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The way we lived. 36. (Part 2) Seven+ square kilometres of heroes.

Updated: May 30, 2023

(The highlighted names of people or events are those with streets named after them in Philippi’s Weltevreden Valley North.)

c. Deaths during police detention

1. Steve Biko Crescent is a long loop of road with many side streets. South Africa’s first leader of the

Black Consciousness Movement, Biko paid the ultimate price when he died at the hands of security police in a South African prison in 1977.

In court, a judge asked him why he called himself black when his skin colour was brown. Biko replied with a question. Why do you call yourself white when your skin colour is pink? Gotta love a man like Biko. It seems Thallium poisoning and severe head injuries contributed to his death in prison in 1977.

I remember crying at the time of the Medical Council hearings into the two doctors involved in examining him in prison as we learnt of the injuries he sustained from his brutalisation during the time of his detention without trial. Naked and handcuffed in his cell, an incoherent and incontinent Biko was certified fit to travel 1200kms away to Pretoria for medical attention while lying on the bare floor of a police van. The nearest hospital to him was much less than 100 kilometres away. The security forces alleged that Biko had acted aggressively and "injured" his head in a scuffle- he had severe intracranial bleeding. The magistrate refused to prosecute any of those involved.

The activist Dr Francis Aimes, one of my lecturers, organised a Supreme Court injunction to force the SA Medical and Dental Council to arraign the two doctors involved in his fate. Dr Brenjamin Tucker, chief District Surgeon in the Eastern Cape, was struck off the register; his assistant Dr Ivor Lang was reprimanded and cautioned. Both deserved more!

2. Siphiwo Mthimkulu was a member of the SA Students Movement and Congress of SA. Following his 1981 detention for five months, the ill 24 year old Mthimkulu told of cigarette ash and butts mixed in with his prison food. At Groote Schuur Hospital in CT, Dr Francis Aimes established the presence of thallium in his body. He sued the government for his torture and poisoning.

Before the case, Mthimkulu and a friend, Topsy Madaska disappeared during a trip in the Eastern Cape. Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) disclosures revealed that following their shooting by four White security police officers, their burned bodies were dumped in the Fish River. I often wonder how many other activists’ bodies ended up in that river (see 7-9 below).

The eastern Cape policemen Hermanus du Plessis, Gideon Nieuwoudt, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg, and Gerrit Erasmus were responsible for the Thallium poisoning of Mthimkulu and Steve Biko. The first two policemen along with Johannes van Zyl and Gerhardus Lotz had also been involved in the death of the Pebco Three (see 7-9 below).

3. Ahmed Timol was one of 73 anti-apartheid activists who died in detention between 1963 and 1990 - the real number is believed to be much higher. Timol allegedly died when he jumped from a window on the top floor of John Vorster Square police station, five days after his arrest. He was an activist and member of the underground SA Communist party.

In 1982, the trade union activist Dr Neil Agget was also tortured to death at John Vorster Square after 70 days in detention. The police claimed he hung himself. Aggett’s fellow prisoners attest to seeing Aggett in agony just days before his death. It’s possible the security police treated White political detainees worse than their Black counterparts for letting the side down. The American expression “nigger lover” comes to mind aka, “kaffirboetie” in Afrikaans. It pains me to even write about "K" words like this!

4. Looksmart Ngudle, MK commander, was the first person to die in prison during the apartheid-era. His 1963 death was attributed to suicide by hanging with his pyjamas. To prevent investigations into his death, the State immediately banned him postmortem - the first time ever in RSA.

5. Imam Haron Street is the original Lansdowne Road which runs all the way from Claremont to

Phillippi. The Imam, who died from security police torture, was known to our family where we lived in Lansdowne, just off the road which now bears his name. He qualifies to be here as the road bearing his name ends 5-6 blocks west of Weltevreden Valley North where most of the heroes’ street names are located. This mural of the Imam is on Community House in Salt River.

The Imam was the first cleric to die in police custody at the age of 32 years, after 123 days in solitary confinement. His death, like his bruising and fractured ribs, was attributed to him falling down a flight of stairs at police HQ in 1969.

d. Assassinations

Security police were implicated in several hundred deaths as part of the Vlakplaas death squad actions exposed by one of its founders, Colonel Coetsee, in 1989. He described himself as being in the “heart of the whore”. Following his exposition, he went into hiding with ANC protection. In 1996, Vlakplaas leader, Colonel Eugene de Kok, called “Prime Evil” by the press, received a sentence of 212 years in prison for his direct and indirect involvement in over 200 deaths. He was released from prison in 2015.

A block surrounded by Sharpeville Street and Oliver Tambo Drive has Chris Hani Crescent on its east. This small block includes the names of victims of some of the worst horrors inflicted by SA police death squads.

1. The dynamic Chris Hani was leader of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of uMkhonto we Sizwe(MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress. His 1993 assassination occurred in front of his 15-year old daughter outside his Boksburg home a year before South Africa's first-ever democratic elections.

2. Dr Fabian Riberio was the GP who recorded as much evidence of police brutality as possible by taking pictures and videos of victims who came to him for treatment during the violence of the 1970s. Witness to apartheid, his award-winning series of videotaped interviews of victims, was widely viewed overseas. After earlier unsuccessful attempts on his life, police agents gunned him and his wife to death at their home in Mamelodi in 1986.

3-6. Other walks close by are named after the Cradock Four - trade unionist Sparrow Mkonto along with activist teachers Fort Calata, Mathew Goniwe, and Sicelo Mhlauli. In June 1985, security police executed the four. A leaked copy of a secret military message proposed the permanent removal of the four - effectively it was a death warrant. Their burned bodies were found in bushland near Bluewater Bay in the Eastern Cape.

7-9. Sipho Hashe, Qaqawuli Godolozi and Champion Galela became known as the PEBCO(Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation) Three. The three men disappeared from the Port Elizabeth Airport in 1985 following their abduction by apartheid-era security police. At the 1997 TRC hearings, the policemen involved described how they shot the three men then burned the bodies on a diesel-soaked pyre before they dumped the ashes in the nearby Fish River.

10. David Webster was an academic activist and a founder member of the Five Freedoms Forum and UDF Comrade. He died from police assassination by shotgun blasts at his home in Johannesburg. Following the first democratic elections in 1994, his killer received two life-term sentences for multiple crimes in 1998.

11. This is a Soweto mural of Ruth First, killed in Mocambique by a SA police parcel bomb in 1982. She cherished non-racialism and non-sexism; for her beliefs and activities, she suffered detention in isolation for 117 days under the 90 Day DetentIon ACT in 1963 following which she went into exile in the UK and Tanzania. Major Craig Williamson of the SA Police, ordered her assassination.

Her activist husband, Joe Slovo, was SA Communist Party leader, African National Congress (ANC) member and MK commander who lived in exile for 27 years before returning to join the Mandela government.

12-13. In Durban, the activist lawyer Victoria Mxenge represented many in political cases. In 1985 she spoke at the funeral of the Cradock four (see 3-6 above) attended by over 50,000 people; a few weeks later she was hacked to death on her driveway in front of her children. Her lawyer husband, Griffiths Mxenge, had four years earlier also been assassinated by the infamous Vlakplaas police death squad agents who beat him to death with a hammer, slit his throat and stabbed him 45 times.

14. Bheki Mlangeni, was a human rights attorney blown up by a rigged Walkman tape player in 1991. It seems the bomb was intended for Security Police Captain Dirk Coetzee after he had exposed the Vlakplaas-based death squad unit. Mlangeni had been in contact with Coetsee while investigating the government's hit squads even as the State negotiated with the ANC regarding future SA democracy.

15. Ashley Kriel was a 20-year-old student activist, apparently shot dead while handcuffed by security police in 1987. He was part of an MK operative, the Bonteheuwel Military Wing (BMW) which for two years took on the South African Police and SA Defence Force troops in the Cape Town township with their home-made guns and petrol bombs. Over 20 of them eventually faced 300 counts of arson, sabotage and attacks on SAP member's homes and the mobile police stations set up to control the BMW. Kriel's funeral was tear gassed by police despite the presence of religious eminents like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Dr Allan Boesak and Molena Faried Essack. To the authorities, funerals were not sacrosanct (see e, 5 below).

16. Dulcie September’s high profile death resulted from her assassination in Paris in 1988. Her early activism took her through formative organisations like the Cape Peninsula Student’s Union, Teacher’s League of SA, and the Unity Movement. As a member of the revolutionary Yu Chi Chan Club her activities resulted in 5 years imprisonment for conspiracy to commit acts of sabotage together with Neville and Doris Alexander, Fikile Bam, Andreas Shipinga, Ottilie and Kenneth Abrahams and the van der Hayden siblings Lesley, Doris and Elizabeth. After her release in 1969, the State banned her for 5 years which stopped her from teaching. She went to UK as an exile in 1973. Undaunted, she joined the Anti-apartheid Movement, the International Defence and Aid Fund and the ANC Women's League. While serving as ANC chief representative in Europe, she died from five shots to the head outside her Paris office. At the time, she was investigating the prohibited arms trade with RSA. France was the leading arms supplier to the South African regime. Illegal arms sales worth multibillions of dollars involved dealers and manufacturers around the globe from the USA to the USSR and China. The chain of corruption almost certainly extended down from the South African State President and Cabinet Ministers to arms dealers big and small. ( See Apartheid Guns and Money: A tale of profit, by Hennie van Vuuren, 2019.)

17. Joe Gqabi, was a top ANC executive, detained in the 1960 State Of Emergency, who eventually spent 10 years on Robben Island from 1963. He was active in the 1976 student uprisings after which he fled to Zimbabwe where he represented the ANC. He escaped a car bombing in 1981, but a South African hit squad gunned him down a few months later in his driveway at home.

18.Phila Portia Ndwandwe, was a Durban activist MK fighter abducted from Swaziland then tortured for 10 days by apartheid forces before they shot her in the head in 1985. Police hit squad operatives eventually admitted to her burial on an Elandskop farm. In 1997, hers was the first body ever disinterred after the TRC hearings. Described as very brave, she had apparently refused to talk during her interrogation.

These cases vividly demonstrate the extremes to which the South African police/government would go to silence their critics even well beyond South Africa’s borders. So did a South African police death squad unit organise the assassination of Olav Palme, the ex-prime minister of Sweden, in 1986? As one of the country’s fiercest critics, it would be no surprise to me if they had a hand in his death.

e. Suspicious deaths

1. Albert Luthuli has a Crescent named after himself off Steve Biko Crescent. The ANC leader before Nelson Mandela died under the wheels of a train at a railway line crossing close to his home in Natal. He was the first African to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (1960) in recognition of his many failed years of nonviolent struggle against apartheid. The mystery of his death remains as a thorn in the South African government's side. Many doubt that his death was accidental. Was the South African security police involved in killing him? Of course I have my suspicions that this was indeed the case.

2. Jafta Masemola, aka The tiger of Azania, was the founder of Poqo, the armed wing of the PAC in 1961 following the banning of the PAC during the State of Emergency after the Sharpeville killings. His 27 years of Robben Island internment was the longest of any prisoner in RSA. His 1990 death in a hit and run car-vs-truck accident is still shrouded in mystery.

3. Chief Maqoma (1798-1873) was the most famous of the Xhosa chiefs to resist British occupation in Xhosaland. He spent over 12 years incarcerated on Robben Island where he died in mysterious circumstances.

Black leader’s deaths during imprisonment preceded apartheid by many decades.

4. Hintsa Ka Phalo was the king of the AmaXhosa in the Eastern Cape who led his people during the 6th Frontier war (1834-18360) which the British won. The British then annexed the area from the Keiskamma River to the Great Kei River and demanded 50,000 head of cattle from Hintsa as compensation for the war. While being transported as a prisoner, Hintsa’s shooting was in extenuating circumstances. Troops wanting grisly mementos dismembered his body. His severed head was preserved and taken to Britain.

The occupying Dutch, British and other European colonial forces had a long tradition of savagery around the world.

5-6. In 1989 Coline Williams and Robert Waterwitch apparently died from the detonation of their bomb. Their deaths are still shrouded in mystery although it seems the police who killed them blew up their bodies.

Coline, a drama student had just before her death spent nearly a year of indefinite detention in Pollsmoor Prison. Robert attended the University of the Western Cape, a leading student hotbed since the 1970s. As ANC MK operatives both students were part of Bonteheuwel township's Ashley Kriel detachment of the BMW - Bonteheuwel Military Wing. Coline, the commander of the Athlone Zone, was in control of a mission to bomb the Athlone courts. Waterwitch and William’s limpet mine bombing mission targeted the Athlone Magistrate's court, one of four planned for the night by MK as part of an anti-election bombing campaign in the region.

Police attacked and broke up their joint funeral with teargas. At least there were no deaths from the attack on 5,000 mourners as South African funerals became police killing fields during the ‘70s and ‘80s. The worst such episode resulted in 35 deaths in Langa township, Uppington in 1985. Such was the legacy of a White government which attempted to justify its policies with biblical references.

7. Tsietsi Mashini was the main student leader of the 1976 Soweto student uprising in which over 70 students died. The aftermath eventually led to the collapse of apartheid in 1994. He fled RSA and finally died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 43 in Liberia.

8. Samora Machel has a public library named after him. He was the first president of Mozambique, the former Portuguese East Africa. He died in a plane crash along with 44 others in 1986. At the time, South Africa ignored the requests for an on-site investigation and there are unanswered questions relating to the crash of the Russian aircraft which had "wandered" off course into South Africa before crashing. Relations with RSA were at a low ebb at the time with RSA supporting and financing the White colonist Renamo group which set up bases in Malawi from which its mercenaries undermined Mocambique and Machel's Frelimo government. Machel's Marxist principles were obviously a shade too red for RSA. His widow, Graça later married Nelson Mandela.

Part 3 of the blog will follow later.


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