While working on the first edition of my first book, The Eyes That Lit Our Lives, I put together a list of people I thought were vital in helping me to bring the story of a man whose Eyes had Lit Our Lives, Steve Bantu Biko. In the list, there were colleagues who were within Biko’s age group. There were also others who were younger than him, born in the 1950s and 1960s.
Curiously, I needed the elderly folks too. I found them within the family and from the neighbourhood. I found an old teacher, his elder brother, men of cloth, and a PhD holder who became active in the Black Consciousness (BC) Movement. I could not leave the great activist couple, Dr. Nthato Motlana and his wife Mama Sally Motlana.
I travelled to Gauteng, and a friend took me to Sizwe Stores, a small shop that Mama Sally was running. When we arrived and when my friend had introduced the purpose of the visit, I was given the most intimidating look, a stinging pair of eyes from toe to head. I was so scared she might not agree to the idea of an interview. Without talking to me, as if I never mattered, she nodded her head that we could do it in her Dube home the next day. What a relief!
On the morning of the interview, I was joined by the recipient of the Presidential Order Award, the veteran journalist who worked closely with Biko, Bokwe Mafuna. We drove in his Mercedes Benz and arrived in time at Dube. We were received by a young lady who ushered us into the lounge.
There was a table that was set. It was clear Mama Sally may have been expecting some people. So, I whispered to Bra B that we should speed up the work as fast as possible so that we don’t mess with the old lady. By then, I had not recovered from the intimidating look.
This is very important for me because it is an experience that I can never forget. I got my recording equipment ready, a video camera on a tripod and an audio recorder.
The Motlana home in Dube is a beautiful house. It sits on a little hill. From its wide windows, one can view Soweto and its moving cars and people, emshishi eJozi, as my grandmother would say. Also, from the Motlana home, I could see the dense reeds that formed a valley between the sections of the township. This is where the wives of Black mine workers were hiding themselves from the violent raids conducted by white police.
In came Mama Sally. She looked fresh in a Blue sweater with the bold Black inscription “Black Woman”. She greeted and hugged me. I was still scared.
I had planned to rush through my questions. I could not succeed because her answers became explanations that were filled with images. She was well prepared for what we were about to do. I was still scared.
In the course of the interview, we had to take a break. At that point, she led us to the table. My God! The whole preparation was meant for us? That’s when I recovered from intimidation.
This tribute cannot cover everything. I will share one aspect of her contribution to my book. I asked if she could remember her first meeting with Biko.
This is what she said: “We were at UCT (University of Cape Town) in Cape Town. I was representing the SACC (South African Council of Churches). The workshop was dealing with community development. On the first day everyone was contributing in the deliberations. On the second day, delegates were asked to report on what they were doing in their areas. Suddenly, this young man who was all along quiet, stood up to tell us about the Eastern Cape. He was passionate. He was telling us that we should work for our people. I picture him like he was walking through a burning fire, the way he could work himself up during that session. I got to know then and this was the beginning of a long journey where the new Black Consciousness Movement began to visit this house and Sizwe Stores. At the time, we had our mkhwenyana living with us, Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, and together with the man of this house, my husband, discussions always went into the night.”
At 96 years of age, it’s a life well lived.
Mama Sally Motlana was part of the Class of the 1940s. She was a volunteer of the Defiance Campaign in the 1950s, an activist student at the University of Fort Hare, and a mother and guide to the first generation of Black Consciousness Movement leaders in the 1970s.
Lala ngoxolo ntombazana.
Usikhonzele kubantu abadala.
Send our greetings to the departed.
Azania keya rona.
Dr Andile M-Afrika is an author and Black Consciousness (BC) researcher.