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OPINION: The burden of the struggle mantle

In all my life I've never been more proud to be a South African than I am after this week. Never before have I felt more alive to the deep-rooted pride and love that true patriots must feel toward their country as I do now. This week I had the honour of speaking to - and mainly soaking up the memories - of several children of anti-apartheid activists. These children, who are all adults now, shared a few of their most intimate moments with me and some of their more horrific experiences, which made me cry on more than one occasion.

When we were brainstorming this idea to document the stories of the children of freedom fighters, I don't think my editor and I really knew the can of worms we were opening. "Yes! That sounds like it could be really powerful," was my typical eager-beaver response. We knew it was a good idea, but we (or at least I) didn't know what an emotional and cathartic experience it would end up being.

Sure, people have heard about the sacrifices that icons such as Ahmed Kathrada, Nelson Mandela, Frank Chikane and Helen Suzman have made because these have been shared and discussed countless times. These are well-known names and stories all too familiar in our country's history books. But there are still so many unsung heroes (and their families) who have been forgotten, or simply never mentioned.

More importantly, I don't think much emphasis has been placed on what the children of these activists must have gone through during those turbulent and violent years.

A black child demonstrates to have his mother released in May 1960 in front of Johannesburg's city hall. In the preceding weeks, more than 500 black South Africans were arrested after the Sharpeville massacre. Picture: AFP.

Johnny Issel. Dr Winston Conco. These are now names as familiar to me as that of Madiba. These are the names we weren't taught at school, and there are many more names like these that we need to be aware of.

I had the privilege of speaking to Johnny Issel's children Leila and Fidel, the late Conco's daughter Muntu Bolofo, and Nabil Swart's children Rehana and Dehran.

When Muntu and I spoke she started off by asking me "What do you know about my father?" I was honest and admitted I knew very little except what I had read on SA History Online. She wasn't surprised and said not many people knew about her father being one of the accused in the treason trials in the 1950s. Or the fact that their whole family had to uproot and leave the country after Conco was exiled by the apartheid government.

Leila had been quite an active feature in the fight against apartheid as a young girl, doing her bit to help her dad and the other comrades because as she says, "Everyone in the ANC, in the UDF, were our family… we were all family you know?" Leila recounted all the times when she had been hounded by police as a little girl. "I had to go on the run when I was nine years old with Jenny Schreiner because we took part in a protest." Police were especially hot on her heels after she read a message on behalf of her dad at the UDF's launch in Mitchells Plain in 1983. When I was that age my biggest concern was getting a gold star on my writing assignments.

Leila speaks with pride about those days, and so does Rehana: "In this time, we were all involved as kids with organisations like the UDF where we knew what was actually happening and where we knew what we fought for."

Rehana's brother Dehran, who was detained several times by police for his involvement in the freedom movement, says it hurt him more to see his father, Nabil, being assaulted by police: "There was one day when I was in the charge office because I'd also been detained, and I remember seeing three big white policemen manhandling my father in the courtyard. They were dragging him to an awaiting vehicle. I shouted at them and banged on the window."

Nabil, the then deputy principal of Alexander Sinton High School in Crawford, was arrested and detained by apartheid police for helping one of his students who had been shot during a protest at the school in 1976.

Memories like these are the norm for children who grew up in the homes of freedom fighters.

But it doesn't come without causing deep harm to the psyche. Everyone who I spoke to, the Issels, Swarts and Bolofo, agrees that the scars of the battle they lived through will never really heal.

Leila spoke openly about how violence had become so entrenched in her DNA that she had to go through years of counselling, but even now she still carries the psychological trauma with her, like the dompas she used to have to carry as a young adult. "If someone is stabbed in front of me now, I wouldn't blink. Because I'm so used to violence."

Dehran says his time in detention left him extra sensitive to seeing vulnerable people being hurt. "Once while sitting in my cell I saw a young boy being raped in the cell opposite me… I had to go for therapy when I came out, I couldn't go back to work because I wasn't normal. To this day, I still cannot stand to see someone being harmed, it's really upsetting to see people that don't have any protection in any circumstance being harmed."

But none of them would change their childhoods for anything.

As Fidel says: "Our parents brought us to a certain point, then it was up to us to carry on their legacy. Just like it's now up to our children to continue the fight."

For all the heartache, for all the friends they've lost, for all the pain they had to endure… for them, it was all worth it.

Speaking to these strong women and men has taught me a great deal. It has ignited a new-found love for my country and a passion to do more to fight daily wrongs I might see, no matter what harm might befall me. What this experience has taught me is to continue carrying the mantle that they've had to carry for all those years. No matter what our country might be going through now, it's up to me and the rest of my generation to never forget what it took for us to enjoy the freedoms we're able to take for granted today.

Our fight today is for a different kind of freedom though, as Dehran so aptly put it: "We can't say we're free yet. True freedom is when there is no more poverty. When there's no more vast inequality that exists. The struggle isn't over, there's still a long road to freedom."

I salute all those unsung heroes and heroines whose names we may never know. I know there are many more untold stories that echo those of the Swarts, Issels and Concos. I strive to honour their lives by pursuing freedom for all.

Monique Mortlock is an Eyewitness News reporter based in Cape Town.