As the country gears up to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the youth uprisings of 1976, the Athlone News reflects on the fallen heroes from the greater Athlone area, who paved the way for democracy with the ultimate sacrifice – their lives.
In 1995, the government declared June 16 a public holiday, known as Youth Day – in commemoration of the Soweto uprising in 1976, a series of protests led by high school pupils in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools.
They were met with fierce police brutality. It is estimated that 20 000 pupils took part in the protests, with more than 500 being killed and more than 1 000 injured.
This incident sparked protests by young people across the country.
Christopher Truter, a 15-year-old from Bonteheuwel, was among the first in the greater Athlone area, to lose his life in August 1976, during a protest at Arcadia High School.
Christopher died when police fired shots into a crowd of students. He was shot in his head.
Reports suggested that he had not been part of the protestors, but was returning to school to collect his books, which had been strewn across a nearby field.
His sister, Roseline Truter, who was 19 years old at that time, said she is not sure if he was politically involved, adding that he had a curious nature and the chanting of the crowds would have attracted him. Christopher had dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
Nearly a decade after Christopher’s death, the Athlone community was once again shocked to the core by the deaths of three young people on October 15, 1985.
High school pupils were pelting a railway truck with stones during their protest, and the apartheid security police responded in the most brutal way, when they shot indiscriminately into this group of young people. Michael Miranda, 11, Shaun Magmoed, 15, and Jonathan Claassen, 21, were killed, and scores of others were injured. At least 28 people were arrested, and 13 of them were charged with public violence. However, they were all acquitted. Although a magistrate found in March1988 that the 13 police officers involved in the ambush had acted unreasonably and that they were responsible for the deaths of Jonathan, Shaun and Michael, not one of them was charged. The families of the three youths even brought a private prosecution against the police officers, but they were all acquitted.
The incident, on the corner of St Simon’s Road and Thornton Road, in Athlone, became known as the Trojan Horse Massacre, because police were hiding among wooden crates in a railway truck, before jumping up and shooting at the young people. In mythology, the Trojan Horse was a huge wooden horse the Greeks built and hid in, to secretly enter the city of Troy during the Trojan War.
In September 2005, the City of Cape Town erected the Trojan Horse Memorial in Thornton Road.
Two years after the Trojan Horse massacre, on July 9, 1987, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) guerrilla, Ashley Kriel, 20, was shot and killed by apartheid policeman, Jeffrey Benzien. Ashley was shot in his back, while he was in hiding at a safehouse in Albermarle Street, Hazendal. After appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the policeman was given amnesty for the murder.
Ashley captivated filmmaker Nadine Cloete so much, that she decided to produce a documentary about him, called Action Kommandant, which featured at the Encounters Film Festival, and will have a free screening at the Bonteheuwel civic centre tomorrow (Thursday June 16), from 1pm to 4pm.
It is her dedication to keeping alive the memory of South Africa’s struggle heroes that has, for the past five years, seen her determinedly working to complete the documentary, which, she said, offers an intimate portrait of Ashley, who was a Bonteheuwel resident.
As to what drew her to document the story of his life, Nadine said: “His was a name I was always aware of, but I didn’t really know who he was. I then saw archive footage of him and was really struck by it: hearing him speak; seeing him in action. I wanted to know who this person was; who the person behind the fist in the air was.”
Young activists again found themselves in the firing line when, on July 23, 1989, Coline Williams, 20, from Bonteheuwel and Robert Waterwitch, 20, from Athlone, were killed when a bomb they were handling exploded near the Athlone Magistrate’s Court. The two freedom fighters who died in the line of duty were part of the Ashley Kriel Detachment of the ANC’s MK. The bomb blast occurred on the eve of the opening of the tri-cameral system – an apartheid structure which tried to give legitimacy to separate parliaments for whites, coloureds and Indians. In 2005, life-sized bronze statues of the pair on a bronze base, were erected outside the public toilets, opposite the Magistrate’s Court. This memorial, however, was stolen, chopped up and sold to a scrapyard in 2008. A new statue was erected in 2009, just in time for the 20th anniversary of their deaths.
Not long after their deaths, on November 17, 1989, Bonteheuwel resident and MK soldier Anton Fransch, 20, was killed after a seven-hour gun battle between him and the combined apartheid security forces, dubbed the “Battle of Athlone”. He was killed after a hand grenade was flung into the bedroom of the Church Street, Athlone, house that he was taking cover in.
In December 2014, a plaque was unveiled in memory of the MK soldier on the boundary wall of the house where he was killed, in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of his death. His family, at that time, said they were “satisfied that he finally received the recognition he deserves”.
Remembering the night Anton Fransch was killed, neighbour Suleiman Fakier, said it was about 11pm on a Sunday night that he heard the first gun shots.
Initially, Mr Fakier thought that it was his neighbour’s electrical box that was faulty, because to him, the gunshots sounded like a “crackling noise”.
Mr Fakier added: “I didn’t know it was the sound of bullets, but after 10 minutes of this sound, I decided to look out my window, and saw policemen all over the road. I took a chance coming out, and the police told me to go back into my house, for my own safety. The shooting went on for seven hours. I couldn’t believe that one man fought alone against 60 or 70 policemen. At one stage they demolished the boundary wall in Hendon Road, and one of them threw a grenade into the room where Anton was. Anton’s blood was all over the walls. I remember one of the policemen shouting, ‘ons het hom’. Anton was a hero. He fought for all of us.”