The more you learn about the intricacies of apartheid and the impact on the people it becomes harder to understand that these events occurred in “modern times.” The daily strife of the late eighties and early nineties were nothing that I could possibly relate to and barely understood at the time.
The captain of the South Africa team, Aaron Mokoena, grew up in the township of Boipatong, about an hour outside of Johannesburg. It is surrounded by industry, the air is as thick and as heavy as it’s past. Boipatong was caught in the murderous power struggle between black organizations, the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Trenches that were dug in the roads to keep out IFP cars on their hit-and-run shooting missions, high school youth leaders would walk to school with an AK47’s and hand grenades. Sam Mofokeng, who would become Mokoena’s best friend, was one of those freedom fighters and thus a constant target of opposing political groups.
Sam told us of the language of the night in those tense days, where matches were used as a silent communication and pebbles were thrown on tin roofs to alarm the neighborhood of danger. Sam was a target on 17 June, 1992. He recalls the night being quiet because the police has swept the streets. The daily commute usually settled about that time and the block patrols began at ten o’clock. There were good intel on a possible attack on the township, but their guard was down as the this is the time of Mandela’s negotiations and they could not be on his team with weapons in their homes. Arms were kept in a central secret depot. At nine o’clock there were about 300 IFP soldiers armed with guns and knives marching into the township, mainly-Zulu dwellers from the KwaMadala Hostel for migrant workers who were homing in on Boipatong Square, just half a mile from Mokoena’s home. Sam told us of scrambling frantically from house to house to avoid the IFP while attackers shot and hacked their way through Mokoena’s Township leaving forty-six people dead and scores injured, including pregnant women and children.
Eleven year old Mokoena slept through the night in his small home on the other side of town. Although word made it to his area he did not learn of the overnight massacre until his morning walk to school. In the aftermath, it was rumored that the murderers wanted to purge the township of its next generation of men. Aaron is the youngest of seven siblings, he lost his father when he was only seven. His mother put him in a dress to protect he son from any would be attackers. Aaron is the youngest of seven siblings, he lost his father when he was only seven. His mother taught him humility and to never forget where he came from.
Today Boipatong does not look much different than it did twenty years ago, a generation later most of the township is dirt roads. Mokoena is a hero for good reason and his friend Sam calls him a pillar on unity for the community that can’t wait to see him take the field as the captain of Bafana Bafana.
Watch for Sal’s story about Aaron Mokoena on ESPN inside coverage of the FIFA World Cup.
Thanks … Follow along on espn.com & salmasekela.com