Strug­gle vet­er­ans lead the fight

Anti-apartheid ac­tivists are now us­ing their skills to force the state to de­liver so­cioe­co­nomic jus­tice

Mail & Guardian - - News - Ra’eesa Pather

It started with just one po­lice of­fi­cer but then more formed a crowd around her. As they forced her to the ground, with bursts of stun grenades ex­plod­ing in the back­ground, Hen­ri­ette Abra­hams saw their stony faces look­ing down at her. When they pulled her to her feet, six pairs of arms tightly coiled around her body, she con­tin­ued to re­sist the ar­rest.

“Fok them,” Abra­hams said as the po­lice marched her to their van.

It was Septem­ber 25 and Abra­hams had been lead­ing a protest against gang­ster­ism in Bon­te­heuwel. On that day, the res­i­dents of the Cape Flats had at­tempted to shut down ma­jor ar­te­rial roads in their ar­eas to protest against the vi­o­lence.

The shut­down move­ment be­gan at the end of Au­gust in Cape Town and has spread to ar­eas rocked by gang vi­o­lence in Gaut­eng.

The slo­gan on Abra­hams’s plac­ard read: “The power of the peo­ple is stronger than the peo­ple in power.” She knows this first-hand.

She saw it at the fu­neral of Anton Fran­sch 29 years ago on a mourn­ful day in Bon­te­heuwel. Fran­sch was just 20 years old. He had been a com­man­der in Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and he was killed af­ter a seven-hour gun bat­tle with po­lice in Athlone, Cape Town, where he was hid­ing.

His shat­tered body was found in­side the house. The po­lice claimed he had com­mit­ted sui­cide but a neigh­bour, Basil Snayer, told the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion that he had seen a po­lice of­fi­cer throw some­thing into the house mo­ments be­fore the ex­plo­sion. An­other free­dom fighter in Bon­te­heuwel had died a vi­o­lent death.

Abra­hams had seen it many times be­fore she stood at the front of Fran­sch’s fu­neral pro­ces­sion. A pho­to­graph by Omar Bad­sha shows her stand­ing straight, with the cof­fin be­hind her, the side of her right hand touch­ing the cor­ner of her eye in a salute. She was 19 years old and the only woman close to the cof­fin.

By that time, Abra­hams had been ar­rested 14 times and, in her ma­tric year, she had spent five months in de­ten­tion. She had started her po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion with Fran­sch and Ash­ley Kriel, the beloved MK mar­tyr of Bon­te­heuwel, at the Bon­te­heuwel High School.

“Since the age of 13, I have been con­sci­en­tised into the move­ment,” she re­calls.

Even­tu­ally she would be­come a mem­ber of the United Demo­cratic Front (UDF) and then the ANC. When Kriel, Fran­sch and oth­ers — the top-tier lead­er­ship of the or­gan­ised struc­tures — left the coun­try to train with MK, Abra­hams was among those who rose up the lo­cal lead­er­ship ranks.

“As Bon­te­heuwel in the Western Cape, we were quite a hot spot for [min­is­ter of law and or­der] Adri­aan Vlok and all of those peo­ple. We had a very mil­i­tant his­tory. Some of our peo­ple left and joined the ANC in the camps. Some of our peo­ple stayed, like my­self.”

Years later, she mar­ried and left Bon­te­heuwel. But she re­turned when she di­vorced, de­cid­ing to leave her only child, a son, with his fa­ther be­cause Bon­te­heuwel is too dan­ger­ous to raise a young man.

This is what her fight now is about. The gang­ster­ism and drug ad­dic­tion have be­come in­tol­er­a­ble and Abra­hams has had enough.

“To­day, we are the par­ents and the grand­par­ents of our youth be­ing shot and killed on our streets. We are the par­ents and the grand­par­ents of these drug-ad­dicted chil­dren. We are the par­ents and the grand­par­ents of our lit­tle girls be­ing raped,” she says.

“We have a con­scious­ness as par­ents be­cause of that time that we were in our youth, and we have the or­gan­is­ing and mo­bil­i­sa­tion tools to or­gan­ise for peo­ple’s power. And that I think is what gov­ern­ment must re­alise.”

The mil­i­tant pri­est

Fa­ther Michael Weeder is 77km from Bon­te­heuwel, in the Over­berg town of Botriv­ier in the Western Cape. It has been two weeks since the video of Abra­hams’ ar­rest went vi­ral, cat­a­pult­ing her as a hero­ine of the anti-gang move­ment. He still feels in­spired by her ac­tivism.

“She never walked away from Bon­te­heuwel,” he says.

Weeder, who is the dean of St Ge­orge’s Cathe­dral in Cape Town, was asked by lead­ers on the Cape Flats to ex­plain the plight of peo­ple liv­ing in gang-dom­i­nated com­mu­ni­ties to Po­lice Min­is­ter Bheki Cele. He was later asked to fa­cil­i­tate a fol­lowup meet­ing with Cele in the Cape Town sub­urb of Kens­ing­ton where, in Au­gust, the first shut­down took place.

Weeder is easy-go­ing and laughs at him­self, de­scrib­ing him­self as a “bour­geois pri­est” with an “an­ar­chist” at­ti­tude. At one time, how­ever, he may have been de­scribed as a mil­i­tant pri­est. In the 1980s, Weeder was a mem­ber of MK. He hid Tony Yen­geni, the MK leader in the Western Cape, in his house in Fac­tre­ton, an area that to­day helped to serve as a cat­a­lyst for the shut­down move­ment. It was the first gang-rid­den area to shut down in protest with Kens­ing­ton.

For a time, Weeder kept some of his ac­tiv­i­ties with MK a se­cret from Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu. But when Yen­geni was ar­rested, he told Tutu and asked whether he should leave the coun­try, fear­ing Yen­geni would name him un­der tor­ture.

“I had no il­lu­sions of be­ing the Che Gue­vara of the church be­cause, when­ever I met these young um­fundis [stu­dents], and even Tony, I would pray with them. They would talk to me,” Weeder says.

Tutu ad­vised Weeder to leave. He stayed in Lon­don, but re­turned to South Africa when he re­alised Yen­geni had kept him safe from the Se­cu­rity Branch. On his re­turn in 1988, Weeder said the church sent him to Ash­ton, a farm­ing town in the Western Cape, to “cool down”.

But he didn’t re­ally cool down. In 1990, Ash­ton rose up. Man­dela was re­leased and, as a young black pri­est, Weeder was en­veloped by the grow­ing re­sis­tance against the state. Lo­cals wanted to oc­cupy the mu­nic­i­pal of­fices. A group of peo­ple marched to the town clerk’s of­fices, but it ended quickly. Weeder, who was not at the protests but heard it was com­ing to a pre­ma­ture end, went to meet the ac­tivists.

“I hear all the protests died down be­cause the town clerk said, ‘You have no per­mis­sion to be here, please leave’. And so the rev­o­lu­tion­ary in­sur­rec­tion­ists leave,” Weeder says with a small laugh at the mem­ory.

“When I come, I say no, we must sit down. I told them, when they beat us, don’t run, just stay. There’s about 100 peo­ple at first,” he says.

The first vol­leys of tear­gas came. Five de­fi­ant peo­ple were left — Weeder, a high school pupil from Zolani town­ship and three women. As they sat, un­mov­ing but afraid, the po­lice threw an­other can­is­ter.

“The sergeant drops the tear­gas can and it bounces, and there’s a young laaitie that comes and he’s got woollen gloves with the fin­ger­tips cut off. He catches it and he tosses it into a pond. You just see how the gold­fish pop up dead, their white bel­lies are pointed up,” he says.

The cops is­sued an­other warn­ing, and Weeder en­cour­aged the pro­test­ers to stay strong, not to move.

“I say to the women, ‘the tear­gas hurts you when you panic. When the tear­gas comes, just take shal­low breaths and close your eyes and stay in the dark­ness there. You will pass out, you won’t die’.”

The po­lice threw an­other can­is­ter. Weeder passed out and was dragged by po­lice to their van. Weeder’s beard is now al­most com­pletely grey and his hair­line has re­ceded. But still he is called upon to be a peace-bro­ker.

He is from Cravenby and Elsies River, spend­ing some of his for­ma­tive years in a back­yard with his mother, a woman who proudly em­braced her Khoi an­ces­try. Their former neigh­bour­hood, Elsies, has been over­whelmed by gang vi­o­lence.

For Weeder, the gangs are spurred on by cap­i­tal­ism, poverty and what

De­fi­ant: Rev­erend Michael Weeder was tear-gassed for his ac­tivism in 1990. He is now called on to be a peace bro­ker. Photo: Benny Gool Archive

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