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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.