You are in: surefish >
news >South Africa
18 March, 2004
At the end of April, South Africa will celebrate
the tenth anniversary of the end of apartheid.
Smith. Photo: Charlotte Haines Lyon
'How could I have a child who didnt know
what apartheid was? I used to go round with a screwdriver in my handbag and take
down apartheid signs, so they had quite a nutty mother.'
In the first of a series
of interviews exploring the lives of six South Africans, Charlotte Haines Lyon
meets the journalist and human rights activist Charlene Smith
rights issues, is not just about what governments do but its about what you as
person do and how you as a person live your life.
For Charlene Smith
this has been a rule of life, despite it turning her into a reluctant expert on
As a rookie crime reporter at the tender age
of 17, Charlene reported on the Soweto uprisings of 1976 and her world was changed.
I suddenly realised what was happening, they were killing children.
remembers going to Alexandra where the riots had spread, two days after Soweto,
That day they had been opening fire and there were houses, churches and
schools were burning and the police were going in and dragging out bodies and
throwing them into the back of police vehicles as if they were sacks of potatoes.
only did the protests against the Bantu Education Act and the resulting police
atrocities, inspire and anger young blacks across the country but they radicalised
Charlene. By the 1980s, Charlene had given up full time journalism as well as
friendly relations with her conservative racist family to become a full time activist
She is keen to emphasise that apartheid
was much more than arrests, detention and brutality, but rather it was the
daily humiliations that people had to suffer that was so appalling.
evidences this by describing her friendship with a black woman Maude: Wed
go out for lunch together, but because black and white people couldnt go
into the same restaurants. Id go and buy sandwiches, then wed find
a place to sit, but we couldnt sit in the parks together.
couldnt even use the same toilets; I nearly got fired once because I took
down all the apartheid signs for the toilets in the newspaper building. At one
point blacks couldnt even walk on the pavement, she continues.
training her children not to ask the names of underground people staying in her
house, for fear of endangering lives should the police question them, it seems
her son may have missed something. In 1994 when apartheid was being explained
on the radio, Matthew said. Gee, this apartheid sounds like a real problem.
laughs in disbelief: How could I have a child who didnt know what
apartheid was? I used to go round with a screwdriver in my handbag and take down
apartheid signs, so they had quite a nutty mother.
people might criticise her for being so politically active whilst being a mother.
Indeed after being arrested she phoned her mother to ask her to look after the
children, and was reprimanded with, Oh God, this is so irresponsible, youre
the only mother I know whos always getting arrested.
this mum is defiant: I felt that activism was securing my childrens
future, was creating a future of justice. However, after investigating and
telling the press about death squad activity in 1989 Charlene explains, rather
nonchalantly, why she returned to her former profession.
became reasonably uncomfortable because all the usual stuff started happening,
the phones, being followed, the cars outside the house. When my dog managed to
keep somebody up a tree for most of the night, I thought 'Im alone with
two children - I probably need to go back to journalism - its a bit safer.
Good timing it seems as a colleague was later blown up with a booby-trapped personal
Charlene acknowledges the very real decisions
one has to make regarding the danger of becoming an activist, but also says that
journalism brings its own difficulties. A journalist can never stop being
a human being, there are times if you realise as great injustice is going to happen
- what is more important, to be a person or to be a journalist.
goes on to describe horrific incidents which forced her to leave the supposed
journalists neutrality and try to save lives. This included
preventing a necklacing,
a punishment in which a tyre is put round the victims neck, filled with petrol
and set alight.
It is her everyday refusal to support
the apartheid regime however, which makes me wonder if a few more whites behaved
with such humanity then maybe apartheid would have fallen sooner.
was one situation, Charlene recalls, when I relied entirely on the
black woman who looked after my child and I did two things that were highly illegal;
I allowed her husband to stay with her and I allowed her two small children to
stay with us.
A neighbour complained, the
cops jumped the wall and when I came home they wanted to arrest her and her children.
I said no, you arrest me, Im the one breaking the law. This
simple step of resistance, including an equally defiant court appearance resulted
in charges being dropped.
Whilst the elections of 1994
were a great joy for many, for Charlene it was a time of mixed emotions. The day
before the elections, she was one of the first at the scene of a right-wing bombing
of a taxi rank near Johannesburg.
died, you couldnt walk without stepping on bits of people this size,
she says holding her finger and thumb an inch apart. There was an arm on
the 4th floor of the building jutting out, a head on a parapet, men walking around
with black bags picking up people. I thought we were going to inherit a holocaust.
her hopes were revived during the following days when visiting Zululand. There
were all these old people who had walked miles, some said they had walked for
two days, most had no shoes, some had only one shoe, and they hadnt had
anything to eat or drink, they were sitting in the sun, waiting at the polling
station to vote. It was actually seeing people like that when I realised what
Commenting on how during the elections,
blacks and whites started to talk whilst queuing to vote and discover their shared
fears and hopes for the country, including social justice. She wryly remarks,
if you were white and privileged preferably social justice meant not losing
your swimming pool.
end of apartheid did not bring and end to activism though. Whilst the government
celebrates ten years of freedom, sexual violence is also a major issue in South
Africa, as Charlene knows only too well. She was raped five years ago.
battle ensued to obtain the anti-retrovirals, so crucial in preventing
contraction of HIV. She has fought valiantly not only for
improvement for the
care of rape survivors but also against the silencing of these women.
will now openly tell you yeah Ive been raped, yes I was gang raped
by six people, my husband was tied up next to me. That doesnt happen
anywhere else. If you have a hurt you have to talk about it otherwise it becomes
When asked what the biggest challenge
to the country is now though, Charlene in her indomitable way, points to the AIDs
crisis. Your average young man aged 16-25 is more likely to be shot dead
than to die of any other cause, except for HIV/AIDs. Of the young people leaving
school and matriculating, only seven per cent are going to find work. Then we
say use a condom, practice safe sex -they must think were nuts.
that the government has spent money on arms rather than fighting HIV/AIDs she
argues, if we effectively confront HIV/AIDs it will transform all of our
Charlene then points out that this would
entail an end to sexual violence, clean water, effectively dealing with
all illnesses like Tuberculosis as well as food programs. Itll ensure we
have a true functioning democracy.
a life of fighting, Charlene is not bitter. On the contrary:
having this mad crazy life, its been the most wonderfully enriching life. If I
look at my life, Id change nothing. Making difficult decisions forces you
to confront yourself as well and your life. I love this country, and I love these
book Proud of Me is available by clicking
to South Africa index