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South Africa
Human Rights

The Trojan horse

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission reaches the end of its mandate to examine the ugly face of apartheid in July 1998. Beth Lyons sat in on its hearings in May 1997.

Hundreds of sets of eyes - of parents, schoolchildren, press, international observers - are riveted on a video screen. They are in a hall at the Athlone Technical College, outside Cape Town, South Africa.

On the screen, non-uniformed police officers suddenly jump out of crates in the back of an unmarked truck. The men, armed with rifles, fire shots down a narrow residential street at children coming home from school.

This was the 'Trojan Horse' incident of October 1985 - so called because of similarities to the mythical events in Troy when attacking Greek soldiers were concealed in a wooden horse.

Athlone, a coloured township outside Cape Town, had been a site of community resistance to apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s. In August 1985, 8,000 people marched to nearby Pollsmoor Prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. Police clashed with demonstrators. Over the next two months, police violence resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people. Countless others were injured and there were more than 300 arrests. A State of Emergency had been declared 11 days before the Trojan Horse incident.

On that day, three youths - Michael Miranda (aged 11), Shaun Magmoed (aged 16) and Jonathan Classen (age 21) - were killed and scores were injured. The children were allegedly throwing stones at the police, who testified they had feared for their safety. They said they had been ordered to arrest, not kill.

The audience watching the video of the events more than ten years later is taking part in the public hearings of
the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The hall they are sitting in is just a block or two from the incident on the screen.

I am standing next to a young reporter in his thirties. He bursts into tears as the video starts. Then 22 years old, he was in Athlone that day in 1985 with the schoolchildren. 'It could have been me', he keeps saying.

A twelve-year-old student - just born when the attack occurred - perceptively points out that there was no room on the truck to put the children whom the police were supposedly going to arrest. And the police team was equipped with ammunition that could kill if fired at close range.

* 1,750 children under the age of 18 died in political violence between 1960 and 1989.

* Between 1990 and 1994, another 517 children lost their lives.

* Of an estimated 80,000 people detained without trial under apartheid, about 20,000 or 25 per cent were children. At least a quarter of them were tortured while in detention.

Statistics submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the Human Rights Committee, formerly the Detainees' Parents Support Group.

Seven of the police officers in the video are sitting on the stage, looking smug, with no trace of emotion on their faces. They have been subpoenaed to appear. As the Commissioners grill them, the still-angry but disciplined spectators listen to the police responses and mouth the word 'liar' to each other. 'Where are the stones?' they ask in disbelief.

Ten years ago, I am told, this crowd would have wanted to lynch the police officers who murdered their children. But today, this hall is a safe haven. The officers' safety is guaranteed by the community's commitment to a process of building the new democratic South Africa, motivated by ubuntu (which, in the words of Commission Chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is the 'essence of being human').

The audience includes relatives and friends of the dead and injured children. They testified on the first day of the hearings, recounting the unspeakable horrors they had witnessed and watched loved ones endure.

As I listened, I was repeatedly horrified not only by the abuses described but by the 'ordinariness' and ubiquity of murder, torture, detention and harassment in the daily lives of the majority of South Africans under apartheid.

Indelible in my memory is Mrs Zainab Ryklief's description of opening her home as a shelter for the fearful schoolchildren, running from police. Police pursued the children into her bedroom, shooting. Her bed was full of the children's blood, including that of the dying Shaun Magmoed. Afterwards, she asked her husband to buy a new bed because she could no longer sleep on it.

The focus here is on the 'victims'. But when you listen to witnesses reliving what happened as they tell their stories, they seem rather to be heroes and heroines, the survivors of apartheid.

There have been scores of public hearings of the Commission throughout the country since its inception in April 1996. It was created by an Act of Parliament in order to investigate human-rights violations during the years 1960-94; to restore dignity to the victims through public hearings; to grant amnesty to perpetrators in exchange for full disclosure of the truth - and to recommend to President Mandela reparations for the victims and ways of preventing the abuse of human rights in the future.

Public amnesty hearings take place when gross human-rights violations have occurred; for example the murders of Chris Hani, Steve Biko and countless others. Victims or most often their families are permitted to cross-examine the perpetrators. When amnesty is granted, the perpetrator is immune from civil and criminal liability. The amnesty hearings are not trials. They do not mete out punishment, nor do they transform the truths revealed into justice.

But no officer testifying at the Trojan Horse hearings had applied for amnesty. They were obviously convinced of their innocence, perhaps buttressed by the refusal in the late 1980s of the Attorney-General of the Cape to prosecute the Trojan Horse task force. At a prior inquest in February 1989, the magistrate found the task force negligent and held that they caused the three deaths. The Magmoed and Miranda families then launched the first private
prosecution in South African history but were unsuccessful.

These legal failures to win justice and to punish the police made many witnesses reluctant to go through yet another proceeding. The Commission had to persuade many to come forward to testify.

The community's scepticism about the outcome of the Commission's endeavours is still strong. It is epitomized by Mrs Amina Abrahams, whose sons Toyer and Ashraf were shot and injured by police. Asked by a Commissioner after giving her testimony if she had any questions, she replied: 'Do you think these police who murdered our children could protect this current generation? How can a police
officer who shot a six-year-old protect our children?'

This query targets what is on the minds of many. It is the pivotal question
enveloping the whole Commission. Can the revelations and knowledge of the truth help transform, train and re-educate people so that these abuses will not recur in the future? How can truth contribute to building a truly just society?

Openly confronting the past is only one step towards reconciliation. Most often, it is the victims who are willing to reconcile. People like Babalwa Mhlawuli, aged 19. Her father Sicelo was abducted and murdered by police, and at the hearings in East London she said imploringly: 'I want to forgive, but I do not know who to forgive.'

But reconciliation is a two-way street. It is the perpetrators, many of whom are
still in positions of authority, who must accept responsibility for their actions. Reconciliation must be based on economic justice for the majority of South Africans.

The Commission, televized nightly, is changing the political landscape of South Africa. Not just for the more than 14,000 'victims' who have given statements, or the 8,000 perpetrators who have applied for amnesty, but for the rest of the country.

Riefaat Hattas is a former student leader who was detained and tortured by the security police in the 1980s. He was forced to watch his comrades being beaten. Today, still traumatized, in treatment and unable to work, his words ring out loudly at the Children's and Youth hearings immediately following those of the Trojan Horse. His testimony is repeatedly halted by his tears: 'Sometimes I lie awake at night and wish I could have been born again to live a normal life. The National Party should take responsibility for destroying and ruining our lives.' He ends with a plea to the children present: 'Make the most of your normal lives. You owe it to us.'

Among those applauding is Tasneem Parkar, a pupil at nearby Habibia Primary School, whose class is attending the hearings with Moehreeg Abader, their teacher. She looks at me earnestly and says: 'If I had the chance to ask those police one question it would be: "How can you go on with your lives and have your family respect you when you have taken another child's life? What if it were your child?" I hope that in the new South Africa something like this will never happen again.'

Beth Lyons is an activist and lawyer, currently an alternate representative to the UN for the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.



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New Internationalist issue 298 magazine cover This article is from the January 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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