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Gille de Vlieg

"Well sometimes, you see, I was interested in people's lives. So sometimes it wasn't like highly political photographs. They were photographs of women hanging up washing in the back yards and that type of thing; a woman washing a floor."

- Gille de Vlieg.

Whites, particularly women, participated in the struggle for liberation. And their involvement in some cases led to them to interact with activists living in townships. Gille de Vlieg's story illustrates this point. It was during the height of student riots in Tembisa in 1984 that Gille de Vlieg first made contact with Greg Thulare, a member of Cosas in Tembisa. Gille, born in Plymouth, United Kingdom in 1940, had moved from Durban to Johannesburg in 1973. In 1982 she joined Black Sash as a volunteer and one of her responsibilities was to work with communities which were threatened with removal to the homelands. It was at this stage that she developed an interest in photography, eventually joining Afrapix, and took photographs of the political and social landscapes of South Africa.

 According to De Vlieg, they first met at Khotso House when Greg and some of his comrades had come for a meeting at the UDF office in Khotso House.

De Vlieg recalls:

"We were sitting around just talking when I heard these voices. You walked into Khotso House from the street and over the reception area was a dome and underneath a big tapestry on the wall, which was a South African Council of Churches wall hanging which had ‘Khotso, Peace - Uxolo' sewn onto it. It was a lovely place to have photographs because you couldn't miss them - you walked in and there they were. And there were these three young men who I later learnt were from Tembisa ... the UDF offices were upstairs, and they had been to a COSAS meeting, and had come down and were looking at the photographs. So I went to them and I said to them, ‘Do you know what you're looking at?' I started describing the photographs to them (which were of the removal and destruction of Pageview) and why we felt it was important to have them up. Then I gave them programmes."

- Gille de Vlieg

This was the beginning of a political (and sometimes social) relationship between Gille and, first, with the members of COSAS, and later the community of Tembisa. Greg Thulare, after meeting with Gille several times in town, finally began to trust her. Before he could invite her to Tembisa, Greg tested her and, in doing so, introduced her to the politics of the ANC). Gille recalls that he came with a banned tape recording of the ANC.

She remembers:

"He brought me this tape and it was Oliver Tambo's tape; his address to the ANC from exile. So he said to me ‘can't we go somewhere I want you to listen to this'. So we went to this place on a high hill (Munro Drive) with a view of the northern suburbs. So we went there and pulled off on the side of the road and Greg slept and I listened to Oliver Tambo..... Then shortly after that he asked me to come with him to Tembisa and that's when I first went in."

- Gille de Vlieg

But Gille, as a white person could not enter Tembisa without permission from the council. South African laws prohibited any white person from entering a black township without permission, except for the security and administrative personnel. Gille fabricated lies that she was working for Anglo American as a photographer in order to be granted permission to enter Tembisa.

In Tembisa, she met members of COSAS like Tshepo Mphuti, Reuben Mahlagare, and others who were close to Greg. Trust developed between them and Gille. When, for example, police were looking for the COSAS activists, they would hide at Gille's house in the safe northern suburbs. Gille recalls one time when they slept at her place and she woke up in the middle of the night and found them discussing a book they were reading.

"They all used to sleep in the lounge. And then one night I woke up at about three o'clock in the morning ... there was a little narrow passage where you go through to the lounge and I heard all these voices in the lounge.

"And I went through and I quietly opened the door - and they were sitting round in a circle with a book and they were sitting and discussing this book. I said, ‘What are you doing?' And they said, ‘oh, we just discussing", obviously some ‘subversive' book. This made a huge impression on me. I thought this was amazing because here are these guys; they're all school children basically and yet this was so important to them that they were sitting and having this discussion at three o'clock in the morning."

-Gille de Vlieg

Gille's photographs were varied. She did not only take photographs of political struggles but she also focused on social and everyday life in the township.
She explains:

"Well sometimes, you see, I was also interested in people's lives. So sometimes it wasn't like highly political photographs. They were photographs of women hanging up washing in the back yards and that type of thing; a woman washing a floor."

-Gille de Vlieg

Her presence in the township was noticeable and this brought her into contact with other people outside the Cosas circle. She befriended mothers of the young people who were involved in the struggle. She used social gatherings at her home to bring these women together and to know each other. For some it was through these social gatherings that they began to appreciate the role played by their children in the struggle.

Nomathemba Thulare, recalls:

"Gille helped. And that was what made us to meet, because as a parent she was able to bring us together and organise parties. She would bake cakes, buy cold drinks and braai meat. And we would meet there. We would eat and talk. It would be fun."

-Nomathemba Thulare

Gille was also assisted these mothers to visit their detained children in prison and to facilitate communication between the parents and the children in detention or in exile. Some of the activists did not understand Gille's role in the township and they would want to confront her. But other activists were protective of her.

Timothy Mabena remembers a time when some of the activists questioned Gille's presence in the township:

"As these developments were taking place, Gille de Vlieg was in our midst, asking us questions and so on. At some stage some of the comrades began to ask what was Gille doing in the township, because she's white and we were fighting against whites. We in the leadership said ‘No, she's fine. She's one of the Democrats, who were sympathetic to our cause'."

-Mr. and Mrs. Mabena


NEXT: Political funerals in the 1980s

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