The day of the nonagenarians

Amy Thornton, 90, a veteran of the liberation struggle.

While significant historical moments on public days including Freedom Day (April 27) and Workers’ Day (May 1) are often viewed fleetingly, on April 6, Wynberg resident MANSOOR JAFFER thought he needed some deeper connection to the past and set off to visit three nonagenarians, in their 90s, to reflect on their lives during apartheid.

Freedom Day commemorates the first post-apartheid elections while Workers’ Day celebrates the role played by Trade Unions, the Communist Party and other labour movements in the struggle against apartheid.

April 6, is also a significant day in our history. Jan van Riebeeck “discovered” us on this day in 1652 and set off a trajectory that still shapes the present. Three hundred and twenty-seven years later, in 1979, Solomon Mahlangu was sent to the gallows for fighting for our freedom.

On April 6 this year, I thought I needed some deeper connection to the past and set off to visit three nonagenarians.

First stop was the Woodstock home of Amy Thornton, 90, a veteran of the liberation struggle. Next was Soeker Arnold, my 94-year-old father-in-law and then my mother Raghmatunisa, 95.

The three of them have collectively been on this earth for 279 years.

Soeker Arnold, Mansoor Jaffer’s 94-year-old father-in-law.

They arrived in this world just before the great depression in the 30s and witnessed DF Malan sweep to power in 1948 on an apartheid platform.

They were appalled by the cruelty of the Group Areas Act and felt the shockwaves when Dimitri Tsafendas walked into parliament on September 6 1966 and ended Verwoerd’s life with a knife to the heart.

They have experienced telegrams, snail mail, typewriters, computers, the internet and smartphones – and everything in between.

In 1994 – by then in their 60s – they voted for the first time and shared in the joy when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated at the Union Buildings.

Comrade Amy joined the anti-apartheid resistance as a young adult. She was arrested and held at Beaufort West while travelling to Kliptown to adopt the Freedom Charter in 1955.

The 60 delegates were travelling in two lorries. She recalls how her 23-year-old self and the others were sitting cramped in one of the open lorries, “our knees on our chests”. She was the only white person in the group.

A few years later she was detained at Roeland Street prison in solitary confinement. Amy, a mother of four and grandmother of three, has done many amazing things in her life, including writing a popular advice column in several community newspapers in the 90s.

Boeta Soeker left South Africa in the 50s to pursue studies in the UK but ran short of funds and got a job with the British Royal Air Force as a medical assistant. He worked in London for a while and was transferred to Aden in Yemen for a few years before returning to South Africa in the mid-60s. He got a short-term job as a science teacher in Athlone, then worked a bit in construction before landing long-term employment as a painter at the Dockyard in Simon’s Town. There he stayed until retirement more than 20 years later. He has six children and 15 grandchildren. In the late 50s, he survived a train crash that claimed the lives of many people.

Mansoor Jaffer’s mother Raghmatunisa, 95.

Mother Raghmatunisa was married to Hassan in 1944, at the age of 17, and had three sons by the time she was 21. At 33, she was a mother of six.

She recalls covering the house windows with black sheets at night and running into the hills with her classmates during the day as part of drills during the second world war. She became involved in anti-apartheid activities in the 80s. Already a grandmother, she joined in protest marches to demand the release of her detained children. She has 17 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and four great-great grandchildren.

I headed home in the late afternoon enriched, but with many more questions to ponder.

  • Mansoor Jaffer, is a former deputy editor of Cape Community Newspapers which publishes Southern Mail and its sister titles.