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