On the morning of 17 February 1999, Andrew Itumeleng Babeile stepped out of his parents house imbued with a sense of hope that dissipated the minute he entered the gates of Hoërskool Vryburg. It would be his last morning as a normal teenager; in a few days he would become the face of the injustice that was still playing out in South African schools despite five years of democracy.
Of course, there was nothing normal about growing up in a town so racist that its residents often joked that if you stuck your tongue out you might taste the hatred. In Vryburg, apartheid nostalgia ran so deep that for black teenagers it felt like the town was suspended in a different time zone. Normal things, or things that had a semblance of normality in other parts of the country, often felt like an extreme sport.
Taking a walk or riding a bike around the suburbs and wandering off in the wrong direction could easily end in an altercation or assault. Vryburg was one of the many towns in North West province that had not only been able to preserve apartheid racial dynamics, but used democracy as a cloak to perpetuate disparities between its black and white residents. But then there was school, which for black teenagers held the promise of escape.
In Huhudi township, Babeile represented the change that had eluded its youth for years. With dreams of being an international basketball player, he was one of the few youngsters who had an opportunity to cast his net beyond the confines of the township. Becoming the first black student to register at a school previously preserved for white students did not only insert his name in the history books but – as it should – also gave him wings.
Enter Hoërskool Vryburg
Something other than achieving his dreams made his journey to school so easy, if not enjoyable: momentary freedom. Though it was said education would liberate him and his parents from the clutches of poverty, he felt more liberated outside the classroom. But if in Huhudi change looked good, in the yard and hallways of Hoërskool Vryburg it was the scariest thing that white students, most of whom had only known black people as servants, had ever seen. And that Babeile was not apologetic about his right to be part of the school only made him more dangerous in their eyes.
With the exception of that brief moment when he was outside the school gates, another part of the school’s schedule that he looked forward to was lunch break. It was a time he spent sharing the troubles of trying to belong in a place that didn’t hide its disdain for one’s existence. In fact, it would be the time he spent outside the classroom interacting with fellow black students that would convince white parents he was the leader of a gang of black pupils terrorising their children.
Lunch break was also a time that white students like Christoff Erasmus spent reminding black students of their inferiority. If racial slurs and taunts didn’t work, they resorted to physical harassment like spitting on the ground as they passed black students or, as in the case of Babeile, randomly assaulting them. It’s something black students had learned to live with for years. But on 17 February 1999, one of those provocations by Erasmus and a group of his friends would go horribly wrong.
Vryburg then, as it is now, was a microcosm of the country at large. Once a bastion of conservative white resistance, it had come to represent the contradictions of the democratic miracle. And nowhere did those contradictions play out more vividly than in high schools, and Hoërskool Vryburg was one of them. Founded in 1881, the school had always been a fortress of whiteness, seeking to preserve white cultural values and project white academic excellence. Its alumni featured both local and national politicians who had championed some of the country’s most racist policies, such as Herstigte Nasionale Party leader Jaap Marais, who was an intellectual offspring of Hendrik Verwoerd.
The inclusion of Babeile and other black students in its roster threatened to upend that historic mission of preserving whiteness and all its tenets. Its motto, “Carpe Diem (Seize the day)”, was a rallying call to academically gifted students around the town. It was only when black students like Babeile heeded the call that the school suddenly lacked capacity to accommodate their response to it. To this day, notwithstanding the fact that it is located in a town where the majority of citizens are black, the school has only ever had one black principal.
Despite sweeping changes to South Africa’s schooling system, Hoërskool Vryburg, like many other public institutions that had previously only concerned themselves with the whims of white citizens, refused to reckon with change and remained racist and exclusionary at least for some time after 1994. Like many other institutions that had been pivotal to perpetuating and maintaining apartheid, the school was allowed to pay lip service to democratic South Africa and continue with its project of preserving whiteness.
The folly of failing to deal with racism
Benchmark Foundation researcher David Van Wyk had been working as a senior manager in the then North West department of education after returning from exile in Zimbabwe in 1994. In his opinion, when South African high schools became cultural and political battlegrounds, racist school governing bodies like that of Hoërskool Vryburg were emboldened by the ANC’s insistence on reconciliation without justice as a driving principle of its policies and politics. “Like the management of many other former model C schools, Vryburg High’s governing body counted on the ruling party’s insistence that white people, for the sake of peace, should at all costs be accommodated,” Van Wyk explains.
The hope was that liberal white parents who were part of the school’s management would find their moral conscience and win the argument. That assumption was wrong, and what happened was exactly what many critics of the rainbow narrative predicted: the school governing body doubled down on its racism. But in 1995, hundreds of young people in Huhudi found themselves with nowhere to study; among them was Babeile. He was part of a group of standard 6 (grade 8) pupils who languished at home because there was no space for them in Huhudi and surrounding towns like Ganyesa, about 70km away.
Van Wyk remembers vividly the result of this failure to accommodate black pupils in the formerly white school. “I received a call on Friday afternoon just after the schools reopened for the new year in 1996 from Sadtu [South African Democratic Teachers Union]. A crisis had erupted because Vryburg High School refused to admit black learners from Huhudi. When I arrived as part of a delegation sent by the department, the township was in flames, with students engaged in a running battle with the police, spearheaded by Cosas [Congress of South African Students].”
The students were relying on a long tradition of protest that had defined Huhudi in the ’70s and ’80s and made it fertile ground for political movements like the United Democratic Front to recruit activists – although the involvement of Van Wyk and other senior officials from the department was important in defusing the tensions in the township. It was ultimately from relying on Huhudi’s protest tradition, which appealed to some of the products of that tradition, that students opened the gates of Hoërskool Vryburg. Ruth Segomotsi Mompati was one of these products.
Mompati and the 1996 South African Schools Act
In 1944, Mompati graduated as a primary school teacher, a profession she valued dearly. But when she got married in 1952, she was forced to leave her career behind and follow Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo to Johannesburg. The state feared that her husband’s thoughts might somehow find their way to the classroom, and having to relinquish what had long been her dream would haunt Mompati for most of her career as a politician. That pain and her passion for education appealed to young people in the township of Huhudi who wanted to enter the doors of Hoërskool Vryburg.
Although Mandela is often lauded as the hero of Babeile’s story, it was through Mompati’s work that heroism was possible. Her role in disrupting Vryburg’s racist legacies was one of the many things that the media, in their obsession, would overlook. Mompati was deployed to Vryburg to ensure that the town’s white authorities adhered to the tenets of the Freedom Charter. Opening the gates of Hoërskool Vryburg to black pupils was part of that mission, and in 1996 Babeile became the first black student to register with the school, thanks to her efforts.
“She spoke to the management of the school and showed them the importance of racial integration,” Babeile told The Star newspaper in 2015 of Mompati’s role in getting him and other students accepted at the school. In November of that same year, the South African Schools Act, which stressed inclusivity and made it illegal for better-resourced schools to refuse access to students from poor backgrounds, was signed into law.
Not ready to embrace change, however, the school’s management altered its policies in an attempt to salvage an obsession with preserving a white cultural ethos and projecting white academic excellence. First, fees were increased to make it nearly impossible for black students, who were mostly poor, to have access to the school. When that policy proved ineffective, language was weaponised to divide the school into two sections. The governing body argued that language made it impossible for black and white learners to share the same class. White students, who were used to learning in Afrikaans, struggled with English; ironically, black students used to being taught in Setswana struggled too.
This was the background to the stabbing of Erasmus on 17 February 1999 and the events that followed after.
A travesty of justice
In May 2001, Babeile stood in the high court in Kimberley and listened as the judge confirmed his five-year sentence after being found guilty of attempted murder the previous year. Throughout his trial in the Vryburg regional court as well as his subsequent appeal, which reduced his sentence by two years, Babeile had insisted that the stabbing had been an act of self-defence. It was an act many believed had been unavoidable.
“One could say the assault or something like it was inevitable. We began investigating incidents of racism in Vryburg in 1998 after a group of white men stormed the gates of Vryburg High and assaulted black learners. So, by the time Babeile assaulted a white student, you could say the ground was ripe,” says an official who worked closely with Van Wyk.
In the 16 months before his sentencing, and before he was immortalised as the face of injustice by a picture of him shaking hands with Mandela at the prison in Kimberley where he was jailed, Babeile was a self-serving pariah who sought to undo years of work to achieve racial harmony in Vryburg, at least according to the media.
“The focus on Babeile by the media was a travesty of justice. So much of the story was left out for headlines. Journalists themselves seemed to be invested in this idea of non-racialism which the ruling party was peddling at the time,” says the official.
History and context was of little concern to many journalists covering the story at the time. This was evident a year before the stabbing incident, when a group of 300 white parents stormed the gates of Hoërskool Vryburg and assaulted black students, accusing them of aiding a gang of radical black boys that was terrorising white students.
Then again, historically, black youths have always been on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by paranoid racists who saw them as people who might one day seek justice. The media framed the protest as a spontaneous event and ignored the fact that it was rooted in Vryburg’s racist history.
Forced removals and the fear of young activists
One event in particular is of importance when discussing the misconceptions and irrational fear of black youths in Vryburg – and the events that followed in the wake of Babeile’s assault.
As part of the National Party’s forced removal campaign in 1970, housing minister Piet Koornhof resolved to cease all development in Huhudi (it became illegal to build or renovate an existing house) and remove its more than 20 000 residents to a new location, Pudumong. Like all forced removals, this one was about the state’s need to control black people. Huhudi was one the few townships that had escaped the National Party’s separate development policy as it existed outside the homelands. A relocation of its residents to Pudumong would have made them the responsibility of the Bophuthatswana government and cleared the way for the party’s ambitions for Huhudi. But residents were having none of it.
In response to the threat of removal, which had hung over the town for a decade, the Huhudi Civic Association was founded in 1983 and took its battle to the courts under the slogan “United we stand, divided we fall”. And when the courts were prejudicial, the association took the battle to the streets, organising boycotts of white business and rent payment delays. Young activists like Sylvester Gasebue, who was brutally shot in 1985, were critical to the fight to resist removal.
Fearing that resistance in Huhudi might inspire other townships, a terror campaign by white vigilante groups was unleashed on young activists in Huhudi. These groups, whose interests often coincided with those of the state and who therefore operated with impunity, were a response to young, radical black activists who agitated for equality and were seen as a threat to Vryburg’s racial order.
It was this same fear that prompted racist white parents to storm the gates of Hoërskool Vryburg in 1998. In their eyes, Babeile and other black students had the potential to spark a bigger fight to undo Vryburg’s racist legacies and expose their beneficiaries. And they were not wrong. The plight of black students in Huhudi reverberated throughout the country.
By time he was sentenced, Babeile had become something of an icon and found himself occupying the spotlight. Despite often being dismissed as a hot-headed young man who couldn’t control his adolescent rage, he also came to symbolise the urgency and defiance of his generation. The suppressed rage of young people in high schools across South Africa found expression in his actions. In a single act of what he has always said was self-defence, he put public schooling policy back on the agenda – and the state noticed. For all its failure to strike a balance, the media did unintentionally do something: it put Babeile on the map. In both township and former apartheid model C schools, his story found resonance. The fear that Babeile’s story might have more radical meaning to young people around the country prompted Mandela to travel to Kimberly prison to encourage Babeile to persevere with his studies.
That he would become something of a hero had less to do with the media’s obsession with him than the fact that high schools were becoming ideological and cultural battlegrounds. In the same year that Babeile stabbed Erasmus, the then chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission, Barney Pityana, issued a report carrying a stern warning: the situation in South African schools was contradicting the broader economic imperative. Schools were beginning to reflect the kind of disparities that should have gone away with the advent of the democratic dispensation. Those in black communities were often left unattended while private and former apartheid schools, mostly in the suburbs, thrived despite them all belonging to the same public schooling system.
But Pityana and Babeile were not enough to sound the alarm about the troubling state of South African high schools to drive the point home. In the same year that Babeile stabbed Erasmus, the controversial youth drama Yizo Yizo took to the airwaves. It captured in particular the public schooling crisis that ensued after 1994. Though its success in making the government uncomfortable had nothing to do with Babeile, it was partly founded on the momentum of his generation’s struggle.
In a deliciously ironic turn of events (a newspaper headline was more apt: ‘Victim of racism’ will have his day in court after all), Babeile found himself seated in the same court in which he had appeared a decade earlier as an accused and watched his life disappear before him. But this time he was there to savour a moment that anyone who has ever been falsely accused of a crime could only dream about: Erasmus and his parents standing in the dock for corruption. “I want to see them standing in the dock just like I had to stand in the dock,” Babeile told The Saturday Star in 2008.
The appearance of the Erasmus family in court, albeit for a different type of crime, would be irrelevant to Babeile, except that the accusation that he had attempted to murder Erasmus was powered by all the tropes that had seen his parents, as citizens of apartheid South Africa, being denied a right to influence the political direction of their country. In the eyes of many white families like the Erasmuses, black people were inherently corrupt and incapable of ruling over anyone. Yet a decade after their son cried murder and abruptly put an end to the education of a young black man, here they were, in court, charged with that same trope racists liked to throw in the face of black people: corruption.
A cautionary tale
Although Babeile’s actions altered the trajectory of public schooling policies, they were even more impactful outside the classroom. He and other black students unintentionally did what many leftists and critics of the rainbow narrative failed to do: exposing the Rainbow Nation as a myth. Until he stabbed Erasmus, it was a foregone conclusion that, in schools, the idea of non-racialism without stressing historical injustice would work.
Today Babeile is a shadow of that young activist whose plight once inspired passionate debates about South Africa’s race relations. As a teenager he fought and survived racism only to find himself trapped in the hole of economic dispossession. Part of what has kept him poor is his defiant refusal to betray his principles. He has more in common with a struggling Umkhonto weSizwe veteran than he does with young people.
But as an adult he’s learning a hard truth: the economy is more important than personal principles. “White people have closed industries after democracy and the new government did not even try to revive them,” Babeile said in a complaint about the state of Vryburg to Mahikeng-based radio station Motsweding FM.
Many would rightly argue that, two decades since Babeile dragged the state of public schooling into the spotlight, South Africa’s public schools have got worse. But no one can deny the significance of Babeile in influencing how we look at public schooling today.