On 6 June 2020, Andrew Babeile turned 41. He thought at this point his life would have begun, but it has been a journey encumbered by misery, misfortune, multiple legal battles, jail terms and myriad court appearances.
What happened to Babeile on that fateful day in February 1999 at Hoërskool Vryburg in North West was the result of racial clashes that had occurred between black pupils, who had been accepted for enrolment in 1996 at the traditionally all-white school, and their white counterparts. Clashes that transcended the school would erupt into a community war – essentially making a mockery of the reconciled nation envisaged in South Africa – and, in turn, map out an unfortunate life path for Babeile.
Notably, the previous year, some parents of white pupils attacked black pupils with sjamboks during school hours. At the time, these children recounted how they had to escape through classroom windows. None of the parents were ever held accountable for the incident: they were cleared of any charges when the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, in the same court that later would find Babeile guilty.
What is known, though, is that it was a carefully orchestrated operation by the school’s incumbent deputy principal at the time as well as parents and members of the school governing body. They were overheard by one of the cleaners as they conspired to carry out an attack of insidious racial viciousness against the black pupils.
Everyone thought that the racial tensions were simmering but that a semblance of cohesion was at least on the cards, based on dialogues that took place between the then provincial department of education, school governing body, principal, teachers, parents, and mediators from the respective groups as well as other parts of the country. But on the school grounds, matters were still on the edge.
Attack and counterattack
“I was accosted by learners from the school’s senior rugby team one day, as they had identified me as one of the influential leaders from the black group that was demanding, firstly, our constitutional right to education, and indeed to be seen simply as human beings,” Babeile tells New Frame.
He speaks in a tone equally pained and impassioned when recalling the events. “The high school situation in our township, Huhudi, was precarious then. There was only one high school, Bopaganang High, for us and it had reached its capacity. The then department of education and training had undertaken to build a new high school. Colinda Secondary and Kismet Secondary Schools in the communities categorised under apartheid as coloured and Indian, respectively, had long been enrolling black pupils. There were some of us who were not able to enrol at a high school in 1995 and seemingly the only option available was Vryburg Hoërskool.
“As they encircled me, 10 or more of those burly boys, they started pushing me around and I sensed that they were going to be violent towards me based on their threatening talk that they ‘did not want kaffirs in their school’.
“I had to think quickly and I drew a pair of scissors that was part of my stationery in an attempt to scare them off. In the entire commotion, I was trying to disentangle myself from their attack and I don’t remember stabbing any of them. I managed to run to the principal’s office and it was there where they said I had stabbed one of them.”
He adds slowly: “My brother, believe me when I say, from what I saw in the principal’s office after they had chased me there, had I stabbed someone intentionally on the neck, it follows that it should have been something more fatal than the wound I saw.”
In May 2001, in the Kimberley high court, Babeile’s sentence of five years, two of which were suspended for five years, was upheld. This was after he appealed the sentence handed down to him in the Vryburg regional court, where he had been found guilty in November 1999. Throughout the court process Babeile maintained that he had acted in self-defence.
Babeile says his fate was sealed long before he set foot in court. The magistrate at the court in Vryburg was also the chairperson of Hoërskool Vryburg’s school governing body, which had found him guilty during a disciplinary process undertaken following the scissors incident.
“From the very beginning, for me and as well my fellows, we wanted nothing but education. But it turned into something harrowing, a baptism in the furnace of racial subjugation. When I got to Vryburg Hoërskool, we were even barred from using the same toilet facilities as the white learners.”
A backdrop of struggle
Babeile decries the lack of support from the department of education at the time. “We had begged for educational support, to have teachers that could carry out the dual method of teaching that was declared, as we were being taught in Afrikaans, and [we wanted] a review of the unaffordable school fees for us.”
In one of their battles with the department prior to the 1999 incident, Babeile and other pupils of the school had sought the assistance of their student body affiliation, the Congress of South African Students. It took meeting after meeting, marches, all-night sit-ins at the department and even hostage dramas before their demands would be met. Only in about 1997 were the demands of the black pupils at Hoërskool Vryburg acceded to and black teachers appointed at the school.
There are similarities that are too hard to ignore to the Fees Must Fall movement at South African universities in 2015, and even to the 1976 uprisings in Soweto, when pupils protested against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. In the context of it all, when the government has to be taken to court to deliver study materials on time, when pupils have to navigate treacherous roads and in some instances rivers to access their schools, when they still use pit latrines at schools resulting in their deaths, it is a grim picture for black children in South Africa and their quest for a basic education in a democratic era.
Before being paroled, Babeile served almost two years of his effective three-year sentence at the prison in Kimberley in the Northern Cape. He pursued his matric while incarcerated. He remembers that, at some point, he was moved to a correctional facility in Kuruman, 250km away, because the Kimberley prison did not have the capacity to supervise matric exams and he also struggled to get educational materials.
While he was doing his stint in Kimberley, Babeile got a surprise visit from former president Nelson Mandela. “That visit and the words of Madiba still carry me to this day. He told me that life post prison would be challenging and that I needed to be resilient and strong. I didn’t know that they [his words] would prove to be that prophetic. Besides my mother, who has been so stellar and gone to great lengths to support me, Madiba’s words echo a jarring note that has been my life.”
Babeile says that: “After my prison discharge, I attempted to improve my results to secure a university exemption, but institutions I applied to then wanted nothing to do with me because of my record.”
Seeking a presidential pardon
Babeile says all he has ever wanted was to become a lawyer. Given the way he views the injustices he has faced it would seem an appropriate career – had it come to pass. Mandela had donated R20 000 towards his studies and even helped with an application to then-president Thabo Mbeki to have his criminal record expunged through a presidential pardon. But the application was denied, as were all subsequent applications to the presidents after Mbeki.
“Criminals who have committed heinous acts have been pardoned. I mean, apartheid criminals have been pardoned too, isn’t it? Why have I been denied the presidential pardon, where my aim for a job, a life, or whatever that can come, has been deprived?” he asks.
The latest application, to President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019, was done by his mother. A National Women’s Day event, with Rampahosa delivering the keynote address, was to be celebrated in Vryburg. Babeile and some supporters had planned to picket at the event, but to quell what would have been an embarrassing moment, the president sent a delegation to meet Babeile. He was given a contact at the Department of Correctional Services who would reconsider his application, but nothing has come of it thus far.
“I have been following the story of Khaya Cekeshe and it is something that has weighed heavily on me because I can, of course, relate to his tribulations,” says Babeile, referring to the Fees Must Fall activist who was jailed.
“Dilo tsame gadi padwaardig mmata [My things are in disarray],” he says, lamenting the state of disorder in his life using the Afrikaans word padwaardig, which means roadworthy. It has been adopted colloquially into the local dialect to describe when life is going either well or badly.
Back in prison
“You must recall that the Vryburg Hoërskool matter was not the only case I was jailed for. In 2003, there was an assault incident that happened in Schweizer-Reneke. I was with friends at the local supermarket when I was pistol-whipped by an Afrikaner guy after I had answered in the affirmative, his question wanting to know if I was indeed the Andrew Babeile from Vryburg.”
Babeile bitterly recounts the incident, following which he went to open a case at the police station. As it turned out, his assailant had opened a case against him. “The following day I heard in the news that I had been charged with a case of assault and sexual harassment of a pregnant woman. I was arrested and eventually received a six-year sentence but the pistol guy got off scot-free.”
He adds, with a sarcastic laugh, that the black witnesses who saw the incident were too scared to testify and the video footage of the incident at the shop was unavailable. Babeile served this sentence at the prison in Christiana, where he says he taught fellow inmates the basics of reading and writing and participated in rehabilitation programmes. He was paroled in 2006.
“I reflect a lot on the past, on how those encounters have somehow shaped ugly patterns in my life. I do consider the life of now, of my peers, not in any envious way but I contrast naturally how they have been able to have education, jobs and families. I think how I have been failed by the justice system, how it sometimes felt like kangaroo courts. There is this way that I was judged in the media and even international publications that never really bothered to hear my side of the story. There have been instances when my very own community has been harsh towards me. But this life thing must go on.”
Babeile speaks with the finality of one who has accepted his fate, as if his misfortune was somehow meant to be. With hindsight he explains the situation and prevailing political expediency of the time, when North West had recently become a province. “Vryburg as a town was nestled right in the middle of what was the Bophuthatswana Bantustan. We were in the central government and there was always the us-and-them tensions that festered. The people who were slow in supporting us from the department of education were not so long ago part of the Bophuthatswana administration.”
He mentions emphatically that white people were still bitter about the new dispensation. “The government could have done more and could even today still do more.”
Through all of this, Babeile has managed to start a foundation that carries his name. He has managed to organise football tournaments in his community and is grateful to those who have lent him a helping hand. Through the foundation, a biographical book and other writings will be released. He has spoken to some filmmakers who hail from his native Huhudi township and have made their mark nationally, hoping that one day a biopic about his life will be made. He says some international people have approached him previously to do projects of a similar nature, but he refused, having learnt from the media’s unfair treatment of him.
As we conclude, he says he will continue to be who he is – a person who is always jovial and laughing, traits that he relies on for emotional stability. Books have been of great comfort to him, too, and he has not lost hope that his criminal record will be expunged.