Conversations in community: I like what he writes

27 July 2015
Sonwabo Ngcelwane fondly remembers his arrival at UCT as a Xhosa initiate almost 20 years ago and how his clothes in line with Xhosa tradition attracted the attention of a "gorgeous young English girl".
Sonwabo Ngcelwane fondly remembers his arrival at UCT as a Xhosa initiate almost 20 years ago and how his clothes in line with Xhosa tradition attracted the attention of a "gorgeous young English girl".

In the second in our new series of interviews getting to know the people of UCT, Helen Swingler spoke with Sonwabo Ngcelwane, alumnus and member of the Social Responsiveness Unit (SRU) in the Institutional Planning Department.

When Sonwabo Ngcelwane came to UCT in 1987 it was during the State of Emergency imposed the year before, and police incursions onto campuses were common. He was a young Xhosa initiate, fresh from the circumcision school (ukwaluka) at Keiskammahoek in the former Ciskei. Following tradition, he wore khaki clothes – a jacket, an initiate's cap – and carried umnqayi (a knobkerrie), which protects initiates and gives them strength.

At UCT, in the scorching heat of February, the initiate's dress attracted "weird stares", but it also attracted the attention of a "gorgeous young English girl".

Ngcelwane was studying politics, history and African languages, and they shared a political science class. One day, class was interrupted by a police raid. In the mayhem, as teargas infiltrated lecture rooms, they took cover together.

"We ran into the library and hid behind a stack of unshelved books. Trembling with fear, we clutched each other tightly – and from that day we became inseparable."

Twenty-eight years on, in his office in Bremner Building where he works as a senior planning officer in the SRU, and seated against a backdrop of books, Ngcelwane remembers those days, his noticeboard a patchwork of pictures: his children, his Two Oceans Ultra Marathon photos – and images of Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo.

It's not really done for activists to talk about hard times; everyone suffered, he says.

But when the call came for members of the community to recall their memories of campus, it became an opportunity to reflect.

Activism born from boarding school

In 1987, Ngcelwane was one of fewer than 500 black students on campus.

"But we knew each other very well. That helped us to draw strength from one another; to understand our own contexts, and just find ways of coping."

Like him, many of the black students registered had lost two years of schooling during the school boycotts. He was 20 when he came to UCT, an activist with political nous and streetwise, after several stints in Pollsmoor for 'public violence' as a high-school student.

"Politically we were very old, matured; we'd witnessed the military invasion of our townships, and as high-school students we were at the forefront of activities during the State of Emergency. Those were hard times; but also the best of times."

He'd wanted to study law, but his Afrikaans was poor; and Latin, still compulsory for law, wasn't available at Fezeka High in Gugulethu where the Ngcelwane family moved after being evicted from District Six in October 1963.

Although he knew his father, the man was not part of his upbringing. Bringing up a son on her own was hard for his mother, Nompumelelo Ngcelwane. She worked for a family in Oranjezicht, but as children weren't permitted to live in the servants' quarters, five-year- old Ngcelwane was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Libode, Pondoland.

Ngcelwane was excited by rural Pondoland and being in the company of so many children his age. He still has a photo of his buddies Ntsikelelo, Samnkelo and Toto somewhere at home.

Boarding school also sensitised him to political realities at an early age.

The turbulent 1980s had prepared them well for what they would face on campus. Most of his peers were members of the Black Students' Society.

"We didn't notice the Cecil John Rhodes statue. Even if we had, we would have connected it to the structural inequalities of the time, and not isolated it as an antagonist. We were more concerned about broader society.

Our struggles were for radical change, a total overhaul of racial capitalism."

Biko opened the door to dignity

Another turning point was discovering the writings of Steve Biko, particularly I Write What I Like. Biko had been killed in detention in 1977. But the impact on Ngcelwane's sense of self a decade later was marked.

"Biko said, Africa can give the world 'a more human face'."

Which is what Biko did for him.

"For the first time I found a black person who was writing eloquently and in a humane way about me. Through his writing I found my own voice. I could stand up in a crowd without fear that my language was not proper... he affirmed my humanity; it affirmed my dignity... that's what he gave me.

"It's not easy in a country like ours. When I need to anchor myself, when I feel vulnerable, even here at work, I turn to his writings about where I am, what I am and what I bring to the world."

Ngcelwane didn't come to UCT straight after graduating. He did his BEd at UWC, taught at a school in Khayelitsha for 10 years; and then resigned.

"I felt I'd done enough. There were other challenges."

After working for the Western Cape Education Department and then Eduloan, he joined UCT in 2008.

In many senses, the young school activist has come full circle, to a place where knowledge has a community face.

And he's still running ("I don't do it for a sixpack or a great body – I'm too old for that!"); it centres him.

A lasting connection

I ask him to go back to that to moment in the library in 1987, amid police tear gas.

"Ja ... though we were in the same politics class, she was in second year. She loved my outfit. She was really curious to know about it, and why I had to wear it for six months. She challenged me to do better in my studies, and I really enjoyed her company."

Although they became constant companions after the police raid, their worlds separated after graduation. Ngcelwane didn't see his friend again until 2010.

It was early one morning, before the start of a marathon. Ngcelwane was running; she was there with her two children, to support her husband.

"We recognised each other immediately. We hugged. We talked. But we were very clear that life had moved on. It would have been clumsy to exchange details."

His personal story has been enlarged and enriched by these memories.

Story by Helen Swingler. Photo by Michael Hammond.

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