Saturday, June 27, 2015

Guest Post: 'The New South African Flag Never Looked So Beautiful'

EASTERN CAPE, South Africa -- One of my favorite memories of the historical work I did in South Africa was when a car full of black South Africans -- a community leader's four tough and well armed bodyguards -- saw the new South African flag flying for the first time.

It was during the first democratic election in April, 1994, which took place over four days. I was moving around the countryside with provincial ANC leader Smuts Ngonyama, who had been to hell and back during the struggle and transition years. He had survived and had cast his vote for the first time. Smuts wanted to see what was happening in the outlying towns . . . villages, really . . . so I was squished behind two armed bruisers in the backseat of a VW Golf. A real life "shotgun" rider was in the front, and an armed driver was wheeling along the country roads at an insanely fast speed.  Smuts, an ANC colleague, and two more bodyguards were in the car in front of us.

It had been a rough year. It had actually been a rough life, but the previous two years of the transitional phase were particularly bruising for ANC leaders like Smuts in this region called Ciskei.

Ciskei was a country that never existed to the rest of the world. It was one of nine imaginary countries, called Tribal Homelands, established by the apartheid government of South Africa, designed to deny black South Africans citizenship to white South Africa. By drawing boundaries around the traditional black (known as African) areas and by brute force shoving all Africans into those areas, they created both white security and a ready source of cheap labor by then issuing passes to those homeland residents so they could hold jobs and live in hostels in white South Africa. The homelands had their own governments, presidents, and armies, supported by the South African government. The homeland officials were considered to be collaborators.

When the handwriting was on the wall that the homelands would be dissolved into a new and democratic South Africa, and those homeland leaders would lose their jobs, some threw mighty tantrums in the form of brutal assassinations of ANC leaders whom they held responsible for this change in the weather.

The whole thing was bizarre.

For my first trip to South Africa in 1988 I had a visa for South Africa. But, to be able to travel into the rural areas where the villages were, I had to get a separate visa from the Transkei Homeland office in Washington. On my last day in South Africa I passed through a border post into Transkei- like any other border post. I would not be allowed into South Africa again, and would have to fly out of Umtata, a small Transkei town, and be treated as a transit visitor to make a connection in Johannesburg for London.

Transkei residents had Transkei passports but because Transkei was not recognized as a real country by the rest of the world, those passports were virtually worthless for international travel. Which victimized those Africans twice over.

Once I was in Transkei, I discovered there were many back roads that did not have border posts, that went in and out of the small pockets of white South Africa that were within the greater Transkei borders. The telltale sign was the quality of the roads and electrical service.

Ciskei was like Transkei with a major border post on the main road, but not on the back roads. The border post had official customs agents, and above it flew the South African and Ciskei flags.

During the years that Smuts Ngonyama was at the top of the Ciskei president’s assassination list, he had to be very careful of where those invisible borders were. In 1992, simply by crossing an invisible line, we knew he had just sprouted a huge bulls eye on his back. Then it went from being bizarre to downright scary. The Ciskei troops were adept at assassination. We had already visited a village home in which residents had been killed by grenades. We also attended the funeral of a colleague, also killed by grenade on his front porch.

A few days before the 1994 election, I attended  a ceremony in front of the Ciskei Parliament building in Bisho, the capital of Ciskei, with Smuts. It was just a short distance from the Bisho stadium where, in 1992, Ciskei troops mowed down protestors who were carrying a letter to the Ciskei president, begging him to stop the violence against the ANC. Thirty-nine protestors died. Smuts was a survivor.

The ceremony was the lowering of the Ciskei flag and the raising of the new South African flag. After an hour of blather about the worthiness of the Ciskei leaders until a preacher stood up and spoke the truth about the corrupt system and then there was a deathly silence. Everyone knew it was the truth. Then the Ciskei Troops -- the ones who had carried out the assassinations and terror over the years -- did a final march around the square. The people in the stands cheered them! I was dumbfounded. Smuts said, "The people are showing their forgiveness of those men." That was one of my first lessons in TIA -- This is Africa.

The pre-election violence continued to be hectic until the first day of the election. Then, a peaceful hush settled over the entire country as the residents of all races, of all regions- now citizens- cast their votes. It was a miracle.

But it didn’t feel like it, two days later, as I was suffering in the back seat of that VW Golf with those scary guys with their scary guns praying the scary driver will not go too fast around a curve and kill us all. Or, that some suspicious character will come too close to the cars and a frantic shooting spree would start. Still, I make a mental note that some day I would return to this area to photograph the beautiful countryside around me.

When darkness had fallen and there was nothing to see - the rural homes did not have electricity then -  I saw the Ciskei Border Post ahead. There had been some discussion among Smuts and the bodyguards as to whether they should take the route that passed the border post. Would they have trouble crossing it? It had always been something to avoid. But, the post was deserted. And, above it, in the glory of a huge Hollywood spotlight, was the new South African flag.

It has never looked so beautiful.

Those scarred and scary men, who had spent years in violent combat of one form or another, became little boys in their joy and amazement. I didn’t need to understand their language to know that. That flag, that piece of cloth was the end of oppression to them. It made change and hope a reality. It gave them citizenship of the land on which we travelled. The war was over.
It's 2015 and I live on a farm a few miles outside Bisho, which is now spelled Bhisho, most of the time. I can see the town from some parts of my land. It remains busy, as it now holds government offices for the Eastern Cape Province, which now incorporates Ciskei and most of Transkei.

Warfare for us is about invading goats and meercat poaching.

There is a large memorial garden next to the Bhisho Stadium where the 39 protestors were killed by Ciskei troops. A community center has been under construction next door to the memorial for over two years now and doesn’t appear to be anywhere near completion. TIA.

The horizon upon which I gaze from the front veranda of my home stretches across rolling fields toward the Amatola Mountains. The sun sets behind those mountains. On a clear day I can see distant African communities. It has only been in recent years that I have been able to see them at night, as they have become electrified.

When I drive toward town, I pass a site on which some large concrete pieces of construction remain. It is what remains of the Ciskei Border Post, the rest of that building having been redistributed for better uses among the locals a long time ago. (TIA- nothing goes to waste)

All that remains is the name. Because now, this location is called "Border Post."  I would bet that a good many of the "Born Free's," those born after 1994, don’t know why.

How wonderful it would be if a new generation of Americans could look at a picture of the Confederate flag and see it as a symbol of a distant past. The lowering of that flag is a significant step in the right direction. Maybe a new United States needs a new flag.
Susan Winters is a photojournalist and humanitarian who has lived in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa since 1997. She previously was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was her editor when she made several trips to South Africa to chronicle the enormous changes in that country after future President Nelson Mandela's release from prison. 
Winters' photo essays on a regional African National Congress leader's struggle to survive transitional political violence and on life in squalid townships where few white journalists would go won the prestigious 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Pulitzer for photojournalists. From 1997 to 2003, Winters published an AIDS education periodical and has produced several documentaries.  She is the author of Nozuko's Story: The Story of an African Family, which chronicles in words and photographs a young woman's journey through sickness and survival, hope and despair, and brave activism on behalf of HIV/AIDS sufferers.

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