Eighty-two years of living have taught Joyce Piliso-Seroke that life is not always fair.
It was a lesson the daughter of a mine supervisor and primary school teacher learnt early on while growing up in a close-knit extended family in the Johannesburg suburb of Crown Mines.
“It was not easy being brought up by such strict parents. They believed in the values of respect, integrity, love and sharing. It was not easy, especially for me, to be taught by my own mother at school. She would raise home issues and wrongdoings in front everyone.
“I would get so embarrassed, thinking: ‘But what is this woman doing?’ She would call me out on having left without making my bed or if I had woken up late. Likewise, the things that I did at school were bought home. She would tell my father and aunts at home: ‘You won’t believe that your daughter came second and was beaten by some boy!’”
She smiles fondly at the memory, “but now when I look back, I realise how I was being prepared by my parents for life”.
“I am grateful now. They broadened my skills and gave me an understanding of responsibility, and taught me the value of caring for others.”
Sitting regally on a plush couch in her home in Rivonia, Sandton, her life score way past half-time is Piliso-Seroke 1 and 0 to life’s adversities.
The recipient of the Order of the Baobab in Gold, Piliso-Seroke was detained in the Old Fort after the 1976 student uprising. In 1996, she joined the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a member of its human rights committee and, in 1999, became the chair of the Commission for Gender Equality.
Still, she jokingly asks why City Press has come to bother an old lady, long forgotten.
As she speaks, the happier memories of her childhood give way to darker ones.
“It was an awful time. We lived separately long before apartheid. I remember one time I went to the shops in Mayfair with my mother and there was a young Afrikaner woman saying to my mother: ‘Yes, my girl, what can I do for you?’
“You can’t imagine what that did to me, having been bought up strictly and to respect my mother, and here was this young woman disrespecting my mother, solely because of the colour of her skin.”
Much of the abuse was senseless and arbitrary.
“We would walk some distance to the dairy with our containers in hand. When we would return, the white boys would set their dogs on us. We would run while they laughed, as if it were a game. By the time we got home, much of the milk was spilt. Those are things you still remember.”
Piliso-Seroke was encouraged by the black leaders she insists need to be the focus of Heritage Day.
“I get cross when I put on the TV and see talk of Braai Day. Braaing meat is not our past. We must make the children aware of the legacy of the past and say: ‘These were our leaders.’ The Robert Sobukwes and the Steve Bikos. We must bring the memories of all these people and identify some of the aspects that they believed in.
“Those people made us proud of ourselves as a black nation. Let us continue to show children that these things are more important now more than ever before. Not braaing meat.”
Piliso-Seroke cautions that if we have not learnt the lessons of history – in a South Africa that now finds itself in crisis with “rampant femicide, corruption, unemployment, inequality and increasing racial tensions” – we will be doomed to repeat our failures.
“If we don’t take heed, we will return to 1976. The militancy and radicalism of the youth in 1976 bought the country to a standstill. As an old woman, I don’t want it to come to that. Let us tackle the problems before we get to that. These are the warning signs of what is to come.”
She admits that old people like herself are confronting the reality that, although political freedom was achieved in 1994, economic freedom never came and racial oppression remained.
“There is no cohesion in the family structure any more. Single mothers must raise sons without father figures. They are raised in cramped living conditions with no privacy. These are things that affect our children.
“Life is different now, people are very poor, and inequality is sky-high. It is difficult to point young people on the right path when all around them their leaders are not living right and are failing them. We have sown seeds of disgruntlement and disillusion.
“I have had to learn to forgive. I forgive white people, though I can never forget. I have noticed how young people are experiencing racial tension again. It was never resolved. At first, it was subtle and you could shrug your shoulders and move on. But I feel that white people are not prepared to listen to our cries about inequality, poverty, and so on. They thought that through the 1994 elections and the TRC, everything was solved. They are impatient, telling us to forget about apartheid because it is over. It was such a deeply entrenched system that it cannot be removed overnight.”
Working at the Commission for Gender Equality when the organisation moved offices from Braamfontein to Constitution Hill – where the women’s jail was situated during apartheid – was a test of her forgiveness.
“Initially, I would always pass and be constantly reminded of what I went through there. I was stripped of my identity; they took everything from me and reduced me to a number.
“After a while, I would walk through that gate, the same gate I was walked through by apartheid officials, and smile. I would say: ‘Hi lieutenant, what do you think of me now? I have got my independence, my liberation.’”
Before we leave, she offers advice to South Africans, as she would to her own child.
“Do more. Go deeper into issues. Don’t think only of yourself. Think of others, especially those who go without.
“Take heed of your Constitution. Allow yourself to be humbled. Listen to the wisdom of those who came before you.”
Ginwala: My heritage is South African
Born into a family of mixed heritage – her Indian-Persian-heritage parents were born in Mozambique and South Africa – Dr Frene Ginwala (83) knows a little something about having many identities.
South Africans and people around the world have bestowed legendary status on her for her role in fighting apartheid and for becoming the first Speaker of Parliament in a democratic South Africa.
In her garden in Sandton yesterday morning, she wore her trademark sari. But despite her love of saris, she says her Indian culture is not the one that defines her. Instead, it is a South African heritage that she and others from the liberation movement identify with.
“Most of us, I hope, feel South African, especially out of the liberation movement; we will say we are South African. It doesn’t stop you being anything else. I am quite happy to celebrate Zulu heritage with you,” she says.
“You assimilate culture without thinking. Once you do it consciously, it is no longer your culture; you are imitating something else or trying to.”
Her home is filled with pieces of art from around the world. She points out a doll dressed in beautiful, brightly coloured bead work, a gift from Unisa. Next to it lie two similar looking pieces, gifts from the current Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete.
Her tone becomes serious as she rebukes the use of the words ‘legends’ and ‘icons’ to refer to great leaders, and to herself.
“I don’t like the words ‘legend’ and ‘icon’. They are terrible concepts, especially in the context of our movement – which was very much a peoples’ movement,” she says.
“There are so many people doing so many great things; now how do you choose? An individual like Nadine Gordimer personally wrote literature that was devastating for apartheid. That was extraordinary. But others like me, we were just doing our ordinary work.”
Posing on her couch, she asks for another book to be placed on the stand next to her rather than Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, reiterating that she doesn’t like singling out individuals.
“I am not like Alistair Sparks – who couldn’t name any great African leaders, but named [HF Verwoerd]. He was supposed to be a great South African leader. That is why I say that we must not fall into labelling people.”
Regarding the treatment of Heritage Day as a braai day, Ginwala says she cannot understand why anyone needs to single out a particular day to braai, but she holds no judgement.
“Maybe it is some people’s heritage; I don’t think it is the majority of our people’s heritage. If you go back centuries, perhaps to Homo naledi – I’m sure they were roasting meat.
“Those who want a braai day can have it, but why do you need a day to have a braai?”