OPINION: Remembering the sacrifices on the road to freedom

The death of former Pan Africanist Congress leader Clarence Mlamli Makwetu on 1 April triggered memories of my early days as a journalist in the year or two before a democratic South Africa.

In 1993 I was working as junior reporter in the SABC radio newsroom in Johannesburg. I was a naïve young woman in the City of Gold, having left my home and my sheltered life in Cape Town for the first time.

Nothing prepared me for what turned out to be the scariest, happiest and ultimately most fulfilling journey as a journalist in the two years that I worked there.

I joined the newsroom just two months after Chris Hani's assassination. The peace was still fragile and political violence was rife. On a daily basis I counted the dead bodies found along the Langlaagte, Daveyton railway line (and in the townships on the East Rand) as the Reuters machine spewed the information out. It was seen as no real cause for alarm if 7 to 10 bodies were recovered. But when that figure shot up to more than twenty, my story would focus on the "escalation in violence." Violence became part of my daily vernacular and from the safe haven of the newsroom I would tell my audience what was going on "out there".

There was excitement in the newsroom. After all, we were awaiting a new dawn. We were part of the miraculous transformation of South Africa. And as journalists we were not immune to the excitement, the expectations, the fear and the hope our fellow citizens were experiencing.

Many things happened throughout the course of that year, and when 1994 dawned I had a life-changing experience. I was the weekend reporter and when my pager went off on 9 January, I answered the call. A group of ANC leaders - among them Cyril Ramaphosa, Joe Slovo and Robert McBride - decided to embark on a walk-about in Katlehong, one of the hot-spot areas for political violence between IFP-aligned hostel dwellers and (mostly) ANC-aligned residents. Their aim was to encourage people who fled the area due to the violence to come back. To tell them that it is safe for them to return to their homes, with our first democratic elections only a couple of months away.

I made my way to the ANC headquarters at Shell House and scored a lift with a German journalist who was driving like a maniac to keep up with the ANC convoy en route to Katlehong. I was so excited and my heart was beating so fast!

We barely disembarked from our vehicles, and only managed to walk a couple of metres when the first shots rang out. Snipers from the nearby hostel were shooting at us! McBride was shouting: "Hlala phantsi!" (Sit down!) and I immediately obeyed. The ANC entourage were taken to safety and I was part of a group of journalists who ended up next to the wall of a dilapidated house with the constant barrage of shots going off around us. As a rookie reporter, I wasn't scared at all. In fact, I could not believe my luck to be in the midst of all the chaos. Two older journalists - one of them Abdul Shariff, a freelance photographer for Associated Press - lit up cigarettes, quietly discussing what was happening around us. I heard one of them say: "This is worse than Somalia."

ANC Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa (right) and a bodyguard run for cover under fire as shooting broke out during a peace tour of Katlehong with South African Communist Party Leader Joe Slovo on 9 January 1994. Picture: Walter Dhladhla/AFP.

My tape recorder was constantly running, picking up their conversation and I remember that at one point I was lying in tall grass interviewing a resident, who had lost his entire family due to the violence. It was then that we decided to run to the other side for more cover. Next thing I saw Abdul falling down in front of me, blood spewing out of his chest. And then I felt a burning pain on the side of my right breast. I fell down, shouting that I'd been hit. In the ensuing chaos I remember being picked up and carried inside a house where my jacket was unceremoniously pulled open and my wound inspected. An ambulance was flagged down and I was taken to Natalspruit Hospital.

It was a flesh wound. I called my editors to inform them of what was happening. And in the doctor's office I grabbed my microphone and tape recorder, ready to interview him. He would have none of that. I asked him if Abdul was okay, and he quietly answered: "We lost him on the operating table". My world stood still. This was real.

As I waited for X-rays, I realised I had two pagers in my hand. One my own and the other had Abdul's name on. Down the corridor I saw two men (I later realised Kevin Carter was one of them) comforting each other. I approached them, handed over the pager without a word and walked away…

I share this experience because as we celebrate our glorious freedom, I am mindful that it was not without sacrifice. Lives were lost, families left heartbroken and our future forever altered.

I don't remember much of 27 April 1994. I was working in the newsroom, helping to keep the influx of news stories going. I do remember being emotional and so grateful that I was part of history in the making. I called my parents back home and the pride in my father's voice as a first-time voter will remain with me forever.

I was anxious to vote and at around nine o'clock that evening, a colleague and I made our way to the nearest voting station outside the SABC offices in Auckland Park. It was a small church and I solemnly exercised my right to vote for the first time. I walked out of there with a broad smile and tears in my eyes. I stepped out in the cold night and the bright stars in the sky twinkled at me. I was free.

Anthea Fredericks is a news anchor on KFM.