Na'eem Jeenah
Na'eem Jeenah

Martyrs and reconciliation

Just over 14 years ago, at 5am on Monday January 17 1994, my mother was rudely woken by loud banging on the door of her tiny one-bedroom flat. She got out of bed, opened the door and was shoved aside as four policemen with R1 rifles stormed in and ransacked her home without giving her the courtesy of an explanation and without producing a search warrant.

They took a jacket and some documents. The leader of the gang of policemen, a Captain Bala Naidoo, then asked my mother to accompany him to the police station to talk to his commander. (Anyone who follows South African police news will immediately recognise the name “Bala Naidoo”, who is no longer a lowly captain.)

After being ushered into Naidoo’s car, my mother, shaken by the post-dawn intrusion, repeatedly asked him where he was taking her and why. He refused to answer. She persisted. Then, realising that my brother Mohseen had not been, as usual, sleeping in the lounge when she awoke, she asked Naidoo whether this trip had anything to do with Mohseen. He replied in the affirmative.

“Is he hurt?” she asked the policeman.

“Yes,” replied that protector of law and order.

Then, fearing the worst, she asked: “Is he dead?”

“Yes,” the heartless pig replied, proceeding to tell her that he was, in fact, taking her to the mortuary to identify her 21-year-old son’s body. When the car stopped at the next robot, she jumped out and ran the few blocks back to her flat. Thankfully, neither Naidoo nor his goons followed her. She got home, called my aunt and uncle who promised to come over immediately, and switched on the TV in an attempt to calm her nerves.

There, on the 6am news, she saw Mohseen’s body lying prone on a pavement in the middle of Durban’s CBD, an AK-47 parallel to his body, blood that had oozed from various parts of his body staining the concrete.

Mohseen had been killed, the reporter said, along with three other “terrorists”, at 1am that morning, just over three months before our first democratic election. Unusually, police admitted within 12 hours that one of the others they had killed was, in fact, not a “terrorist” but a security guard at a nearby store. The other two remain, to this day, unidentified. Their mothers did not even deserve the honour of being harangued by Bala Naidoo.

The three men (the initial police report said four) had, according to the police, attacked the Pine Street police station in Durban’s city centre. They had walked down Pine Street, at 1am, lugging AK-47s and other weapons, without raising any suspicion — this despite the fact that the police claimed they had been tipped off about the “operation” and had been stationed in unmarked cars around the police station.

Then, when the three men opened fire from across the street from the police station, the police in the unmarked cars still did nothing. They waited for one of the three to cross the four lanes of Pine Street, grenade in hand, and watched him lob the grenade into the police station — and only then did they act. The grenade man was shot dead at the door of the police station.

My brother and his other comrade, instead of running away from the police station, inexplicably crossed the road towards it in trying to make their escape. My brother’s companion was shot and killed a few metres from the entrance to the police station. Mohseen, his small, 1,5m-tall body carrying an AK-47, ran about 200m before he was finally apprehended. This was the police version of the story.

My brother’s body, when I saw it at the morgue, was unrecognisable. His face and other parts of his body were swollen; both his legs had been torn to shreds by high-velocity bullets; his chest had been punctured by a bullet that had lodged in his lung. In addition, a neat wound at the back of his neck indicated where the pistol bullet that likely ended his life had entered, to lodge in his brain.

The police version just sounded wrong, for many reasons:

  • that they did not intercept three (or four) men walking towards the police station with automatic rifles — despite knowing such an operation was to take place;
  • that my brother could outrun a whole gang of policemen for 200m, carrying a weapon larger than he;
  • that trained soldiers (for that is what police said the three men were) would be as foolish to behave as they did;
  • that they would, before undertaking an operation such as this, first take time off to paint slogans on the wall of the building next to the police station, as police claimed;
  • that police would watch this happening and not do anything;
  • that trained soldiers would not know the formulation of the slogans of their own organisation (who would spray paint “APLA live long” instead of the more familiar “Long live APLA, long live”?); and
  • that there was not a single bullet lodged in the wall around the entrance or on the wall in front of the police station and no bullet holes in its glass doors.
  • Of course, conspiracy theories abounded. Not being one who cares much for such theories, I ignored them. Mohseen’s journalism mentor at the Sunday Tribune, for example, believed that he had been on the scene because he had received a tip-off of a story he could cover.

    Why else, he asked, would his reporter’s notebook be missing from home? It was a set-up by military intelligence, he said, because Mohseen had been unravelling the truth about a self-proclaimed Apla commander in Natal who had vowed that the province would “swim in blood” come the elections but who was actually a military intelligence operative.

    The conspiracy theories were also mentioned when hundreds of students gathered at a memorial meeting at the ML Sultan Technikon where Mohseen had been a student, the general secretary of the student representatives’ council and a leader of the Pan African Students’ Organisation (Paso).

    The students serenaded my mother with the (real) national anthem and with a host of revolutionary songs in an atmosphere that made us all understand the respect he had commanded as a student leader.

    The reason I tell this story is not because it is unique. I tell it precisely because it is not unique. Many black (and a few white) South African mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters shared similar experiences. Many were unfortunate enough not to have their loved one’s bodies returned to them.

    Of course I tell this story for very personal reasons. But, more importantly, I tell it because I become sickened when I listen to some people — like some who comment to this blog site — constantly whining (and I use this well-used word advisedly) about the lack of reconciliation in our country.

    Black people from families that have suffered much more than mine were gracious and generous enough to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to allow their persecutors to receive amnesty. They expected only to know the truth. And, of course, the TRC processes never considered the pervasive, overburdening, daily grind of human rights abuses visited upon black people through myriad apartheid laws and their creatures — from the homelands and the inhumanity of the forced removals to the denial of other basic human rights and the deliberate de-education of most black people.

    For many white people, the TRC was very useful as a truth and forgetting commission: “Let the blacks cry their hearts out and, when they are done, we can forget about all this apartheid stuff and move on with our lives.”

    And so it has been. White people still own close to 90% of the wealth of this country. Black people, by and large, still live in squalor and misery. What reconciliation when millions of black people have no hope of decent employment, healthcare, housing, sanitation, water or education — after sacrificing their all in the struggle for justice? What reconciliation when the Bala Naidoos of this country continue to repress and persecute our people when they try to exercise their constitutional rights legitimately?

    Having had their land, their wealth and their dignity stolen, what more can black people expect to sacrifice on the altar of reconciliation? What do we have left? (We have even given up our national anthem for the sake of “reconciliation”.) Our minds? Our capacity to think and be critical? Sometimes it seems that that is what is expected. Sorry, not for sale — not even for the sake of “reconciliation”.

    It is amazing how the struggles and deaths of black activists under apartheid have been appropriated and either skilfully marshalled or distorted in order to justify various narratives and causes:

  • Right-wingers point to our actions during the struggle and quietly whisper (and sometimes not so quietly) about how these uncivilised/uneducated blacks can never rule this country — look at what a mess they are making of the electricity situation, a mess we never had in the good old days.
  • Those Black people who now so desperately want to live peacefully (and reconciled) with the perpetrators of apartheid and imperialism (so that they can share in the spoils of both) that they won’t rock the boat with tales of and claims from the past — such tales and claims are, after all, not good for business.
  • Some Zionists who have suddenly decided that the South African struggle is a good example of peaceful resistance from which those barbaric Palestinians should learn. We are lectured by young Zionist students who were not even born when my brother was brutally murdered, telling us what the South African struggle was about and how it was fought. The Palestinians should learn from South Africa, they say; they should struggle and resist non-violently and peacefully.
  • We were not peaceful; our struggle was not peaceful! We fought hard, we lost much and we offered up many martyrs in order that we might liberate the people of this country — both black and white. In fact, there are acts of violence in our struggle that many of us opposed when they took place, and oppose even today. Yet, we have to admit (and confront the truth) that acts such as the Pretoria car bombing and the ‘Toti bombings were part of our struggle, that the heat of the burning tyre around the neck of yet another alleged collaborator was even glorified by some leaders of our struggle. And now young whites want to teach us what our struggle was like? Can we not have ownership of even our own history?

    The struggle is not over. No matter how much “reconciliation” takes place, it will not be over until the people of this country live in justice and equity, until the most poverty-stricken are able to see the fruits of their struggles in the daily material improvement of their lives. A long way to go yet. The battlefield might look different, but the battles rage on. Democracy serves capital today just as apartheid did yesterday. And as long as capital is able to thrive on the backs of the poor and the working class, there is a long road yet to be trodden.

    As a postscript, I should note that, four days after my brother’s murder, my mother instructed us not ever to buy the Weekly Mail. (I think she might have changed her mind more recently with the change of editors.)

    The WM, that week, ran a front-page story about my brother’s death. Headlined “An Apla bittereinder meets his end” with the same picture of my brother that my mother saw on TV, the article simply regurgitated the police version of events. No one from my family was approached for comment; no PAC or Apla person was contacted for verification. Not even two of the paper’s local reporters — who knew my brother well — had been asked about the story. And, when one of them wrote a follow-up piece a week later, it was edited to remove the most pointed questions about the veracity of the police version.

    Worse, the WM now printed an article by my brother that it had rejected a few weeks earlier. How does a mother feel when her son is insulted and then his property is stolen after his death so that he can be insulted even further? I have, long ago, ended my boycott of the M&G; there comes a time when one decides to reconcile with some people, at least. But one does not forget such things easily.

    Fortunately, not all of us bittereinders were killed before April 1994. Some of us are still around; yearning for real reconciliation, for true peace, which is based on truth, justice, equality and restoration, and hoping that all our people will share in the riches of this wealthy nation.

    • http://dionysusstoned.red.m2014.net/ dionysusstoned

      na’eem, this is a great post.

      I suspect many will not enjoy it…but it is great post nonetheless. thank you.

    • Jon

      You can keep clinging to your version of events. Just let other cling to theirs.

    • Vapour

      Na’eem great article. My thoughts go out to you and your family and the hundreds of others who suffered the loss of their loved ones during those times.

      It’s crazy to think that if one compares those times when this country was at war, against the past thirteen years of the new South Africa, that more people have died violently during our time of peace than ever died fighting on either side of the struggle during the dark times.
      I mean the world is concerned with the grave situation in Kenya where violence has claimed 2000 lives. Kofi, Tutu et al are there to calm things down. How come no one is doing anything in SA when we have lost over 300,000 (three hundred thousand) to murder over the past 13 years?
      Yes perhaps the struggle continues, that would make sense as what I have seen can only be described as either insanity or undeclared war.

    • http://thoughtleader.co.za/llewellynkriel Llewellyn Kriel

      I would find it almost impossible not harbour deep resentment. Even if I know I am not good with forgiveness, for, in too many cases in my limited experience, a deliberate act cannot – should not – be forgiven. I too know Bala and share your feelings. There are still too many like him – on both sides of the ideological chasm.

      In my experience, actions are prompted at a primal level based on ingrained attitudes and enculturated behaviours. Although this suggests perpetrators cannot help themselves, it is not genetic (as some neurobiologists suggest – the Double-Y Chromosome Theory) but neither is it purely a spontaneous reaction (hence “battle fatigue”, desensitisation and moral collapse). A profound belief that you are RIGHT contributes much, Na’eem.

      That’s why I had and still have a serious problem with the TRC. I don’t believe it brought about reconciliation at all. Except in isolated cases where the individuals concerned had a predisposition to forgive. The biggest problem of course is that we are not being allowed to forget. And if that’s the case, what good comes of the process of so-called “putting it behind us”.

      Also what I have come to know of the ubuntu idea is that a simple theatrical demonstration of remorse or even just saying sorry is good enough for absolution. That just trivialises the “crime”, denigrates the victim/s and clears the way for greater horrors. It starts by saying sorry for killing your brother and ends in The Hague by way of Rwanda or the fun-filled world of Charles Taylor, Idi Amin or, dare I say it, Bob Mugabe.

    • Tlanch Tau

      Firstly this is a very sad but true version of what the black South Africans had to live with and we still live with it. We have lost brothers, sisters, cousins etc in this manner and in our struggle for democrazy yet, today 13 years on we are still poor, they control 90% plus of the economy yet they only make up less of that. If you want stats you can look at every office park in SA, blacks make only a small percentage and a big percentage of that small black percentage are cleaners, delivery guys etc, and that is thanks to the Education system that was stragegically given to those people.

      And please guys like Jon need not respond to this if they have nothing to say. It just shows how a lot of them still hate a black person and they can’t even hide it. It’s sad and scary actually.

      @ Vapour- I just love the way your turned this around. You guys are like flippin jackals in a sheep skin yet you can’t even hide yourselves within the sheep skin.

      @Naeem- At least your family knows what happened to your brother and had a chance to bury him, A hell lot of our freedom fighters where dumped deep in the ocean, fed to lions and god knows what. I know it’s not easy to just forgive and forget especially if the perpetrators are not sorry about it and they feel no shame, as they felt it was the right thing to do.

      And I just love the way a bunch of them are in denial or refuse to acknowledge what they did, not a single one of them can say they are sorry about it. I am going to stop typing this now as I am getting upset.

    • posley

      Thanks for such and honest post. It’s amazing how quickly people forget what it took for South Africa to get here. Some people were left fatherless just so they can have a decent life and education in this country. In their own country nogal. Let us forgive but not forget what some decent and cultured white people are capable of.

    • posley

      vapour

      You are trying to compare a social problem with Apartheid. Why do you, people always try to avoid the truth?? whenever an honest post is written about apartheid you always try to say something about what the black government is doing.
      I am sure there are plenty of post’s on thoughtleader where you can raise this observation and your numbers. and this is not that post.

      why is it so hard to own up to your mistakes??

    • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/ebrahimkhalilhassen Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

      @ Na’eem -Thanks for this article, and for sharing. I hope more people write up these personal histories, because we must remember, to know where we are today.

    • Jon

      I wonder if the families of the several unarmed and at-prayer APLA victims of the Kenilworth church murders are still as angry with those of the violent ilk of your gun-toting brother and his mates? Or the families of the Heidelberg Tavern victims.

      Must they just get over it and move on, Na’eem?

      If you play with fire, you’ll get burnt.

    • Owen

      @Na’eem, firstly my sympathies, secondly my way of rationalising pre 1994 and thirdly to try to show why we are not making progress post 1994.

      2. So was your brother APLA or PAC? I could not figure it out from your post.

      If he was a neutral reporter then all the more reason to still be upset and surely it is worth pursuing from a criminal point of view.

      If he was APLA or PAC then he was at war and if one wages war on another then one must accept the rules (or lack thereof) of the game. (ie kill or be killed, truth distorted by both sides to suit their propaganda, etc)(There is no such thing as a clean and fair war).

      I fought to prevent communism in SA, I never voted Nat. I never killed or physically hurt anyone. I really don’t believe I have to apologies for that, just as I don’t expect any APLA or MK member to apologies either. We were at war. ‘To the victor the spoils to the loser maybe his life’. I have given up my corporate position to an indian and now black guy, hopefully I can keep my life.

      3. I am troubled by some comments that still reflect a we / them thinking. That indicates that the war has not ended which then means that some people are not of their word. In 1994 all agreed to a new way forward, all should now stand by their word otherwise we as a country are doomed.

      I also don’t like our anthem as it is a reminder of our divded past. Our flag was a fresh new start, we should have an anthem that reflects our flag.

      I am sorry to say this but the reason why whites still control the economy is 2 fold. The failure of the ANC government to redistribute land at a good pace. The failure of the ANC government to have a meaningful BEE program where whole communities benefit from share options and not just a select few. After 14 years it is not whites who have failed blacks but a government who has failed its people.

      Would you give away your wealth if you did not have to? No, so the government has to force the issue and it is not doing it at a good pace. Don’t blame whites, look to the government for answers and if they cannot supply answers, vote someone else in. (Maybe that is what happened in Polokwane.)

    • Icarus

      Worse outrages are committed by ‘civilization’ daily, right now, in various parts of the world. Which doesn’t diminish the outrage you detail.

      The modern ways of the world guarantee the perpetuity of outrageous actions by government agencies against society.

      Doesn’t really matter which ideology is in power, these days: irrational, brutal force is quickest way to achieve a result. As happened in the EC recently to protesting residents – a different constitution, same result: might is right

      And all nations’ ‘leaders’, when their incompetence is threatened by exposure, end up choosing the most degenerate option: irrational force.

      The writing is on the wall of everyones TV screens, despite the cheap and nasty propaganda that accompanies every message delivered by any government…

      Mistakes will be swept under the carpet, transgressions in any area by individuals will be overlooked. Critics will not be tolerated.

      Welcome to ‘democracy’ 21st Century style.

    • vapour

      @posley what are you talking about? Do you seriously simply want “categorize” the murder of three hundred thousand of our citizens as a social ill? And stop with your ranting on about us and them. The failure is everyone’s to enjoy.

    • vapour

      @Tlanch Tau firstly I resent your accusation that I have tried to turn anything around. The point is if more brothers and sisters are dying after 1994 then something is chronically wrong or are you blinded by your hatred for anything other than yourself, your history and aspirations? You don’t have to think back to experience any horror, you simply have to just open your eyes and mind to what is happening in this present time. And by the way its black citizens who are being murdered in their thousands. Which begs the question, what exactly is it that we have created?

    • studentnow

      Naeem, sorry for your loss, especially at this time. As a student, personal accounts really resonate.

    • Tlanch Tau

      @Vapour.

      What did your comment have to do with this post in the first place? That’s what I was talking about when i said that if you don’t have anything decent to say to Jeenah or about his blog then, please just read like most people and move on. No need to comment on what is not related to this.

      We can’t keep comparing CRIME( A Social Problem) with the intended targeting and killing of a part of a society based on Apartheid Agenda’s. It would make sense if this so called crime targeted at the white society like a lot of your websites are saying was committed by some organised black force or something. Then you will have a good thing to complain about.

      Crime is commited by greedy criminals and it has nothing to do with this post. Stop flippin comparing this with crime. It’s just an insult, please!!!

    • http://ctscribbler.blog247.co.za Odette

      @ Na’eem

      Thank you for sharing your story. I think that more people should share their personal stories.

      I have long thought that too many people gloss over the incredible spirit of forgiveness displayed by black people post-Apartheid. I don’t think many people realise just what that forgiveness is worth.

      As for the national anthem, it galls me to hear the cobbled-together version we are saddled with. As far as I’m concerned, Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika is our anthem and even if I try, I can’t bring myself to sing that other one.

    • http://www.bilalsblog.blogspot.com Bilal Randeree

      Na’eem- thanks for this.
      A lot of us have forgotten (and a lot knew not and still don’t know) what happened in the past, the ultimate price paid by some- surely, if we remembered (or knew) or actions, words and efforts would be very different today…

    • Sandra

      I hate to say this but these memories must never die. We need to keep reminding each other and our kids. It’s so hard bringing up white children who say to you “But what did the old government do that was so bad?”. If we could just put them inside our heads to relive the memories they would understand. As you pointed out – who are these young people who want to tell us what the struggle was all about – when we can see that they were not even born yet

    • Sandra

      Where? What? I am not aware of 300 000 black people being murdered in the past 13 years. Is this true? I live in the same country as everybody else here I think – but we don’t have electricity problems, I mean not any more than we had all along – and we don’t have burglar bars or security gates or any forms of false security – the only crime we have is things being pinched out your yard cos you never put them away and pick-pockets in the shopping district. Having left Jozi behind some 6 years ago I now feel I shall never leave Qwaqwa again – you people are scaring me!

    • vapour

      @ Tlanch Tau the fact is that people gave up their lives, as did Na’eem’s brother for a better society. They fought a violent and unscrupulous enemy. The majority of those being murdered are blacks not whites. And all of the murdered are victims of an atrocity that is unbelievably violent. And what websites are you referring to. Why is the truth so offensive?

      @Sandra are you saying that you are not aware of the 20 thousand plus murders a year over the past thirteen years?

    • goolam_d

      From some of the comments, you’d think that whites are suffering some grotesque humiliation in South Africa at the hands the “victors” but its being covered up under the farce of social justice. Social justice must be a real big farce and the humiliation and injustice of apartheid just a simple matter of reverse affirmative action.

      Anyway, its easier to put a bullet in, then it is to take it out. So our government (ours, black and white) needs the functional help of a developed civil society to facilitate the development of the SouthAfrican Nation. Its up to everyone to take off our colour sensitive eyes and start pursuing the greater goals that we all so openly claim to cherish.

    • brent

      Like the TRC, personal stories are powerful and must not fade into the past as faded manuscripts. I was an aware liberal White S. African who travelled a lot so cannot plead ignorance but was truely shattered by the relevations of the TRC.

      To Na’eem and all the other fellow S. Africans who suffered how do we move forward and build a better country based on knowing and not forgetting the sins of the past?
      One of the ways is to take delivery and transformation very very seriously, Government and everyone else. While Billions of Rand, generated by the skewed capitalist system, go yearly unspent it does not assist the poor and workless to attack the rich and powerful, better to incorporate them vigerously into transformation and redistribution assisting the State do do this vital and necessary work.
      The best thing Govt can do is eduacte all, young and old, as Mandela said once educated no one can take that away from you. I would make disruption of any education a capital crime and pour Billions into the whole system plus have a Vice President whos sole mandate is the whole education system. I have studied S. Korea and at the end of their war the literacy rate was less than 30% plus the country was a huge mess. The Government, under the US protection, made education for all a national priority borrowing Billions of dollars and within a generation the literacy rate was over 95%. When i visited the country frequently in the 80’s it was an economic success but still owed Billions that was borrowed for its education policy, which was successful.
      So suggest; dont get mad, or even even but get successful and the route is education for all – NOW.
      Students were the catalyst of Apartheid falling (1976) so lets honour these heros and bequeth educated independance for all as a lasting and meaningful rememberance.

    • Haneef

      Hello Na’eem. I hope that people reading your post will understand the evils of injustice and understand what drives you and many other South Africans.

      In the early 1960’s, my aunt, then around 6 years had accidentally swallowed someone’s heart medication. As she lay unconscious, with her life slowly fading away, my grandfather had to act fast to get her to a hospital. They lived in Brits, so the nearest ‘non-white’ facility was over an hour away. If there was any hope of her surviving, my grandfather had no choice but to break the law and take her to the nearby ‘whites-only’ facility.
      At the hospital, the doctors and nurses all raised their hand and said that she cannot be admitted to the hospital because of the colour of her skin. My grandfather left his dying child’s body on the counter and told them that he was leaving the child’s life in their hands. To this day, I still try and imagine what was going through his mind. Apartheid was truly evil. He was fortunate that the doctors eventually came to their senses and treated my aunt. Many others were not.

      I am a young father of two children and know that I would never want to experience what my grandfather had to go through. Nobody in the world should have to experience such evil. Yet they still do in many parts of the world.

      As evil as apartheid was against out forefathers, I have heard that Palestinian fathers cannot even get their sick children through Israeli checkpoints, let alone to hospitals. My wife and mother have witnessed it firsthand on different occasions.

      If I do nothing, say nothing or even think nothing about these and other injustices, then I will be nothing – merely occupying space in this world, chewing up all its resources. By being silent I will be condoning the atrocities committed against my grandfather and thousands of other apartheid victims.

    • BLACKLISTED DICTATOR /FIX THE FXI

      Na’eem,
      You write:
      “As a postscript, I should note that, four days after my brother’s murder, my mother instructed us not ever to buy the Weekly Mail. (I think she might have changed her mind more recently with the change of editors.)”

      1:Your mother was right.

      2: The current Mail and Guardian is even worse than the Weekly Mail.

    • BLACKLISTED DICTATOR

      Na’eem,

      You write:
      “Some Zionists who have suddenly decided that the South African struggle is a good example of peaceful resistance from which those barbaric Palestinians should learn. We are lectured by young Zionist students who were not even born when my brother was brutally murdered, telling us what the South African struggle was about and how it was fought. The Palestinians should learn from South Africa, they say; they should struggle and resist non-violently and peacefully.”

      Is the above written from your perspective as spokesperson for The Palestine Solidarity Committee ? If it is, why don’t you make your formal allegiance to the cause clearer ?

      It seems to me that you are obsessed by “zionists”; you even have to bring them into a very sad story about your brother’s murder.