PREFACE: Zwelethu – A Memoir By Jaki Seroke

In this memoir, Seroke emulates his hero, the late Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, who used to bend to grab a handful of the barren soil of Robben Island Prison, where he was locked up, and then straightened up to let it trickle through his fingers. He did that because he was forbidden from talking or even waiving to his fellow prisoners as they marched past his “house”, designed for solitary confinements for him. They would be on their way to and from hard labour in the quarry where they were digging out material to extend the prison around themselves. 

The other prisoners were also forbidden from talking or waiving to him, so they in turn bent down to grab sand and let it trickle through their fingers. Sobukwe was reminding them that they were on this bleak island because they were committed to liberating their land, iZwelethu!

It’s poetic that Seroke titles his memoir iZwelethu – his guerrilla name in the Azanian People’s Liberation Army was Zwelethu. Many of his fellow combatants didn’t know him by any other name. And there are deeper layers of meanings to the title: he was born in 1960, when the slogan and salute Izwe lethu! with the open palm, reverberated around the world following the Sharpeville massacre that claimed 69 lives and hundreds of injured when the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania led a protest against the pass laws that forced every black man over the age of 16 to always carry a pass to produce on demand. The pass served as much more than just an identity document: by flipping through its pages, a policeman could determine if you had official permission to be in an area or if you were legally employed. If you couldn’t produce it, if you were in the area “illegally” or if you were not employed, and therefore deemed a “loafer”, you’d be arrested.

The PAC was founded in 1959, a year before Seroke was born, after it broke away from the African National Congress, the “ruling” party in South Africa today. 

In this memoir, Seroke takes his first jabs at:

  • Elucidating the dynamics of the Azanian revolution from within;
  • Reimagining our collective past;
  • Grasping the nettle of the present; and
  • Again imagining the future we wanted.

The memoir is soil trickling through Seroke’s fingers: it comes in the year when South Africa and the world are struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic; it comes in the year when former president Jacob Zuma has been incarcerated for contempt of court and is facing more serious charges; and it comes at the time when the army has been ordered to help quell deep civil unrest. It comes when South Africa is at the start of its own version of the Arab Spring, when years of bottled-up anger and resentment among the masses are ready to burst out. We can hear the ominous hiss.

How did we get here? How do we find our way out? How do we correct course? These are the uncomfortable questions that Seroke poses.

Jaki starts with the story of his birth and upbringing in the slum of Alexandra Township – grime all around him, dead dogs lying in the smelly gutters, and often dead people, victims of murderous tsotsis, discovered lying in the streets on some mornings. Out of this muck, we find a growing consciousness and anger at life under apartheid.

This is a consciousness fed by family – particularly grandmother Sinah – other youngsters, teachers, and a growing number of heroes like Tsietsi Mashinini. Seroke is caught up in the student unrests post 1976.  That era produced the Serokes, young bodies hurling themselves at armoured police and army vehicles, wielding nothing more than angry songs, slogans, and stones. Their eyes were fixed on “liberation” and they didn’t care what else happened to them.

Young Seroke tells the story of his arrests, detentions without trial, torture by the security police in detention – the sarcastically named Rabasotho Police Station in Thembisa sticks out – and culminating in imprisonment on Robben Island. 

In the narrative, the pain of the personal is woven into the national: the families we left behind as we marched into the detention cells – the mothers, fathers, and other relatives we left behind. Yes, it was painful for us, but they went through worse torture imagining what was happening to us away from home. It was double our pain. You can imagine them grappling with images of the knock on the door to announce we had slipped on a piece of soap while in the shower and died….

In this memoir Seroke also delineates the great irony of the liberation struggle very sharply. How did we end up here? What happened to the ideals that fuelled the struggle? What happened to the values that kept volunteers focussed on the straight and narrow? Why are the names of many who made the pre-1994 vows to liberate the poor and downtrodden being paraded at corruption trials and other commissions of inquiry today?

Like Sobukwe, Seroke doesn’t answer these questions himself – he suggests the answers are to be sought at a fresh Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa).

Of the last Codesa in which he and the PAC were involved, he says:

“Codesa was a mess, a kaleidoscope of ethnic and racial interests aiming to set up a confederate state called a new South Africa. It sucked in all the political structures that agreed with the idea of changes brought about without ‘killing the goose that lays the golden egg’. It also said let bygones be bygones. In simple terms it meant a change of flag and perhaps a black president but the rest remained intact.”

This book is a must-read for all who love this country and care about its future.

Joe Thloloe

Writer, Editor, and Writing Coach