Read Rofhiwa Maneta's contribution to 'Our Ghosts Were Once People'

07 September 2021 - 11:00
The stories in 'Our Ghosts Were Once People' transforms the pain of death into something beautiful so that we can find ways to live with loss.
The stories in 'Our Ghosts Were Once People' transforms the pain of death into something beautiful so that we can find ways to live with loss.
Image: Supplied

In a new anthology on death and dying, writer and photographer Rofhiwa Maneta describes growing up as the son of a legendary police officer in Soweto. As a young boy, he struggled to understand his father’s ‘almost manic preoccupation with safety’, Maneta writes in Our Ghosts Were Once People, edited by Bongani Kona.

A man walks up and down our street in an Adidas top, black tracksuit pants and suede Carvela loafers. He sees me peering through the blinds in the kitchen. He hesitates at the gate, before opening and closing it in one clean motion. I wipe my hands and meet him beside our patio’s awning.

‘Is your father here?’ he asks, blowing tufts of cigarette smoke in my direction.

‘No, he’s at work.’

His eyes dart behind me, towards the kitchen door.

‘I see. Your mother? Is she here?’

‘It’s just me and my brothers. Would you like me to take a message?’

‘No, just tell him Thabang was here.’


Another moment of hesitation: ‘Thabang from Zola. He’ll know who I am.’

Not long after Thabang’s visit, the walls in our yard grow taller. The rituals aimed at ensuring our safety grow more numerous and elaborate. We are to keep the gate locked if we are all in the house and we are told to be home by sunset. If someone – anyone – we are unfamiliar with knocks at the gate and asks for our parents, our instructions are to tell them to phone or come back later if they’re not at home. We are told never to allow strangers into the yard. Before long we have an electric fence, remote-controlled gates and cameras mounted around the yard.

On average, 160 police officers are killed each year. The fact that more than half of the police officials who have the air ripped from their lungs are killed off-duty is never too far away from my father’s mind. So, when our house became a fortress, none of us should have been too surprised. But in my childhood and early adolescence, my brothers and I were always taken aback by our father’s almost manic preoccupation with safety: the service pistol permanently attached to his hip, half-concealed and half in the open; the near constant vigilance regarding who was allowed into our yard and at what time.

At first, the alarms did nothing but heighten everyone’s anxiety. Occasionally, a rat would run past the outside sensors, activating the loud siren of the alarm; momentarily inviting the thought that our many layers of security had been breached. After a few seconds, Dad would emerge from the darkness of his room, having already surveyed the security cameras for signs of an intruder. He would key in the alarm, return to his room and, with one eye open, wait for sleep to wash over his body. If any of us emerged from our rooms, the conversation always took on the same routine.

‘You okay?’ we’d ask.

‘I’m fine. You should go back to sleep.’

‘Do you think that thing is faulty? It goes off every other day.’

‘It works fine. It’s just sensitive to movement. It’s how I prefer it. You should go back to bed.’

A flickering of the light, a turning of keys and within minutes everyone would be back in their rooms, the fear of an intruding threat ebbing away like the moonlight peeking through the curtains.

On 30 October 2008, Drum runs a three-page profile about Dad with the headline: ‘Watch out, here’s supercop.’ A collage of some of his most high-profile cases occupies the width of the bottom of the first page: stories of ritual murders, repeat killers and a man who blinded an ex-lover when he shot her in the face.

Toward the middle of the story, he characteristically shoos away questions about his family: ‘Amos is married and the father of three boys – twins born in 1991 and another son born in 1993. But there’s a reason he’d rather not talk about his family. “Many people love me for the work I do for the community but there are those who hate me,’ he says. ‘Every time you go to work as a policeman, you roll the dice. You’re on the frontline and the people who make a living from fighting on the other side will kill to protect their livelihood. I don’t want to expose my family to evil forces.”’

Dad often makes mention of the fact that the eighties, when he joined the South African Police (SAP), were the worst times to be a police official. In the Drum interview he says: ‘Back then, the country was in the grip of a state of emergency. Everything was burning. Police officers were hunted down and shot because they were seen as part of the apartheid system. My parents and brother, Eric, were against me becoming a cop but I defied them.’

He omits to tell a story he often tells my brother and me from his time in police college. Back then, home was Nancefield Hostel (a hostel in Moroka whose mention in the media is always followed by words like ‘mob’, ‘murder’ or ‘shootout’). It was not ideal, but it was close enough to the college that he could travel to and from with relative ease. One day, he was walking under the glare of Johannesburg’s sun – in plain clothes – when a pair of men behind him started arguing.

‘I’m telling you … he is.’

‘Leave it, sbali. He isn’t. Just let it go.’

As Dad tells it, back then police officials were identified by their cleanshaven heads (a requirement for attending college). But also, there was apparently a certain way policemen walked: a near robotic one-two, one-two rhythm inherited from the daily drills they did in college.

Dad increased his pace. ‘I’m telling you: iphoyisa le ndoda. I can see it in his walk.’

‘Look at his walk, his head. That guy is a –’

Dad decided not to wait for them to figure it out. As soon as he turned the corner, he ran off. The men gave chase, but he had gained too much ground on them. They shouted, gestured, swore, but ultimately they could not get hold of him.

A Denel Z88 pistol was the standard service pistol of the SAPS from 1989 to 2007. A short recoil semi-automatic weapon that fits 15 rounds into its magazine, the Z88 is a copy of the popular Italian Beretta 92F.

Dad tells me that in his 34 years of service – he completed his training and was hired by the SAP as a constable in ’86 – he’s never had to discharge his firearm at a suspect. There have been many occasions when it would have been appropriate: when Jacob More – a rapist and murderer – tried to charge at him when he was being arrested. When Sizwe Gwala (a man who was accused of murdering three people) went back to the scene of the shooting, threatening Dad’s life and urging the victim’s family to ‘call Maneta so he can come arrest me’.

Where I see an incredible streak of luck, Dad sees something bigger, more awe-inspiring: grace.

‘What else could it be?’ he says, without the question mark. ‘Working a job like this for this long without once having to discharge my gun. It’s only by God’s grace.’

On one of those fog-drenched Johannesburg mornings, when it seemed like Soweto was covered by an impenetrable iron curtain, I sat in the passenger seat of Dad’s car and listened as he told me the story of his first dead body.

‘It happened right there,’ he said, pointing to Reverend Modise Drive – a long, stretching arterial road leading out of Meadowlands Zone 11 into Orlando West. On the left side of the road lay Meadowlands Zone 11 hostel – an apartheid hangover with tyre smoke billowing out of it almost 24/7 and raw sewage running in between the different hostels. He walked into the hostel, bought some matches and a newspaper, and waited next to the corpse.

The year was 1986.

‘It was a motorbike accident,’ he deadpanned. ‘The guy fell off his bike and onto the tarmac … died almost instantly. It was night-time and there were no streetlights, so I had to burn a newspaper and make sure no one contaminated the scene. It was hours before an ambulance showed up. I just sat there next to the body, the entire time.’

A man, a fire, a corpse.

In 2003 Anthony Minnaar, a professor of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of South Africa, published a paper on the murder of South African police officials. The paper looked to understand why police officials were killed with such regularity in South Africa and whether there were any preventative measures that could be put in place to reduce the murders. Minnaar drew his findings from two focus groups. The first was made up of police officers who had been attacked or knew a colleague who had been attacked or murdered while performing their duties. The second was made up of convicted murderers who had killed police officials in Gauteng.

The findings revealed that ‘the greatest cause of death was from gunshot wounds (almost 80%) with knife stabs and assaults … a distant second.’ The study also found that police officials were killed because ‘criminal syndicates hire hitmen or put up a reward for the killing of a selected police officer’. Another contributing factor, Minnaar’s study found, is the lack of trust between communities and the police.

‘Another element is the respect or lack thereof in the relationship between communities and the police. To earn this respect it was emphasised repeatedly in the focus-group interviews that police must act professionally and improve their delivery of service to the communities they are supposed to serve. In terms of service delivery and professional conduct of police members concerns were expressed that many policemen are either careless (negligent) while performing their duties, too aggressive, macho or do not wait for backup to arrive (reckless and not careful enough) when approaching a crime scene or making an arrest or are unaware of the potential dangers in a situation (not security conscious of the dangers inherent in certain situations). All these aspects of performance can lead to a police member being attacked or killed.’

In 1998, Dad arrested a man named Barney Kwati. He didn’t know it at the time but, had Kwati gotten his way, Dad’s life would have ended that August.

In comparison to the criminals Dad would arrest much later in his career, Barney Kwati was small fry; a regional criminal known in Naledi in the late 1990s for running with a gang that committed robberies around the train station. But that is not to say Kwati wasn’t dangerous. His anger was known to turn deadly when things didn’t go his way. In 1996, a case of murder and attempted murder was opened against him. Two years later, Dad arrested him on another attempted murder charge. This one looked like it was going to stick. But while Dad was going about his police work, Kwati was allegedly plotting against him from inside Sun City.

As far as contract killings go, my dad’s would’ve been a relatively easy to execute. He always used the same route to and from work, and the plan, Dad was later told, was to wait for him to make the trip to Naledi as he always did in the morning. When he turned at draaihoek – a popular four-way stop near Naledi Police Station – he’d find his executioners waiting.

But there was something wrong with the car, a chrome-coloured BMW 325is.

Dad turns the key once, twice, a third time but the car doesn’t come to life. He walks back into his house and calls Percy, a friend of his, to ask for a lift to Naledi. When Percy arrives, they use a different route. Dad usually drives up our street, takes a right into Zola and makes his way to Naledi. Percy uses the opposite route, driving to the other side of our street, turning into Green Village and then driving down the long stretch of road into Naledi.

Dad thanks him, closes the door and makes his way to his office.

Not long after, a group of burly, armed police officials walk into Dad’s office, guns drawn.

‘Are you Maneta?’ they ask.

‘I am … what’s all of this about?’

‘We’ve gotten word that you were going to be killed on your way to work today.’

As it turns out: two things saved Dad’s life that day. The first was his car’s mechanical failure. The second was a man he’d only met once – an associate of Kwati’s called Madubula who’d been commissioned to carry out the hit. When he heard it was Dad he was meant to kill, he allegedly responded: ‘Mara, ngiyayicava leya grootman. Ayinankinga mos?’ (I like that old man. To me he’s not a problem.) Maybe he was burdened by guilt or something else entirely, but on the day Dad was meant to be killed, Madubula went to Protea Glen’s Police Station and reported that there was a hit that was about to be carried out on my father.

Dad did not die, something he ascribes to his faith.

‘Jesus is a fire,’ he says.