They Cannot Take the Sky

By Joyce Hollyday

sunset 3

Many years ago, when South Africa was in the stranglehold grip of the system of racial hatred and separation known as apartheid, I visited that country to learn about and report on the freedom struggle there. On one of my last evenings, a young man named Jabulani was showing me around the black township of Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, just as the sun was beginning to set. Domestics and laborers, weary from a long day’s work in the city, were making their way home in the last glimmers of daylight. A stream of women, water jugs balanced on their heads, some with swaddled babies on their backs, moved slowly out from the central spigot of the township’s rutted roads in the encroaching cool of the evening. Paraffin lamps came to life, one by one, up and down the rows of small and fragile homes constructed of plywood, cardboard, and corrugated metal.

At the entrance to the township, spread out on a table, were rows of sheep’s heads, blood still running from their necks and the look of terror from the slaughter on their faces. Women tending fires cut pieces of meat from the carcasses and skewered them for sale. A family with several children that could not afford the mutton bought scores of the sheep’s legs, scraping off the hair and cooking the pile of bones with scant meat for their dinner.

I thought of all the children I had met throughout South Africa in my weeks there, many with the distended bellies of malnutrition, some living at a dump and surviving on the garbage they could scavenge. In the township of Crossroads, two young boys created crude push toys out of fragments of wire stuck through rusty tin cans, while their even younger sister tried to craft a hair bow out of a plastic bag she had fished out of a stagnant, sewage-laden puddle. They were growing up in a landscape of military occupation—with razor wire and whips, searchlights and armored personnel carriers—robbed of their childhoods.

As we walked, Jabulani spoke softly about his work in the freedom struggle; about his arrest and torture by police; about all the shelter and education, land and freedom that the enforcers of apartheid had stolen from his people. As the sun slipped over the edge of the horizon behind him, the sky turned from pale rose to brilliant red. We stopped walking, speechless, in awe of the flaming canopy spread over South Africa. After a moment, he whispered with a smile, “But they cannot take the sky from us.”

I thought of Jabulani last night. It was the end of a long week in which we were reminded daily of just how corrupt and sinister and outrageous our nation and its leadership can be. But last night…ahh, last night, the moon was full. The deep snow glistened as if strewn with diamonds. The trees, their bare branches encased in a layer of ice, sparkled and shimmered as they danced in a gentle wind. The sky and all the world glowed. I have never before seen anything quite like it. At the end of a difficult week, it was good to be reminded: They cannot take the sky from us.

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