ill and was forced to leave school again.


“I began to have problems with my lungs and eyes,” he says. “When I looked down, it felt like my eyes were falling. I could not see properly as it felt like there was smoke all around me.”

Brian visited an eye specialist, but the doctor could not find the problem. That year, Brian wrote exams with his eye problems and still passed.

But his eyes did not get better and so Brian was sent to the St John’s Eye Hospital. There, the doctors said he had Sarcoidosis, a rare disease that attacks the tissues of the lungs and eyes.

After a year of treatment, he was able to see again but the disease had weakened Bri­an’s left eye and he was forced from then on to wear glasses.

While he was sick, Brian missed a year of school. So it was a very happy Brian who started school again the next year at Alex High. But more sorrow was to come.


During the late 70’s, there was much ten­sion between the unemployed youth and the migrant workers in the townships. Some of the youth called the migrant workers “moegoes” and used to rob them of their money and possessions.

To protect themselves, the migrant work­ers would carry knobkierries and go around in gangs. It was not unusual to see as many as 15 people going together to the shops-just to buy a loaf of bread!

This happened in most of the townships but in Alexandra there was a group of people from the Transkei called the Ama­-Baca. The aim of this group was not just to protect themselves -they also attacked people, especially the youth.

Everybody feared the Ama-Baca. When people saw them coming down the road, they would flee in all directions. And if one of the Ama-Baca was attacked, there would be days of terrible revenge. The Ama-Baca caused a “reign of terror” in the townships and the young Brian was one of the innocent victims of this terror.


It happened one evening as Brian was chatting to two friends in John Brandt Street, Alexandra.

“The Ama-Baca were coming down the street in two’s and fours,” says Brian. “I myself was not aware they were coming until my friend shouted: ‘Nawa Ama-Baca’-‘Here come the Ama-Baca’ and ran away.

“Four of them came up to me. They greet­ed me saying: ‘Ewe, ninjani ke Magwedi­ni’. Then a fifth man arrived and wanted to hit me with his knobkierrie. The others stopped him, saying: This boy has done nothing. Why do you want to beat him?’

“The men apologised with ‘Ngiya xolisa’ and went away saying goodbye. I replied: ‘Ni hambeni kahle’, meaning ‘Go well’. That was when one of them struck a blow on my right eye. I was wearing my glass­es and I fainted.”

Brian never saw the man who struck the blow that was to rob him of his eyesight for the rest of his life.


Brian was taken first to the Alex Clinic and then to Baragwanath Hospital. There were long queues at the hospital that night and it was two hours before Brian saw a doctor. The doctor sent him to StJohn’s Hospital. At the hospital, Brian was told that the operating rooms were booked up and he would have to wait.

Brian remembers the terrible pain. “They gave me tablets and injections to try and stop the pain, but I could not stop crying. I cried the whole weekend.”

After a five day wait, Brian was operated on. When he was attacked, pieces of glass from his spectacles shattered into his eyes. The doctors removed the glass from his eyes and took out one eye and put an artificial one in.

Brian’s face was green and his eyes were swollen. He tried to see, but bit by bit, he lost his sight-until he was completely blind.


“This was the most bitter time of my life,” says Brian. “I was sent to a rehabilitation centre to learn knitting. I stayed for three weeks but left after Christmas. I felt bitter that they did not help me improve my eyesight. And I didn’t want to spend my life knitting. I just wanted to kill myself.

“One day when my brother went to work, I took an old kitchen knife. I put it on my left side, where the heart is, and pressed it. I pricked my chest. But when I felt the pain, I changed my mind and put the knife down.

“Then, in February 1980, I was sent back to St John’s Hospital. I wanted to try to commit suicide again by jumping off the top floor. I was very disappointed when I found that there was only one floor!”

Brian says he was lucky to have such a caring brother like Steve. His jokes and his good spirit helped Brian to overcome his bitterness.

So did a certain nurse at the St John’s Eye Hospital. “I fell in love with this nurse,” says Brian. “And it was then that I realised that I could have a life like every­body else.” Brian learnt to read and type in Braille. In Braille, words are printed in raised dots so that blind people can feel the words with their fingers.

“I learnt English, Afrikaans and Sotho in Braille. I was taught how to cook for myself, to clean and how to walk without help. That was the beginning of a new life for me.”


The following year, he went back to Alex High and completed his matric. Because he could not read ordinary books, Brian used books in Braille as well as tapes to study with. Then he enrolled at the Uni­versity of the Witwatersrand to do a BA and went on to do his LLB (law degree). He graduated in 1988.

Brian will always be remembered at Wits where he spent six years living on the campus residence. He used to walk to his lectures without help from other people.

And he was a familiar sight at political meetings and rallies. “I was also a mem­ber of the Black Students Society. I did not miss a single meeting or rally. I was there, although not in the leadership.”

While at Wits, Brian studied using tapes and books in Braille. After he graduated, he joined a Johannesburg law firm called Edward, Nathan & Friedland, where he is presently doing his articles.

To help him with his work as a lawyer, Bri­an’s friends decided and try to raise money to buy him a special machine. The machine has a computer, a voice, a print­er and reader all in one. Brian will only have to put a disk in the computer and the reader will read it out to him. The money has now been collected and Brian will soon be the proud owner of this amazing machine.


It has been a long uphill struggle for Brian since the time he lost his eyesight. How does he feel about the people who attacked him? “I do not blame the people who attacked me and I do not feel bitter. I know that it is the apartheid system that created and encouraged the division of our people into ‘urbanised’ and ‘migrant’ and tribal groupings.

“But I am glad that I was not born blind. At least I had the chance to see colours and know about the environment. And when people talk about something, I can get a picture in my mind. I feel for those who were born blind.”

It is truly remarkable that Brian can feel sorry for others while he himself feels no self-pity. It is even more remarkable that, through it all, Brian has kept his sense of humour.

He tells this funny story: “The other day I was sitting with a friend and talking. Then my friend left the room without my know­ing. I carried on talking. Suddenly, another person came into the room and said: ‘Hi Brian, why are you talking to yourself?’ Maybe people forget that I cannot see.”

That’s Brian – brave, strong and always ready to share a laugh. He is surely an example to us all!


amputate – when a surgeon cuts off a leg or arm during an operation a rare disease – a sickness that very few people get remarkable – something that impresses you or something you admire


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