Eric Miyeni, born in 1966, is a writer and actor who grew up in Soweto. In this piece he speaks about his youth and the way it was shaped by Apartheid. Apartheid made it very difficult for his parents to get a house in Soweto and meant he hardly saw his father. He also describes the government’s attempts to divide Soweto along ethnic lines. Despite all this, he has fond memories of his childhood.
Author: Eric Miyeni
I was born in Soweto at Baragwanath Hospital. I actually don’t remember a time when that hospital wasn’t understaffed, overcrowded, or both at once. It has gotten worse over the years and yet miracles still happen there. You might remember that Baragwanath is the hospital where the Siamese twins Mpho and Mphonyana were separated. And in a sense, proper birth is a miracle there. How can it not be when people die in queues waiting to be attended to? So my coming to being was a miraculous occasion.
I left Baragwanath Hospital screaming like most babies, I am told. Other than that, I don’t remember much of my first three to four years in this life. I am told that it was hard for my parents to find a house then, as you can imagine. The pass laws, which required every black South African to carry an identity book (a pass) at all times, were still a major part of the South African legal system. The pass shaped lives, ruined some and forced others to be over-determined over-determined Totally controlled by many outside factors. to survive with or without it in the big city. My father spent some time in prison for ‘pass offences’ (being caught without a pass) before he eventually qualified for and was granted one and, with it, a house permit which allowed him to find a house for his family to live in. He and my mother were among the lucky few.
The house they got was a semi-detached three-roomed house in Meadowlands, one of the sections Soweto is divided into. I remember the address clearly: 901 B, Zone 5, Meadowlands. My brothers and I slept on sponge material laid out on the floor. There were weeks in which I only saw my father for a maximum of three to five seconds. The lounge, where us kids slept, had no door, and if I was lucky to be awake at 5 a.m. I would catch a glimpse of him passing the doorframe on his way to the railways where he worked as a ticket examiner. He’d be fixing his cap – part of his ticket examiner’s uniform – and that would be the end of that for the week. Often, when he came back from work, we kids would be sleeping.
Our street was called Tshidzumba, a Venda name, because Meadowlands and especially Zone 5 was mainly a Tsonga and Venda area. That’s how the National Party divided Soweto. There were Zulu sections, Sotho sections and so on and so forth. Even today there’s a Zulu section in Diepkloof.
However, our street was somewhat of an exception. Our neighbours on the one side were Venda. I remember Sansan, their son. I remember many nights that we spent listening to him tell us about boarding school, the movies they watched there and, as he reached fifteen years or so of age, the girls.
On the other side we had Zulu neighbours. The women there found the idea of my mother, who is Xhosa, speaking to my brothers and I in Tsonga, absolutely appalling appalling Shocking, terrible. and told my mother so. My mother made sure we never knew this and we kids got along perfectly fine, unaware that our parents differed to the point of disliking each other intensely at times. Beyond this neighbour’s house was a Sotho family. My most vivid vivid Clear. snobbery Judging people based on how rich or upper-class they are; arrogance related to wealth. purported Rumoured to be; thought to be (often falsely). memory of that family is the snobbery. I also remember the man there winning the ‘Pick Six’ and collecting what was purported to be eleven thousand rands – a lot of money in those days – at the horse races. The man extended their house despite the fact that it was semi-detached to the Zulu neighbour’s house. This was a very proud Sotho family. All the houses in our street were semi-detached but we still felt lucky to a certain degree. If you went farther into Zone 5 towards Zone 4, where the Tsonga school I went to was located, you passed whole streets of attached houses so that, except for the corner houses, you always had to pass through the house to get to the tiny backyard.
My memories of those early days in Soweto are some of the best I’ll ever have. Staying out late at night was not allowed by any of the houses in our immediate vicinity. vicinity Surroundings. But we often sneaked out when there were visitors and hoped the folks missed us. Often they wouldn’t call us back simply because there was no way we could sleep when the visitors were around. There was no space.
In winter we made ithezi, a fire made from paper, plastic bags, tyres and whatever else we could pick up that could burn. To be allowed to share the fire you had to bring any or a combination of the above ingredients to contribute. And, of course, the guys who started the fire had to like you. And, as is typical typical Usual. of most childhood situations, the bullies never contributed and they were never turned away. They were the ones to send us small ones to fetch more fire material. Around the fires would be the local glue-sniffing group. I remember ‘Goofy’. From as far back as I remember those street fires, he sniffed glue. And I remember Tshepo. I think Tshepo was Goofy’s sister’s child. Ja, I think he was Goofy’s nephew. Tshepo later sniffed glue as well. If you didn’t sniff glue you were often getting enticed enticed Invited; attracted by being offered pleasure or advantage. to try it and told about the wonderful highs you could experience from doing so. If you were not too well liked and your family was not too well respected, you were simply forced to try it. I never sniffed glue. One of the reasons was that I didn’t stay late enough for the group to get too used to me. At about 8 p.m., at the latest, my mother would shriek out my name and I’d have to go indoors. Also, I wasn’t one to follow the general trend. trend The popular course, tendency or fashion. If too many people were into doing something, I would generally be put off by it. And, I guess I was well liked or else I had a family that was well respected because nobody ever forced me to sniff glue.
Those fires were, to a large degree, very central to my upbringing. That’s where I saw people sinking into nothingness. That’s where I observed tensions building up and sometimes ending with some boy being beaten up. That’s where I learned a lot about people. That’s where I learned to appreciate simple pleasures like good choral choral Sung by a choir or chorus. singing and the art of storytelling.
Around those fires, people related related Told stories about. Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer cowboy bioscopes. bioscopes Movies. They related Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies, complete with the soundtrack, sound effects, and made-up dialogue, as most of the narrators could not remember most of the English words they read or heard while watching the movies. But you still got very vivid depictions vivid depictions Strong or powerful images. culminate To end or arrive at a final stage. of how the movie started, what happened in the middle, and how it ended. You might not get the entire story, but you always felt like you had been to see the movie, too. It was great. And often, the evening would culminate in singing. We sang naughty songs like the one that went, ‘Vagina get ready, the penis has arrived.’ We also sang sad prison songs like ‘You who only arrived yesterday, don’t cry, mommy’s not here. Don’t cry, you who only arrived in the big city yesterday.’ But we were generally a happy bunch.
Early evenings were often spent playing hide and seek. I think some of us lost our virginity while playing that game. Saturday afternoons were spent challenging other streets to soccer games with balls made of plastic and paper stuffed together. The girls would challenge each other to singing competitions and ibanti, a game which is beautiful and a little complicated to explain. To play it you needed different size tins that you stacked up one on top of the other, a tennis ball, and a minimum of three players. It was a kiddies’ game, and more specifically a girls’ game, in which two players stood opposite each other bouncing the tennis ball as they threw it at each other past the player in the middle whose main focus was to avoid being hit by the ball. The players throwing the ball aimed to hit the player in the middle while trying not to hit the stack of tins which, if they fell, would allow the player in the middle to run from one thrower’s position to the other’s like they do in a game of cricket. The player in the middle would also attempt to take a few runs if one of the ball throwers missed the ball when it was thrown at her and it went far behind her. If the player in the middle got hit by the tennis ball, then she would take the place of one of the players throwing the tennis ball and thus the players would take turns to amass amass To gather or collect. runs. The player with the highest number of runs at the end of the game won.
bastardization A changed or translated version of a word or pronunciation of that word.
We had a glorious time back then. Some of the ‘chayilenses’ (a bastardization of the word ‘challenges’) ended in unfair play and we would finalize the competition with stone fights. I don’t remember any horrible injuries from that, though. It was all fun and incredibly exciting.
Soweto, even then, had its sick side. There was seldom a Saturday that passed without a stabbing taking place. One of the most vivid knife fights I also remember was between two women fighting over a drunken man. I remember going to school one winter morning and walking past a frozen corpse. The man’s arms were locked in the Orlando Pirates soccer club sign, a cross formed using the bottom section of one’s arms. That immediately told us he was a victim of the rival soccer club supporter conflicts that sporadically sporadically Every now and then; not regularly. sprang up over weekends.
Even back then, we knew that you never messed with hostel dwellers. dwellers Residents. I remember a horde horde A large crowd. of them chasing a group of about five location dwellers once. One of the fleeing people fell and the hostel dwellers caught up with her. They beat her to a pulp with knobkerries. I still don’t know if she lived to tell the tale. As kids, we were frightfully scared of Zulus in the hostels. We would laugh at their large ear piercings but never when they were looking. And we told countless jokes about them but never when they could hear us.
Soweto was divided. You were as stubborn as a Zulu or Xhosa. You were as black or as dirty or as stupid or as backward and uncivilized as a Tsonga or Venda. You were as sly as a Sotho woman and as materialistic as a Xhosa woman. There was social conflict but I remember everybody being somehow happy with everybody, ultimately. Most of the Zulus in my street ended up learning Tsonga from my brothers and I, and we learned their language from them. We went to different schools but after school we were neighbours and often lamented lamented Felt or expressed sorrow or regret for. not being allowed to attend the same school.
1976 hit Soweto like an earthquake. I was ten and I didn’t know exactly what was going on. I knew that the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction started it. But I didn’t really understand what Bantu Biko stood for, although I remember feeling a lot of pain when he was killed in 1977. Tsietsi Mashinini Tsietsi Mashinini embraced Black Consciousness (BC) after being exposed to it by his teacher, Onkgopotso Tiro, while a high school student. Mashinini was a leading figure in the 1976 Soweto Uprising (which you will read about in Chapter 5). As the president of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) he stood firm against intimidation by the Apartheid state. Harassment by the police forced him to leave the country in 1976. He inspired a generation of anti-Apartheid activists. The hero to us then was Tsietsi Mashinini. We invented countless stories of that student leader’s genius when it came to escaping from the police. We loved him.
My parents thought it best to send me away to study at Elim Higher Primary School in Northern Transvaal where my uncle was the principal. So I missed most of the excitement that came with the protest and turmoil that came with the historic student protests of 16 June 1976. In a way, I was lucky. But I was forced to lose touch with the Soweto I had loved. I went on to pass my matric and graduate from I.K. Nxumayo High School while my friends at home were dying or going to jail. I got my education – the little that Bantu Education provided – while Soweto burned, and went on to study law at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg.
I am both thankful for this and resentful. resentful Bitter or angry about unfair treatment. I can’t bring myself to be happy with the fact that my parents had to do so much more to get what I have while parents in white suburbs just carried on like nothing was going on. I am resentful of the fact that ninety per cent of Soweto’s people didn’t have the option of an uncle who was a principal at a school somewhere or the luxury of having the option to send their kids to boarding school. I am resentful of the fact that Soweto has a lost generation. That thugs in Soweto have graduated from knife fights to gunfights. I am resentful of the fact that in Soweto today, a night in a shebeen could mean watching somebody blow somebody’s brains out with a pistol. I am resentful of the jack rollers. jack rollers Violent Soweto gangs. I am resentful of the fact that black parents with money have to send their kids to white schools for ‘proper education’, a term that is completely wrong when one looks at the fact that very few if any of those kids speak a black language fluently. I am resentful of what Apartheid has done to this country and to the people in Soweto.
When I eventually tried to settle in Soweto again I had been away for a total of thirteen years. I came back to stories of people being killed and robbed of their cars at traffic lights in the night. I came back to extremely quiet streets on summer nights. I came back to a scary and violent tension. I couldn’t cope. I left Soweto and moved to town.
And for me the solution lies strongly in the hearts of the Soweto people. I see no outsider coming in and fixing things. When I was growing up in Soweto we knew of the tsotsis who lurked lurked Being present, but unseen or hidden. on street corners at night to rob and sometimes kill people. They would do this for a bit of time and then our elders would form vigilante vigilante Citizens who take the law into their own hands but lack the authority of the law. groups and soon the crime wave would diminish. This is not ideal but it still represents the importance of taking charge and fixing things. We need that today, in bigger measures. We need to build our nation ourselves. There are no miracles that happen without human endeavour. endeavour Effort. And from the state, whoever that might be today and in the future, we need less negative interference.
I love Soweto and I always will. In that place were born some of the best people I know – gentle people, humble people, good people trying to get by. Even today, a stranger says hello to a stranger in Soweto. There’s human contact. People still know how many kids live in which house down the street in Soweto. And they know their names, too. That’s what we must preserve. preserve Keep or save. That’s what we must cherish cherish Value or love. and that’s what must survive for all South Africans to know and learn from. We need love for one another as South Africans. We need determination. Places like Soweto are good examples of what it means to survive and conquer and chart one’s own path.
- What are some of the ways in which Apartheid shaped Eric Miyeni’s life?
- How was Soweto divided? Why did it suit the government to have it like this?
- Did Miyeni’s own childhood and neighbourhood fit this arrangement? How so?
- What were Miyeni’s feelings on leaving Soweto to go to school elsewhere?
- How do you think it is possible for people to have good memories of growing up while living a hard life under an oppressive government?