It’s taken 30 years, but finally the mother of Mandela “Zola” Selani has visited her son’s final resting place as well as the monument that was built more than 10 years ago to honour him and the six other young men who were ambushed and killed by apartheid security forces.
At a poignant wreath-laying ceremony last Wednesday, the families of the Gugulethu Seven and government officials paid tribute to the freedom fighters, who were between the ages of 16 and 23 when they were killed.
The families said their loved ones’ deaths meant others could live in freedom today. But they still find it hard to relive the events of the morning of March 3, 1986 when security forces led by a Vlakplaas-based unit of the South African police gunned down the seven young MK members: Christopher Piet, Jabulani Miya, Mandla Mxinwa, Themba Molefi, Mandela “Zola” Selani, Zabonkwe Konile and Zandisile Mjobo.
They young men were set up by a police informer and led into an ambush on the corner of NY1 and NY111 where the memorial, which was unveiled on Human Rights Day, March 21 2005, stands today. The seven are buried at the NY5 Cemetery in Gugulethu.
However, while the names of these seven Struggle heroes now echo through South African history, the reality for the families they left behind is that many of them continue to struggle to make ends meet.
Mandela Selani’s relatives told Vukani they had been reduced to abject poverty and were forced to resort to loan sharks to survive. This is despite the fact that they continue to hear and read about how Mandela fought for the country, although many of the accounts refer to him as “Zola”, the name he used to avoid the kind of attention from the authorities that a young black man named Mandela in apartheid South Africa no doubt would have attracted. His surname on the monument is also spelt incorrectly as “Swelani”.
After all these years Mandela’s mother, Nomutile Selani, 82, still finds it hard to believe her son is dead. When he was killed, she was unable to attend his funeral.
“We only heard of his death from a certain man who saw a letter from a post office and brought it to us. The letter was telling us that Zola will be buried.
“It was on a Friday, a day before he was buried. We could not attend but my husband, Sidima, came a week after. We didn’t even know how he was murdered,” she said holding back the tears.
On Wednesday, she and other families visited the memorial in Steve Biko Drive to watch Deputy Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mcebisi Skwatsha and Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Nomaindia Mfeketo lay a wreaths for the Gugulethu Seven.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, Ms Selani, who lives in King Williams Town in the Eastern Cape, said she had only visited her son’s grave and the memorial for the first time in January this year – 30 years after his death.
Even though her husband was a Struggle activist, Ms Selani never thought her son would follow in his footsteps. Life, she said, had been very hard since her son’s death.
“I just feel lost and don’t seem to be able to move on. He has always been a well-mannered son. He was very humble, loved people. I thought he was going to be the breadwinner at home but it was not to be.”
Years after that fateful day in 1986, she says, she continues to live in a decaying house and extreme poverty with little hope that life will change for her, although she is grateful to Mr Skwatsha, who has been hosting the Gugulethu Seven families, for making it possible for her to visit the memorial and her son’s grave.
Christopher Piet’s mother, Cynthia Ngewu, said that after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission she had expected some form of compensation.
But there was nothing. She finds some consolation in knowing Christopher’s death meant there is hope for the young people in the country today. But for her the struggle continues with no end in sight.
“The wound never heals. When you see people of his age, it all comes back to haunt me. I always think he should have been this age or that. But I am hopeful for the future of the country,” she said.
Mr Skwatsha referred to the famous quote by executed MK cadre Solomon Mahlangu (“My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom”) as he spoke about how the Gugulethu Seven and others like them had helped to lay the foundations for a democratic South Africa.
“It is their sacrifices, those of their families and others that today we are ministers and deputies. We come from far. Gugulethu used to be bushes. We must thank the wombs that brought us these comrades,” he said.
He said he had called the families together so they could have tea together and reminisce about the past. The families spent time at Mr Skwatsha’s house before going to the Khwezi Hall, in Gugulethu, where a memorial service was held.
The Gugulethu Development Forum spokesman, Xolile Ndzoyi, said they were lobbying government to help the Gugulethu Seven families.