Northern Cape: A Surprising Meeting with Casualties of the Struggle at Upington

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 6, 2016

After days of smaller towns, we were ready for a return to city living, if only for a few hours. Natasha and I set course for Upington, a city of 74,834, at the northernmost point of our road trip. Along our course, we encountered a surprising trio who told us about their first-hand experiences of the Struggle against the Apartheid government.

Driving to Upington from Keimoes was a matter of popping onto the N14 and following it east for 45 minutes. The drive was fairly uneventful, and soon we were in the outskirts of Upington. Our first thought was to visit a tourist information center to acquire a map, but the Green Kalahari information center did not appear where a signpost suggested it should. We backed out of the industrial area to visit a butcher, who explained where the city museum could be found. We drove there straightaway.

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Yes, it still looks like a church. I took this shot from the pulpit.

The Upington museum is based in an old church next to the Orange River; additional displays fill an adjoining parsonage and a 1945 church building. A feature that we hoped would make the museum easy to spot is an outdoor statue of a donkey drawing a mill, but it was masked by a van on our first drive. We paused to take a snapshot, since mules are a mascot for my home state.

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This Missourian felt right at home!

The main building has just a few exhibits: founding fathers, the Upington 26, and printing machinery. A painting of Thomas Upington, who instituted a police force for the area, explains why the town was renamed from Olyvenhoudtsdrift to honor him. The chapel also features a 1970 painting of Scotty Smith, a Robin Hood of sorts from this area. My home town celebrates the bank robber Jesse James in much the same light. Christiaan W. H. Schroeder is also honored as the missionary who first brought western writing to the area by a mission he established at the request of the Korana chief.

The subject of the Upington 26 is a more complex one. During school protests on November 11, 1985, a police officer shot and killed a pregnant woman in the Paballelo township adjoining Upington. Two days later, police officers forcibly dispersed a crowd of 3000 Pabellelo residents with tear gas. A crowd of 300 people subsequently attacked the house of a municipal policeman and murdered him brutally when he attempted to flee the house. The Apartheid government reacted forcefully, charging 26 people with his murder on the grounds of “common purpose,” arguing that the defendants had conspired against public safety and the authority of the state. Twenty-five defendants were found guilty of murder, and fourteen were sentenced to death. In 1991, 21 of the 25 guilty verdicts were overturned. The gallery tells this story through a series of posters that include the laws that established Apartheid, brick by brick. A quotation by defendant Justice Bekebeke from the trial moved me: “We are striving for each and every racial group to live in harmony. But is it possible, in the name of the Lord?” Large wooden ships that had been constructed from clothespins or matchsticks by one of the imprisoned members were on display.

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How would you pass the time if you were imprisoned for years?

The museum had a striking display centered on the Korana San people of the Northern Cape. A series of photographs was taken for individuals from the tribe during the late 1930s. These images, used to establish skull “types” by a phrenologist, look very much like mug shots from the front and side. The images of these people were striking, and I felt they retained their dignity despite the foolish scribblings of the person trying to classify them by skull shape. A variety of early tools, ranging from stone cores up to antler-derived spear points were on display, and this large display illustrated the way that mobile shelters were constructed from woven mats up to the late nineteenth century.

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Once you’ve woven the mats, you need only stitch them together over a frame.

Our next destination was the police headquarters, where a statue commemorates the mounted division of the South African Police. Unlike the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police, however, the South African variant employed camels!

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This is not Dudley Do-Right.

Natasha and I resolved to visit the monument constructed to commemorate the Upington 26. We had seen photographs of the memorial at the museum. We had an up-to-date tourist map of Upington, published this year. Unfortunately, no location for this memorial appeared on the map. We asked the question and learned that the memorial was built in the Paballelo township, in the soccer fields where the crowd of 3000 was dispersed by police. With a quick look at the map, we prepared to drive into the township.

I must admit that I was worried about driving into a township. This was my first time venturing into one, though I had driven by any number of them. I should explain that the Khayelitsha township in Cape Town is the site of a great many of the murders that take place there each month. It is also a hotbed for the transmission of tuberculosis. In the case of Paballelo, however, I can report that there was very little distinction between the residential neighborhoods of Upington and those of Paballelo. We found the soccer field without a problem, and we parked right next to a minibus van that seemed to be associated with the media surrounding the local elections to take place in a month. We walked to the gate of the memorial only to discover it was padlocked shut. We would not be able to walk through it; instead we could only see the mosaic renderings of each face through the bars.

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The gates were locked, so this is as close as I could get.

Something remarkable happened next. Two men were chatting near the gate, and one of them said to me that his image was over there. I did a double-take and asked him if he meant that he was pictured on the monument. He confirmed it, and he noted that the other man was, as well, and the driver of another parked car was also there. Three of the Upington 26 were standing in front of us: Boy Jafta, Zonga Mokhatle, and Neville Witbooi!

I felt that I was stumbling over myself with any question I could ask, but I tried to learn as much as I could. “How did you get pulled into this mess?” They replied that the police had called people to a meeting that the police then dispersed. “What was the ‘common purpose’ justification used by the court to convict you?” They replied that the police claimed that because the defendants acted with a common goal, they could be tried as co-conspirators. “How did the course of your life change after you were freed?” This was a harder question. They noted that one of the 26 became the administrator for the entire Northern Cape. Another completed his college education. As for them, two of these three have found it difficult to keep steady employment, and receiving their pensions (set aside by the Government of National Unity for freedom fighters whose lives had been disrupted by their activism) requires an in-person appearance in Pretoria, which might as well be the moon for the difficulty involved in getting there. It was humbling to be with these men who had faced such hardship in the past and in the new lives they had assembled since release from prison.

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I was thrilled to stand with three men who had borne so much in the struggle against Apartheid.

With such a lot of information to digest, Natasha and I headed back to Keimoes. We saw a bright beacon on the horizon as we left Upington, and the bright light continued to beguile us as we drove south on the N14. At last the road approached the sight closely enough that we could discern its identity. We had discovered a concentrated solar power station! A ring of mirrors reflect light from the sun to a central tower, and the light reaching the tower is converted into electricity. It was amazing how much light reflected from it.

With that mystery uncovered, we stopped at the Bezalel wine farm, just a few kilometers from Keimoes. The farm specializes in brandy, but it produces a wide variety of wines. We both decided to try the “highlight” tasting (at R50, or just over $3 USD, for each person), and we added a shared cheese sampler for R80. The sampler featured four different cheeses, a fig compote, a chili jam, and some candied ginger. Our wine selection began with brandy and continued with a colombard, pinot noir, a natural sweet red, a jerepigo (more familiar in America as a gewurztraminer), a spicy port, and a coffee liqueur. Had I indulged in more than a sip of these drinks, I think I might have been deeply impaired. I drove us the last few kilometers home.

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The bottle is for photographic purposes only.

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2 thoughts on “Northern Cape: A Surprising Meeting with Casualties of the Struggle at Upington

  1. Pingback: Northern Cape: Climbing the Highveld | Picking Up The Tabb

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