His wild and harrowing screams for mercy were heard along the length of Mphuti Street, harassing the ears of many who were too afraid to respond. The tsotsi comrades stood around him; some casting stones, others spewing vitriol and the rest of them laughing. When he left his house earlier that morning, he had been a teacher going to work. But when he returned in the evening, someone labelled him an impimpi and he was given a necklace of fire to wear. The wounds of the previous week’s student uprising had hardly healed; the dead had not been buried. And yet here a fresh assault unfolded. The stench of human flesh and burning tyre formed a protective hedge around the blaze that devoured him. His features were still recognisable to Peggy Mofokeng who had been on her way back home from school. This was the math teacher who had welcomed her on the first day of her teaching post, just months before Soweto went up in flames. She stood still behind a towering gum tree, the taste of aluminium welling up in her throat. She thought about everything at once—the state of the country, the demise of its youth, her four-year-old son Mojalefa…his future. Her bowels felt loose as the drumbeat in her chest grew urgent. Something had to be done. Peggy waited until the tsotsi comrades had finished urinating on the math teacher. All that was left of him was an altar of smouldering ashes.
It’s 1982 in White City, Soweto. The streets are deathly quiet at dusk, beaten into submission by the draconian government of President Marais Viljoen. Rows of houses, resembling loaves of baked bread with rounded roofs of different colours, emit a warm glow from within and provide light for those who are yet to make it home. Somewhere in the near distance, dogs bark warnings across to each other about perceived loiterers walking the streets.
Mojalefa and Khutso kneel on the sofa and peer out the window, making sure that they have just enough space between the curtain and the wall for one eye to see out onto the street. It is almost time for the curfew and soon the hippo will scour the streets for any who dare to defy the law.
“MJ, this is the third time that she is late coming home,” whispers Khutso, as if the soldiers in the armoured police vehicle can hear him speak. Ten-year-old Mojalefa moves across the sofa to his little brother’s outpost and puts an arm around his shoulders.
“Mama is always faster than the hippo. Don’t worry she’ll be here now, now.”
The heavy wrenching of the rusty front gate latch relieves the boys from their watch. Their loud cheers summon annoyance from their father, whose attention is on the television. “Hey, shut up you two. What’s the matter with you?” he scolds.
Peggy enters the house to a heroine’s welcome of two. Despite her husband’s suspicions about her late coming, her presence dismantles his prepared interrogation. Scooping her boys into her arms, she kisses each on the forehead.
“Where were you mama?” asks Mojalefa, his father’s ears suddenly pricking up in anticipation of the answer.
“Oh my boy, the staff meeting at school took so long and then I had to wait for aunty Joanna to finish her work so that she could give me a lift home.”
Kicking off her court shoes, she moves towards her husband and gently plants a kiss on his forehead. “Hello papa.” She still looks the same as she did six years ago when she started teaching; you would not be able to guess that she is now a mother of two. The breasts of her youth have not succumbed to gravity and her figure is the envy of the women of Mphuti Street. Jefferson smiles as his wife disappears into their bedroom. His attention returns to the television. These are the headlines on TV3: Parliament approves Internal Security Act; more limpet mines explode in Durban; and three policemen killed in Soweto. The boys are immersed in their banter and Jefferson too fixated on the headlines to notice Peggy standing in the living room once again, with a furrowed brow. “This damned Internal Security Act,” she curses silently. “What am I going to do?”
“Hey! Can’t you just sit still?” says Jefferson, his gaze not leaving the television. His bawl jolts Peggy out of her thoughts and sends the boys scurrying to the bedroom behind her.
“Mama, do you know that I saw MJ at the corner of Sizwe Store, talking to that scary man with a scar on his face?” pipes up Khutso. He stares at his dusty feet and wriggles his stubby toes. Peggy’s drum skips a beat. Suddenly she smells burning flesh and tyre. She remembers the scar and how its bearer was the one who laughed the loudest that night.
“Khutso is not telling the truth mama,” retorts MJ, his caramel complexion suddenly becoming pale. “I was going to buy bread and then he stopped me to ask where the taxi rank is.”
“Oh. So today he asked for directions. Last week he wanted to know where you attend school and last month, where you live?”
With shoulders drooping from his mother’s barrage of questions, MJ turns to walk towards the bedroom door, his thick thighs whistling as they rub against each other.
“He’s not as bad as you think mama,” he mumbles, brushing past his mother.
A loud crash sends Jefferson lurching from the living room to the bedroom that he shares with his wife. Peggy’s lithe and lean frame straddles her son with surprising power as she pelts him with a belt. A wild fire burns in her eyes as the memory from six years ago assaults her senses. “You bloody swine of a child. What did you just say? How many times have I told you to stay away from that pig, huh?” With every stroke of the belt, she utters a word, “do—you—want—to—be—a—tsotsi—comrade? Do—you—want—to—ruin—your—future—huh?” Jefferson pries his wife off MJ as she discards the belt and forms a fist. MJ rolls over and makes a clumsy dash for the door on his hands and knees. His mother collapses into Jefferson’s arms, her creamy complexion now a crimson hue. Her face is a confused contortion of anger and guilt. She sits on the floor and struggles to compose herself. A cloak of shame covers her but does little to hide the stream of tears on her face.
“What just happened in here, Peggy?”
“Jeff, we have to leave this place, things are not getting better. I fear for our children. I fear for my life—our lives. Something has to be done.” Jefferson’s embrace is a soothing balm for the wound of his wife’s soul. He gently takes her hand, uncurling the fist of rage and kisses it.
“My love, what can we do? We can only pray that those who are in the movement will win the fight to free our people.”
“And in the meantime what happens to our children? They deserve better—a better education and a better life. Another kind of country.”
“Peggy, let us leave liberation and politics to the people who have the power to bring change.”
“And what about that scar-faced tsotsi comrade Jeff? He is trying to recruit our son. They are bloody criminals trying to derail our liberation struggle.”
“My love, I know that you are worried but getting involved will only invite harm into our home. What will happen to our children then?”
Jefferson leaves Peggy sitting on the floor and staring blankly ahead through the open bedroom door. Serenity is far from her thoughts. “How can he be so flippant about this? He doesn’t understand. I’m going to find a way to deal with these tsotsi comrades, with or without Jefferson.”
The staffroom at Soweto Senior Secondary School is tired and old. The mismatched Ellerines sofas are dressed in unsightly octogenarian floral print. The stainless steel urn has a leaky spout. It was donated by the preschool when the kettle broke, along with the stationery cupboard that has no doors. A few of the window frames have panes and in winter, pieces of plastic are plastered over the remaining naked parts.
Joanna Davies decided a long time ago that she would defy her Jewish family’s wishes by teaching in Soweto. Her strong resolve and willingness to take extraordinary risks is what spurred Peggy on to secretly join the movement after the student uprising.
“I did the best I could with the short notice that you gave me Pegs. My father almost caught me with these, I nearly died.”
To Peggy, Joanna’s posh accent would forever remain a novelty. For a moment, she thinks of her boys and how they spend some of their time mimicking the accents of their favourite American stars on television. She smiles as she moves towards her friend to help her rip the tape off the cardboard box.
“How could I ever thank you my friend? Who did you find to do this work for you?” Peggy says, as she inspects the t-shirts and pamphlets inside the box.
“Pegs do you know that this new law is going to make life even more difficult for you? Where are you going to have this gathering of yours, cookie?”
“Our entire existence has been difficult Jo. It’ll have to be at my house.”
“What?” screeches Joanna. “Do you want to go to jail? What will happen to your children and your husband and your students and your job? Do you seriously want to disappear just like everyone else has? Besides, Jeff doesn’t even know about all of this. You’ve been fibbing every time you’ve come home late. How will you explain yourself?”
With t-shirt and pamphlet still in her hand, Peggy takes hold of her friend’s shoulders. “Shhh, nothing will happen my friend, I have a plan.” She gives Joanna a peck of reassurance on the cheek.
“Our people must be liberated Jo. It’s going to take all of us to make it happen. I’m just playing my part by spreading the word. Thank you for contributing to our liberation.” She smiles mischievously and winks at her friend. “Now, help me to hide this box behind that cupboard and let us get back. The students are waiting next door.”
The heat of the Saturday sun bakes the dusty streets of White City. Neighbours’ front doors are open, allowing wisps of coolness to sweep through their miniscule bread loaves. Miriam Makeba, The Temptations, Dolly Rathebe and other legends compete for an audience, as they blast through the wirelesses on Mphuti Street. The children play on, their bare feet ignoring the scorching ground. Peggy packs the last items of clothes into an overnight bag and walks her family out to the car. She hands MJ two ice cream tubs filled with sandwiches and scones for the journey to Garankuwa.
“Jeff, thank you so much for taking the boys with you. I wouldn’t have been able to send this money to my aunt otherwise.”
“But are you sure you need to give this to her today love, I can always take it next week?”
“Yes please, it must be today. Besides, the boys need a break from this place and its worries,” Peggy says, suppressing the anxiety in her voice.
Mam’Futhi is the first to arrive for the gathering as the sun prepares to bid White City goodbye. Peggy recognises the laboured shuffle of her feet as she enters the yard.
Mam’Futhi wears a permanent scowl that betrays her endearing warmth. Those who know her have come to ignore it and those who don’t, live in constant fear of her.
“Kunjani nkosikazi, how are you today?” says Mam’Futhi, breathless.
“Oh Mam’Futhi, ngiyaphila. Thank you so much for coming and for inviting your women’s group. Are you sure they can be trusted?”
“Don’t worry, I picked them myself.”
As the sun continues to set, the women continue to arrive at Peggy’s home. Delectable treats are displayed on the living room table together with Peggy’s best tea set.
“Ngiyabonga bo mama. Thank you for taking time to attend today,” Peggy begins the meeting with assertive grace. “I will not waste your time but get straight to the heart of the matter that concerns us,” she continues. “Nelson Mandela is in jail and we want him to be released.” The women agree in unison, “Yebo.”
“Our country is in trouble and this government treats us as though we’re nothing.”
She disappears into her bedroom and remerges with the cardboard box that Joanna had given her earlier in the week, as well as with a pillowcase half-filled with books. Some of the women who are seated on the floor move aside to make space for the box in the cramped living room.
“The movement is working hard but we need more people to be informed and to tell others about the struggle. This is why I’m giving you these,” Peggy says as she opens the box and hands the t-shirts and pamphlets around. “I also have some books here that can help you understand how other Africans are fighting for freedom and what they think about our people’s liberation.”
“Yhoo Peggy! Give me a t-shirt only, please. I can’t read and I don’t even know one plus one. What will I do with that piece of paper and those thick books?” says Mam’Futhi.
An ill-timed giggle from Sweetie, a younger woman, invokes Mam’Futhi’s disapproving glare. Some hands extend to accept the paraphernalia and some busy themselves with a handkerchief or a tasty scone. Peggy responds reassuringly. “Ladies, today is just a small step, we have a long way to go. We only need to support those who will take this fight to Viljoen, then we are winning.”
Peggy takes a deep breath and reveals her personal motive for the day’s gathering. “I must speak about one more thing.”
Sweetie squirms impatiently in her tight spot near the front door. “Nkosi yam, when will this meeting end?” she mumbles under her breath.
“The tsotsi comrades are a disease and they are after my son.”
The room erupts with the women’s voices clamouring for an opportunity to speak.
“My boy ran away to join them,” says Ethel.
“I chased my son out of the house because of this nonsense. Now he lives at the hostel with one of these tsotsi comrades,” adds Mina.
Peggy is relieved that she is not the only one who is faced with the problem of the tsotsi comrades; there is finally is a ray of hope. “Bakosikazi, what should we do about these criminals?”
As the women speak amongst themselves to find a solution, a haunting and familiar warning whistle is suddenly heard drifting down Mphuti Street. Peggy peeps through her curtains and the drum begins to beat in her chest. She darts from the window. “It’s too early for the hippo. Please help me to clear these things away.” Peggy is not certain that the hippo will stop outside her yard and she does not wait to find out.
“Oh Jehovah Nkosi yam,” bellows Mam’Futhi.
The women are frenzied, not knowing what to do with the incriminating material. Then as though of one mind they undress to put the “Free Mandela” t-shirt on under their blouses.
The worst becomes reality as the hulking monster machine crawls to a stop outside the Mofokeng yard. The commanders of death and destruction ease themselves out of the hippo’s backside and invite themselves into the yard. Peggy’s belly is on fire and her heart beats so loud that she can hear it in the silence of her living room.
“Quickly,” she whispers, “Kneel on the floor.”
“Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee.” She lifts her voice and the women join in the familiar hymn. “How great Thou Art, how great Thou Art.”
The singing stops abruptly as a policeman uses the butt of his AK-47 to knock on the door. Peggy waits for a moment before opening. “Goeie dag meneer, is meneer alright?” she wavers.
“Wat gaan hier aan? You know the rules,” the policeman demands, forcing his way into the house.
Mam’Futhi steals a final glance at her bosom to make sure that her t-shirt is well hidden.
Mischief is in the air. It’s written across each woman’s forehead and is evident in the uneaten pastries and cold tea on the table. It tastes like the unrelenting bile exploding up Peggy’s throat.
“Ons bid meneer. We are having a prayer meeting,” says Peggy as she swallows the bile.
“Bid? Waar is die man van die huis?” says the policeman, his eyes scanning the fabric of her being. “That’s it. Kom, I am arresting all of you’s,” he shouts as he cocks his weapon.
A warm stream flows down Peggy’s legs, forming a puddle of shame and fear at her feet. The women closest to her look away and Sweetie giggles inappropriately once again. The policeman stares down at Peggy’s feet and lowers his weapon. All authority disappears from his voice. “You know the rules. Make sure that you’s are finished before the curfew or else it’s trouble for you’s.” He turns to leave, taking a last glance at the puddle. As Peggy leans against the door to close it, a floodgate of tears opens. Silence arrests the room as the hippo’s hum is heard leaving Mphuti Street. One by one, the women gather their belongings and leave, some with their heads cast down and others whispering their goodbyes.
Later in the evening, in the stillness of her bedroom, Peggy bows her head and whispers. “Why?” The grip of defeat wraps itself around her as she picks up the Bible on her nightstand. She turns the crisp pages to the chapter “Exodus” and a worn scrap of paper, bearing a faded telephone number with a Lesotho dialling code, falls like a feather to her lap. Gingerly, she lifts up the receiver and dials.
“Good evening ntate, I was told to phone this number if ever I would need your help.”
The headlights of a car flash three times, their brightness barely visible through Peggy’s living room curtains. She slips into her children’s bedroom and gently rouses them.
“What’s happening mama?” says MJ.
“Shhh, wake up. Here, put these clothes on. Quickly,” says Peggy, looking over her shoulder.
“Where are we going mama, it’s still night time,” croaks Khutso groggily.
“We are going away but we mustn’t wake your father. Come, quickly,” whispers Peggy.
Her composure reassures the boys and their questions cease. The weight of sleep overcomes them as they enter the old man’s car. He is wearing faded grey trousers and a cream shirt. The bands of his suspenders are slightly tethered at the edges. His smiling eyes and unkempt beard betray his stature.
As the Nissan Sentra hums a parting melody to White City, Peggy begins to doubt her resolve. “You have always been a coward,” whispers Contempt. “What if the movement finds you, traitor?” hisses Fear. “What about all those women you have recruited?” questions Logic. “What about the country and the children’s future?” asks Conviction. “What about your marriage?” cries Love. Thoughts of surreptitious meetings, the necklacing six years ago, last month’s near-disastrous gathering, and the ever-present threat of MJ being drawn in by the tsotsi comrades, all accompany Peggy in the silence of the Nissan Sentra. She feels the blow to her heart as she imagines Jeff waking up to their empty house. As the car heads towards the border with Lesotho, she turns to look at her sons sleeping peacefully in the backseat.
“Something had to be done,” she whispers and supresses a cry.
Mma-tshepo Grobler is an emerging writer who was born in South Africa and resides in the United Kingdom. Although she studied to be a journalist, she has never pursued journalism as a career. She believes that fiction writing is her real calling. Mma-tshepo is currently working on her debut novel, Another Country, which she plans to publish in December 2019.