Ahmed Kathrada and his best friend Nelson Mandela dedicated their post-apartheid lives to building a rainbow nation and fostering nonracialism. His home town, however, seems stuck in the apartheid era, with little to no social interaction across colour lines and violent racism on surrounding farms.
Schweizer-Reneke — or Schweizer, as it’s known among residents — is an underdeveloped town near the border of the North West and Free State, surrounded by maize farms. The town is steeped in colonial and apartheid history, but boasts Kathrada as one of its most progressive sons.
It has one main road and only two franchise shops; the rest are locally owned businesses and shops operated by foreign nationals. More than 20 years after the fall of apartheid, very few people of colour have moved out of the racially segregated neighbourhoods and locals say the racial tensions are being compounded by widespread resentment towards the foreign-owned businesses.
A complex relationship exists between the town’s race and class groups. White people there don’t generally mix with other races and although there are no “whites only” signs at shops or watering holes, the no-go areas for black people are well known, says Pule Ramabodu, a 29-year-old resident of the Ipelegeng township.
“The racism is blatant. One feels it at guesthouses, when you try to book in and they refuse to speak anything other than Afrikaans. Or black people are booked into certain sections and whites in other sections. We don’t even eat together,” Ramabodu told the Mail & Guardian.
The racism, he claims, extends to bars and even golf courses: “You need to be well connected to play on the course here. It’s rare you find people of colour golfing,” he adds.
Ipelegeng is a dusty assortment of brick houses and shacks, with an unemployment rate that hovers around 70% and few signs of development. A portion of the township is named after Kathrada. It’s the only visible indication of the struggle icon’s legacy in Schweizer.
The Kathrada section in Ipelegeng looks derelict. Metre-wide potholes can be seen on every road surface and youngsters are in evidence on each street corner, selling cigarettes, snacks, fruit and vegetables or just hanging out with their friends.
Despite living in the section bearing the name of one of South Africa’s most ardent anti-racism activists, the young men there are still subjected to apartheid-like conditions. Many of the people who secure part-time work do so on the surrounding farms.
Five to six days of 10-hour shifts a week usually earn farmworkers about R3 000 a month, with the added risk of unpredictable racism, claims Maxwell Gaditshose, a 26-year-old who has lived in Kathrada section his entire life.
“You can still find pure racism in Schweizer. In town it’s bad, but on the farms it’s even worse,” Gaditshose says, sitting next to a hawker’s stand near a school in the township.
“I know many people who get beaten by farm bosses and forced to sign dismissal [forms] … And you know they speak to us like they want, calling us those names. It’s like apartheid never ended for them,” he continues as his friend nods in agreement.
Gaditshose says Kathrada’s contribution to the liberation struggle and legacy of nonracialism is hardly acknowledged or felt in the township. “His foundation should do something to promote interaction [between races]. I mean, the teenagers don’t know Ahmed Kathrada or what he did. The old people know him of course, but the kids only know the name of the section and maybe his family that’s in town.”
Kathrada’s family is renowned in the small town. His siblings’ children all have their own shops there and are held in high regard by the youngsters to whom they offer part-time employment. In the township, unemployed youngsters hurry to greet Kathrada’s nephew Haroon, who regularly offers them a day’s employment washing cars near the family shop.
In the last few years of his life, Kathrada wasn’t able to travel to Schweizer as frequently as before. On his final visit there last year, he asked his nephew Farid to drive him around the small town and went to see the township.
“We had a farewell braai for him with the family and he asked us to drive him around the town to see it for the last time. So we went through the different sections and he said he’s not coming back again. He’s highly respected in the township and specifically asked to drive through there,” Fariq said.
Although Kathrada is Schweizer’s most notable political export, the town was also home to the Pahad family, which includes former minister in the presidency Essop and former deputy foreign affairs minister Aziz.
At about two in the afternoon on March 20, a week before Kathrada’s death, the opening of a new library at a community centre in Ipelegeng is wrapping up. The centre is at the edge of the township, next to Kathrada section.
Inside, the library boasts a study area, a digital section and six aisles of books. At the gate schoolchildren are clamouring to get past the security guards and freshly painted murals to the brand new computers and books.
The atmosphere feels like a breath of hope in the neglected neighbourhood, dotted with unemployed youngsters, completely worn out roads and few signs of development.
Young Communist League (YCL) cadres are clad in book club golf shirts curating, and taking credit for, the opening of the government library. Their presence seems appropriate — Kathrada joined the YCL in 1941, at the age of 12, and shortly after moved to Johannesburg where he met Duma Nokwe, Yusuf Dadoo and other renowned communists.
These days it’s not as easy to recruit teenagers or adults into the YCL, the local branch secretary Onkaetse Maclean admits. Their numbers are too low to mention and Kathrada’s legacy isn’t exactly the drawcard one might expect.
“But we appreciate that he is a national leader and we benefit from his contribution to policies on a national scale. So while we might not feel his legacy in Schweizer, we know his contribution,” Maclean says.
The irony of Kathrada’s legacy of nonracialism not yet reaching his home town, however, is not lost on the YCL members.
They bemoan the lack of honour bestowed on his contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle, questioning why not enough has been invested in promoting multiculturalism and nonracialism — and why his foundation has not yet reached out to his place of birth.
“We don’t get to interact with white people but really, there hasn’t been much done to make that interaction happen. But we get along with the Indian people. So the question is: Who are the racists in this town?” asks YCL member Oupa Metswameret.
Schweizer has in recent years grabbed the headlines for alleged incidents of racism, as claimed by Cosatu. The trade union federation’s website is littered with statements alleging racist attacks on farmworkers and locals single out one particular bar, Bullets, as being a haven for racial bigotry.
Residents in Ipelegeng wouldn’t dare go inside — one of the Kathrada grandchildren describes the racist undertones that forced him out of the bar after trying to buy a cooldrink.
The Bullets patrons who spoke to the M&G don’t bother hiding their preference for segregation. Two men who refused to be named joked: “We get along with some of the Indians, so we don’t need the blacks,” to smiling faces around the bar.
Another middle-aged man, who identified himself as a farmer, blamed the lack of interaction on the absence of sporting clubs. “If there was a rugby team, the blacks could come play — we won’t mind,” he said.
None of the people in the bar seemed interested in discussing Kathrada’s attempt to build an inclusive South Africa. Instead they were eager to chat about Eugene Terre’Blanche, who they still think holds the freedom of the town.