It was a crisp and sunny afternoon in Mitchells Plain (a so-called “coloured” township just outside Cape Town) when a number of student activists gathered at Cedar High, one of 14 high schools in the area. The decision to meet was against their better judgement since all of them had been on the wanted list of the Security Branch and hence “on the run” for some time. These students were the leaders of the 14 schools in the area and thus the leadership of the Mitchells Plain Student Congress (Mipsco), among other organisations in the Cape Peninsula; it was a restricted organisation, but not yet banned.
As we arrived at the venue and designated class room, each and every one of us lamented that indeed the area was full of security branch personnel. Years of informal training ensured that we all knew how to make sure we were not followed to the various checkpoints, that we routinely took the necessary precautions to make sure that we were not having a human trail, and last, to follow all the necessary rules when things seemed out of place.
First, you do not wait at any checkpoint for more than 15 minutes when the time is up and you do not form a quorum to constitute the meeting – you walk away, no questions asked. There were so many rules, I will not presume to bore you with them all; suffice to say, all of us on that day knew we were taking a huge risk by attending this very necessary meeting.
You see, the schools were rudderless and, with no leadership and a coherent plan for the future, the pupils and the schools had become ungovernable, allowing gangster elements to take hold, which invariably was criminal in nature.
We had to meet and strategise so as to plan a way forward. We had two lookouts strategically positioned on the school grounds and their job was to monitor the situation and to inform us of any suspicious movements.
We had hardly begun the meeting when one of them ran into the classroom and informed us that the police were on the school premises and that we must evacuate immediately. No sooner had the words left his mouth than he pelted down the corridor, determined to get away from the oncoming danger.
We looked at each other and a silent agreement was reached that this was not a good idea and that we should disperse. Alas, it was too late. Just as we gathered our notebooks and belongings, we were greeted by one of the Security Branch pigs.
“Well, well, well, what have we here?” came the comment from the door. “If it isn’t the entire Mipsco leadership, or at least most of you,” he qualified.
Behind him, as he entered the room, were just about all our respective investigating officers. Each one of us at the tender age of 16 years old was seen as a threat to the national security of the state, hence a case file was opened in our names and a case officer assigned to each of us. My case officer was a short, stumpy fellow named Sergeant Boks; most of these guys were white fellows but mine was coloured (a traitor if ever).
They lined us up outside in the school quad and proceeded with capturing our faces on a video camera, all the while boasting about the significant arrest of the day. We became known as the Mipsco 12.
My heart pumped unusually fast – shit, was this it? The day of reckoning finally arrived, the thoughts going through my mind were both puzzling and scary. My mother was going to be so disappointed was one of my fleeting thoughts. “Where would they take us” featured more prominently.
They had all sorts of tactics and tricks up their sleeves. For one, they could take us in different directions, so that we would have no recollection of who was taken where and then do with each us as they pleased. Security laws permitted them to arrest you for a period of two weeks without trial and also without having to tell anyone of your whereabouts.
Fortunately, we were all taken to the local police station. This was a great relief, but not as much as the relief we felt at seeing others from the leadership already there. I know, it’s a terrible thing to be happy about, but in truth, we were all very relieved that the pigs arrested us all and we were now in one room.
As we all stood there, we suddenly heard a loud whistling coming towards the big room we were all crowded in. It was none other than Captain van Brackel, then head of the Security Branch in the Western Cape, and a seriously no-nonsense type of guy. I once saw him kill a student protester by driving his car over him and then stopping and shouting in Xhosa to all onlookers that this is what will happen to you if you get caught up in this terrorist activities and not attending school like a good student should. To say that he is a bastard of the worse kind is to compliment such a pig.
Now, he said, here tonight I will play the guitar and you will dance according to the beats (in a heavy Transvaal accent). In other words, if you don’t co-operate and tell us everything we want to know, “dan gaan die poppe dans vanaand” (you will see the dolls dancing) tonight.
We were all taken into separate interrogation rooms. We would hear the screams coming from some of the rooms and the eventual cries from some of our comrades.
Then came my turn, “Van Heerden!”, came the shout, as if we were in a doctor’s waiting room. But these were specialists of a different kind.
Have a seat, instructed Boks, while opening a file.
“Is that my file?” I enquired.
The answer came by way of a smack from behind, catching my ear and the side of my head. I flew off the chair towards the ground but because you want to show them you are not scared of them, I jumped up and positioned my chair again and rubbed my head. They did not appreciate this, so I got one in the ribs, this time with a clenched fist which left me coughing and gasping for air.
When I composed myself again, Boks asked whether I was ready to co-operate. The answer was, of course, an emphatic yes. Where have you been these last few weeks, we want to know which safe houses you slept at and who the people are that assisted you in this pursuit?
There was no way in hell I could give them this information. It would jeopardise not only other comrades that were using these houses but would also betray those comrades that risked everything for us by opening their homes and harbouring supposed terrorists.
No immediate glib response came to mind. Instead, I laughed. This was followed by some severe physical abuse and manhandling which eventually saw me lying on the floor gasping for air. I remember thinking, I fucking hate these people, and instead of instilling fear in me they simply strengthened my resolve to continue the struggle and to kill them all.
Even in your moment of sheer panic and pain does the influence of Hollywood visit you.
I said to Boks, “you can kiss my black ass”, like some hero in an action movie. This infuriated him and this time he lifted his hands and smacked me through my face with the file he had been perusing.
It also infuriated him because if there’s one thing coloured people in Cape Town hate, and Boks is one of them, it is to be referred to as black, or in my case referring to myself as black, thus insulting all that coloureds stood for. He grabbed me by my collar and said “think about your mother for fuck’s sake” and then walked out of the office.
Another officer came inside and I presumed he was going to be the good cop. Such an old routine but they exercise it all the time. He opened one of the draws of the desk we had been sitting at and it was filled with newly printed pinkish R50 notes; this was in 1989. I remember thinking, wow, I could do with some of that.
“Your mother is unemployed, Oscar,” he began. “She is struggling with your two sisters and two brothers, you are the oldest and yet you are such a disappointment to her. She expects more of you, after your father left you when you were only six years old, this is how you help her, by being a terrorist for the fucking ANC. You know I’m right, don’t you? Tell me you don’t want to help your mother. We can mutually help each other, there’s more where that came from,” as he pointed downwards towards the notes.
I pretended to be taken in by him so I could regain my composure and strength and when I finally felt I was ready for round two, I raised my fore finger in a gesture to halt him right there and said, “look here, do you think I’m an idiot? I take any of this money today, you will forever blackmail me with telling my comrades that I have taken money from you and I will forever have to spy on you till the chickens come home to roast. Forget about it, my friend.”
Well, I tell you, I’ve never seen a good cop turn red and angry that fast. He grabbed me with his full fist over my face and threw me and my chair to the ground, as he walked out of the office. I dizzily saw an upside-down figure exiting the room.
I can’t remember how long I was in there for but eventually I reunited with some of my comrades, each one holding an arm, or a shoulder, or one side of one’s face. Injuries, courtesy of our interrogators.
We were placed individually into cars and driven out of the police station and taken home, to our utter surprise. This, however, was just a precursor. Two weeks later, our respective houses were again raided and most of us were arrested and detained without trial under emergency laws – Section 3.1 and 3.2 of the Internal Security Act.
The charges were furthering the aims of restricted organisations (Mipsco and UDF), furthering the aims of banned organisations (Cosas and ANC), incitement to cause harm, and public violence. The last charge they always threw into the mix in case you were found guilty. For that particular one you would then not be considered a political prisoner but a common prisoner which meant the international rules governing political prisoners would not apply.
This is why some of our comrades ended up in common prison and their lives destroyed. Some of us were taken to Pollsmoor Prison, especially the female comrades, because that Maximum Security Prison had a female section; others were transported to Victor Verster Maximum Security Prison and still others were transported to individual police stations throughout the Cape Town area for further interrogation, torture and solitary confinement.
All this was done in an attempt to break your spirit, your willpower and your commitment to the Struggle. Dare I say, they failed miserably, even if many a night was spent crying one’s eyes out, contemplating what would have happened if you had rather chosen a different walk of life, perhaps accepted Jesus in your life and devoted your time to the church like so many did, or the life of a gangster in the ‘hood, but in the end the noble task and duty to the people were what gave you the energy to pick up the pieces and forge ahead again.
Those 12 comrades of mine remain my best friends to this day; all of us remain servant leaders in our respective workplaces, in service of the people of South Africa. Two of them (sisters) now work at the ANC head office, another is in the SA Navy as a Commander, another used to be a pilot in the SA Air Force but now works in transport economics, another is the provincial secretary of the ANC in the Western Cape, one runs and owns a successful apple farm in Greyton, one is a successful journalist and spin doctor, while several others are in various government departments, and I try to educate our young folk at the University of Johannesburg.
We found solace in the therapy sessions in the aftermath of detention; being on the run, the torture and just the trauma of it all. These were insisted on by the detention support committee members in Mitchells Plain. It was just two months later that we received the first political prisoners from Robben Island, of which Comrade Kathy (Ahmed Kathrada)was one. It was clear then to all of us – the tide was turning and our sacrifices were not in vain.
And even though the #FeesMustFall types tell us, “we are not interested in your history and specifically not about your contribution to the Struggle because we are concerned with the here and now and not in past glories”, we continue to inform, educate and instil in our own children these histories.
We do it not for accolades or recognition, no. We do it because we know if we do not, they might just grow up thinking that this Freedom we hold so dear came to all of us on a silver platter. Many comrades perished in pursuit of our freedom, many made the ultimate sacrifice and died for our freedom, and many suffered detention and imprisonment at the brutal hands of the apartheid architects. We might forgive but we will never forget. DM