issue 210 - August 1990
The heinous crime of being there
A policeman is killed. Anyone seen anywhere near the crime is guilty.
This is not the theme of a novel by Franz Kafka - but the legal system
of South Africa. Fourteen people from Upington are to hang and another
22 are serving long prison sentences. Lydia Nompondwana's
husband is one of them. She spoke to the NI.
I am here to get support for those on Death Row and those imprisoned and also to get financial help for their families. The prisoners are being held in Pretoria and Kimberley so we have to travel long distances to get to see them. Pretoria is 900 kilometres away - so families can only afford to visit twice a month.
Some people think our case happened because the black people of South Africa are protesting violently and just want to go around making trouble. That is not the truth.
Our district. Pahallelo, is part of a very poor township, Upingion. There are about 10,000 black people living there. We used to live with the coloured people in the beginning, but in the 1960s we were moved over the railway line and our conditions got a lot worse. There are not enough houses for the people and we don't have electricity or made-up roads. We have a problem with bad drainage - the drains overflow and you can just imagine what goes onto the street. Our people make their living by doing domestic work for white people.
Background to a killing
The main problem that led to the killing of the policeman Jemma Sethwala was high rents. There's no money, so automatically the people got behind with their payments. There were no political organizations then. It's only now, after the arrest of our people, that the youth have started organizing themselves and getting involved in the UDF (United Democratic Front).
For years our town councillors were elected by the Government. The only elections were in late 1984, when Kenneth Kumala was elected Mayor. There were pamphlets distributed in the township. The police went around with loudspeakers and told people there was a sort of reform, that we must be ruled by black councillors. Kenneth was the only person at that time who knew something about politics. We believed he could achieve something for us.
After he was elected a meeting with him was arranged. Some of the old people went to the municipal offices to talk to the Mayor about our problems with paving rent. The meeting was fixed for Sunday 10 November 1985.
The meeting went well and was attended by all the people in the township. As we left people started singing. We found out that the police had been told about the meeting and that they were already in the township. They started to chase people. And that was when the trouble started. People started stoning the police and the police used tear-gas and ran in among us. That made people very angry.
It was the first time anything like this had happened in Paballelo. Even in 1976 when there were lots of riots and strikes all over the country we were not part of it. This was the first time we had felt the effects of tear-gas. It made the whole township angry. A small boy was blinded by a tear-gas canister that exploded near where he was playing. He's still blind now.
A pregnant woman shot
The riots continued from Sunday afternoon through the whole night. Youths set fire to cars that had radios inside them. (Everyone knows it's only the cars of police or police informers that have those radios.) One belonged to a taxi-driver, the other to a teacher.
On Monday afternoon extra police were brought in from nearby towns. There were already too many of them by that time. A young pregnant woman was shot dead that afternoon. The riots went on.
On Tuesday night a police captain arrived from Kimberley. He started talking to a group of youths in King Street - that's one street from mine. He asked them 'Why are you fighting? I'm here in the name of law and order. We come in peace. But if any of you stones us, we won't play, you know, we are serious. So why don't you talk about your problems? That's the best way to solve them.'
Everybody thought 'Oh gosh! At last, there are white men who are prepared to listen!' One of the people now on Death Row translated for the police who was speaking in Afrikaans - he is one of those on Death Row now! People started going around and saying 'Did you hear? The police are prepared to talk. None of us wants a violent situation. I mean, a pregnant woman has already been shot dead.'
So the following morning people started organizing themselves. We decided to have a meeting with the police and then to go back to work afterwards. We could explain to our bosses about the trouble.
The meeting was arranged. We waited for the captain from Kimberley but be didn't turn up. So people started singing the national anthem. We asked a Reverend to say a prayer.
As soon as he said 'Amen' the first tear-gas canister fell. They gave us no time to disperse. The police formed a triangle. There was only one way we could go. People smarted going into yards to get some water to wash their faces and get rid of the irritation of the tear gas.
The death of Jetta Sethwala
Now, we don't hate policemen. It's their way of dominating people that makes them very unpopular. It's their behaviour when they are in that uniform and they know the law is on their side.
You had to go past Jetta Sethwala's house to get out of the meeting. People started going into his yard to get water. He panicked. He shot two bullets through the window into the crowd. A nine-year-old boy was hit and paralysed. Everybody started stoning Jetta's house. He ran out and tried to get to the place where the other police were. He turned back and fired another shot into the crowd. That frightened the people. Justice Bekebeke got into a fight with him. He overpowered the policeman and beat him with his rifle. That was what killed Jetta. Justice made a confession in court, admitting that he was the one responsible.
But the 'common purpose' law was used against us as it was used against the Sharpeville Six. That made all the people who were even seen there killers. We couldn't understand it. If the family who were in Jetta's house saw you, you were a killer. That's what happened to my husband Enoch - he was just coming back from work.
And it is what happened to Evelina de Bruin - the only woman on Death Row in South Africa. She only went in to Jetta's yard to use his tap. When he refused she went to the people in the house opposite. They gave her some water and she went home - long before Jetta was killed. She is an old woman. We are very concerned about her.
It seems to us they are using the 'common purpose' law to frighten people so they won't get involved. Even now, when we come back from visiting the prisoners, our own families don't want to get involved, they are frightened. And since the killing of Jemma, the police have shot dead nine people. Not one has been charged or is on Death Row. They have even been promoted. They are still among us in the township.
I must add that we have not seen any real improvements since the unbanning of the ANC. If anything the attitude of the authorities has got worse. I'll give you an example. Recently the police ran over my dog. He was badly injured and in great pain so I went to the police station and asked them to come and shoot him. The police replied: 'Go and ask Mandela to do it.'
Letters of support and donations can be sent to the Upington 36 via City Group Anti-Apartheid, BM Box City AA, London WCI 3XX, UK.
Letters of protest can be sent to Mr FW De Klerk, President of South Africa, Government Buildings, Pretoria, South Africa.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7