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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

Exorcising the Zeerust demon

I’d seen rightwingers lying in pools of their own blood 23 years ago, but this time around I could see signs of real development.

The last time I drove down the road to Zeerust from what was then known as Mmabatho 23 years ago, I never thought I’d be back.

I never wanted to go back. I wanted to forget. In three days there, I’d seen students torch a police Nyala outside the University of Bophuthatswana; saw rioters looting the Mega City shopping centre (and had one drunken man throw a brick at my car); had an R5 rifle pointed at me by a policeman and a 9mm pistol aimed between my eyes by a khaki-clad rightwinger, who thought it hilarious I was not wearing a bulletproof vest.

I’d seen more rightwingers lying in pools of their own blood next to their blue Mercedes.

I’d seen soldiers running straight at us (I was with photographer Ken Oosterbroek) and the flash-bang of a round going off next to the car, following by Ken’s screams.

I knew that if I stayed, I would die, so I fled (not instantly – I turned back twice, having an out-loud conversation with myself that I was a coward).

My friend in Mmabatho said: “Don’t be a bloody fool! Go home! No job is worth it. Go home to your family.

So I did, although I never quite got over the feeling of cowardice under fire. But I got see my kids grow up. Ken never did – he died the following month in a township on the East Rand. And, it’s funny how the circle of life can surprise you.

My daughter, who was only 18 months old when I went to Mmabatho, finishes her studies as a vet at the end of this year.

And she’s going to do her community service year at North-West University in the town now known as Mahikeng.

So, my wife and I went there recently to check things out.

I didn’t go to the railway bridge near where the rightwingers were gunned down, but I did go to the university.

No burning Nyalas. No looting across the road at the Mega City centre. What I did see – and I supposed I should have expected it after an absence of 23 years – was a thriving, and growing, town.

On the roads into Mahikeng, there is evidence of development: hundreds of houses, from basic RDP types to bigger, multiple-bedroom ones. There is work happening on the roads and the university campus has expanded significantly.

One thing which did strike me was that many more black people were driving cars … and some pretty fancy ones at that. Even in the days of the Bophuthatswana homeland of Lucas Mangope, outside of the government fatcats, ordinary black people were still impoverished.

Eating out one evening at a new, Joburg-like shopping centre that wasn’t there 23 years ago, I was impressed at how full the restaurants were and the air of prosperity.

I know one cannot completely understand a place from one visit, but I could see that in the last 23 years, there has been development, and transformation, in this corner of South Africa.

And, without wanting to sound like an ANC election poster, many people’s lives have been made better. By the same token, though, you can’t help but wonder how much of the money spent on these projects to help people ends up in the back pockets of politicians and their cronies.

But this time, the trip to Zeerust was relaxing.

The demon had been exorcised…

Citizen acting deputy editor Brendan Seery.

Citizen acting deputy editor Brendan Seery

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