Getting her breath back

2011-03-02 00:00

SHE looks at me intently, piercingly. “What is your automatic reaction when you are listening very attentively?”

She waits with the intensity of a cocked rifle, then leans forward. “You stop breathing.”

Shirley Gunn (55) lights a Camel Light. “If I didn’t breathe, my son, Haroon, didn’t breathe either. For years we literally did not breathe.”

Even now Gunn leaps suddenly out of her chair when she hears a car alarm going off.

She did, after all, live in the shadow of death for about 10 years.

We are sitting in a rundown building in Kenilworth, in the offices of the Human Rights Media Centre (HRMC), of which she is the executive director. She founded this non-profit organisation 10 years ago to give quieter storytellers “a voice and rights” through the use of various media.

The projects focus on human-rights issues like the violation of human rights during apartheid.

She still gets worked up when she tells how she became “a problem” for the erstwhile security forces. Speaking in a soft yet tense voice, Gunn, the convent-educated daughter of a radiologist, starts telling her story, which began in the late 70s in Cape Town when she gave up her job as a nurse.

“In those days nursing was a horrific experience, because we had to keep white children and adults alive who would not have stood a chance in a black ward. I chose to study social work instead, as it has a direct connection with the working class.”

In her honours year she was recruited by a friend in the African National Congress. Meanwhile, she became increasingly involved with the then Clothing Workers’ Union, the Cape Youth Congress and the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee. But the political work she started doing underground for the ANC was too “slow”. She informed the ANC that she would prefer a rifle.

In 1984, Leon Meyer, who was later murdered during a raid in Maseru, recruited her for Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

He trained her in secret in South Africa and a year later she was detained without trial for the first time in terms of the feared section 29 of the Internal Security Act: 113 days in a solitary cell in Pollsmoor.

Only once released was she charged with the possession of communist literature and a “most interesting” book on the manufacture of bombs.

She laughs. “Advocate Dullah Omar, who later became minister of justice, managed to get me off, but the security police still followed me day and night.” Her “only way out”? To join MK abroad in order to upgrade her training.

After a ride in the back of a vegetable truck full of cabbages she reported to the ANC in Botswana. “I remember the first question to me was, ‘Who are you following?’”

She rolls her eyes. “I said, ‘I beg your pardon?’ They replied that most women follow a man. It made me realise that women are seen as appendages to men. To prove myself there would not be easy.”

From there she was sent for training in Cuba and then to MK’s Pango training camp about 100 kilometres north-east of Luanda. At Pango there were about five women to every 80 men, and she was trained on her own.

On her return a year later Gunn and her ex-husband, journalist Aneez Salie, founded the Ashley Kriel unit, which carried out a number of sabotage attacks in the Western Cape.

She chooses her words carefully. “We were subject to the ANC’s political command, and we were reacting to the political oppression in the country, protecting our mass struggle for democracy. There was a lot of thought behind that, and we went to great lengths to avoid casualties — especially civilians.”

Her blue eyes are intense. “So, should I really feel safe here where I am now with my children? Anyone could arrive, and there are many reactionary people in this world — ruine­d people. There has never been any effort to help rehabilitate the former security forces. The uncompleted process in the country and the unresolved trauma unsettle me.”

She, too, is living with unresolved trauma, and still has questions for Adriaan Vlok, the then minister of law and order.

The story of how she was unlawfully detained for the bombing of Khotso House, headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, captured the imagination of the world at the time.

The nightmare began in August 1988 when she heard with shock about the bombing in Johannesburg in which 21 people were injured.

Shortly afterwards, eight months into her pregnancy with her first-born, Haroon (21), she heard major Jaap Joubert read a statement by Vlok over the radio accusing her of the bombing.

“It was from that moment that I literally and figuratively received the death sentence.”

In June 1990, the police ambushed her on a guest farm near Victoria West.

She refused to part with 16-month-old Haroon, whom she was still breast-feeding. A nightmare 160 km-per-hour drive to Cape Town followed, and mother and child were eventually locked up in the Wynberg police cells that night.

“The police cell was cold and the toilet was overflowing in what was actually an overnight cell.

“When I complained about the conditions they used it against me in court to remove Haroon to a place of safety. I will never forget his voice as he screamed for me, the anguish with which he looked at me, when the social workers came to fetch him with a warrant for his arrest.”

She still remembers well the cassette with her son’s disconsolate weeping that the security police played during her interrogation sessions. “He would not eat or take the bottle, because he was used to breast milk, and the psychologist said he wasn’t normal.”

Thanks to an urgent court application brought by Gunn’s mother in the Cape High Court, an emaciated child with sunken eyes was given back to her eight days later.

“The following day, a Friday, I was handcuffed and we were taken to the Caledon Women’s Prison by way of a strange detour. Haroon was still very depressed and dehydrated.

“On the Monday he nearly wasted away before my eyes as a result of gastroenteritis, and when the district surgeon eventually arrived he told me there was nothing wrong with Haroon, only something wrong with me. Miraculously Haroon recovered. But he had to learn to sit and walk and crawl again because he had become so weak.”

Eventually, after 68 days of “hell and anxiety”, as she would later describe the experience to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), she and Haroon were released. The charge? That they found a Makarov pistol “in her possession”.

Four years later she laid a charge of crimen injuria and obstruction of justice against Vlok after askaris and policemen admitted to the Goldstone Commission that the Khotso House bombing had been the work of the police. And Vlok had congratulated the police afterwards during a braai at Vlakplaas. In an out-of-court settlement Gunn received R70 000 and her legal costs were covered.

But Gunn believes that the whole truth about Khotso House has never come to light.

“The TRC granted Vlok amnesty for the bombing, not for the fact that he falsely accused me or for his intentions for me. That was never revealed, and I still want to know what the price on my head was.”

She is also still fighting for compensation for all the victims of serious human-rights violations “neglected by the new regime”.

After Gunn’s testimony before the TRC, Eric Harper, a psychologist at the Trauma Centre, spoke to her about his idea of bringing together a group of apartheid victims who could support one another as a “community”. Khulumani Western Cape was formed from this group in 2000, with Gunn as the first chairperson.

“Approximately 95% of the members of Khulumani Western Cape did not testify before the TRC. They forfeited their right to compensation and we fought furiously for the TRC not to shut its doors so soon. Other countries have had second rounds, and quite honestly, that would be the best solution for South Africa.”

Once again she and others from Khulumani repeatedly turned to the courts — among other things they wanted to gain access to the government’s policy document on compensation as a result of apartheid.

And thanks to her and others in the South African Transitional Justice Coalition (SATJC) the Constitutional Court found last year that the president should consult victims and their next of kin before absolving apartheid criminals.

As an elected council member of the national Khulumani Support Group (KSG), Gunn is also involved with the apartheid lawsuit in which, in short, the appeal court in New York has to decide whether a case should continue against five large multinationals that operated in South Africa during the apartheid years.

Gunn did not want to get on the gravy train. She is not one of the former cadres queuing up for sushi parties and state tenders. In Crawford on the Cape Flats she, Haroon and her youngest child, Haanee (17), live in the “most dilapidated house in the street”. She smiles.

Her disillusionment with the ANC goes back to 1994: the day a group of MK soldiers were to be taken by bus from Youngsfield army base in Wynberg to Pretoria to discuss integration into the new defence force. “The ANC told me it would be no problem — I could take Haanee, who was still being breast-fed at that stage, with me. But when I was packing, Haroon didn’t want me to go.

“He lost his head and I said, ‘Come along’.”

But at Youngsfield she was asked to get off the bus. She was indignant. “I said, ‘Why should I get off? I am a woman and I have these children who were raised underground. They are a part of everything, and I refuse to get off’.”

The soldier threatened to arrest her.

“Haroon thought we were going to be separated again and there was total chaos. Eventually I was dragged off the bus and something inside me just broke. I was so terribly angry. because none of the cadres on the bus helped me.

“I simply abandoned all the dreams I had been nurturing about a function in the new dispensation. I demobilised, I shut myself off, something in me had died.”

She nods slowly. Yes, she does feel betrayed by the ANC. “Why in heaven’s name was a new elite elected that receives such high salaries and leads such grand lives? And it does seem to be genuinely scared of consultation.

“There’s no way that the Department of Justice can see its way clear to talk to us about the president’s fund, which still has about a billion rand available for victims. It amounts to absolute betrayal. It is now seven years since a cent was last paid from the fund, and so far only 16 000 apartheid victims have received R30 000.

“I am no longer an active member of the ANC. There’s no way I can be a lackey for the party. I no longer go to meetings just so that the ANC can be forced down my throat.”

Would she make exactly the same choices if she could choose again?

The intense eyes are almost surprised. She nods.

“Since my early youth I was involved with the struggle, and I still am. A newspaper once called me ‘a former activist’ and I phoned them and said, ‘Please correct that — I am still an activist’.”

She laughs. “They did.”

- By

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