I have wanted to write this for a while now and kept coming up with reasons not to. It's been so long ... and the loss really belonged to others, to her family, which makes it not my story to tell. And yet what else are stories if not a way to remember. To make sense of the world in all it's horror and it's beauty. And so if we remember, the story belongs to us too.
At the end of December in 1993, members of the APLA opened fire in a tavern in Cape Town. The Heidelberg Tavern. A name some of us will never forget. One of the women killed in the attack was one of my best friends.
It was an attack in the name of Freedom. The Revolution. Casualties for the Struggle. The end justified the means, they said.
There have been so many casualties. Atrocities of history burnt into memory. Too hard to talk about sometimes. All of us carrying stories of loss and grief. So many many stories.
And yet ....
This tavern was just a small place frequented by students, not all of them white. Bernie being one of them. No political agenda there, just an ordinary place on an ordinary night.
She was at Rhodes with me. We took the same subjects ... we sat through Psychology and Art History lectures together ... we drew and drew all through that first year and went for tea breaks and suffered through those agonizing crits at the art school. We sat up for hours drinking coffee and talking ... about growing up and our families, about what we wanted from life. About boys and falling in love. About politics and how we hoped the future would go, in South Africa. She told me about her brother and how worried she was about him. How the gangs in P.E. made it not a safe place to be for her family.
Bernie is the one I sat up with the night before the 1992 Referendum in my digs just off the High Street ... a bundle of us smoking and drinking tea and worrying about the day ahead of us. What would happen to the country we loved. She's one of the first people I looked for when the results came in, a group of us jumping up and down in the street to celebrate, not caring what anyone thought.
She dreamt of giving back to her family, and to her community. She went to UCT after Rhodes to finish her HDE so she could teach ... art and guidance counselling. She wanted more than anything to enrich the lives of the kids in the city she came from, to support her mother ... to take care of her family. She had so much to give back. It was all she wanted.
She was brave and funny and wise. And strong. She was one of the first friends I turned to when I needed advice and encouragement. She's the one who pushed me to leave when i wasn't ready to go, trying to hold on - saying life would have a way of working itself out, i would see.
The last time I saw her she came to stay at my new digs to rewrite an exam so she could graduate from Rhodes. I had left the front door unlocked and they came upstairs in a line of laughter - her family had come to drop her off - carrying packets of food and piles of textbooks in their arms. Their laughter stopped when they saw me waiting. The unexpected color of my face.
'The other students who live here .... are they also...' The question hanging. Her mother, so worried.
'It's alright. I'll be here. And they're not like that, I promise. They know she's staying and it's OK - but right now there's no one else here. It will be fine.'
It's how things were then. Having to reassure.
It was the height of summer, the heat of January flattening us and sending everyone indoors to sweat and dream of cooler weather. In between my waitressing shifts and Bernie's studies, we sought out the breezes on the balcony and continued with our conversations from years before. We drank tea and cold cokes and told stories from our childhoods. I still remember the way the heat sat on our shoulders. How empty the streets were, how quiet my house ... waiting for the noise that came when varsity began and the streets filled up with students. How impatient she was to be done, to be able to leave. A new adventure waiting.
She went to Cape Town and I stopped my studies and returned to Durban. She graduated that December, just weeks before her death. She wrote to tell me, so relieved and proud. Against all odds, she had done it. Her future lay open before her.
The years have gone by, but she has not been forgotten. We remember her, the ones who knew her. The memories come to me on the wind sometimes, when I am walking alone. Or driving with the window down, air rushing to snatch at my breath. A quiet moment when the sun is setting just so, and I think of all she has missed.
Today I pulled out the newspaper cutting from the shooting with her photo. I have kept it all these years, to never forget. I read the transcript of the Truth and Reconciliation hearing from that night, online. How strange that it's all there now, for anyone to see. For the first time I read her mother's words as she described her beautiful daughter to the court that day.
Even after all the years, there is still crying to be done.
We remember, Bernie.
We will never forget.