Freedom heroes remembered

2004-04-26 15:58
Johannesburg - As the country gears up to celebrate 10 years of democracy this week, memories turn to heroes who died in the fight against apartheid, including a teenage activist and a six-year-old girl.

Among the victims are activists killed by the white regime's secret hit squads, soldiers who fought in the ruling African National Congress' armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and even innocent children, caught in the crossfire.

"People like comrades Chris Hani, Steven Biko, Hector Petersen and Ahmed Timol immediately spring to mind," recalled Lebona Mosia, general secretary of MK's veterans' association.

One of the most prominent figures to die in the fight against apartheid was Hani, whose assassination 11 years ago, shortly before the peaceful transition to democratic rule, nearly sparked a civil war.

Seen by many as destined for one of the ANC's top leadership positions, Hani was shot four times at his home east of Johannesburg on Easter Saturday in 1993.

Police arrested two white right-wingers, Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis, shortly after the April 10, 1993, killing. Both men are now serving life sentences in jail.

Others also feature prominently

Thirteen-year-old Hector Petersen, shot during the June 16, 1976 riots in Soweto, became an international symbol in the struggle against racial segregation.

Petersen was a young activist protesting with thousands of other children against the white government's forced use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in school when he was killed.

A year later, another activist became a household name when he was murdered by the apartheid state's police forces.

Steve Biko, the ideological leader of the Black Consciousness movement, died from massive brain injuries in September 1977 while being taken from the coastal town of Port Elizabeth to Pretoria in the back of a police van after an interrogation session.

Biko's story was immortalised in the 1987 Richard Attenborough movie "Cry Freedom" which stars actor Denzel Washington as the young activist, and in popular singer Peter Gabriel's 1980s hit "Biko", which became an anthem against apartheid.

Others were also to die "accidentally" at the hands of police.

ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) member Ahmed Timol "tried to commit suicide" while in detention at the notorious John Vorster Square interrogation cells in 1971.

Ten years later, activist Neil Aggett was killed in another "suicide attempt", prompting a former police Special Branch member to apply for amnesty with the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) set up years later to probe apartheid atrocities.

TRC horrors

The TRC started in April 1996 hearing evidence about the killing of four high-profile activists in the Eastern Cape province, called the Cradock Four, who were shot dead and whose bodies were found burnt in a field in 1985.

It was to hear thousands of other, similar tales.

In its final report, handed to President Thabo Mbeki by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, commission chairperson, in March 2003, the commission listed some 19 050 names as victims of gross human rights violations under apartheid.

The list also has the names of those mainly white South Africans who died during ANC bomb attacks in restaurants and shopping malls during the 1980s, and children.

Six-year-old Katryn Schoon was killed with her mother Jeanette, an ANC member, when she opened a letter bomb at her Angolan home in the southern town of Lubango on June 28, 1984, sent by apartheid-state operatives.

"Their stories reflect the greater experience and suffering of our people, many of whom were not able to come forward and tell their own story," reads the foreword to the TRC report's Volume Seven, Victim Findings.

"Many others laid their lives down in the fight to make South Africa the democracy it is today," added the ANC's Mosia.

"The greatest gift they gave the people of this country is the ability for all people to stand up and make a cross on a ballot paper, like they did voting in South Africa's third general elections earlier this month," he said.

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