Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire. – William Butler Yeats
Our policy is one which is called by an Afrikaans word, “Apartheid”, and I’m afraid that has been misunderstood so often. It could just as easily–and perhaps much better–be described as a policy of good neighborliness. – Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister of South Africa, 1961
You lift your cheek off the brown, salty ground. You try to look over your arm, try to see through the dust. Why is everybody running? Why are you lying on your stomach with a mouth full of soil? It feels like you’ve been pulled through a dreamless sleep that lasted for less than a second and longer than a day. Everything is confusing.
One long, dark heartbeat ago you were holding hands with your classmates, marching peacefully, singing a song. Teboho was carrying a poster that said, “Down with Afrikaans.” Hector’s poster proudly stated, “I will not be taught in the language of the oppressor.” Before that, you were all finishing a mathematics exam. For many long minutes you sat in that small, freezing brick classroom with its zinc roof and bare concrete floor. Sixty-four matric pupils folded over small wooden desks, scratching equations onto second-grade paper with blunt wooden pencils. Sixty-four Bantu school uniforms—grey flannel shorts and black v-neck jerseys covering white collared shirts—worn by every pupil in every black school in the country. The headmaster finally said, “Time’s up! Pencils down.” Tsietsi looked around, right into your eyes, and said, “Comrades, it is time.”
You lift your head a little more, straining. You try to turn over so that you can see better, see down the gravel road, but you can’t move. Why can’t you move? Why are you stuck?
Your mother begged you not to go to school today. She had heard about the student-leader meeting and that today all schools were going to march from your high school in Soweto to the Orlando Stadium. She was very worried and reminded you of the Tokoloshe, the evil gremlin of the religion of her ancestors. But you told her, “Mma, you do not understand. You are happy to continue to work in the house of the white man, to clean up after him and feed his children. I will not do that. This is our day.” And so you walked off the school property at the designated time. Everybody did. There was a feeling around you that you thought you could see. Could touch. Feel. It made the cold winter morning air thick and that thickness pressed firmly on your temples. You felt alive, warm despite the cold, strong. Soon other school children were in the streets, too. They looked identical to you in their grey flannel and black jerseys. But you knew they weren’t from your school, that the other leaders had joined the march as promised.
You start to hear shouting. Up until now everything was happening in a silent haze, muted by the dust and your confusion. But now the running people are also screaming. And this jerks you onto your shoulder and you manage to roll onto your back. You look down and see that your jersey is wet. Red oozing through the collected dust on your clothes. Bright red, wet red. Like the nail polish worn by white women. Soaked scarlet on the black wool. Your jersey is torn, broken. Who will fix it? Mma will be so angry. Was she right about the Tokoloshe? Was he punishing us for being disobedient? Did the Tokoloshe bite you? Blood. Now on your hands as you touch your stomach. You realise that you are bleeding. You feel through the ripped wool and find broken skin. Your finger slips right through a hole in you. You are broken. All of the air is sucked out of your ears. Something splinters in the shadow inside your brain. Your heart pauses. The next beat doesn’t come for the longest time as your fear grips you. You stop hearing the sounds around you. Your fingertips tingle as you feel the soggy woolen fibers. Then your hands throb and go numb at the same time. Your arms drop. Your shoulders contract. Every part of your body is retreating into yourself like an ocean wave crashing on the same place. Again and again.
You open your mouth and scream. The silence in your head is shattered by a gunshot. Close by. And then another one. Your heart beats in your ears and across your temples. Beats louder than the gunfire. The gravel crackles in your ears as policemen’s boots crunch over it, chasing the running ones.
Your body is still. Everything is still. Even your eyes have stopped trying to see. They stare straight up into the sky, their big black holes floating on the bloodshot white. Water still fills them. Lifeless, alive. Tears had flowed over the corner of your eyelids and down the sides of your face. Now you no longer blink. The rivers of warm salty water that had streamed towards your ears and dripped into the sand, have stopped. Given up. Your jaw muscles are loose now but your lips are still clamped shut. They are swollen with hate.
The government will say that twenty-three school pupils died today, but you know that they are lying. It will take thirty years for them to admit that the number may have been as high as seven hundred.