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The great man they once called “Skaapie”

Seabe is a hot and dry village north of Pretoria. An old man lives in this village. He lives with his wife and young son. His name is Marks Rammitloa. But most people know him as Modikwe Dikobe – the man who wrote a book called ‘The Marabi Dance’.

Modikwe Dikobe will turn 70 on the 13th March this year. He has lived a full 70 years. He has lived in the country. And he has lived in the city. He has seen many things – and he has written about these things.

Modikwe was born in 1913 in Mutse. Mutse is a village near Seabe. In the same year the government passed a law called the Land Act. This law gave most of the land in South Africa to the white people. Thousands of people lost their land. They went to the towns to find work.

When Modikwe was very young, his mother went to find work in Johannesburg. Modikwe stayed with his grandmother in the village. The young Modikwe looked after goats.

In Johannesburg Modikwe’s mother got married. She married a man called Mr.Rammitloa. She lived in Sophiatown. She wanted her son to live with her. So when Modikwe was 9 years old, he left Mutse. He went to live with his mother in the city.

Modikwe went to school in Sophiatown. The boys from Sophiatown were tough and naughty. People called them ‘laaities’. The ‘laaities’ gave Modikwe a hard time. They called him ‘skaapie’ – a new boy from the country who knew nothing about the city.

Modikwe’s mother left Sophiatown. They went to live in a shack in Doornfontein. In those days people did not live in locations or townships. They lived in places like Vrededorp, Prospect Township and Doornfontein. These places were called the slum yards.

Life was hard in the slumyards. The people did not have enough houses. Wages were low. And many people had no jobs.

But the people found ways to enjoy life. Women made beer. They sold the beer at parties and stokvels. The men played pianos and guitars. And the people danced their troubles away. Sometimes they danced at parties from Friday night to Sunday night.

The young Modikwe saw all these things. His mind was quick and sharp. The skaapie was learning about the ways of the city.

Then Mr. Rammitloa died in 1929. Modikwe was in standard six at the Albert Street school near Doornfontein. His mother had no money. She sold beer and washed clothes to pay the school fees.

But Modikwe saw his mother suffering. So he left school and got a job. He sold news papers.

Modikwe sold newspapers in town. A young girl worked nearby. Her name was Ruth. She came and sat with Modikwe. She talked to him while he worked.In 1936 Ruth and Modikwe got married. They lived in Newclare and Sophiatown. Then they went to live in Alexandra township.

In Alexandra Modikwe found much suffering. The people had no houses. Food was expensive and the wages were low. The people began to fight for a better life. And Dikobe tried to help them. He says these years were his ‘primary schooling in politics’.

The rents in Alexandra were high. In 1946 the people went to live in the veld. They were called squatters. The squatters wanted land to build their own houses. Modikwe went to live in the veld with them. He was one of their leaders.

Modikwe read a lot in these years. He studied at night school. He loved writing. He wrote about the people’s struggles in a newspaper. This newspaper was called ‘Inkululeko’ (Freedom). Then Modikwe went to live in Orlando. He began to fight for the rights of workers. He worked for the Shop and Office Workers Union.

Modikwe Dikobe’s life was full and busy. And then suddenly everything stopped. In 1960 the police arrested many people. They also arrested Modikwe. He did not stay in jail for long. But they did not let him work in politics or trade unions.

In 1963 Modikwe got a new job. He was a nightwatchman. Now life was slow and quiet. The nights were long and lonely. Modikwe had time to think. He took a pen and paper to work. And he started to write.

He wrote about the life and struggles of his people. He began to wite ‘The Marabi Dance’ – a book about life in the slumyards of Doornfontein.

Modikwe then left his wife. He married another woman called Betty. Modikwe was tired of the city. They went to live in the country. They lived in Seabe. Seabe is near the place where Modikwe was born.

Modikwe became a farmer. He grew sunflowers and mealies. But he did not stop writing. In the day he worked under the hot sun in the fields. After supper he lit a small paraffin lamp. And then he wrote until the late hours of the night.

He remembered his friends. He remembered the struggles of the people. He wrote poems from these memories. He put the poems in his new book. The book is called ‘The Dispossesed’

Modikwe is no longer a farmer. Last year the rains did not come. The mealies dried up and died. So he found work at the boarding school in Seabe. Now he looks after the children at night.“I am an old man now,” says Modikwe. “But I am still strong. I feel like a man of 40. I will write for many years.”

Modikwe Dikobe is a great South African. Learn and Teach wishes him a happy seventieth birthday!


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