The families of the victims of the Trojan Horse Massacre have vowed not to rest until those responsible for the deaths of their loved ones are prosecuted and in jail. They say the government has let them down and are now proposing transitional justice.
Thirty-five years ago, on 15 October 1985, members of the security forces shot and killed Jonathan Claasen, 21, Shaun Magmoed, 15, and Michael Miranda, 11, and injured several others who were part of anti-government demonstrations in Athlone, Cape Town.
On the day of the incident, security and railway police officers worked together to crush a gathering of youths who were protesting against the apartheid government. The incident became known as the Trojan Horse Massacre as the officers hid behind wooden crates on the back of a railway truck driven into the middle of the protest before opening fire on the crowd.
This tactic was repeated in Crossroads the following day. Mabhuti Fatman, 20, and Mengxwane Mali, 19, were shot and killed while playing soccer in the road when the truck drove by.
An inquest was launched in March 1988 to investigate the actions of the police. The magistrate ruled that the police had acted in an unreasonable way. Thirteen men were charged and the case was referred to the attorney general of the Cape, who refused to prosecute those responsible. The families of the victims then launched a private prosecution, which ended in the acquittal of the accused men in December 1989.
The families said they were not surprised at the acquittal as the country was still run by the apartheid government. But they find it appalling that 26 years into democracy, the government has failed to redress the injustices of the past.
‘It became so dark’
Veteran activist Elizabeth van der Heyden, 85, took part in the demonstrations that led to the massacre. Recalling that day, she said the police came out of an SA Railway truck and opened fire relentlessly.
“Though it was during the day, it became so dark. There were screams everywhere. We feared for our lives. We knew that the police were very cruel towards black people back then,” she said.
Van der Heyden said that today’s government’s failures started at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa sitting, a multiparty forum to negotiate the principles of a new constitution. “The meeting was just about giving political power to the ANC. We still have no economic freedom. We are still paying apartheid debt. The meeting was concentrated on making peace at our expense. Those who committed the Trojan Massacre should be prosecuted,” she said.
Athlone activist Shaheed Mohamed said it is a “tragedy that freedom we’ve been fighting for has not been realised … We will continue the fight until apartheid police are prosecuted. If that is not happening, we will mobilise the country. There will be no justice until they are behind bars.”
He said the government has further let them down as some of those officers still hold positions in the police service. One of them is DA councillor Salmon Pienaar, who admitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that he had played a part in the Trojan Horse Massacre.
“They must be removed. They must have their pensions taken,” said Mohamed.
Passing on the baton
Selima Williams, whose sister Colleen Williams took part in the demonstrations, passed the baton on to today’s youth. “The struggle that we had in the 1980s is not different from today. Yes, we delivered freedom. Your responsibility is to preserve it. You must fight for transitional justice. Your struggle is for the future. Make sure those [Trojan Massacre] injustices are not repeated.”
Williams and Mohamed said there are about 330 cases against the apartheid police that were not prosecuted. As a result, said Williams, they struggle to move forward. “The transitional justice is not just our story but for you as well.”
Imam Haron Foundation director Cassiem Khan said Imam Haron’s wife, Galiema Haron, died on 29 September 2019 still hoping to have her husband’s murder docket reopened.
Haron died in police custody in Claremont more than 50 years ago, on 27 September 1969. The police told his family that he died after falling down a flight of stairs. He spent 123 days in solitary confinement, during which time he was interrogated about his involvement in the struggle against apartheid. His grave at the Mowbray Muslim Cemetery was unveiled as a provincial heritage site last year.
“Nyameko Goniwe also died without seeing justice for her husband Matthew Goniwe,” said Khan. Goniwe was part of the Cradock Four along with Fort Calata, Sicelo Mhlauli and Sparrow Mkonto. They disappeared on 27 June 1985 after attending a United Democratic Front meeting in Port Elizabeth. Their mutilated bodies were later found in the Blue Water Bay area near Port Elizabeth.
Khan explained that the role of transitional justice would be to expand on TRC’s work. “In transitional justice, apartheid police will be prosecuted. There will be reparations for victims.”
Crossroads resident Siyabulela Lengisi said they are in the process of opening the Crossroads Museum, where the history and struggle of the area would be documented. “We have already collected material from the South African History Archive about the fallen heroes and heroines from Crossroads and surrounding areas. We want the youth to know about the struggle,” he said.
‘A planned event’
To commemorate these tragedies, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has released a documentary about the massacres. UCT’s Human Sciences Research Council chief executive Crain Soudien said they depended on the testimonies of witnesses to tell the story of the Trojan Horse Massacre.
“The recordings now still are absolutely incredible. The material that is available on it is incredibly revealing, seeing those trucks, and the trucks were filmed going up and down the road,” Soudien said. “So we now know, because that wasn’t available to us at the time, that this was a planned event.”
Martha Evans from UCT’s Centre for Film and Media Studies said the police’s plan was to suppress uprising in the area by entering it in an SA Railways vehicle. At the time, she said, it was quite difficult for them to get into communities in police vehicles because the police were so unpopular.
“So, their plan was to get into the community in an SA Railways truck, and to arrest ringleaders of uprisings and protests that were occurring at the time,” she said.
Western Cape member of the executive council for cultural affairs and sport Anroux Marais said the Trojan Horse Massacre characterises the “tumultuous past and the horrific incidents of an unjust system”, which should be acknowledged to inform future generations so as “to prevent its recurrence of any kind, as there exists no space for it in a democratic society”.
“Today more than ever, commemorations of this nature are essential to build an emotional framework to make sense of our divided past,” said Marais.