Action Kommandant: An artistic pursuit of justice, from 16 June 1976 and beyond

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Students march in solidarity with their arrested comrades (Photo: Independent News Archive/ Supplied)
Students march in solidarity with their arrested comrades (Photo: Independent News Archive/ Supplied)
  • The student protests of 16 June 1976 sparked a number of demonstrations in solidarity the country over.
  • Nadine Cloete's Action Kommandant, The Imam and I by Khalid Shamis and Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn-Salie expand conversations about resistance in the Cape, complicating the canon.
  • Conversations about police brutality can not happen without acknowledging the political lineage of law enforcement, and how people are still crying for justice today.


Soweto 1976 is a reminder that while apartheid was created by the State, for a majority of South Africans it was the police who acted as its primary enforcers and hence represented the face of the oppression. Racism and police brutality form part of our inherited legacy. The lack of accountability by gangster policemen, is also part of that legacy. And it is in the very awareness of this legacy where we draw parallels with #BlackLivesMatter movements globally.

On 16 June 1976, nearly 20 000 students participated in the protest against the forced imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools, carrying placards with slogans "Down with Afrikaans", "Viva Azania" and "If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu". 

The result was the death of over 500 children killed by police. The song Soweto Blues by Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba captures sentiments around the uprisings. However, the massacre was the catalyst needed to catapult youth movements to rise up all over South Africa. Starting in June, Western Cape protests by school children erupted immediately in areas of Nyanga, Langa, Bellville, Gugulethu, Athlone, Crawford, Manenberg, Hanover Park, Lavender Hill and Bonteheuwel. 

SOWETO - SOUTH AFRICA, JUNE 16: On 16 June 1976 h
On 16 June 1976 high-school students in Soweto, South Africa, protested for better education. (Photo by Bongani Mnguni/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

On August 11 in Langa, 17-year-old Xolile Mosi was the first student to be shot and killed in the Cape. The Black Consciousness Movement united both black and coloured students, who along with their parents, faced constant police harassment. The late Kenneth Fassie - a student at Langa High School and brother to singer Brenda Fassie - went into exile fearing his safety and only returned 15 years later in 1992. Also in August 1976, University of Western Cape students clashed with police because of posters bearing the message, “Sorry Soweto, Kruger is a pig; the revolution is coming”. Amidst harsh state-repression, protests continued to spread across the country with the death toll rising significantly by the end of 1976.

Action Kommandant by Nadine Cloete looks at the li
Action Kommandant by Nadine Cloete looks at the life and death of youth activist Ashley Kriel

Action Kommandant

The spirit of the youth of 1976 is embodied years later in youth activist, Ashley Kriel, shot dead by police at the age of 20 in 1987. Kriel’s story was explored for the first time as the subject of an award-winning documentary by filmmaker Nadine Cloete in Action Kommandant, released in 2016. The film broke the record for most sold out screenings at the Encounters Documentary Film Festival. Mass gatherings were held by community members sharing memories of Kriel. Though the documentary received significant attention at the time of release, justice has still not been served to the policeman who murdered Kriel.

Kriel was moulded by the politically conscious community of Bonteheuwel where he grew up - one of the first coloured townships in the Cape. In 1976, Bonteheuwel was also one of the first to join students in solidarity with Soweto with people shouting “Black Power!”. Kriel was 10 years old at the time. Three years later he would organise his first protest march.

“What was interesting for me is how the area had shaped his politics,” says Cloete referring to Bonteheuwel. Stitching together nearly seven years of research and interviews, her intention with the documentary was to paint a portrait of Kriel – a young, inspiring activist who fought for justice. At the age of 13, Kriel rallied up classmates to protest the lack of textbooks available to learners. While at high school he joined the Bonteheuwel Youth Movement and subsequently uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the militarized unit of the ANC. 

“He was passionate about recruiting youth to join the movement. So if he wanted the swimmers to join, he would join the swimming club just to do this.” Cloete laughs. “Some said they would just go to the marches just because Ashley was there,” she adds. 

Fearing for his life, Kriel left South Africa for the MK training camp in Angola at the age of 18. Upon returning two years later, he had no choice but to operate underground.  “Ashley’s whole teenage life was spent on the run, because he was made a target,” Cloete reflects. Kriels’ funeral was attended by top-ranking members of the anti-apartheid movement. Robbed of a dignified burial; chaos ensued when police disrupted the funeral, firing teargas into the crowd and shouting “begrawe die vark” (bury the pig) while shooting at the coffin.

Watch| The trailer for Action Kommandant here

Captain Jeffrey Benzien, responsible for killing Kriel, was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1999. He was never held accountable. Cloete says, “I did consider trying to find Jeffrey Benzien at that time, but I wanted the film to be as holistic a picture of Ashley Kriel as possible.” Following the release of the film, Kriel’s family received a phone call from the police-investigation unit, the Hawks, confirming that Benzien was still alive and saying they would be re-opening an investigation into Kriels death, but have since not heard back. “You know they say, no justice no peace. The family will never have peace until Benzien is given the punishment he deserves, no matter how old he is.” Cloete says.

The Special Branch of the apartheid security police were famed for their orchestrated cover-ups of torture and murders. Important evidence was destroyed by the State, making inquests today incredibly difficult to re-open. Several inquests into murders at the time turned up continuously with the same verdict – no one was to be blamed for the deaths. Despite evidence of torture, Security Police denied all knowledge of matters when questioned. This is a common thread in the way the State sanctioned activist deaths between the 1960s and 1980s. Hence many apartheid-era murderous policemen were free to assimilate back into civil society, without justice being served.

In Detention by Chris Van Wyk comments on the cove
In Detention by Chris Van Wyk comments on the cover-ups of the murders of political activists while in police detention

The phrase "Indians can't fly" became a crude joke amongst apartheid security policemen, after the death of Ahmed Timol who allegedly "committed suicide” by jumping off the 10th floor of John Vorster Square - the notorious police headquarters in Johannesburg. "Watch out for falling Indians" was another phrase. Timol was a teacher and anti-apartheid activist who died in police detention at the age of 30. His untimely death in 1971 has reopened questions about the failures of the TRC. It was widely believed that Timol was pushed, but this was never proved. After 46 years, Timol’s case was finally reopened in 2017 after several appeals for justice made by his nephew Imtiaz Cajee. In an attempt of restorative justice, in 2018 the court delivered a landmark judgement that found 81-year old retired Security Branch Sergeant Joao Rodrigues guilty of murder. However, Rodrigues has still not been prosecuted. Timol’s story has been told through two documentaries made by Enver Samuel, Indians Can’t Fly (2015) and Someone To Blame (2018). 

WATCH| The trailer for Khalid Shamis' Imam and I

Another documentary, The Imam and I (2010) by film-maker Khalid Shamis, sheds light on the death of his grandfather, religious community leader and anti-apartheid activist Imam Abdullah Haron who was killed in police detention in Cape Town in 1969. He was declared dead after being held in solitary confinement for 123 days at the Maitland police station. 

Mysterious circumstances surround the death of Haron, alleged by the Security Branch to have fallen down some stairs. With clear evidence that Haron had been tortured, the family argued differently, that he passed as a result of trauma. Haron’s funeral was attended by 40,000 mourners. Nearly fifty years later, his murder remains unresolved and one of apartheid's many mysteries, however the family has shown interest in re-opening the inquest. 

Shamis was also the editor for Action Kommandant. Drawing connections between the two victims, he says, “It was massive brutality by the State on people who wanted to make a difference; who were ahead of their time; who were beautiful people who loved their community and who wanted to do good. And sacrificed the ultimate for it.” For Shamis justice is through remembering the Imam’s story. “It’s important that we keep the stories alive. It’s important that we talk about these stories and these injustices in both case, and others, despite the time that has passed.”

Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-
Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-specific installation of 118 unmarked graves. One for each person who died in police detention during apartheid.
Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-
Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-specific installation of 118 unmarked graves. One for each person who died in police detention during apartheid. (Photos: Jannous Aukema, Ezra Mokgobe/ Haroon Gunn-Salie Studio)
Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-
Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-specific installation of 118 unmarked graves. One for each person who died in police detention during apartheid. (Photos: Jannous Aukema, Ezra Mokgobe/ Haroon Gunn-Salie Studio)
Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-
Crying for Justice by Haroon Gunn Salie is a site-specific installation of 118 unmarked graves. One for each person who died in police detention during apartheid. (Photos: Jannous Aukema, Ezra Mokgobe/ Haroon Gunn-Salie Studio)

The 2019 work Crying for Justice by artist Haroon Gunn-Salie is a site-specific installation crafted as a burial ground with 118 unmarked graves - one for each person who died in police custody during apartheid - including among them graves for Imam Haron, Ahmed Timol and Steve Biko. Placed in the grounds of the historic gallows of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, when viewed from above the graves spell out the word JUSTICE. The work took six months to create and still stands today. Gunn-Salie, the son of two MK veterans, also has a personal connection to the work, saying “It should only be moved when there’s justice. How can you remove a public artwork with justice unrealised? No! It’s only until the families have closure, until these historic records and inaccuracies are corrected. The work and its appeal for justice - which is read upside down and a cry to the heavens essentially, but also a cry to the courts - that whole lexicon should not be removed. Its permanence precedes its need to be there.”

Over the decades, political consciousness has been passed on through the hard work of teachers and activists. However, police brutality has also continued in the form of senseless killings; such as in the case of Andries Tatane; Marikana, Fees Must Fall and most recently the death of 11 killed by police under lockdown. 

Decentralising the narrative of Youth Day, means remembering those courageous enough to have stood up to police brutality throughout history. To date, it is not known who killed Hector Pieterson, the young dying boy carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu, in the iconic photograph by Sam Nzima which immortalised Soweto 1976. Makhubu himself disappeared in August 1976, never to be seen again. In a backwards move for justice, instead of holding the policemen accountable, eleven students were lined up for instigating the protests which became known as the Soweto 11 trial, held in September 1977. They were held in custody for a year before the state charged them with sedition.

One of the youngest of the Soweto 11, Seth Mazibuko recently interviewed by IOL, drew a comparison between what happened to George Floyd with the daily realities of South Africans, saying, 

Racism is born out of capitalism, they are mother and son and the people in South Africa still can’t breathe.

Justice for the hundreds of apartheid-era victims has still not been served. Beyond apologies, answers are owed. No one has claimed responsibility for those victims who died under detention, nor has the state taken any responsibility. Their families continue without peace in wait of closure. 

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