“Place of blood” is now home of hope

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Egazini — “Place of blood” is now home of hope

What once was a place of darkness and hate now is a symbol of hope and reconciliation.

It’s captured in the word “Egazini,” or “place of blood,” a name that evokes the bloody past and the hopeful future of not just Makhanda, but the country.

The Egazini Outreach Project — located in a building that used to be home to apartheid-era beatings by the Internal Police Stability Unit in Extension 6 in the Joza Township — is an organization of local artisans whose work showcases the history and culture of the place.

Formed in 2000, Egazini has been exhibiting pottery, lithographs and other works of art here and abroad as well. In 2011, the kind of work seen here was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition in New York entitled “Impressions from South Africa: 1965 to Now.”

The Past

Makhanda is named for Lieutenant Colonel John Graham, a British military leader who founded the city in 1812.

In 1819, Xhosa warriors, native to the region launched an attack against the British, but even with a force of about 6,000, the Xhosa’s shields and spears were no match for the muskets of the soldiers.

Legend has it that so much Xhosa blood ran down the hillside that the surrounding waters turned red, prompting the Xhosa to give the site its “Egazini” name.

In Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, the word apartheid means apartness. In 1948, the all-white National Party introduced apartheid, which called for the segregation of the different racial groups in the country. The country was segregated in the years leading up to the formal introduction of apartheid, but after 1948 conditions for people of color worsened. The government forced nonwhite South Africans, a majority of the country’s population, to live in ghettos separate from the whites, and they were prohibited from using public facilities.

They had limited access to adequate jobs and proper education. Those who tried to rise against the government were often beaten, sometimes killed.

Apartheid remained in effect for nearly 50 years until President F.W. de Klerk began repealing most of the laws behind it.

In Makhanda, the nonwhites who lived in the township feared the amangundwana — the “police rats” who were predominantly black and were tasked with arresting members of the Azanian People’s Organization, or AZAPO. AZAPO embraced the ideologies of Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement that struggled against apartheid.

In 1984, Sipho Nyikila, then 21 years old, fled Makhanda, after people found out he was a member of AZAPO.

Nyikila became involved with the political movement at an early age.

“Some Rhodes students held us, gave us food. Some of the Rhodes students were AZAPO and took us and let us sleep in their rooms. We’d have to leave early in the morning.”

“I saw it at school,” Nyikila said. “I related to it. I was not angry, I was facing the realities and they started chasing me and I had to flee for my life.”

Nyikila and 10 of his AZAPO associates knew they could be killed if they were caught, and so they ran with the help of students—both black and white—from Rhodes University in Makhanda.

“Some Rhodes students held us, gave us food. Some of the Rhodes students were AZAPO and took us and let us sleep in their rooms. We’d have to leave early in the morning.”

They ran to Sugarloaf, a hill overlooking Makhanda, where they stayed for several days. Eventually, two of the 11 men were killed by members of the United Democratic Front (UDF), another anti-apartheid organization. AZAPO and the UDF were not on good terms, and violence often erupted between the two groups.

Nyikila was eventually caught and arrested; he spent two months in prison before he was bailed out.

“I did not know when it would end,” he said. “I was sometimes scared.”

Today, nearly 34 years later, Nyikila still considers himself to be a member of AZAPO, but he does not fight.

For many other people who live in the township of Makhanda, the building where the Egazini Outreach Project is now housed conjures up many similar frightening memories. The building was once the headquarters for the Internal Police Stability Unit. Its black officers would take innocent people to the building for interrogation. People were often beaten and imprisoned there for days.

Daniwe Gongqa, now 86, remembers when her teen son, Tsietsi, was carted off by officers.

Gongqa said officers would kick down the doors of people’s houses just to terrorize them. Parents were scared to send their children out on errands for fear that they would be arrested.

“I’m not talking about what I heard, I’m talking about what I know,”

One day, Gongqa’s biggest fear as a parent came true.

A few of the officers approached Tsietsi and asked him to join their force. Since he needed his parents’ permission, he went home to ask his mother, who told him “no.”

The officers nabbed Tsietsi and arrested him.

“I’m not talking about what I heard, I’m talking about what I know,” Gonqa says today, so many years later. “My kid was beaten at Egazini. I was told that my son was dead. I could not recognize him while I was looking at him; he was so swollen and beaten up by the police. They beat him with the back of guns. They would beat your child until he would become unconscious.”

A year after his arrest and beating, Tsietsi was still in pain. He never fully recovered from his injuries, and several years later he died.

Gongqa is convinced the beating is what caused her son’s death.

She is now an old woman, but the tremble in her voice and the tears in her eyes reveal that her son’s death is a pain she still bears every single day.

The Future

It is a hot January day in Makhanda. Next to the Egazini Outreach Project, men and women work in the cornfields, the slight breeze in the air providing a tiny respite from the blazing summer heat. It is quiet, peaceful. Every so often, a car passes by on the pothole-ridden roads a short walk from the building; a dog’s bark echoes from some distance away.

It is hard to imagine a different time in this building’s history, but for many residents, it was a place of fear and torture. Now, in nearly every single room of the compound, art hangs on the walls and pieces of pottery sit on the shelves.

For the artists creating in this space, it’s a chance to breathe new life into not only the building but the city itself. And the Egazini Outreach Project has given them an opportunity to find a career they love.

For Simphiwe Dlephu, who has been making pottery for the past four years, the Egazini Outreach Project has helped him find his passion.

“I really, really love it,” he said. “I love it. When I go home, I think about pottery.”

The artists get 15 percent of the profit when their work is sold.

Bongani Diko, one of the project managers, hopes the program can continue to grow and become a place of pride for the community, especially for the youth of Makhanda.

“We’re looking at teaching them how to do murals because we want to lobby them to see art as a way to make a career,” he said.

“The intention was to rewrite history,” he added, “so the future is looking bright because rewriting history will combine people. I think rewriting history, it heals so many elements, and using art as a healer -- it just makes things to be perfect. … Egazini now is not done by one person. It is a combination of many people now.”