issue 159 - May 1986
Murder in our name
Noel and Helen Hamlyn are ordinary English-speaking South
Africans. All that sets them apart is that their son Michael was killed
by the Government. They spoke to Stovin Hayter about their
struggle to come to terms with the way their son died.
MICHAEL Hamlyn was shot dead by South African soldiers, along with at least 11 others, on the morning of June 14, 1985 in what has come to be called the 'Gaborone raid'.
As Noel Hamlyn tells of his visit to his son's home in Gaborone, Botswana, and describes the methodical violence of his son's death the words come fast, each with its little burden of rage.
'As we approached Michael's house I thought the front part was two little out-houses. In fact it was a whole house with the middle blown out.'
Six or seven bullets had been fired through the lock of every door at a slight downward angle, making a pattern of holes on the opposite wall. The doors had been kicked open and a second person, carrying a shotgun, had stepped inside and killed anyone they could see.
'Michael's door had been kicked in half, making a stable door. Michael was on his haunches, or on hands and knees, at the foot of his bed when they shot him.
'Achmed Geer, who was sharing Michael's house, was shot near the telephone. His blood is on the wall, above waist height. In Michael's room there is only one patch of blood, below the level of the bed. He must have been that low when he was shot. The guy actually fired two shots. One set fire to the bedclothes. There is a big black mark on the wall.
'They executed Michael. They went there to get him and they got him.'
Occasionally Noel Hamlyn shakes his head for several seconds, as if trying to jog from view the vision of his son's death. At other times he gets up, walks out to the balcony, performs some small domestic task. He is a man used to being in control,
His wife Helen sits off to one side, but breaks in forcefully when she feels her views are not being represented fully, or with the right nuance. What adds to the horror, for her, is that most of the people she knows think her son deserved the way he died, that they will not question the official reasons given for his death.
Noel and Helen Hamlyn visited their son in Gaborone some time after his disappearance from university in Durban. They pleaded with their son but could not persuade him to return 'home'. They met a few of his friends, including Jeannette and Marius Schoon and their two children. It was only some months later that the Hamlyns learned that the Schoons were wanted for ANC activities in South Africa.
Michael's life, and that of the group of radical South Africans he moved with in Gaborone, was accompanied by a constant low-key paranoia about surveillance. There was always an awareness that their phones might be bugged, or that someone might be watching them.
Some time after his return from visiting his son, Noel Hamlyn was approached by a man who said he was from the special branch, wanting a statement about Michael.
'He said he had reason to believe my son was a member of the ANC. But I had asked Michael to his face whether he was a member, or an activist, or fancied himself an activist in the future, and his answers were no.
At a press conference in Pretoria after the raid the South African security police described Michael Hamlyn as a computer expert involved in intelligence and in housing ANC members in Gaborone.
Achmat Dangor, UDF-supporter and novelist, author of Waiting for Leila.
'Make no mistake, the emotional and philosophical support for the ANC is deep, and it is widespread. And it is in the open. People openly display its symbols and is flag, publicly sing songs in praise of its leadership. If there is any arrangement for change in South Africa that excludes the ANC then the people, largely, will not accept it.
'But acceptance of the ANC will not be blind and unquestioning. There have been too many ideas and ideals forged in blood and fire for this to happen. Perhaps this is a good thing for South Africa and for any order this country may choose for its future - the willingness and the right to dissent is all to often missing in the new political orders of the Third World. If, however, dissent is not to become a recipe for future conflict, then we must begin in earnest the tradition of democratic debate to develop a tolerance for divergence.'
Saths Cooper, president of AZAPO and Convenor of the National Forum.
'There has been the misconception internationally that there is only one movement that represents the interests of blacks. This false impression has actually done much to further sectarianism and create a civil war mentally. We would never dream of even suggesting to people in the UK that unless they support the Labour Party we would show no solidarity with them. This attitude from many in the West is really another from of colonialism and must come to an end, NOW..'
In spite of the official version, the Hamlyns are convinced their son could not have been collecting intelligence for the ANC or housing and passing grenade throwers. They offer reasons - he was too busy studying, he was too conspicuous, everyone would have known, he did not even occupy his own house...
'He would have loved to see a change in the regime in South Africa. He believed in Marxist-Leninism and associated with extremely left-wing people, but we don't for a moment believe he was planning or aiding insurrection in South Africa.'
Helen Hamlyn believes that some day, somehow, something will come to light which will show up holes in the official accusations. Something should be done to right the wrong she believes has been done to her son. People should be made to recognise it.
Her husband is less optimistic, but still feels he must fight back, somehow.
'Something must be done to stop them or they'll do it again.'
At first thoughts of revenge crowded his mind.
'Then I realised that the man who wielded the shotgun was just like the shotgun itself, a tool in the hands of a war machine run out of control. Revenge doesn't make sense anymore. I've got over that.'
He tells of a letter he wrote to a newspaper, which was not printed.
'I wanted people to get a picture of Michael as a young man, thin, paleskinned, probably in a T-shirt and a pair of underpants, quivering on the floor, and a man with a shotgun standing there, blasting him all over the wall.
'But it would frighten people so much their minds would reject it. They don't want to know they were party to that kind of crime.'
The Hamlyns are average English-speaking South Africans in every way, except that their son ended up on the 'wrong' side. For them the political implications of their son's death are inescapable and full of irony.
'What is appalling is that Helen and I are conscious that this was done in our name. They killed our son in our name. The blacks who were shot at least realised that we were the enemy.'
Again and again the conversation comes back, implicitly, to the 'liberal dilemma' - the failing attempts of some white South Africans, appalled at the system they live under and benefit from, to find some solution they can live with, to expunge the guilt of generations.
'I just cannot understand how whites in this country can pretend they are right. We're just a few people but we're hanging on by our teeth. What difference would it make if we were all to go?
'I realise what might happen to me. I'm South African. I'm white. I stand to lose my possessions, my life. But I still cannot join people who can only achieve freedom by throwing bombs, and I'm certain Michael would have felt the same. I would rather lie down and die than be a part of that. Innocent people are being killed, people who don't want to take sides but who are being forced to.
'We're standing in the middle. We don't want to be involved in this war and yet here it is.'
At first the Hamlyns wanted nothing to do with the public funeral in Gaborone. For a week they tried to have the body brought back to South Africa, to arrange a private funeral. But the plans kept falling through and eventually they decided to go. And the funeral ended up changing their own view of their son.
'Three and a half years ago Helen and I decided Michael would never be the kind of son who would make us happy in a way we could understand. We thought we had given up on him, that we were reconciled to the worst possible news. But when it happened... it was a nightmare.
'Some of the other parents at the funeral wailed and cried. They showed their grief very publicly, and I found myself doing the same. I broke down every few minutes. The friendliness and kindness of everybody just floored us.'
One of Michael's professors at the University of Botswana told the Hamlyns that when his marks had been announced in the University senate a few days before his death, the senate had clapped. He was one of the brightest students the University had ever had.
'So many people came forward - black students, white students, neighbours, friends, teachers - to say how much they thought of Michael. It threw us. I feel differently about Michael than I did before.
'He was buried with all honour among friends. The other things tend to fall away.
'At the graveside I realised that I had never felt more relaxed among black people, so at home, so accepted. Thousands of people turned out for the funeral. It made it right. Michael's gone home.'
Stovin Hayter is a freelance journalist working in Durban. Reprinted with the kind permission of Frontline magazine.