OLGA MACINGWANE, the recipient of the 2011 Reconciliation Award from South Africa’s Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, was born in South Africa’s Free State in 1959. She left school at the age of 19 with a standard 8 (grade 10) pass to work as a garage attendant and met her late husband, Vuyisile, as she filled his car with petrol. Here Olga, who now has three children and two grandchildren and lives in Zweletemba (near Worcester, Western Cape) tells CLAIRE STEVENSON how she managed to forgive the man who permanently harmed her in the Christmas Eve ‘Worcester bombings’ of 1996…
‘No one is perfect,’ says Olga Macingwane who has overcome deep anger to forgive the bomber who maimed her | PHOTO: Tonya Hester
‘My husband and I came to Zweletemba on honeymoon and loved the Cape so much that we made it our new home. We started our family straightaway, and life was good for us. Vuyisile provided well as a farmer and businessman. He bred and raised goats and other livestock in Zweletemba, which he took to the slaughterhouse in Worcester to sell.
Vuyisile was 17 years older than me, and looked after me as if I was extremely precious. He wanted me home to raise the children rather than at work and, because he had had no schooling himself, he encouraged me to continue with mine. I felt proud to complete grade 11 while looking after our three small children (and I have now completed four grade 12 subjects too).
On that fateful Christmas Eve in 1996, we went to Worcester – me to do my Christmas shopping, and Vuyisile to catch the train to De Doorns to invite friends to our Christmas meal. We left home at about 10am, with me saying to the three children, ‘Stay inside and be good, I won’t be long.’ They hopped up and down, thinking of me coming back with cool drinks and other Christmas treats. I said goodbye to Vuyisile at the station in Worcester, and walked on to the OK Bazaars.
I had finished my shopping by about 12:30, and was feeling relieved at leaving the crowded Christmas shops to get back to my children, when I bumped into my sister-in-law who persuaded me to go with her to Checkers. We went into the shop at 1pm through the back door. Immediately I smelt what seemed like a tyre burning. I still don’t know what this was. I tried to ask people around me, but couldn’t pull their attention away from the festive holiday atmosphere – many were jiving to the Macarena as they shopped. I left my sister-in-law at the parcel counter, telling her not to move so that we could find each other in the crowd afterwards, and went to the tills to pay for what we’d chosen.
The queues were long, but eventually our items were rung up. As I put my money in the shop assistant’s hand, everything changed. There was a deafening bang, so loud that I felt that I had exploded. Then nothingness, everything went black. No sound. No sight. Just darkness. I could not feel anything around me except myself. I felt like a stranger to myself, and was surprised to still be standing, holding onto the counter to keep upright. When I tried to walk, I couldn’t move my legs. My chest and arms were burning with shrapnel that had pierced my skin.
I saw a woman in a Checkers uniform calling and beckoning to me in what seemed like slow motion. I fell down and crawled towards her until I felt the hot pavement burning my hands and knees, and realised I was outside. I had wounds on my hands and chest, and my legs were useless. Suddenly I heard the terrifying sound of another blast nearby. Later, I heard this was a second bomb, planted near the pharmacy.
Two policemen came and carried me between them to a kombi, where I collapsed, unconscious. The time was just after 1pm. I became conscious again at 7pm that evening in the Worcester Mediclinic, tied to a hospital bed. I asked a nurse what was happening to me, and she said, ‘You’ve been hit by a bomb.’ There were other bomb victims in the ward, and the sound of children crying and women wailing was too much to bear. My sister-in-law was shaken but unharmed. After the bomb went off, she searched for me in the crowd outside Checkers and she looked all afternoon, going from hospital to hospital, checking names on lists of wounded people, then the death lists, without finding me – I hadn’t been identified because I was unconscious. She went home to tell my husband, her brother, that she thought I might be dead. My husband was initially frantic to find me, then began to grieve my death.
The doctor allowed me home for Christmas and by the time I arrived, after 8pm and in a municipal vehicle, the village thought that I was in the mortuary. Friends and family were standing together mourning on our street. Their faces changed when they recognised me through the vehicle window, and many of them began crying.
Beloved husband: Vuyisile was killed in a hit and run accident, and his loss still devastates Olga
I saw trauma on the faces of my children and my husband when I went towards the front door on crutches, my legs bandaged. My husband began crying with relief that I was alive, and sorrow at how much pain I was in.
When I woke up the next day, although it was Christmas, a blackness had come over the village. The mayor sent us a food parcel but we couldn’t eat. My daughter Pheliswa, who was 11, was so traumatised that I hadn’t come home that day that she couldn’t eat for nine days.
My injuries were extreme and I couldn’t walk for many months. The bomb broke both my calf bones and left a hole in my right leg. I went to the Zweletemba Hospital on crutches for treatment every week but otherwise stayed at home, too scared to leave. Apart from the wounds to my chest and arms, I had deafness and ear damage.
Today [21 years later], my legs still swell and hurt in summer. I walk with a limp, my neck hurts and my left ear oozes pus. I am affected by noise, I have ‘heard’ and re-lived the bomb experience ever since, and still don’t feel safe in public areas. I have never been given any compensation for the medical costs, or for being unable to work since the bomb.
Four years later, I was reading the newspaper at home when I found an article about what had happened in Worcester that day. I read that the bombers were four white Afrikaans men who had planted bombs in areas where black and coloured people shopped, in order to kill as many of us as possible. Four people were killed, two of them were nine-year-old children, and 67 of us were injured. The bombers were ‘black-haters’, trained to kill. All of them had been captured and were in prison. Although this information made me feel both angry and sad at what had happened to me and to the other victims, I was relieved to know at last what had happened, and that the bombers were in prison.
In 2003, seven years after the bombing, Vuyisile was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. I was devastated. He had been riding his bike in Worcester when he was hit by a vehicle at high speed. Losing my husband was like losing my hand. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and for a time I did not believe that God existed. I lost my will to live. My children were taken from me to live with my in-laws as I was too depressed to look after them, and because I had no income. I lived on my own, and was completely alone apart from when my husband’s family could bring my children to visit.
In 2009, 13 years after the bombing, I was contacted by a member of the Khulumani Support Group, which had been formed for reconciliation in our country. I went to a meeting with them and other bomb victims in Worcester. There, they told me that one of the bombers, nicknamed ‘Stefaans’ Coetzee, was seeking amnesty, and wanted to meet his victims. I was shocked. The other victims felt too afraid to face the person who had hated them. But I was angry. I wanted information, and I wanted to keep this Stefaans in jail where he belonged. I went in a car hired by Khulumani to Pretoria Central Prison. I had nothing left to lose.
Snappy dresser: Olga in the Eighties, aged 29
like a child
It was 2pm when I was led to a room inside the prison. When I entered, I saw a young man in prison overalls arranging chairs. Someone told me he was Stefaans, the bomber who wanted to meet me. He was a small man and he seemed like a child to me, although he was 30. I was surprised because I had expected an older person who looked more like a criminal. We sat in a circle and the people who were there asked Stefaans questions, while I sat quietly, watched and listened. Someone encouraged me to talk. Eventually I said, ‘Stefaans, I don’t know you and you don’t know me. Why then did you do this to me?’ He said, ‘Olga, I hated black people.’
It turned out that he was taught to hate black people from when he was small. His father drank a lot, and his mother was careless. He was put in an orphanage when he was nine and did not go to school. When he was a little older, a member of the Wit Wolwe [White Wolves] used an adapted ‘bible’ to teach him that people who did not have white skin were no better than animals in a field. The man took Stefaans to a farm outside Beaufort West when he was 16 to train him to kill, and to make bombs like the one that had injured me.
Stefaans told me that in prison he asked for a bible, and realised that what he had been reading had been changed so much that it wasn’t the real Bible at all. He told me he was now a different person. Prison had given him the chance to walk with God, and learn right from wrong.
I thought to myself that this could be my sister’s child. He was used as an instrument of hatred. How would I feel if this was my child asking for forgiveness? Every day of my life since I was a little girl, I had said The Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lord, forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who have trespassed against me.’ So how could I not forgive Stefaans? It felt like the most natural thing to do when I stood up, put my arms around him and said in Xhosa, ‘Come here, boy, I forgive you. Whether what you have told me is true or not is between you and God. I am not your judge.’ Stefaans cried, I cried, everyone in the room cried.
Olga’s three children in earlier days (left to right): Pheliswa, Siyabonga and Bulelani Mcdonald
Little by little since that day, I have begun to heal. Although I long for my husband and I would like to live without pain, I am motivated by the small glimmer of hope that I received after forgiving Stefaans. I have worked since that day as a volunteer with the Worcester Khulumani Support Group, and they use me to manage meetings between Stefaans and the Worcester bomb victims, because I know how much freedom it gave me to forgive. Because of this, 35 of the victims have been to Pretoria Prison to meet Stefaans. I asked if he could be transferred to the Worcester Prison for more discussions, and he was taken there in August 2013.
It saddened me that Stefaans had had no family or friends visit him during the 13 years he had been in prison. No one should be so alone in this world. I went to see him while he was in Worcester because I love him as my own child. I told Stefaans that when he got out of prison, he and I should team up to try to change this country.
I read in a newspaper article that in prison Stefaans met a man in his sixties who was serving more than one life sentence for black-hate murders, who said, ‘Stefaans, if you don’t stop thinking that you’re superior because of the colour of your skin, you will live in two prisons, one around your body and one around your heart.’
When I get angry and bitter, not only about my past and the pain but because I am poor and unable to work as a result of the bombings, I get down on my knees and pray to God for help. I have received nothing from the government to help me and my children ask me why I am prepared to grant interviews and keep working for peace when my situation doesn’t change. I say, ‘Because it is my work.’
I was given an award by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu for the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation at the District Six Museum for forgiving the bomber, and for my commitment to community reconciliation. I was surprised to have been awarded for what I think should come naturally to all of us. You don’t have to forget but you can forgive. None of us is perfect.
Stefaans was released from prison in 2015 and in September 2016 he asked me to come and visit him in Klerksdorp. I didn’t know why he wanted me to go there, but he said he wanted me to see what he was doing after his release. He is doing a good job. He showed me beautiful gardens and told me about the school children he is helping to feed. After that we went to the museum and in the evening we went to church together. There I got a shock. He had just run the Comrades Marathon to honour the four people killed and 67 injured by his bomb, and in front of everyone in the church he gave me an award and his marathon medal to say thank you for forgiving him (and happy birthday because my birthday is also in September!)
Tata Madiba [Nelson Mandela] is my role model. He said, ‘You must sit with your enemies and you must eat with your enemies.’ I will do this, and I will continue to trust God.’