As South Africa marked Youth Day on Saturday 16 June 2018, Sophia Kapp – an author and language practitioner from Pretoria – wrote the following moving message for Hector Pieterson, the 12-year-old boy who was fatally wounded during the Soweto Riots 42 years ago, and whose image was immortalised in the iconic photo by the late Sam Nzima. The township students were protesting against suddenly being taught in a language most of them did not understand… Afrikaans.
Sophia has kindly translated the message into English for SAPeople readers, but if you can… please read it in Afrikaans first – because “Afrikaans is part of his story, and of mine…”
Hy was 12 toe hy dood is. ‘n Klein seuntjie in ‘n kortbroek en ‘n trui in die middel van die Hoëveldse winter. Om hom was daar ‘n mal gedruis van voertuie en die krete van ‘n betogende massa en die rou gille van kinders en die skerp staccato van geweervuur. En die reuk van stof en bloed en vrees. En hy is dood.
Ek was pas 11. Ek kan nie onthou wat ek daardie dag gedoen het nie, waarskynlik wat ek elke dag gedoen het: Skool toe gegaan, met my maatjies gespeel, storieboek gelees, met wiskunde gesukkel.
Ek was in my sykokon toegedraai, doeltreffend geïsoleer deur die stelsel wat namens my besluit het wat om te dink, té beskerm om te weet dat my land rondom my brand, te naïef om te besef watter allerverskriklike wandade in my naam gepleeg word.
Vandag het hy vir die meeste Suid-Afrikaners ‘n simbool geword van die prys wat hierdie land se mense vir vryheid betaal het, van die afskuwelikheid wat geweld kan word, van hoe donker onverdraagsaamheid en blinde vooroordeel kan word.
Vir my is hy meer as ‘n simbool of ‘n prentjie.
In ‘n regverdige wêreld sou hy vandag my landgenoot gewees het. Dalk ‘n kollega of ‘n vennoot of ‘n baas, my kind se lektor, my wyk se raadslid. In ‘n regverdige wêreld sou ek na hom kon kyk as ‘n vriend of ‘n geliefde. In ‘n regverdige wêreld sou hy geleef het. Sou ons al twee geleef het.
Maar die wêreld was nie regverdig nie. Hy was ‘n swart seuntjie in ‘n swart township, ek was ‘n wit dogtertjie in ‘n wit suburb. Hy is dood en ek het daardie dag alleen oorleef.
Die wêreld is steeds nie regverdig nie. Ek gaan vir die res van my lewe saamleef met die wete dat daar niks is wat ek kan doen om die gebeure van daardie dag om te keer nie.
Daar is niks wat ek kan sê om vir die verlies en die seer wat die land op dié dag gely het te vergoed nie. Ek kan nie die verlede verander nie, al wil ek hoe graag. Niemand kan nie.
Al wat ek het, is ‘n stem. Al wat ek kan aanbied, is my woorde.
Al waarin ek dit kan sê, is die einste taal wat hom daardie dag sy lewe gekos het. Maar dan is dit wat ek gee: Met die lewe wat ek gekry het, met my stem en met my woorde gee ek dit, want dis wat ek het: Vandag herdenk ek die maatjie met wie ek nooit gespeel het nie.
He was 12 when he died. A little boy wearing a pair of shorts and a jersey in the deep Highveld winter. Surrounded by the craziness of revving vehicles and the chants of protesters and the raw screams of children and the sharp staccato of gunfire. And the smell of dust and blood and fear. And he died.
I had just turned 11. I cannot recall what I did that day; probably what I did every day: Went to school, played with my friends, read my story book, struggled with maths.
I was protected by my silken cocoon, insulated by the system which was created to think on my behalf, too protected to realize that my country was burning, too naive to realize the extent of the atrocities that were being committed in my name.
Today, to most South Africans he has become a symbol of the price the people of this country had to pay for freedom, of the horror that violence begets, of how dark intolerance and blind prejudice can become.
To me, he is more than a symbol or a picture.
In a just world he would have been my compatriot. Perhaps a colleague or a partner or my boss, my child’s lecturer or the councillor for my ward. In a just world I would have been able to consider him a friend or a beloved. In a just world he would have lived. We would both have lived.
But the world was not just. He was a black boy in a black township, I was a white girl in a white suburb. He died, and I survived.
The world is still not just. For the rest of my life I will live with the knowledge that there is nothing I can do to reverse the events of that terrible day. There is nothing I can say to compensate for the loss and the grief suffered by my country on that day. I cannot change the past, no matter how eagerly I may want to. Nobody can.
I have nothing but a voice. I have nothing to offer but my words. I can offer them only in the very language that cost him his life. But then that is what I give: With the life I was given, with my voice and my words, I give the only thing I have: Today I honour the little friend with whom I never got to play.
by Sophia Kapp
Sophia Kapp is a language practitioner living in Pretoria; and an author of romance novels including “Oorlewingsgids vir ‘n bedonnerde diva”. Follow the Bedonnerde Diva on FB here.