[intro]Recently people in the Klein Karoo commemorated 30 years since the ambush killing of three Bhongolethu youth. The Assistant Editor of The Journalist, Mansoor Jaffer, remembers well the funeral of those children, and the vicious pattern of state repression that followed. Some of it aimed directly at the journalists of SAAMSTAAN, a leading anti-apartheid newspaper of the time.[/intro]

Three decades ago, towards the end of July 1985, police charged the editor of the anti-apartheid community paper SAAMSTAAN, Humphrey Joseph, in terms of Section 27B of the Police Act. He was accused of spreading “untrue information about the South African police”. SAAMSTAAN had written about three Oudtshoorn boys aged 11 to 14 years who were ambushed and killed by local cops.

Recently, former activists from the area commemorated the 30th anniversary of this tragedy by sharing memories on social media. Many declared it had been a turning point in their young lives. One of the activists posted a summary of the event as outlined in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It reads as follows:

“On 17 June 1985, three children, Andile Majola, Fezile Hanse and Patrick Madikane, were shot dead at the house of a black security policeman by members of the Riot Unit. Several other youths were seriously injured but were taken into custody by police and subsequently charged with public violence. Mr Xolile Lwana was shot in the head with birdshot, leaving him permanently physically and mentally disabled.

“Police versions of the event and eyewitness accounts differ. Residents of Bongolethu argue that the shooting was essentially an ambush. Youth gathered at the house did not know there were policemen waiting in the house. One constable stated that one youth actually went into the front room of the house, but the policemen did not reveal their presence. No warnings were issued and no warning shots fired. In addition, buckshot was used as opposed to the lighter birdshot.”

“An eyewitness, Mr Mzukisi Mooi, described the event as follows: People believed Mngoma’s house was empty. Another boy with a red jersey went to the front door. “The next minute I heard a shot going off. Shots were fired continuously. I saw a little boy lying near the gate. I saw a girl crawling across the road. The next moment, policemen came out of the house. One policeman continued firing at the crowd. One of the policemen brought a holder with petrol from the house and threw it in a Fanta bottle. He then put it near the body of the one child.

Shooting Children

“The police officers said they had acted in self-defence after a crowd attacked the township house that they were guarding. One policeman testified that one of the youths had sprinkled petrol onto the carpet of the house and that another had matches on him. In order to stop him from striking the match, the policemen in charge shot the child. The other two children were shot in the process of fighting the crowd which had gathered outside the house.”

“After what became known as the ‘Bongolethu Three’ incident, the townships of Bongolethu and Bridgeton remained in a state of revolt and political upheaval until the end of the year, with mass detentions and trials continuing in 1986. All black police were driven out of the townships during this period. In 1989, the graves of the Bongolethu Three were desecrated by unknown people.”

“The commission finds that the killing of the Bhongolethu Three at Bhongolethu, Oudtshoorn amounted to an ‘ambush’ carried out on children and youth. The Commission finds the adoption of ‘Trojan Horse’ ambush tactics by the security forces to be entirely inappropriate for dealing with civilian unrest. The ambush tactic was used to lure civilians deliberately into situations which then resulted in fatalities and injuries.”

The eye witness, Mzukisi Mooi, was a Saamstaan journalist, who was also later charged, but separately from his editor, Humphrey Joseph.

The events of the day of the funeral are deeply etched into my memory. I bade farewell to Fezile, Andile and Patrick, witnessing the bullet wounds on their young bodies. That sight was to haunt me for many years to come. It was a chilly day. The faint sun brought just a hint of warmth. Deep inside we felt every bit as cold as the Southern Cape’s bleak winter landscape.

Heavily armed security forces were placed at strategic points in Oudtshoorn, monitoring proceedings.

We met in one of the avenues with Mbulelo Grootboom, another Saamstaan journalist, who was on the run. He feared arrest for the stories he had written and his broader activism in the community. We considered the possibility of arranging for him to go into exile, but he was not in favour of such an option. We spoke very briefly and before we knew it, Mbulelo walked swiftly down the side of a house and disappeared to his next place of safety.

The Cradock Four Assassination

That very day the news came that Sicelo Mhlauli, the principal of Fezekile High School in Oudtshoorn had disappeared along with three of his comrades in what was subsequently to be known as The Cradock Four case. A grim day became infinitely worse. Later that week, the mutilated body of Sicelo was discovered in Port Elizabeth. Sicelo had been a participant in the United Democratic Front in Oudtshoorn and a great supporter of the newspaper Saamstaan. He was a big man with a gentle soul and a passionate commitment to the advancement of young people.

The spiral of repression continued on its destructive path in Oudtshoorn and rest of the Southern Cape.

Following the charges brought against Humphrey Joseph and Mzukisi Mooi, virtually the entire staff of Saamstaan, including Derick Jackson, Patrick Nyuka and Makhaya Mani, were detained in terms of Section 20 of the Internal Security Act. They were also accused of contravening the State of Emergency regulations.

The paper’s chairperson, Reggie Oliphant, an icon of resistance in the region, faced endless harrassment. He spent his time in hiding, locked up, restricted or facing an array of charges.

Professor Hein Willemse of the University of Pretoria said at an address at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees earlier this year that the Saamstaan journalists were probably the most persecuted journalists in the country.

Mzukisi Mooi appeared in court a number of times for the matter related to the Bhongolethu Three. Charges were eventually withdrawn. The State proceeded with similar charges against the editor Humphrey Joseph. He was convicted and given a five year suspended sentence. The matter was overturned on appeal.

The apartheid state used an arsenal of repressive laws against journalists and the media in general.

Media Handbook

In its Handbook, The Media and The Law, The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) states that the democratic government has made good progress in repealing the “plethora of apartheid censorship laws”, but points out that “several still remain on the statute books, such as the National Key Points Act. See link to the Handbook in the adjacent Sidebar.

“The legislature has passed laws which have serious implications for the media and the draft Films and Publications Amendment Bill is a cause of great concern for the media in general, from small community media to the SABC,” said the FXI.

The Police Act was scrapped and replaced with a new law in 1996. The danger that the new law potentially holds for the media is a discussion for another time.

But back to Saamstaan. Last year, Mbulelo Grootboom passed away following a long illness. A commemoration service was held a few days before his funeral. Seated in a row towards the back of the hall was an old man with a walking stick, accompanied by his wife. One or two of the 80s activists spotted the big man sitting in the audience and described him as a mere shadow of his former, fearsome self.

Richard Ngoma had come to pay his final respects to Grootboom. He sat in silence, staring ahead of him and at times mouthed the words of one or two of the hymns.

It was a time when cruelty and injustice abounded, everywhere. But in rural towns like Oudtshoorn the state violence was tougher than in other places. And, in a small town, there are few places to hide. But SAAMSTAAN would often put the more affluent city papers to shame when it came to standing up against injustice.