Before I was an artist, I was a political activist for Nelson Mandela. I was born in one of the toughest neighborhoods on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. Alexandra Township or “ikasi Lami” as we would call it, meaning my hood. The innocence of childhood is lost quickly in my hood. Basic needs were rarely met. So when I got a job at golf club at the age of 11 pushing golf carts around $2 for 18 holes. I was happy and sure of myself, it helped put food on the table.
At age 13, I was coming home from school one day. A group of guys who called themselves “comrades” asked if I wanted to join “amacomrades”. They talked of Mandela and Madiba but I didn’t know much about who that was. Even my mother asked me never to say those names in her house. She was afraid she would go to jail for even speaking the names in her own home. My mother told me if I wanted to talk about it, I must join the comrades.
When I met with the comrades at the secret meeting place “ipozi ya ma comrades” there were books and things I’d never seen before talking about the “Apartheid”. Apartheid was the reason so many people were impoverished in my country. The gap between the ‘Haves’ and the ‘Have Nots’ was and still is ENORMOUS! Nelson Mandela was speaking out about the inequalities of my people. This idea of equality was so suppressed in South Africa, everyone was afraid to say Nelson Mandela’s name. My work with the “comrades” was all about creating freedom in my country.
The work we did was revolutionary. We created flyers, posters and most importantly T-SHIRTS. This is when I first discovered my ability to paint. I painted thousands of posters and I screen printed thousands of T-shirts that the comrades distributed. Because our movement was illegal at the time we were called “Mandela’s Terrorists”. Word got out about our movement. An informant ratted us out to the police at one of the most feared police stations in South Africa.
We continued our hard work. Our location was discovered. The day it was discovered I was wearing a “Free Nelson Mandela” T-shirt. We were organizing a big rally for that day. The rally never took place. We were raided and everyone took what he could and we were told to run. I grabbed the screen print plates for the t-shirts. We were scattered in all different directions. I ran and jumped over fences, through back streets, anything to try to escape. Eventually the police blocked our escape. I was with a group of five “comrades” then. They cornered us in front of a big brick wall and barbwire was on both sides. A comrade tried to scale the wall and was shot by the police. He fell on top of me. I panicked. I tossed the bag of screen-printing tools over the fence. The police encroached on our group with tear gas and big guns. They began to beat us and kick us. One police officer approached me and looked at my “Free Nelson Mandela” T-shirt. He kicked me in the stomach for wearing it and yelled at me, “take if off you bloody terrorist!” He told me I was going to prison for wearing it. This was one of the most notorious black police officers in my hometown. I was face to face with a black man who prided himself on being more aggressive and torturous than any white police officer. That day I went to prison, at the age of thirteen for wearing a t-shirt that said “Free Nelson Mandela”.
Story continues here:
After being caught by the police, myself and three other comrades were driven around in a police casspir for hours before we were taken to prison. We had no idea which prison they were taking us to. I prayed that it was not John Vorster Square. During the “Apartheid” era the police station in downtown Johannesburg. was a notorious site of interrogation, torture and abuse by the South African security police. More than 70 political Activists were recorded dead in John Vorster Square.
When we got to the prison we were stripped naked and again beaten until we bled. Then we were hosed down with high-pressure water. We were given gray prison jumpsuits and separated into different cells.
I sat in the corner of my cell in silence for hours. I prayed and waited in agony, wandering what was next. The big metal doors opened and in walked the notorious black police officer. He began to interrogate me, “your friends told us everything, we know who put you up to this, now we want you to tell us the names of all the people involved!” I told him I didn’t know. He began to beat me again using different kinds of whips and salt to inflict the worst kind of pain. They tortured us for days.
I was put in solitary confinement for what seemed like a month. At times there was no light. Other times there was too much light. This was some of the many methods of torture they used to get us to break down and tell. The thing they didn’t know was it’s impossible to get information from someone who doesn’t have it. I didn’t know any of my comrade’s names because we were all called comrade. Even if I did have the information they were looking for, I was prepared to die protecting it. It would have been honorable.
When they did not get the information they wanted, I was released into the prison general population, among them, hard-core criminals. However, there were also comrades. All you had to say was comrade, and that was the safe code word. The comrades stuck close together in prison. We taught each other and talked about the struggle.
Unfortunately, most guys in prison had been detained for a year or two and no one on the outside knew where they were. Political Prisoners were held in prison without contact to their family and without legal representation. This was due to the Apartheid law passed in 1967; Section six of the Terrorism Act. Political prisoners are to be held indefinitely.
I feared that my loved ones would never find me. I have heard of comrades disappearing. When they disappeared some assumed that they crossed over the boarder to join the “Mkhonto We Sizwe”, the spear of the nation. However, when comrades went missing, loved ones often looked everywhere; hospitals, jails and prisons. If a comrade was not found in those locations, it was possible they were dead.
A year later I became ill. The older comrades convinced the prison guards that being one of the youngest, I was fragile and could die in prison. With the comrades’ help, I was released. The day I was released I became well, within hours! It was a victorious day. I vowed to continue fighting for freedom. My quest for freedom was reinforced. I vowed all comrades and all political prisoners had to be free!
Now I knew first hand what I was fighting for. I knew what Nelson Mandela was fighting for. Today I am proud to wear a Nelson Mandela T-shirt without facing punishment or prison time. I am honored to design a T-shirt, which is a symbol for those around the world who are also fighting for their freedom.
I would be proud to have you wear my Nelson Mandela T-shirt, to symbolize what I have come to cherish deeply, FREEDOM.