I’m a twenty-two year-old reporter on the Sunday Express, Johannesburg, when police slaughter sixty-nine unarmed children, women and men at a black township outside Johannesburg called Sharpeville.
The very name has since become a symbol for the evil that was apartheid.
The massacre changes South Africa forever.
Journalists’ cameras catch some of the horror of the Sharpeville killings. But the secretive, paranoid, apartheid government wants no record of the funeral a few days later.
So police and soldiers cordon off the entire funeral area with barbed wire, armoured cars and an iron curtain of guns. No reporters. No pictures.
But Sharpeville is already a huge international story. So ANC friends who know the area offer to smuggle Sunday Express chief photographer James Soullier and me through police and army lines to the funeral. They know a ravine backing onto the graveyard.
We meet our guides very early in the morning. It’s close to noon by the time we get around the men with the barbed wire and the guns and the armoured cars to the funeral of the sixty-nine.
The picture haunts me to this day.
A long line of open graves cut out of the red clay stretches as far as I can see. A wooden coffin lies next to each grave. All around us an enormous crowd of mourners weeps, sings struggle songs, black power slogans, hymns.
James and I seem to be the only whites in this very black, very angry world. We’re certainly the only white journalists.
Neither of us has any illusions about what can happen next. The crowd has every reason to turn on us — take revenge for the sixty-nine Sharpeville murders and the sheer, bloody, racist brutality of this white-supremacist state.
No-one will ever know who slashes the first panga. Or smashes the last knobkerrie.
No-one will every know. Very few will care. And anyway, in the long run it simply won’t matter.
Instead of violence, we’re welcomed as honoured guests and given a bodyguard — just in case. No bodyguard needed.
I interview people. James takes his pictures. No problem. No one even curses us.
And it’s possible that our story in the Sunday Express about the Sharpeville funeral and the mourners and their welcome of two white journalists helps — in its own, very small way — to chip away at the evil that was apartheid.
We did our job.
We bore witness.
It’s three years later on a hell-hot night in Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi), capital of the Congo’s breakaway province, Katanga.
I’m foreign correspondent here for United Press International. Outside my apartment, United Nations and Congolese troops patrol the streets, sometimes clash.
The last Congo war has ended and the next hasn’t started yet.
Occasional gunshots shatter the night. In this neighbourhood, we ignore shooting. Anyway, there’s nowhere to run.
A Congolese friend knocks at my door With him are two exhausted, extremely nervous white men.
I recognise them immediately from newspaper photographs. They’re the world’s two most famous wanted men — Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe. Until recently, senior advisers with South Africa’s banned ANC and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).
As well as being high up in the ANC hierarchy, Goldreich and Wolpe are the people who secretly rent Liliesleaf, a farm near Johannesburg, as a base for MK strategy sessions. It’s Liliesleaf where Nelson Mandela poses as a farm labourer to hide from police while plotting to bring down the apartheid state.
When police eventually raid Liliesleaf they capture nineteen of the ANC’s top leaders. Soon after, Wolpe is arrested too. He ends up in the notorious Marshall Square prison in Johannesburg. Goldreich is already there.
Both men are charged with treason, face possible death sentences. But instead of waiting for trial, they bribe their way out of Marshall Square and escape. Goldreich, a Jew, disguised as a priest.
The apartheid government is humiliated. It posts a huge reward for their capture.
This night in Elisabethville, every bounty hunter in the world wants to catch Goldreich and Wolpe, sell them back to the South African government and collect the reward.
And every journalist in the world is looking for them, wants to write their story.
I invite them in. My wife Helen opens cold beers and we talk late into the evening.
We talk of Mandela who sits in jail facing a death sentence. We talk of the horrors of apartheid, of increasing South African police brutality.
And, of course, we talk of Sharpeville.
Goldreich explains why the police massacre of sixty-nine unarmed protesters at Sharpeville is the final reason the ANC — frustrated that all lawful means of ending apartheid are exhausted — reluctantly picks up the gun.
And it’s Sharpeville that persuades him, a very respectable, wealthy white artist, to join Mandela and Umkhonto we Sizwe to fight violence with violence.
I mention shyly that I’m the only white reporter able to get through police lines to report on the Sharpeville funeral.
I recall how safe I feel among the crowd of angry, chanting, black mourners.
How protective and generous they are towards me, in spite of my colour.
How humble that makes me feel.
And how deeply that generosity still effects me.
Neither Goldreich nor Wolpe are even slightly surprised. That’s how Africans treat guests.
I feel deeply honoured by this visit — if only for an accidental evening — by two extraordinarily brave and righteous men.
The whole world is looking for them. And here they are, sitting in my apartment in Elisabethville, drinking my beer.
They’re finally collected by the British consul around midnight. Much embracing and promises that we’ll all meet again some sunnier day.
Even so, I can’t write the story. Not until the two fugitives are out of Africa and safe from South African agents and the hungry legions of bounty hunters who would sell their own mothers for the apartheid government’s reward.
It’s nearly a week before Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe surface safely in London.
By this time, sadly, my world scoop for United Press International is nothing more than a short story on page seven and an interesting footnote to The Struggle.
In the many years since all this happened, I’ve covered hundreds of major stories in a dozen countries.
But nothing compares with that funeral fifty-five years ago — the single most significant, most important, event I’ve ever reported.
That’s because the Sharpeville massacre and funeral were the beginning of the end of an evil, fascist government.
And the start of a new non-racial, democratic South Africa.
The South Africa of Nelson Mandela.
Tim Knight is a Cape Town-based Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi-winning broadcast journalism and communications coach. He’s author of Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition on Lulu and Amazon.