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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

04 Oct 2001: Seremane, Joe

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POM     Joe, maybe you could just tell me, looking back to your childhood, your parents, where they were born, their background, where you were raised, went to school, how you first experienced apartheid, became aware of it, your time in jail, your time in the SA Council of Churches, your time as the Land Commissioner and where you are today and why, mostly what formed you, the things that stand out in your mind from your own childhood and your background experiences in Robben Island. I was there in fact yesterday with Gerry Adams. I think I've been around Robben Island now six times. I could claim my own cell.

JS     Well Padraig you're asking me to do my whole life story in such a short space of time and in such a hurry. It will be very difficult but if I touch here and leave out other things please bear with me.

     I was born in the west of Johannesburg, what they call the West Rand, a gold mining area in Randfontein. That was in 1938 when I was born, 1938. It's in a mining area and I was born of parents that to this day I miss them a lot, they are late, they are long died away. My mother was a Motswana, Tswana speaking and my father was Shona speaking coming from the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, so he was Shona. So I come from a mixed breed so to say. In those early days it was not easy to be coming from such a family. We experienced a lot of abuse in the township amongst blacks themselves because my father was regarded as an outsider, an inferior kind of people, just absolute tribalism, more than xenophobia, what we are saying is xenophobia today. It was trouble and outright, anything when you didn't belong to the local tribes then they belittled you. People from Mozambique were regarded as nothing and Shona and so on. My father was from the then Rhodesia, the Shona group, so we formed the family but they were remarkable people I must say. I always felt that they outshone their persecutors or detractors or those who thought they were despising them. The only thing they could say was that, agh, you're an outsider, but when it came to other things my parents excelled.

     My mother was not very educated. She went as far as what we call Standard 2, I don't know what grade it is today. Most of the time she was a domestic worker until many years when I was about 16.

POM     So would she commute to Johannesburg?

JS     Yes, at first when I was a very little child I was raised by my aunt and then I couldn't even tell the difference between my aunt and my mother. My mother I called Aunt and my aunt I called Mother because they were so identical, they confused me and the other one who's my mother I would see very rarely because she was a domestic worker in Johannesburg. So only once or twice a month she would come home and that was it. My father on the other hand was always a hard worker. He actually for many years had two jobs, one as a clerk, he did clerical work in the mining area, in the mines, he worked in the mines for many years and started as a young person, and after work he would have his own kind of work. He was a tailor. He knew how to cut clothing, trousers and whatever and he did all that for the mineworkers so he was a very busy person. I would see him once in a while because he left early in the morning and came back late at night. But there was one thing he had a practice, once a month he would be home on Sunday only because he wants to go to Holy Communion and go to church. We know he was keeping to it very, very religiously. Once a month he stops working on Sundays and goes to a church and well he would take an afternoon off the Saturday just to rest and then we begin to see him and then he does what he does. Otherwise most of the time I didn't see him but he was a remarkable guy, very polished. Actually other people called him 'the black Englishman' because he was such a kind of a guy, very impeccable manners, very tidy and very strict yet very kind when you didn't do anything wrong.

POM     And your brothers and sisters?

JS     Well those came later. I'm the first born in the house, first of the eight children.

POM     A large family.

JS     Absolutely. I was just going to tell you about some of my father's mannerisms. He would say you must dress nicely, decently, and then he would say to me, "My boy, you know when you grow old never ever forget to buy a tweed jacket."

POM     A which jacket?

JS     Tweed. You're not a man when you don't wear a tweed jacket. This Irish stuff, because he used to work with some of the Irish guys on the mine. So he was that kind of fastidious person and I knew all these things because and later on when I went, many, many years later when I went to Dublin to study at the School of Ecumenics then I began to see, oh but, well, this jacket looks like my Dad's. Many years ago when I was a kid he used to wear this kind of a jacket. Oh! These are tweeds. I had gone to the country of tweeds so I understood, the old man I see now the connection. He connected me to the world. But whilst we were right in South Africa my mother would do that too. As a domestic worker she worked for several people. She worked for the English, she worked for the Jews and she sort of got all these things, imbibed their culture, saw what they were doing and would impart things she thought were good onto us, the stories, everything, even the little tunes that are being sung. Nursery rhymes, we got it from her. She listens when they are doing it there in the home then comes and imparts the knowledge on us, with books she will do the reading for us. So that was that.

     Then of course they were very strong when it came to religion. We are Anglican by denomination but my mother was even more religious than my father. Everything centred around their faith. Whatever thing you did they would always remind you, "You know, this is not permitted in our religion. Don't relate to people in this way. It's wrong to relate to people in this way. There's a Christian way of doing things." I had an uncle who was Catholic but later on I discovered he was also politicised and I used to have fun when I was on Robben Island when I thought of him and used to laugh and say, "That was a funny Catholic", because he was also a communist, very communist.

POM     Very communist still?

JS     He was a funny guy. This guy was so strong on this communism stuff, a trade unionist and believes in communism and at the same time he's very strong on his faith, he's a Catholic. He used to say, "You know this home, this is my home", meaning my elder brother, meaning my father, he's OK but this thing of theirs of being Anglican I can't take properly." That in itself later on I analysed it and I said that's what taught us tolerance too. We began to learn how to tolerate from the uncle, Catholic, communist and these Christians, we began. It was my first stage of wanting to understand other people and be tolerant towards them. Later on it spread. For instance, I've just said, because my father was a so-called outsider and when they abused I used to go home and cry and say, "These kids, the other children are abusing me."

POM     At school?

JS     At school, at play, they are abusing me. They called an outsider, a kerimane kkwerekwere meaning foreign and he would say, "Don't worry my boy, they don't understand. We shall free them." And I didn't understand what he meant until many years thereafter when I was an activist myself, I think I went to Lusaka or Zimbabwe to address a meeting on development under the auspices of SACC, South African Council of Churches. Then I shared the same platform with people like the present President, Thabo Mbeki, and I saw many people, our exiles there, doing good work and I just said to myself, "If they were in SA they would never have risen to those heights because of oppression and apartheid." They looked very happy and felt life meaningful in Zimbabwe. Then I remembered, oh! This is what the old man said, "Don't worry if they abuse you, we will play a role, a constructive role where we will work towards their own liberation and freedom. Don't abuse them, just don't worry, we are going to do it." So, again, it is another brand of understanding and accommodation and here are people now who called us nothing but they actually are being hosted by the very people they despised.

     Later on, in hindsight I begin to see these are the things that make me abhor unfairness, injustice, racism, tribalism, xenophobia, whatever, because I just felt from my upbringing I belonged to many kinds of people and that does not make me a special person but it puts me under obligation that I have to respect other people's rights and their own existence. Much as I want to be respected I must also accord them their respect. Those are the things that I pick up when I analyse where I come from. So we grew up in a mining area, again, where there were all sorts of tribes coming from all over and in the little village or township where we lived we had all sorts of people talking this and that and that and of course some would abuse but evil sometimes cannot dominate truth for long.

     Within that abuse there was a greater trend of understanding between people who began to interact and respected each other, that we the children begin to grow up like we belong to all of the parts, we are friends from all sorts of clans and tribes and we learn to speak our languages and we were also fortunate where I grew up in the mining area. The separation wasn't that strong in the sense that it was a mining area so they had their complexes both for white and black but not very far apart from each other because the land they occupied was their land, their jurisdiction so they couldn't dump others very far away from the working place. Both white and black had to be accommodated within the mining complex so that that in itself extended our community. We were now interacting with some whites but we understood their way. They were holding their apartheid, they were the masters, but with their children we played and we played as equals and we proved that there is nothing that says they are superior to us. When it came to games whatever games we decided and most of the games that boys play are to test your strength, skills and whatever, and most of the time we would beat the white boys, and then we said, "No, there's nothing inferior about us. They have more opportunities, oh we should go to the same schools with them, then we would show them, we will beat them even in schools." So that was the edge that we had.

     If I remember well, from my community there wasn't anybody who was really afraid of white people, I mean my generation. We would resent them but the resentment was not so deep because we played with these people, we knew them and what we did was to criticise them that they are a selfish lot, too much of bullies. But it wasn't so much hatred, we had role models amongst whites. We would say, "Oh this one, oh he's good, look at the way he plays tennis and look at the way he looks after his servants, oh it's beautiful." And we'd love to be there and oh, these are boy scouts, we were also taken up by boy scouts and, "This is a good scout", and so on. So we were just a community. What we later battled on for a non-racial society and the indications were there but of course after 1948 the government made it their business to really make a distinction between all these racial groups and I guess that intensified the resentment and hatred from both sides.

     So this is where I come from. I attended school. I was a commuter for my high school days because then there weren't many high schools. We had to travel very far to get high school education and I commuted between my place of residence and it was far away, about 30 - 40 kms by train every morning. Even then, well we were just adventurous young people but we went literally across the colour line to go and say, no we are also human beings, you're also human beings, because in the trains, the trains were separated, there were coaches that were strictly meant for whites and nobody else. So the school children, the white school children students from Randfontein going this way to the east to Johannesburg and what have you, we would use the same train but we would have separate coaches but courageously we would move in the white coach where the white students were and say, "We saw you at the station, we got in together, now we are here. Come on let's sit together." At first it was a bit of rough, they would chase us out and we would stand, but as long as the ticket examiners are not there we would refuse to go out. But later on they loved that adventure on their side, the boys joined us and we said, "Come, we go to our side." We move up, "What are you doing with white guys? You'll get arrested", and laugh at them and that side when we were there they are also told, "What are you doing with these black boys, you will get a hiding." Later on even girls joined us.

     But in a nutshell we were not aware but the struggle was on in a very different, quiet way and spontaneous way. I am citing all these things that I think I built up on that and of course later on we realised that this is not just a playing thing. People are suffering a lot under this apartheid or segregation. We would see people get arrested. We would see our people get beaten by the police. We would see how our people are treated like nothing. What we regard as elders and needing respect were not getting it.

POM     Now when apartheid came in did that affect you? Were people in your community divided, Africans and coloureds?

JS     In the mining area it didn't, they didn't apply those things.

POM     They didn't?

JS     They didn't, we were still together, but one would say the other groupings, racial groupings, were minimised. There were now less coloureds employed in the mining sector, at least in the village, so that when you go to the mining quarters I think I can count coloured families on my hand, there were four or five only, let alone there was no Indian. For a long time, many years ago, the Indians didn't even go to the mines. I don't know why when they came here on indentured labour for mining but later they were not there, they were merchants.

     It intensified in a way or disturbed those beautiful relationships even amongst blacks themselves. Then they started regarding themselves according to their tribal groupings too much and in the urban areas it became even worse because now there were removals. Locations, they used to call them locations, black residents that were now closer to town were being taken away and dumped very far away from town and that was the beginning and the pass laws became intense and of course all they did, all the pieces of legislation that were repressive did one thing, they actually grouped all blacks together to overlook their differences because they had a common problem which was apartheid now. So it was counter-productive according to what they thought it would do. It had to be bolstered by the homeland system to keep people according to their ethnic groupings but the main issue became quite clear, black/white and that's how we looked at it. It was a black/white conflict and that's how we got politicised and we began to exert ourselves and assert ourselves.

POM     So when you went to high school was that a coloured high school?

JS     It was a black school they had coloured high schools, they had white high schools, they had black high schools, so I went to a black high school. There were no coloureds. If somebody came from the coloured community then he or she would forsake their privileges but for me it was very difficult, I had to cheat along and call myself a coloured to get to a coloured school. But it was easy for a coloured to say, "I don't want to go to a coloured school, I'll go to the black school or African school", but then it had consequences. Later on in life you'd bear consequences and be classified as black and therefore losing privileges. We were, I don't know, fourth class citizens. The whites were the first class, coloureds were second class, maybe Indians third class, or coloureds second class, Indians 2.1 class or something, and we were last completely. For many years we lived like that and many shunned to be called black. Many tried to swipe the plate, the coloured's plate was whiter. Those who were lighter tried to pass on as white and those who were a bit coffee coloured, blacks who were a little lighter, tried to play coloured simply because they had to try and put themselves in the position where they can gain something economically, getting a job, then be exempted from restricted movement and the blacks were subjected to that. Many people to this day, there are quite a number of people who have lost their identity, have forgotten who they really are. A Seremane who tried for white and actually pass for white or coloured because of their lighter skin, they wouldn't say they are Seremane, they would say they are 'Ceremony' and sometimes they 'got away with murder' but then the tragedy is that two, three generations of Ceremonys begin to lose, they don't know actually where they come from, they've forgotten that they are actually Seramanes you see. So in Setswana, 'moré' means medicine so those who tried for white, the lighter blacks would say, "I'm More, Oh this is Mr. More", because it's spelt the same way MO R E, then they would shun to be called 'Moré', they say "I'm More", and two, three generations down the line they have completely forgotten their roots, they are Mores and Mores and Mores and forgotten they are 'Morés and Morés and Morés'. Those are the tragic things that happen. Makue would be anglicised to sound as McQue, sometimes still written as in Setswana 'Makue'.

     But then sometimes the system used crude methods, criteria, very crude. If you said you are coloured then they will take a pencil like this and put it in your head like this and my hair can hold your pen, this pencil, but yours can't. Even try it, it will fall off.

POM     That's what they would do?

JS     Yes. That's what they would do and if it sticks they say, "No, you are not coloured." They would give you a picture of a jackal and say, "What's this?" If you are coloured, then coloured understood to be meaning people who also speak Afrikaans as their home language, then they say, "Pronounce this", and you play coloured, want to pass for white, you're going to say, your gut reaction will say - in Afrikaans a jackal is a 'jakkals" (soft J yakkals). And you would say, "No, jackalas" in the African way of pronouncing, "I know, this is a jackalas." He will say, "No you are not, you would say 'jakkals' if you're a coloured." So there were methods they were using but people learned again. They ask you, "What did they do to you?" You told them and they would go and rehearse and do it properly, so that is the trauma of apartheid and for many years it kept us apart.

     That is why today, coming back now to big issues, when we have conferences of racism I sometimes wonder why my South African compatriots want to point fingers at other people all the time and not at themselves. No-one has admitted in government, wherever in SA, you were at the last conferences, I never heard anybody say all of us, (that is the whites, the second class citizens and 2.1 citizens) were abusing these people.

POM     You had just talked about how South Africans

JS     Yes, they are not willing to look at themselves, how much abuse the blacks or Africans have had from coloureds, from Indians. Even to this day there are still quite big pockets lingering on of such ideas but then for us who now are regarded as sell-outs or tokens, we start wondering, we are being lectured to by these people who have not said, "Sorry we abused you." Here where they point fingers, I don't say they shouldn't say the whites were oppressors, I don't say they shouldn't say that, they should, but they should say, "And also we the Indians, coloureds, did this to your people and some of our people are still doing this to your people". That kind of thing. I'm not doing it because I want it done, I'm doing it on their terms. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If they want whites for ever to be saying sorry, sorry, sorry, we are oppressors, oppressors, they should also say the same thing, "We abused the second class citizens, we're giving it to you." Even to this day there are many of us who still think that we are second class citizens and view the blacks as third class citizens. Then I would say they are fair.

     But now it's again like I was querying at the beginning of this whole Truth & Reconciliation process, that once it becomes selective then it ceases to be what it purports to be and even this dialogue on racism and tribalism and ethnicity and xenophobia doesn't have to be one-sided. We must just be open about it and spell it out and look at the ways of eradicating and changing our views.

     Just yesterday in parliament the ANC, which is predominantly black, were at their worst form of tribalism and racism. They were hurling racist stereotypes at the opposition. So what makes you pious when you're still doing the same thing? If the whites called you nigger and then today when you are saying I want to mend things, I want to show the world what non-racism is about, then you turn and say blacks in opposition are coconuts, whites in black slang, all the time. You're doing the same thing. You are just as bigoted as they are. That is what I call now being selective on issues that you shouldn't be. And I find it in my way of thinking, my sense of justice revolting. You cannot want to be just and work for democracy, justice and peace in that selective way. We've got to open ourselves up like Christ, humble ourselves and say I come to you very unclean and please be with me, cleanse me, heal me, let us together heal each other because I am not better than you. I have wronged you, you have wronged me. Not to say no, like the Pharisee, "Oh Lord, all those people are heathens, I am the clean Pharisee, I deserve to be in heaven and not they." That's hypocrisy. So those are the kind of things.

     Again it is my own background that makes me think, of course being reinforced by practical things, experiences I've gone through, but it is my background, that deep sense of justice and fair play that was inculcated in my childhood days by my parents because they were being abused by tribalistic blacks, being abused by whites, coloureds and Indians but had their feet well grounded in their religion that preached fairness, equality in the eyes of God, the human brotherhood or familyhood, those things they encouraged amongst their children and forthrightness, be not fearful when you have to speak the truth.

      about the horrible stuff, horrendous stuff that has happened in America, New York, the World Trade Centre and so many Americans died. We really don't know where we stand as South Africans. We want to be seen to be champions of democracy, justice and whatever, and we talk but at the same time we have another leg on which we stand where we condemn America, that they deserved it. They deserved it because of that American phobia that we have, or hatred, I don't know, so that we have a love/hate relationship towards America. It's good when we speak so that they can give us their dollars and when we've got their dollars we can condemn them and we will condemn them again if they don't give us their dollars. What I'm trying to say is now we scapegoat them but at the same time we know but we have not focused too much on that, that America consists of many Irish people who originally come from Ireland and as soon as we make the connection we may also begin to say, "Oh, you damn Irish people." You're just part of the American family and all that kind of nonsense.

POM     Sinn Fein made a big mistake initially, they took on this America as bully, that kind of thing, but they forgot that most of those firemen, the 300 firemen who were buried in the rubble, were Irish and then they realised that they were undermining their base in the American community. Their supporters were suddenly saying

JS     "Is that so? We're worth nothing."

POM     So they're trying to recover.

JS     Now they don't tell their South African friends that beware of such statements, they don't tell us. We go America bashing but we want to talk two things at the same time that are contradictory. We cannot say we hate this and one minister here, Premier of the Eastern Cape says, "No, those people are not terrorists, they are freedom fighters. It's just the tactics they used that are contrary to what is the official line." But he was being honest, he was articulating the truth, that's how they feel. My first gut reaction was, I was very cross and I said it's the human family. America is so small or the world has grown so small that each one of us has a connection with those people who died, first on the basis of racial, races, cultural and whatever but fundamentally as human beings the human family!

POM     In the two towers there were people from 80 countries. That's half the countries in the world.

JS     That's what I'm saying, and how dare you do that for a cause that people don't even know? What cause are they fighting? It's only known to them. We don't know, we don't know. They say American but does that give you a right to kill other people, innocent people? If you want to fight declare war, that's about the fairest thing, decent thing, declare war and if you don't want to declare war then well you've got to be thinking very hard at the targets you hit.

     I just said if at all on that morning, 11th September, when they went into the World Trade Centre, those two towers, and they got what they wanted and toppled America, my big question is what kind of government would we be experiencing now with people who don't care so much for human life? I don't think we need such kind of people to run the world. I don't know. It's bad enough America to throw the bomb on Hiroshima. Bad enough Pearl Harbour. But you're talking about how many decades ago when things were not like this. Today we think we have made strides. They have taken us back 40 years.

POM     Joe, I have to run, I have an appointment but we'll pick it up from here.

JS     That's OK.

POM     Then I will not annoy you again.

JS     That's all right. No, I want you to deliver the goods.

POM     I know, because you were just getting interesting.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.