Reading the news this morning I discovered that Pete Seeger, the man who wrote “We shall overcome” has died in his 90’s. I loved his stuff as a youngster, it spoke of possibilities, hinted that we could be better than we were but not in a polite mealy-mouthed way.
But the memory that came flooding back was of one day when I was at University. We had a reputation for political statements, and protests that had to remain on the campus property (or the police would arrest us) so we would stand silently, holding the placards along the edge of the University grounds that bordered a main road.
The day in my memory was one of the many. The government had again done something dreadful (trust me when I say that, the Nationalists were ruthless against opponents and really hated us white protestors as we were protesting against the policies of racial separation and domination by whites as they saw us as ‘selling out’ to those they regarded as inferior). So the placards were ready, and when we had a free period between lectures, instead of heading to the canteen for some coffee, we would trot over there, and take over from someone who had a lecture to attend.
That afternoon I was the assistant at a first year practical session (the masters student who was supposed to run them, just popped in now and then leaving me to run them all the time). It was a useful supplement to pocket money and there I think I discovered my love for helping others find out things and learn. That is something that has remained a joy all my life.
When I emerged from the classroom, papers for marking in my briefcase, I discovered the canteen in an uproar. The police had raided ON TO CAMPUS! Some students had been chased, hit and arrested.
I found my friends and we all sat chatting, realising one of us was missing. So a hardy soul went upstairs to the Students Union office to see if anyone had an idea of who had been taken. Our horror when one friend’s name was on the list was immense. We had heard stories of the police behaviour, backed up by pictures in the Daily Mail of those poor bodies of those who ‘fell’ from police headquarters.
We queued for the phone, and then phoned her mother. She was worried but somewhat peaceful with the news. My friend’s mother I should explain was a founder member of the “Black Sash” – a woman’s organisation protesting against the government’s apartheid policies and the cruelties and injustices it caused.
Nothing we could do. Her parents knew where she was, the students union lawyer was on the case. We needed to start travelling home. I was staying that night at another friend’s home, as we all had a project we were running at a girls home and we were visiting and ‘counselling’ ever y week. I lived in Pretoria but attended university in Johannesburg, something that took 25 hours a week in travelling time, so once a week I would stay the night at a friend so I could go with the group to the project.
When we got to the home “Strathyre” we explained to the youngsters about the protest and arrest. They were so shocked we had a few of them in tears, dishing out hugs and reassurance. Then one of them came out carrying a guitar which she gave to me as she knew I could play a little. They demanded we sing “We shall Overcome”.
Such solidarity from children who had little, with those who; through dreadful government – had even less still warms my memories.