On the autumn morning of 3 March 1986 the diurnality of a community was disturbed by the ringing of rifles and the clapping of live rounds as seven anti-apartheid activists between the ages of 16 and 23 were gunned down in cold blood along NY1 in Gugulethu by the apartheid regime’s police services and the insidious Vlakplaas death squad.
On 21 March 2005 – South Africa’s Human Rights Day – a monument to honour their lives was erected on the site of their execution. Seven black granite blocks stand eerily like tombs on the busy NY1. Cut out in each headstone is a shape of each member – each youth with his hands up – not knowing that on this morning apartheid had come to deliver their deaths.
The memorial site is heavy with horror, the cruel paranoia of apartheid, of secret death squads and Askaris, the massacre of the young lives of black men and women throughout the apartheid nightmare. Lives snuffed out so soon and in a manner so vile, one shivers at the monument, which commemorates the death of Mandla Simon Mxinwa, Zanisile Zenith Mjobo, Zola Alfred Swelani, Godfrey Jabulani Miya, Christopher Piet, Themba Mlifi and Zabonke John Konile… The Gugulethu Seven.
“We were born in vinegar times and we were fed with lemons,” someone says in the film documentary about the Gugulethu Seven. In this moment of truth it seems only fair that one asks, if the times have changed, that the seven men were not robbed of life in vain. If you are one of the millions of poor blacks in the post-apartheid state, the times might not seem that different. This is the issue I have with symbolism in the not-so-new South Africa. Symbols alone do not materialise the promise of freedom that these young men had lived for, and died for, so tragically. The accountability of the city to all its citizens, especially those living in the townships and other marginalised areas would be a fitting honour to the young men who have been immortalised in this monument.
In terms of symbols of memorialisation, the Gugulethu Seven monument is a haunting one. The arms of the young men flailing up in the air are reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808”, with more motion rather than frightened surrendering of the man in Goya’s work. This infused dynamism in the presentation of the dying moments of the seven men represents the energy and vigour with which the youth of the 1980s fought for freedom in a country that was hell-bent on oppressing blacks. The dynamism also signifies how the unruliness of the youth of the time and legitimises the disproportionate use of force to pacify the cries of the oppressed. Together, the dynamism of youth and force speak of the violence – physical and structural – that permeated the lives of black people in the margins of society.
After 20 years of freedom and democracy it seems pertinent to look back on our liberation heroes and their acts of defiance to oppression and begin to interrogate what that freedom actually means in contemporary terms. In revisiting the ruins of our apartheid history we might begin to make sense of our current situation and, if we are wise, begin to stitch together a country, which will never see another massacre such as the one that befell these seven young men. Looking back at the recent massacre of 34 mine workers in Marikana in 2012, one might wonder if it is too late.