Battling Apartheid

South Africa

new internationalist
issue 200 - October 1989

SYLVIA: battling apartheid
It can be dangerous for South Africans to appear in foreign TV
programmes. Chris Brazier phoned Sylvia to find out if she was safe.


JUNE 1987

[image, unknown]

Sylvia is a black South African schoolgirl who featured in the NI-produced TV documentary Girls Apart.

'.We have to be equal. We are fighting to be equal in South Africa'.

A funeral in Soweto. A 16-year-old girl works herself into a frenzy of grief for a friend killed by right-wing vigilantes. As the coffin is lowered into the earth, she talks to the dead girl directly, promising to consecrate herself to the struggle'. 'You were a soldier,' she half-sings, half-moans. 'You've made me a soldier.'

It was 1987 and the State of Emergency in South Africa was strangling the black opposition. The NI was filming what proved to be the climax to our film Girls Apart, which contrasted the life and opinions of this black schoolgirl, Sylvia, with those of a 16-year-old Afrikaner schoolgirl.

Sylvia had just been detained because she was a student representative at school.

She had been tortured with electric shocks as had every teenager I met who had been detained during the township unrest. Ever since the Soweto Uprising in 1976, the security forces have considered school 'leaders' to be a threat. Sylvia eventually managed to escape. The police were driving her around Soweto, wanting her to identify key activists. Seeing an open door she dived out and ran up the road. Shots rang out after her but they missed. When we met she was still afraid she might be rearrested.

A year or so later, after Girls Apart had been shown by the BBC and met with outraged protest by the South African Government, we heard a rumour that Sylvia had been killed. A French aid worker returning from South Africa told the Catholic agency who had sponsored our film that he had heard she was dead. Panic set in - a teenage boy who had appeared in a film for US TV had been murdered just a couple of months before. It was days before we managed to get in touch with Sylvia through a third party but luckily she was still fine. I have since then stayed in as close touch as seems safe. But when I phoned her (at a 'safe' house) for this article, it was the first time we'd spoken directly since the filming. She sounded as ebullient as ever.

One major change since we last met is that her mother and father (who also appeared in the film) have split up.

'The family situation became so bad that we had to depart. We left him. That's when it started - we left in October '87. He was having an affair somewhere and he'd had a child by her. So we went to live with my aunt in Tembisa, a township in the East Rand. It's about 50 kilometres from Soweto. My mother doesn't like it so much - she likes Soweto better. But it's fine for me because really I grew up in Tembisa and I still know many people there.'

But she still goes to school in Soweto - a journey of two-and-a-half hours each way by train and bus. She says she has much more chance at this school of getting the qualifications she would need to become a social worker or a journalist (she feels there a lot of good black journalists around but not enough women).

Photo: Chris Brazier. The move to Tembisa did at least reduce her worry about being detained again by the police after her escape. But this year she was again briefly detained. If we printed details of the case it would make her identity too plain to the authorities but suffice it to say that she was detained with some others for celebrating a 'banned person' - Nelson Mandela. She says she is quite ready to serve a jail sentence even on such a petty charge. She sees this, like almost everything else in her life now, as a political issue, as a small part of the struggle against apartheid.

I pointed out that when we last met she seemed to be becoming more political in her attitude almost before our eyes. 'I became daily more spirited. In 1987 they killed my friend and comrade. Sicelo Glomo, who appeared in a film like I did, in Children of Apartheid. In some ways I was more reckless and exposed myself to danger because I felt we had to come out and prove that the Government was responsible for the deaths of all the students.

'After the death of Sicelo I decided to meet with a lawyer and asked him to put down on record that I had taken part in a film. So that if it happened that I died they would be able to make a campaign issue of it. But nothing has happened. I think the reason why is that I never actually told the community or my comrades about the film - if I had there would probably have been an informer somewhere.'

I wondered if she still felt that it had been worthwhile to appear in the film. even though it was risky. 'Yes. I was happy to make something that would let people outside know exactly what is happening in our country.'

Would she want to tell those people outside anything different about the situation in South Africa now? 'No, what I feel now is that everything has come to the hands of the people. Because our neighbour country of South-West Africa has already got its freedom. So I feel that even the South African Government can see itself that it's over now. It's only South Africa that's left for the people to get their freedom. So I feel that our power has grown very much and that we are now hand in hand with the comrades in Namibia.

'But the change won't come soon. Not even in five years from now...'

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New Internationalist issue 200 magazine cover This article is from the October 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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