Bonteheuwel reclaims Youth Day for its forgotten heroes

Residents of the gang-ridden Cape Town suburb are drawing together, forming committees and holding sports tournaments to move towards a better future while honouring the past.

It was an August morning when Christopher Truter saw pupils gathering on a field at Arcadia High School in Bonteheuwel, Cape Town. Curious, he moved closer to the crowd until he stood among them. The 15-year-old wore his school uniform. Moments later, the uniform was covered in blood.

On 25 August 1976, he was shot by the police, who had fired their guns to disperse the crowd. Truter had been shot in the back of the head. His sister, Sarah Valerie Petersen, 22, had come to the school to look for him after hearing that a boy resembling Christopher had been shot. When Petersen, now 64, found her youngest brother, he was on the ground bleeding from his head.

“I waited for the ambulance and the ambulance took so long. His brains were all lying on his school top. When the ambulance came, I got into the ambulance with Christopher. I was full of pieces of his brains. I just said, ‘Christopher, Christopher,’ and he said, ‘Mama.’ He thought I was Mama,” she remembers.

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On 1 September, his family turned off the life-support machines. Truter had been declared brain dead. He was the first young person to be shot and killed by security forces in Bonteheuwel and he was among the first in the Western Cape to be murdered by the apartheid regime.

It was the aftermath of the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976. Across South Africa, riots were erupting as angry students took on the apartheid state. Truter was not politically active, he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time when the shots were fired.

Petersen still lives in the family home in Bonteheuwel. The road is a buffer between two gang territories where violence often surges. On the morning of Wednesday 12 June this year, a man was shot and wounded in the area, police confirmed. The shooting is said to have happened in Assegai Street, just two roads away from where Petersen lives. It is estimated that 36 people have been killed in gang violence in Bonteheuwel since the start of the year, but the police refuse to reveal the exact number because of a moratorium on the release of crime statistics.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bonteheuwel was a hub of anti-apartheid activity but in later years it became infamous for gang violence. A group of former activists have now taken on the task of reclaiming Youth Day from the gangs that control parts of the area, and to honour fallen heroes who have been long forgotten.

Sports as activism

Coline Williams had a different school blazer to everyone else. She was the only one in her primary school with a blue Western Province jacket. As a youngster, she had a remarkable talent for netball and had been selected to represent her province.

Around Bonteheuwel, Williams is known for a different reason. She was part of the class of the 1980s, a cohort of brave young ANC activists who had joined the armed struggle. She was killed at the age of 22, when a limpet mine exploded prematurely during Umkhonto weSizwe’s bombing campaign. It’s been long suspected that there was foul play in the alleged accident, with speculation that the regime had infiltrated Williams’ unit in Umkhonto weSizwe and turned one of her comrades into a spy.

Her sister, Selina Williams, has waited for justice. But Coline is barely remembered in wider public memory outside of Bonteheuwel. Selina was the younger of the two and while their mother worked long hours, Coline would take care of her. At a young age, Selina grew to know the inside of the anti-apartheid youth movement spreading through Bonteheuwel and the rest of the province. She would accompany Coline to politically charged resistance meetings and sport was often used as a tool to mobilise youngsters.

“In the 1980s we had the Christopher Truter Cup and even us, as girls, we played soccer in the Christopher Truter Cup. When the idea came for a netball cup in the name of Coline, I embraced it because Coline represented the Western Cape for netball,” Selina says.

Coline died in July 1989 alongside her comrade, Robbie Waterwitch, in Athlone. She was part of a group of youngsters who had felt the impact of Truter’s death years earlier and would end up joining uMkhonto weSizwe. Her unit was known as the Ashley Kriel Detachment, named after the celebrated martyr killed by the police at the age of 20 in 1987.

13 June 2019: Selina Williams at the library in Bonteheuwel, the steps of which youth aligned with the United Democratic Front used as an informal meeting place. The details surrounding the death of her sister, Coline Williams, remain unknown. (Photograph by Barry Christianson)

Taking back the streets

Everywhere around Bonteheuwel, where children still play on street corners and in the roads, there are memories. The Bonteheuwel library was where Williams was first arrested during the early days of her activism in 1985. It’s still there, but there is nothing to speak of these memories.

Arcadia High School is there, too. The field at the school where Truter was shot will now play host to a tournament in both their memories. A pamphlet to advertise the Christopher Truter Memorial Football Tournament and Coline Williams Memorial Netball Tournament says the events will encourage people in the area to “take our streets, blocks and recreational spaces back from gangsters and drug lords”.

The Bonteheuwel Development Forum, a grassroots organisation led by residents, organised the tournament for the Youth Day weekend in an effort to spur older generations of activists to help youngsters be emboldened to become activists.  

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Henriette Abrahams, a member of the Bonteheuwel Development Forum and a former United Democratic Front activist, says the onus is on parents to help youngsters in the area.

“We are the mothers and the grandparents of the youth of today. We have had certain issues and challenges in the 1970s and 1980s and we need to look at the challenges of the youth today. How do we as parents of the 1970s and 1980s assess, guide and mentor our youth today? Yes, that time it was repression from police, it was apartheid, it was gutter education. Now we are still in poverty and a high rate of crime, gangsterism and drug addiction. How do we fight that scourge?” she asks.

Bonteheuwel is divided into block committees, which are made up of smaller street committees, where activists can help manage the needs of their neighbourhoods. Abrahams was hoping the tournament would be a catalyst for more street committees to form in the area. Of the 22 block committees, 13 were taking part in the netball and soccer tournaments.

13 June 2019: Henriette Abrahams, one of the organisers of the Christopher Truter Memorial Football Tournament, holding the trophies that will be awarded to clubs. (Photograph by Barry Christianson)

Forgotten activists

Selina has had to work hard to keep her sister’s memory alive. Early in 2002, she grew worried that Coline’s grave was not clearly marked. Along with activists in a group known as Cara – Coline Ashley Robbie Anton, the last name for Bonteheuwel-born Anton Fransch, the Umkhonto weSizwe activist killed in Athlone in 1989 – she sought to have their graves clearly marked with tombstones. Initially, the ANC-led government indicated its support. But when the time came to help finance the project, Cara was left to raise the money on their own. It took more than two years.

Selina has watched as other families of well-known stalwarts are treated with honour. But she has felt her family struggle. They have had to do the work of memorialising Coline and keeping her name alive with little help from the ANC.

“From the age of 16, I’ve been representing my family. I was part of organising her funeral and at every single memorial, I represented the family. Now, 30 years later, what I’ve realised is that all the other families get to attend memorials and they get to be the guests of honour. They get to be seated and honoured, whereas I become a worker bee,” she says.

Petersen feels much the same. Her brother’s death mobilised mass action in Bonteheuwel. When the buses filled with mourners had no more seats available, people streamed through the streets to walk the 6km route to Maitland Cemetery on the day of his funeral. Back then, his death had an impact, but today she feels it has been erased.

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“People talk about Hector [Pietersen] and this one and that one. They never mentioned Christopher’s name and he was the first one that was shot in Bonteheuwel,” she says.

Her pain runs deep to this day and she still remembers Christopher as the baby of the family. Most of the memorialisation of Christopher’s death has fallen on to the shoulders of his niece, Carmelita, who was five years old when he died. She remembers him as the uncle who bought her sweets and told her never to call his sisters “auntie” because they gave him too many hidings.

Carmelita is respected in her neighbourhood. The gangsters who walk down her street, sometimes with their guns, are quick to hide their cigarettes and weapons when she is around. They greet her courteously: “Hello Auntie Carmie.”

Petersen is tired. This will be the first year that she attends the tournament held in her brother’s name. She says that at the very least it could make a difference to children in Bonteheuwel, to know the history of what young generations before them did to become heroes.

“They just know about fighting and shooting. I don’t think they worry about what happened before. I’m not sure they’re interested in knowing about 1976,” she says.

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