Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata


Matthew Goniwe took up yoga long before it became fashionable in black communities to help him combat a bout of depression while fending off the apartheid machinery hellbent on his ruin.

This is one of the surprising nuggets in journalists Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata’s debut book, My Father Died for This. It is a study in class, gender, politics, identity, state-sanctioned colourism and race, set against the backdrop of the struggle and intergenerational activism.

It is a story of hope amid despair, love and aspiration despite trying circumstances.

The Calatas embark on an exploratory journey of the past and the present, during which they touch on a gamut of emotions: fear and anxiety, loss and pain, and happiness and joy. Their book also illustrates how new struggles are really old battles that have been passed from one generation to the next.

There is much laughter, dance and music in their tribute to Fort Calata, Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli, known as the Cradock Four.

Lukhanyo Calata brings readers into his world and that of his family by opening the door to the unfortunate chapter at the SABC when it was headed by Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his cohorts. He sketches the whirlwind of emotions they went through as a family and as professionals and how this opened up old wounds.

In 2016, Lukhanyo, Thandeka Gqubule, Busisiwe Ntuli, Foeta Krige, the late Suna Venter, Krivani Pillay, Jacques Steenkamp and Vuyo Mvoko became known as the SABC 8 when they took a stand against Motsoeneng’s editorial tyranny. They paid a high price for their activism when the management dismissed them en masse.

As the battle between the journalists and SABC management intensified, taking twists and wild swings, Lukhanyo became more emboldened and grounded in the knowledge that his father, Fort, had faced off against an unjust system.

Fort inherited his political chutzpah from his maternal grandfather, Anglican priest the Rev James Arthur Calata, whose 12-year stint as ANC general secretary made him one of the longest-serving officials in that position. He was succeeded by a young Walter Sisulu.

The elder Calata is fondly referred to as "Tatou", a term of endearment used by family and community alike. A teacher-turned-preacher and political activist, he settled in Cradock at the age of 32 in 1928. Through the eyes and memories of Patrick Mali, a retired school inspector, Lukhanyo and Abigail retrace the Calatas’ arrival in Cradock, where they blazed a trail and left a lasting legacy.

The writers also tap into the memories of retired teachers Midas Mbuzwana and Nowi Nomavuka to piece together a portrait of the family’s early years in the Eastern Cape town. Newspaper reports in the then Eastern Province Herald — now The Herald — feature in the book, in particular the work of Jo-Ann Bekker, who was assigned to Cradock.

Lukhanyo’s chance encounter with Mali at Campus Square, Johannesburg, led to a trip down memory lane about James Calata. "Tatou deeply valued education, Mr Mali said, and always encouraged him and many others in the community to take their education seriously," the book relates.

"I found confirmation of this in [former uMkhonto weSizwe operative Stanley] Manong’s book, If We Must Die. He writes that ... a week before he sat for his junior certificate examinations in 1970, ‘[James] came to address us in our class with a view to ... give us blessings for the tasks that lay ahead…. During his moving address ... [he] spoke about the plight of Africans in SA generally and about African school children in particular.

"‘He said for an African child to sit for the junior examinations was a great achievement ... against all odds…. [We] had to overcome hunger and poverty ... our parents were sleeping on empty stomachs ... for the sake of our education. ‘[While] white children were eating food overloaded with vitamins, African children were expected to be content with food overloaded with starch in the form of samp and pap’."

James Calata was elected president of the Cape African Congress at its Cradock conference in 1930, marking his brand of political activism, which was infused with faith. He convinced Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma to contest for the ANC presidency in 1940. He "won by a whisker, setting in motion the ANC’s modernisation drive".

"In August 1953 ... here in the dusty streets of my hometown ... Prof ZK Matthews, who had taken over as president of the Cape ANC in 1949, first mentioned the idea of a ‘Charter for all the people of SA’," the book relates. "By late 1956, the ANC boasted not only several successful campaigns but also the Freedom Charter.

"[In] response, the security police rounded up and arrested 156 anti-apartheid leaders and charged them with treason. Tatou was among those charged. It was during his stint at the Old Fort Prison that Tatou would first meet his ... grandson, whom he christened Fort."

The boy was raised by his grandparents, James and Miltha Mary "Mamou" Calata, who was an activist in her own right.

In the latter parts of the book, Lukhanyo’s mother, Nomonde Calata, and Bekker’s reporting bear historical witness to the life and times of Fort and his four comrades.

A fully formed portrait of who they were and what they stood for emerges. Fort was a son, a beloved grandson, teacher, husband, a father, musician and an activist.

The Cradock Four were young men filled with dreams. They were humans who paid the ultimate price and their untimely deaths sparked a flame at a critical juncture in the country’s history.

My Father Died for This is remembrance folded into mourning and the mobilisation of memory into activism.

It is a memoir as protest. It is also a polemic against the ANC-led government’s lethargy in providing the families of apartheid victims closure about the circumstances in which their relatives died.