Remember all who sacrificed for our freedom
IT TOOK a while but I finally got to see Action Kommandant, the story of Ashley Kriel, a 20-year-old Umkhonto we Sizwe freedom fighter killed by police on July 9, 1987.
It is a brilliant movie and the director, Nadine Cloete, should be congratulated for producing a product where her love for the subject can almost be felt in every frame. It is difficult to imagine Nadine was only a year old when Kriel died because she brought to life so much of what made that period special. This movie should be compulsory viewing for all young people. It was strange to watch a movie where I knew almost everyone from the footage of the mid-1980s and those who were interviewed more recently. I think I might even have caught a passing glimpse of myself at the funeral, but, of course, I was much thinner then and had far more hair.
The movie was personal for me because I knew Ashley very well from the time when I worked in political youth organisations in the early 1980s, but especially from the time when I worked briefly in Bonteheuwel to help organise the launch of the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee. It was held in the same civic centre that features quite prominently in the movie. This was where most political meetings were held in the area.
I remember Ashley as the most impressive youngster in any of the youth groups throughout the Western Cape at the time – we were involved in most areas of the province, and there were many people as young as he who became involved.
He was a natural leader, charismatic, well-spoken and articulate and knew how to keep a crowd lapping up his every word. And unlike most of his peers, he was always hungry for knowledge.
This is one of the reasons his death was so shocking. We all felt Ashley would have had much more to contribute to our society. The other reason was the way in which he died, as it was subsequently shown he was effectively assassinated by the police who discovered the location of his safe house.
One of the things I thought about as I watched the film was the role the people of the Western Cape played in the Struggle, something which seems to have been downplayed in post-apartheid South Africa.
It was refreshing for me to hear mainly coloured people singing freedom songs in Xhosa.
That’s the way I remember it; most of the Struggle songs we sang were in Xhosa. This helped to build a bond between the people from the Cape Flats and those from the townships.
I watched the film at the Cornerstone Institute and listened to various people making contributions from the floor afterwards. I could not help asking myself what would have happened to Ashley if he’d survived and what he would have thought about where we are as a country today. What would he have thought of the government? Would he have been in the government?
As I thought about Ashley, I found myself thinking of Nelson Mandela, who would have celebrated his 98th birthday on Monday. Mandela survived the dangers of activism in his younger life and came out of prison 27 years after being incarcerated a wiser man, but still as principled as he had been in his youth.
Mandela could so easily have been sentenced to death at the Rivonia Trial, but was imprisoned for life instead.
At least we had an opportunity after his imprisonment to share in his wisdom accumulated over many years, something that we did not have with Ashley and others who died as young as him, such as Coline Williams, Anton Fransch and Robbie Waterwitch.
Fransch was also 20 when he was killed after a seven-hour shoot-out with police in Athlone in November 1989.
Williams was 22 when she and Waterwitch, also 20, were killed apparently when a defective limpet mine they were about to place outside the court in Athlone exploded prematurely in July 1989.
Hopefully a film like Action Kommandant will force those with influence in South Africa to remember the history of the Western Cape and its people. It is a complex story of resistance over many years, from the opposition by the Khoisan to the Dutch who settled here to the slaves who were shipped here fighting for their freedom to the brave young men and women who gave up their lives in the 1970s and 1980s in the Struggle against apartheid.
It is important to celebrate the contribution to freedom by Mandela – it was immense – but it is important to remember Mandela never engaged in the Struggle by himself. He was always part of a collective and part of a much larger movement of brave men and women prepared to give their lives so others could be free. Most never took the limelight.
Ashley Kriel was one. So was Coline Williams. So was Robbie Waterwitch. So was Anton Fransch. So was Christopher Truter and many others.
As you mark Mandela Day with your 67 minutes of doing good on Monday, take a few minutes to reflect on others who also contributed to our freedom. And commit yourself to picking up where they left off.