AN EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY HERO
By Daniel E. Dercksen
For Patrick Chamusso, whose life as ANC activist and freedom fighter is immortalised in the film CATCH A FIRE, watching the film is a painful reminder of his past.
He could only sit through a part of the film during a preview screening and hopes to one day watch the film from start to finish on DVD.
"Seeing yourself in the prison cell ... where I washed in the river ... being followed by cops... it's painful," says Chamusso. "I will get the DVD and watch it by myself. If I am alone, I will cry while watching it."
Chamusso's humility is overwhelming.
Director Phillip Noyce calls Chamusso a "remarkable man, and an inspiration to us all", a "man who goes beyond prejudice and beyond hatred to realize that as humans, if we ever want to be free, we have to learn to forgive."
His fellow actors refer to Chamusso as "a hero of the struggle".
Chamusso is very adamant about not being seen as a star or regarded as a hero.
"I am not a hero," he says "I'm very proud that the story is being told while I am still alive. But it doesn't change the fact that I am an ordinary man, I have nothing to do with the glamour, or the profiling."
Chamusso was born into a rural Mozambique family in 1950. His father was a migrant labourer who worked over the border in South Africa as a miner, and as such was only allowed home once or twice a year (for Easter and/or Christmas) and was only minimally compensated.
As a teenager, Patrick followed his father to South Africa, taking odd jobs in the mines. His memories of his father are not pleasant, but he remembers his mother fondly.
"My mother was everything to us, which my father didn't do. My father drank a lot and did not care much. Our mother provided clothes and raised us. She even tried to put me into school bus he was alone and could not afford to do it, " he remembers. "She encouraged me to be independent."
His first step towards independence was as a young photographer in the early seventies in Springs, when he was given a second hand camera to take photographs of weddings and football matches, earning him about 50 cents per session. This soon grew to a full R10 when he won when he won a competition in The World for a boxing photograph.
Ironically, years after he was released from prison on Robben Island, and he returned to Witbank on a visit, he accidentally stumbled upon a Security Force member who was stuck next to the road with a puncture. Without hesitation Chamusso helped the man, who did not recognise him from the past, and was then offered R50 for his services.
This Security Force member did not recognise Chamusso as the man who earned himself the codename "Hotstuff" when he single-handedly attacked the Secunda Oil Refinery in 1981.
The consequence of his actions did not only force Chamusso to leave his wife and children, but what really affected his life was that "my wife didn't trust me, my friends didn't trust me. Even my football team-mates did not trust me. They thought I was connected with the ANC and I was a terrorist."
Chamusso was arrested as a suspect in June 1980. Upon his release and after gruelling torture, Chamusso, who avoided political involvement for all of his life, decided that he had suffered needless trauma for a reason, and so he had to do something.
Leaving his family behind, he crossed the border illegally into Mozambique and travelled to the capital, Maputo, where the ANC had its regional headquarters. After he was initially held in a detention camp Patrick was accepted into the organization where he trained with and met MK commander Joe Slovo, one of the few senior white members of the ANC.
"The day I met Joe Slovo, asked me: 'Do you want to go to school, or do you want to go to the army?' I told him that I wanted to go to the army. When I told him I was vengeful he said that revenge does not work there and that they do not deal with people who are paying revenge. They were fighting for a cause, not revenge," says Chamusso.
In 1982 Chamusso was found guilty on three counts of contravening the Terrorism Act and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. He served nearly 10 years on Robben Island until he was amnestied and released in late 1991, along with all political prisoners.
It was on Robben Island that Chamusso's life changed drastically.
"When I reached Robben Island I had a lot of anger on me, a lot of hatred. I met people like Tokyo Sekwale who taught me the so-called 'Ubuntu', to be a human being, to share with other people, to become a person not just for yourself, to be with the other people. Those are the people who have inspired me."
Chamusso is pleased with CATCH A FIRE.
"I'm very proud that the story is being told while I am still alive. I did not expect that," he says.
He clearly remembers his reaction when screenwriter Shawn Slovo informed him that she had found a director and an actor for the film,
"Who is going to watch a film about an ordinary man?' I did not believe that ordinary people also could make history. I thought generals and presidents are making history, but today, history is being made by a soldier like me, an ordinary man."
Today Chamusso lives in northeast South Africa with his wife Conney, whom he married after his release from prison. Patrick and Conney have three children of their own, and have foster-parented 80 more, all of the latter orphans.
"When I grew up, I grew up like somebody who was an orphan, so I don't want those children to grow up like myself," says Chamusso. "When I was on Robben Island I was taught by me fellow inmates to share with other people. I decided that I better do that."
What does he hope South Africans will get from watching CATCH A FIRE?
"To forgive is much better than revenge," says Chamusso. "South Africa has taken another stance in Africa. Our leadership has taught us to forgive. I would say to everyone who has a grudge against somebody else, please go to that person and ask forgiveness. Make friends with them. That will solve your problem. Not by fighting."
Copyright © 2007 Daniel E. Dercksen
Published with permission in the Sunday Weekend Argus, February 4, 2007
READ MORE ABOUT CATCH A FIRE
Read more about Patrick Chamusso's Two Sisters orphanage on the website: www.twosisters.org.za