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  • The Soweto Witch Project *
  • Adam Ashforth** (bio)


Whenever word from Madumo reaches me in New York, it carries news of catastrophe: he’s been stabbed and robbed, or beaten, or chased away from home. We have long been like brothers, Madumo and me. In the face of danger and death there is no question that we stand together. Even when I am away from Soweto, it seems that Madumo is with me.

I have worried about him for years, of course. But memories of Madumo arouse something else in me, too, something far less comfortable than concern. It’s not guilt, exactly, although sometimes I still feel guilty, wondering if I could do more for him. Nor would I call it exasperation, though that’s part of it too. Rather, I find myself keeping those feelings at bay by exploiting a certain distance or detachment in myself, a certain reserve. And for that, after all we’ve been through together, I can’t help but feel . . . guilty. It’s not a simple story to tell.

I first met Madumo almost ten years ago. He had been a schoolmate of my friend Marks, whom I had met a couple of years earlier in northern Minnesota, at Bemidji State University. Marks was an undergraduate at BSU—a solitary black South African student in a land of snow and Scandinavians—and I was a visiting professor from Australia, teaching a couple of courses to help internationalize their political science curriculum. When Marks heard I was traveling to South Africa to study the transition to democracy, he deputed his friends at home to show me Soweto and asked his mother to arrange a place for me to stay. I planned to stay overnight and then return to the university in the white suburbs, but I hadn’t reckoned on the warmth of the welcome I would receive, nor on the power of that place to pull me into its orbit.

I arrived in Soweto on June 16, 1990, during the first celebration of the Soweto Revolt to be held in what was then [End Page 22] called the “new” South Africa—the first celebration to be addressed by leaders of the newly legalized African National Congress, fresh from exile and prison. Comrades from every corner of Soweto came to the rally decked out in the colors of the liberation movement—green, gold, and black—marching through the dusty streets with their banners and flags, toyi-toyiing in their martial, high-stepping dance, and singing the slogans of struggle: “Siyaya ePitoli!” We are going to Pretoria! “Shaya maBulu!” they chanted. Get the Boers! Kill the Boers! Everyone was a comrade, and we saluted each other with clenched fists. On the streets of Soweto, the “Young Lions” roared. The regime of the Boers was finally at bay. Freedom seemed close at hand.

Jabulani Amphitheatre was crammed to overflowing. Revered elders of the ANC and assorted emissaries from around the world addressed the crowd and the cameras, celebrating the youth of Soweto while imploring them to be disciplined and patient. When bands began to play at the end of the day, the dignitaries [End Page 24] and journalists departed. Fifty thousand Sowetans sang the songs of freedom, as if with one voice. As darkness settled onto the coal-fired orange of a Soweto winter sunset, I joined the serpentine threads of young Sowetans weaving through the dry grass. My new friends escorted me to Mapetla, into another world.

To say that I attracted attention in those days would be an understatement, and to claim it didn’t turn my head would be a lie. I was there during one of the great moments in twentieth-century world history: the last chapter in the story of white domination in Africa, a final closing of the book on five hundred years of European colonialism. And I was being welcomed into a place made for blacks under the auspices of white racism. Until recently it had been illegal for a white person to sleep overnight in a black township; even to visit during the day required a permit. Apart from an occasional priest, the only white faces in Soweto...

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