Interview by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, Johannesburg, December 1993
Lilli Mokganyetsi, age 35, is a teacher and was born in Soweto. She has eight siblings, all of whom, within the limits of the Bantu education system, have completed school and have some sort of professional training. She lives in a small one-family home in Soweto with her husband and two children. She teaches at a primary school in Soweto, is an active member of a teacher's union, and teaches Sesotho, Pedi, and Tswana at a language school in Johannesburg.
Suspension points in this interview and in any quotes extracted from this interview indicate a pause or break in the flow of conversation.
Ellipses in square brackets indicate text omitted.
It went on, it went on. My second brother, yes, second born child at home, was doing Matric. No, he had already passed his Matric, and then he was waiting for a call to the university or … to the college, I don't remember quite well. But he was not doing for that year. When, … on the fifteenth of June, we were writing examinations. I still remember on the sixteenth we were to write Mathematics, in Afrikaans of course. When I arrived at home, he said, are you going to demonstrate tomorrow? I said, What is "demonstration," I don't know, what are you talking about [laughs] … I'm sorry? No, he said, no, are you going to go about with placards? What is a "placard," then? [brother:] Poster. What is a "poster"? [laughs] You know I couldn't just understand … anything, let alone demonstration on its own. [brother:] No man, I have heard that students will be demonstrating tomorrow against this Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. I wonder what's going to happen. And I said, no, what are you talking about, do you mean we are not going to school? He said, no, man, you've got to go to school. You go to your school, they will show you how to "demonstrate." You don't understand, you! Then … you know, tomorrow I had even forgotten. But my brother said there would be a demonstration, or whatever. I prepared myself as usual and then I went to school. It was during the first period, when the teachers were about to issue us with writing material and the question papers. You know … and I was, I wanted to sharpen my pencils, ja. Then I saw a mob of people coming. A mob of … they were of course in school uniform, singing songs that I have never heard of before. You know … as if they were coming … to, to, to, to … invade us, coming to hit us, or … you know I started screaming, jaaiiee. Then, everyone in the school of course rose. You know, we joined them, because they came … the school was arranged in this fashion [she demonstrates]…
And then, from there, a certain man … [she hesitates] … I wonder who was that man … who we throwed with stones, he was driving a car, of course, he was a white man. We throwed him with stones, because he was forcing to move within the mob, because even other motorists, when they came, when they came our direction and find out there is a mob, they would rather turn, or try to take nother direction. So this man forced his way through our … through us. And then, we tried to chase him, go back, go back, go back. He insisted, and he suddenly took out the shotgun, and then when he was just about to fire one, or whether he fired one, I can't say… We started throwing stones, we started hitting him with stones, until he died, and we took a dust bin, of course, they put him inside that dust bin, and then … in the meantime … you could see flames blowing from somewhere … [unclear] I tell you that it wasn't from our own mob only, because Soweto is a very big township… Smoke started billowing, and then the police of course, they now came in full force, shout at us, shout, shout, shout, shout, all those, all those … we tried to resist, you know, we were throwing them with stones of course, but at the ultimate end we were fighting a loosing battle.
When we were returning home now, when we were returning home, the very first bottle store, the beer hall that we went to, it was Phefeni bottle store. In fact, when, when I passed there, people were now starting to loot, it was being thrown with stones like that and then people were now starting to loot, starting to loot. And then when we traveled back home, of course it was very difficult. Here you could hear gunshots, every direction, tear gas, you know, even when you jump into a nearby house, you know everything was locked. Because they were also, … you know you could find a house be locked, and then people, right under the bed [laughs], you know, just, if you can just find a safe place for you. But I managed to reach home. And then, at about five pm, everything was… all the … the whole location as it was, it was filled with smoke … tear gas … smoke from burning cars, smoke from burning building, like beer halls of course.
And then parents aren't yet at home because they were at work. Now when trains came, you know, they could feel the tension, and, maybe they were also listening to radios where they were at work. You know, everybody was just running home for safety, while others, at other families, when parents arrived they found that, either children have been killed, either children have been shot at, they are at hospital, and all those.
So now, in the morning … before in the morning … during the night. You know, new flames were flying very high, new flames, … municipal offices were being burned. So now, obviously tomorrow there was no school. You wouldn't dare get to school. And then, people like us, of course, as I was still doing Form 2, I didn't know what was happening, in fact what was … why, all those points of view, because they said we were revolting against Afrikaans. But why? OK, we only learnt that these beer halls, they were state structures, because they were … all of them … they were erected next to the [police? train?] stations. As soon as our parents would come from work with their meager salaries, they should get, get, get … you see, they should … liquor should be nearer to them. And of course, that is exactly what happened, because immediately after all these beer halls were burnt down, you know, parents who were used to that of course, they were complaining that … you see now, we have got to buy liquor from spots … it's so expensive, whereas when you came from work, you just went through a bottle store and, you know, you already had something with you. And then the municipal offices were also burned because we were paying rent, such a long time, in fact, maybe, people thought that if they burn the municipal offices even the debts of others will be burnt, nothing would be traceable. We've been paying rent. We don't have to [unclear] … But, you know, in my mind it didn't make anything, didn't make [sense], … because I saw it [fit? unclear] for me, as long as I stay at home, with candles lit, and what now, what next. We can make fire … sorry. And you know I didn't see anything that I was running short of, but it was because I didn't know.
The whole of '76, but, there was nothing. I mean, we didn't go to school, from ever that period, but we always heard of people, that there is a meeting here, and there and there. We would sneak, go to the meeting. You know, at times it was so nice for us to be chased about by the police, tear-gassed and the likes. I remember quite well, it was on the 23rd of September, on Thursday. We were supposed to march to town. Because we knew that we wouldn't, we wouldn't be allowed to move from here to town. They are going to block us somewhere. So, this time the mechanism was, from five o'clock we should board this train. We'd buy tickets, because the means of transport then was buses, eheh, I mean trains. Taxis weren't so much established like this [now]. So now we are making use of trains. And then I did so. I was waiting for my mum, for my parents to go, because I knew they were going to scold at me. So now, after they went away … and my mother, I still remember, she told me: "When I come back from work …" But then my parents they had already bought a shop of their own, so now they were no longer working in town, they were running their own business. So now she told me: "When I come back, I want this, this, this, this done. You shouldn't go. Those Boers are going to kill you. They are going to shoot you to hell." After she left I said "good gracious" then, you know I just prepared myself and then my friends were waiting for me in the corner, at the corner. We went.
All the, … we passed all the Soweto stations. The last station to town, from, … the last station from Soweto to town is Mzimhlope, and then from there you start New Canada, Chrissies, … all these stations that are in town. At Mzimhlope station, … you know the trains were now, you know, just going, an inch, an inch, so now we could detect, … we could see, detect, that there was trouble in town. Maybe only one train from Soweto was allowed, and then they were searching thoroughly, maybe something like that. Then we decided, ag man, let's get out of this, and even people who were going to work, because it was round about eight, even people who were going to work they were getting late. So now some of them … you know, we just went out of the train, and then we said, no, let's go to the main road, the Soweto highway from Soweto, ja, right from Soweto. Let's go there and ask for lifts, and, you know, for some such things. Good, we went out, we went out.
Immediately when we reached the highway, my group of us, immediately when we reached the highway when we started to [hitch]hike, we saw a bus coming, it was a Putco bus. And then this Putco bus, it was going to stop, it was going to stop, of course, it was reducing its, the speed. Immediately when the bus stopped, a police car was here, a police … you know, they shot at us randomly, we ran [pause] right under the bridge, the bridge that is … the, the, the, the train bridge, when suddenly I heard a very heavy thing, you know … my right hand it was so heavy, like [unclear] … I was wearing a white skirt, a red t-shirt, ja, a long-sleeved red t-shirt, … my hand was so heavy, and I didn't want to disclose that I had been shot at [voice lifts matter of factly] because I was afraid that people were going to run away from me. I started screaming … help [voice high] … [unclear voice lower, as if in an aside] my friend was Jane, I said Jane, they shot me… Lilli, have they shot you [her voice very high again]. I ran, you know [laughs], I ran. When I was running under the bridge, the, the, the bridge, there was mud there, mud with [pauses, then with more certainty:] yes mud, then I fell there, I stood up again, I fell, I started crawling now, I started crawling. When I reached the end of the … the end of the bridge, when I tried to stand up, I tried to lift my leg, it would … it didn't allow me to do so. I tried. When I looked down I found my skirt, it was open here, it was [used? unclear] there was no blood there, it was just open like this. [pause] No man.
Then I fell down again. Then I started screaming: people, help me, help me, help me, I've been shot at. Then blood started coming out. So now, I realized that I have been … I was being shot from the back, because, the hole in the right, in the right arm, it's this side [shows], and then this other side, on the left leg, I also was shot from behind here, and then, so now the bullet went through this way [shows] … so now, that is why the, the, the, the skirt was opened [unclear] at the back it wasn't so much, just a tiny hole, and then in the front it was … just like that [indicates space with her hands … long pause]. OK [another pause] … the place was deserted of course, you know, you know, just deserted. And then it was, [unclear], this was a highway, cars were moving that way to town, and then this side, cars were moving to the location, and here it was something like a steep hill, and then if you climb on it, you're going to travel just about … a hundred meters, then you will reach the … the village, the first location, the first houses in Mzimhlope village. Then I crawled and crawled, I was crying … everything was deserted, I only saw an ambulance, going this way, and I was this direction [indicates the other one]. I crawled, I crawled … [pause] as soon as I reached the main road for cars going that way to town. There was no one coming. Then I jumped, I was calling them [unclear], I jumped into the, into the … main road. Suddenly a police car just stood here, a private car. You know, I thought this is the end of it, my mother told me, there is nothing I can do. I can't run. You know they started firing at the back, you know, I was just under them, they were firing like this, firing at the ground that was there in the front. But fortunately now [indicating the passage of time, chronology], they did nothing. They … [brief hesitation] maybe they have seen that already they have shot at me.
Then I managed to cross the main road, managed to come this side of the main road, where the cars are getting to the location. Only to find that there were people, two, two elderly men, they saw me. So now, they were afraid of this car, so they managed to get onto this side, so they were hiding in the grass. So as soon as I started climbing onto the hill, fell back again, started again, fell back, when suddenly I had a hand grabbing at my hand, then they managed to pull me down there, then they took me to a certain house, dressed me, dressed me, and then … took me to hospital and left me there. [pause]
At the hospital they were also … [unclear, hesitates] went to the x-ray department, did that, did that. They found that one of the bullets was lodged in the, you know, in the hand, and they can't do anything, no operation because it was right under the bone, and then muscles on top of it. So, any operation that they could do is going to, you know, make my hand paralyzed. So now, it won't give me a problem as long as I can … try doing manual works, you see and the like. I spent three days at the hospital, and then I went home. Here was another march again, I heard, [laughs] I heard of a meeting again. Somewhere in Zola. I went of course. You know, from that time, as soon as a gun is been shot, I could feel the smell inside my nose, that, this one, it's not a tear gas, it's a bullet. But I would run for cover. Even yesterday, if you could have seen me [laughs]…
… People … learned that I had been shot, and I still have a bullet lodged in my hand. So now they come, came to my home, comrades of course, inquired me, inquired about this.
We've got a doctor, he's a black man, he's a black doctor.
I went along.
Dr. Ntshuntsha, he was a member of the PAC. Because, as I said before that, I was still very young to can understand this. We arrived at his place…
I had a sense of suspicion… Doctor in homeopathy …
Looked it up in the dictionary …
I didn't tell my parents of it. Then we made another appointment.
He didn't know what to do. In actual fact now, I have seen that he wasn't interested in healing me or whatever. He said to me, don't you want to get to Russia, Everlasting. He no longer called me Perpetua [her middle name], but Everlasting. Russia, no I don't have money. How can I get to Russia? My father doesn't have such a lot of money to take me there. And he won't allow me to go there. He said no man, don't worry about the money. Russia, how do we get there if we don't have money. He said, no man, don't worry, don't worry. In fact we are getting to Russia, we are going to train, to become soldiers and then we come back here and kill the whole whites in this country. This Afrikaans system. I said, OK I'll think about it. Then he said to me, "Please, Everlasting, if there are boys whom you know that police are looking for, interview them in style, and if they want to go to Russia, you bring them to me. Please." OK, so now you know, this, every day, I was moving from home to that doctor. Until such time my father noticed that there was a certain [amorphous? unclear] movement here. Then he said, what's, what's, actually what's happening here? And I told [him], no papa, you know, my friends came here. There is a certain doctor who is supposed to help me with the … because then of course, this hand was really troubling me. You know when I woke up, it would be as swollen as this, and I can't do anything and if you get to the doctor, there is nothing they can help me. And so, OK, he said, I've got to see this man. So I went away with him. He went there, he was also surprised of the shabbiness of the house, not to say it was dirty, you know, just not what we really expect from a doctor's house. He was also surprised, he read through all those [diplomas]. OK, they discussed, they made a conversation, he … My father, you know how …, my father is not professioned but he has been to school, he understands this. He also is in the very same thing, he doesn't, although he doesn't do anything. But he understands, this is the time we have been oppressed, and then we have got to do something. Although he is not one of those … but he understands. OK, he discussed with this man, he discussed, he discussed. And then, you know we were not paying him anything. But my father said, "no, how can that really happen." He said, "no I am serving for the black community." He said, "even though, but I feel it's unfair. I feel, I am going to give you … anything maybe you might be often here."
Then he gave him something, you know, just a little fee. So now the problem of healing was over. I was now organizing for him, all the boys in the location. You know, some of them, when I look at them now, I just close my eyes. I was organizing people for him. Fortunately enough, in our neighborhood, the very following house next to us, there were boys whom we were attending with at the very secondary, but they were not staying there, they were staying in Moletsane and such another township. But so indeed they were staying in our neighborhood, the very next door house. And it was only boys, it was only boys. You know, during the day, they are not there. It's only one. You could see that there was something happening, maybe they were running away from police from their homes. So now, one day, I …
[This other team said], "don't you have any proof?" Then I started preaching that although I was preaching it underground, you know, you know, many people, I think in my vicinity, maybe I, even boys and girls, a lot of them, a lot of them, I took them to that man, and he took them out of the country, took them out of the country. I even had the technique … sometimes [he] would say, "OK Everlasting, before bringing them in here, their leader, first interview them, you do this, you do this, you do that, and the likes, you know. And then when you are coming with them at my place, please don't come in groups. Don't come in groups. You give them direction." You know, we would arrive as one, because he was also among a black list of police. He was somehow involved in the very … was it the PAC or the Black Conscious, I don't remember well, because the only thing that I remember one day, he said, you know, my organization it's anti-white, it's only black people, you see we have broke away from the ANC, because the ANC is infiltrated with whites. They get sponsors and money from the whites. So, we are fighting for the black people, we are mainly black. We don't want anything from the whites. Because they are the people who are causing this.
And then, from there, many people traveled, went away. I was supposed to be going there with him, the last batch. I was the last batch. Everybody was out of the country. So, we were supposed to go. It was me and him and a certain Jabu, that I have never ever met. This Jabu was a man who was waiting for groups at no-man's land, is there any place called no-man's land when you are getting through the border of Botswana… Usually he was waiting for them there. I have never seen him before. So that was the very first time that I was going to see him. Then it happened. You know. As I have told you that at home, my parents were so strict. If you misbehave, the punishment that you'd get was getting to the shop, you are going to work there. You know we didn't like going there, because it means we'll be away from home, away from friends, so I had misbehaved, I have forgotten what did I do, so they punished me. I had to go to work at the shop.
We made an appointment with that doctor that is coming to collect me. It was December holidays, now. He was coming to collect me. Before collecting me on that day, we are still going discuss something that I should bring with me, this that and the other, he came at home, he didn't find me. He was so disillusioned. So, he wanted to know where am I. It was my first born sister, that she found, … she said, "no, she is gone to shop, she is going to work there, she won't be in for the whole day until late at night." So this doctor, was persuading her to tell him everything, "did she prepare? Did she, … You know." But he wasn't … he didn't want that to be clear to my sister that we are leaving. "Did she prepare anything? Didn't she tell you: I should take along … you know, you know. Can I meet him, can I get to the very shop and see her … ?" So many things. Apparently. I wasn't in. Then he left, this doctor.
My father came at home, my sister told my father, that I suspect, this girl, that girl Lilli, is maybe planning … I mean that time it was, parents were crying, you know, parents were crying there children were disappearing by day, every day. And you know, when parents were crying … I was the person who was taking all these kids. I mean in our vicinity, you know. Have you seen this … something like for instance your mother getting to a neighbors, crying, no my children are not at home, I have learned that they have skipped the country, what, what, what. You know, I would be there, knowing very much that I am this person who took them, you know…
Then my father addressed me, very strongly. That was the first time that I have seen my father as pained as that. He said to me: "don't say you mustn't do anything. But look now, you are still doing Form 2, Form 2. I don't say you mustn't … you can, but first of all, if you leave now you must know that you are not sure that wherever you are going, you are going to be taken care of. You don't know whether you are going to have a bed to sleep on, whatever. You see … so many things. So now, it is wise for you to attend school, at least if you have passed your Matric, you can do anything. Then you'll be our ambassador maybe."
The following day he took me again to the shop. So that I should loose contact with this man. And of course, I lost contact with him. The day when they … when now I knew that it was supposed …, it was on the sixth of December, when Dr. Ntshuntsha was supposed to leave the country with Jabu and me. Two weeks thereafter we heard, I read in the newspaper that Dr. Ntshuntsha has been arrested on trying to cross the border, Jabu was shot, but he managed to escape, they don't know whether he is still alive, or what. Dr. Ntshuntsha is at the Natal prison, Pietermaritzburg prison. So now I could have been part of it. That was the last time that I ever heard of Dr. Ntshuntsha. That was the last time that I ever heard of people who are sent … that I was following them. Of course, they knew that I'm going to follow at the end of the year. And some of the very people that I took away, they don't even know my name, they know of Everlasting. So even those who lived closer to me they don't know that it's this girl. They know of Everlasting. So … '76, December.
If you remember quite well, December 1976, early January 77, the minister of police announced really that all the parents who would like to go and fetch their children, they can do so, and then he won't arrest them. Give them a chance to go and collect their kids. And of course, parents fled to Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, everywhere. 1977, we were repeating the very standard of course. In January, when one day during break, when I went out of the shop where we were usually buying lunch, I saw a face that I know, a face that I know it's right in Mozambique now. You know, I was so shocked! Her name is Edith. Edith! You know she only say, YOU! [laugh] You know she was as black as this … what's wrong, what's wrong, when did you come? You come back? You know what she said, you can't ask me that. I've been … we've been waiting for you. You think you are clever [laughs] you think you are clever. OK, but she was open enough. She told me that, I'm even … I've got to report at the police station twice a day, I am still under arrest. This very police. They said, they are giving parents a chance to … but as soon as they come back. At the border gates, they phone South Africa that so and so is arriving … ja, with the very refugee, a so-called refugee. As soon as you arrive at home, police will be there waiting for you. You won't even get in at the house.
And I went to boarding school, 1978. My father took me away to boarding school. You know, when I saw a police van, when I saw a police van, au, you know, I still, … I could … until I found what they were there for. And then that is how I … You know, most of my time, hence I say, I am a teacher because I had to grab a certain profession for because 1977 I did nothing, we did nothing of course, because school was disrupted in July. 1978 I went back to boarding school, then I was doing a Southern Sotho all along. I started doing Northern Sotho at the boarding school, because originally we are northern Sotho, we are Pedis at home. My Father is a Pedi, mother is also a Pedi. And then, you know, everything wasn't just as good from there on. You know, your mind was now starting to widen up, you were starting to see that, OK, what we did that time, we are fighting this, and so now this is this—everything, it's wrong. You don't have a say, you don't have to ask everything, it's dictated to you. If you ask, if you start asking the principal why are you setting us this type of food, whereas we pay him, then you are chased away from school. You see such things. So now, every time a person was under oppression, if you ask a question, you are politician, and then they would chase you away. Before chasing you away, police has to come in the school premises, harass you, take you to jail. You know, detain you for … Although I have never been detained, I've never been to prison, nothing … it's only that I've been shot at and that is it.
But I'm scared now. Then, most of my time was really lost, and then, when I was doing Form 5, I got pregnant, and then I had to leave school and then I stayed at home. At home … you know, it was so painful, then after giving birth, you know, the immediate thing that I could grab was this teaching. So you know, I even felt somehow that, because we are that family of nine, I'm number four. There are still five kids who my parents have to take to school. It seems now if I am to get to the varsity I'm going to deprive the others, because when I was in boarding school, of course, I had everything that I wanted. Everything, so now I felt let me grab this, at least at college it's not so expensive. And then if I would let to further my studies, I would do that while working a family home now. Soo, that is why.
… pandemonium in KwaNdebele …
… incorporation …
When I started teaching there, hell was loose…
… vigilante groups in KwaNdebele …
[1986?] … The students in the rural areas, they were politically mad, they were revolting against the teachers.
The government is holding teachers for ransom…
When students now started to revolt, they were revolting against teachers. Teachers are spies. This mind of revolution came to them very late, very late… I mean the children, the spirit of revolution, came to them very late… I say they were victimizing we [us?] as teachers, they thought we are the … the people who take … informers, we were informers
They came to the teacher's cottages, they knocked, open up, open up … My room was next door to the principal's. Hey you, you know, calling him by name, open up, open up, what are you doing…
Source: Lilli Mokganyetsi, interview by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, tape recording, Johannesburg, December 1993.