/ 12 February 1990

The day the people claimed back their cities

It was the day when people started to believe that the African National Congress – as personified by Nelson Mandela- really was unbanned and the longed for liberation really was at hand. And it was also the day on which the cities of this country were reclaimed by the people who have been living in them for years. At least that is how it felt in Hillbrow. Thousands of ANC supporters, sublimely undeterred by the gusting rain, circled and recircled the suburb, toyi-toyi-ing under flags, exchanging slogans of freedom, transfixing the suburb in sustained bursts of hooting, pincushioning the air with joyous clenched fist salutes. 

There was an atmosphere such as has seldom if ever been experienced in the cities. More and more people were swept along in the swirling triumphal procession – up Pretoria Street, down Kotze Street, then down Claim Street into town, where it circled through Wanderers and a tumultuous reception at the taxi ranks. Then it was back through Hillbrow again. And as it passed, more and more people of every description joined in or hung off their balconies or appeared in doorways to join in the victory cries of ”Viva!” and ”Long live!” – and some more eccentric cries like ”The Boss is back” and ”Freedom in our daytime”. Cars crammed to overflowing and with people hanging off the roofs drove round and round to intersect with the swirling crowds and join intermittently in the jubilation. Of course some people were less than ecstatic. 

Following the march down Pretoria Street we ended up for a few hundred yards beside a battered old car. Inside was a man with a drunkard’s strawberry nose. There was a naked girl tattooed on one forearm, an anchor on the other. What at first was merely muttering under his breath grew gradually in volume and intensity until, unable to help himself, the man was screaming – the most appalling obscenities into the crowd. When he finally turned off he looked to be quite literally on the brink of apoplexy. But the crowd just surged past, drowning out the malignancy in another sustained cheer. Nor did the hundreds of police, circling with the crowd and attempting -usually fruitlessly – to direct traffic seem manifestly delighted to be there. Some threw finger signs from the back of vans, some fondled their heavy weaponry with meaning, some just looked surly or bewildered. 

But there was no violence or aggression, just exuberance. As one face pressed in at the window of our car said: ”Today is the day the ANC is really unbanned. Long live! Long live!” And there was little enough real menace on the part of police. Like the AWB-type whites standing looking down with beers and braais from their balconies, they seemed to know that they were watching history marching in front of them and there was nothing they could do to stop it. 

• Sapa reports that a small vehicle accelerated into a toyi-toyi-ing crowd in Hillbrow on Sunday night, knocking down one person. ”Three people in the car just drove into the crowd,” an eyewitness said. ”I saw one person fall down, and the car sped away. Paramedics arrived and took the injured person away.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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