TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION

DAY 2 - 25 JUNE 1996

 

SUBMISSION

FATHER MICHAEL WEEDER

 

CHAIRPERSON:

[indistinct] free time, but most seriously we saw some of the testimony that was given yesterday and again we are overwhelmed by the horror and the awfulness of what we knew took place, but each time we are told this, it is as if we really we do not know the depth of evil and ugliness.

But what gives hope to our country is what we constantly want to underline. The generosity that people have in their willingness to forgive people who have - who have been hurt so badly. And we do believe that God wants to bless our country - to heal our country. And we thank all of those who are willing to come forward to testify - to tell of the anguish and the pain that they experienced in the past so that we as a nation may acknowledge that pain. We as the nation may then help as we open those wounds to cleanse them to pour ointment on them and so to heal them.

We are asked to work for the promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation and it is the work of every one of us and we thank God for all of you who come also to support those who come to tell their stories.

And we hope that as we hear the stories each of us will form a firm commitment that we will never allow such things to happen again in our country. We look to the past so that we must never repeat those awful things.

May I introduce the panel - on my right is Pumla Gobodo. She is a committee member of the Human Rights Violation Committee based in Cape Town. And on my left is Dr Alex Boraine who is the Deputy Chair of the Commission and is also a member of the Human Rights Violations Committee. And on his left is advocate Denzil Potgieter, a Commissioner and member of the Human Rights Violations Committee. And I hand over then to Dr Boraine.

DR BORAINE:

Thank you Chairperson may I say how delighted all of us are that you are here. Iíve never known you to take a break, so you are not starting today thatís for sure - you got work ahead of you and we are very-very pleased to have you as the Chairperson.

Iíd like to before calling first witness, to say a word of welcome again to all of you and particularly to the Mayor and his wife Ms Williams who has joined him today and we are delighted they are here.

There are people here Iím quite sure whose name should be mentioned you must forgive me if I donít because I simply donít know your faces which I know I should, but you all very special and very welcome.

Now, the Archbishop thought that there may not be anybody here today so he brought his own congregation just to make quite sure we have some people. But in particular we are very-very delighted to have Ms Leah Tutu with us the wife of the Archbishop we very-very please to see her, together with daughters Thandi and Mpho who are here and were here for the special celebrations that took place over the weekend. We are very pleased to see you.

Thereís also Ms Morrison who is sister to the Archbishop and Ms Radebe whose also a sister and we are delighted to see you. Mr Martin Kenyan from United Kingdom who is with the family group, Jerry Dumfrey from Boston and Ms Dumfrey and Senator Roger Ellis.

Also I understand Father Beacon from Los Angeles and Dr Battle from Swayne in the United States. Ms Regis from Pasadena and her son who also here and Mr & Ms Bob Fitzgerald from Montana.

Now Iím sure Iíve left somebody out, but you should forgive me and a little later on - because Iím also nearing that retirement period.

Well we are starting in a somewhat different way today in that the first witness is not so much a victim of Human Rights Violations with a particular story to tell. But someone who has been a Pastor and Minister to his people, and who knows something about the background and the history of so many actions which took place and it was thought good to have such a context given to us. So I invite without any further ado Father Michael Weeder to come to the witness stand please.

Father Weeder you are very welcome, we are very grateful to you for coming and you will know that if we had unlimited time we would be glad to see for the whole morning. But our is limited we have number of witnesses we want to hear and I gather that you are going to read a brief statement.

I think I must ask you if you would please stand to take the oath like anyone else.

 

MICHAEL WEEDER Duly sworn states

 

DR BORAINE:

Thank you very much indeed again a very warm welcome and we will listen to your statement with interest. Thank you.

FATHER WEEDER:

Thank you, Mr Chairperson and members of the Commission. I must express a certain amount of awkwardness in presenting my statement because as I mentioned I have lived for a very brief period within the region and having spent that time I realised that as a township and city born person I do have certain amount of privilege when having been exposed to the reality of rural life.

My exposure has also been somehow also sustained by the protection of the church in whatever limited form it was sanctioned in the apartheid years. And so it is also with that preface that I would like to introduce the statement.

As my stay staying in Boland was a short one lasting from January 1989 to the autumn of 1991. In that time I had served as a parish priest of St. Josephís and St. Mildredís in the towns of Ashton and Montagu at the Eastern end of Boland.

I only been a priest for three years as had also assumed pastoral responsibility to the parish of Zolani in October 1989. At that time I was 30 years old, married and still am married to Bonita a school teacher by profession.

When we arrived here we had a daughter who was two years and four months, Giarra and a son, Andile would be born later that year.

I had been ordained to the priesthood at the end of 1985 and after three years of ministry, I was fairly inexperienced as a young priest coming to a rural town. And it was an immense and daunting challenge of that loomed ahead of me.

Within 48 hours of our arrival in Ashton the then acting Commanding Officer of Ashton Police Station Warrant Officer Hanson welcomed us with an inquiry about whether we had a permit to live in white area.

I informed him that it was not the custom of our church to accommodate racism and that it found the group areas act particularly offensive.

Being a gentle priest I noted that he was apparently uncomfortable with my position and I assured him that I recognised that he stood under orders and called upon him to appreciate that in a similar way I was also compelled to be obedient to my Bishop and to go where the church sent me and serve under whatever conditions they place me.

Me and the good officer then parted on that note and with the matter then referred to the attorney general and that was my introduction to rural life within 48 hours.

Ashton, seemingly unaware of our presence, went about their business but at the same time we gradually became aware that we were subject of their collective scrutiny. Our race identity the identity of my wife Bonita and myself were a popular topic of both black and white citizens of the area. And they seemed to deliberate whether Bonita was an American Negro, to use that term, and as been referred to her they enquired as to whether I was a recent convert to the Christian faith. And I was identified as the koelie - boesman dominee.

This concern was related to me by one of my own parishioners and he seemed unaware and oblivious to the racism inherent in the town. The first six months as a Capetonian as an urban person was a very lonely period for us. Greetings were cold and handshakes were formal as we sought our place within the rural social hierarchy.

In the hope of facilitating my ministry I sought to conform to the established norms of that community and sadly I discovered that conformity required of me to surrender the integrity of the gospel.

I found myself easily moved to public expressions of anger, at the way young clerks at the bank, at the Post Office or even shop assistants treated me and or some other black person.

Looking back at that I found my latter role of patronising and to an extent offensive in assuming that I could speak out in the defence of others who had not called upon my defence or had neither given me the authority to be their champion. And in this silence I sensed a rebuke.

It took me a while to realise why, when the Boland exploded in popular protest a year later and to agree on a scale never witnessed before in the region. I would look back on those first few months and realise how wrong I had been about the people especially the Coloured community.

What I had mistook for apathy and submissiveness was just another means of coping of surviving and what have been said in another time people leading lives of quiet desperation.

I present this background because it needs to be understood that what happened in 1989, the uprisings of 1987 and earlier 1960ís should not be seen in isolation from broader the social political and economic context of the region.

The towns of Montagu and Ashton are located in Breede River Valley. Montagu on the Eastern side of the Langeberg and what is known as the Klein Karoo.

Each town has itís unique feature relative to its geography and specific local features.

Montagu for instance thrives on tourism because of the locality of the spa and the springs farm in the area.

Ashton on the other hand owes its existence early in 40ís to the railway that came there and the station master was Mr Ashton. And later the canning factories none of which was one of the largest in the southern hemisphere and employs most of the people from not only in Ashton but from Bonnievale, McGregor and so on and so forth.

These towns have developed unequally both socially and economically and yet to a degree it shared the following features:

1. THE REMNANTS OF PETTY APARTHEID

THE POST OFFICE:

Clerks were all white. Xhosa speaking people in terms of the language were not catered for. They had to endure the insolence of not being understood or having to struggle to communicate in Afrikaans.

HOSPITALS WERE SEGREGATED IN PRACTISE

Hospitals were segregated in practice and Montagu and Robertson people were admitted and cared for on the basis of colour.

At Montagu Hospital there were no black, that is Coloured and African sisters. The Coloured women who employed there were nurse aides and during the events of 1990 people who were hospitalised as a result of police action, were often released into police custody.

Even while in hospital they were vulnerable to police harassment and intimidation. People as result were afraid when wounded to go to hospital we often had to smuggle people all the way to Cape Town. On the whole the attitude of the hospital staff towards patients and their visitors left much room for improvement.

POLICE STATIONS

At the police stations all the senior officers were white and here racism was experienced in its most violent form both in terms of verbal abuse and physical force. Most of the rural towns are under the local commanding officer whose individual characteristic being either authoritarian or benevolent would determine the kind of policing that town would receive.

MUNICIPALITIES

The municipalities except for account payment facilities existed for black people and they were usually at the back of municipal offices.

LIVING CONDITIONS

The living conditions were saved by the fact that people were not directly represented on the local Government. These were manifested in a myriad of spiralling social problems.

houses. A survey of the amount they spent on firewood and

gas, paraffin and candles showed that the electricity would

be far more economical.

The rental seemed to be evaluated without consideration to condition of the house, the basic living expenses of the occupants and the fact that for seven months of the year many of the people were unemployed as this was due to the seasonal nature of the employment in the area.

And so on the ground people experienced not only that

period of the 80ís but even before that, going way back into

the century what appeared to be a collusion between

different forms of local authority, be they the police, be they

the health authorities, be they the people within the

municipality. As a black person you knew that if you

reprimanded a clerk for serving a white person before you,

even if that person came in behind you - that if you dared

challenge that and you could do that in the hierarchy of

apartheid somewhere along the line either yourself or

your father working at the canning factory or somewhere

along the line your cousin might end up in prison or in jail

as a result of the consequence of your insolence - of your

daring to stand up and so people sensing another experience

at collusion refrained from obvious resistance.

And so be they the courts, municipality, the health care or the business, somehow or other enclosed in that small white community and the awesome power they yielded were able to control and regulate black lives from the cradle to the grave. The background and then its conclusion to the Boland uprising of 1990 has found in poverty and extreme social disadvantage of black Bolanders.

The history of neglect by local authorities along with the problems of unemployment, the over-crowding, the high rents inadequate refuse removal mixed with hope denied made this region a bomb waiting to explode.

We found that in 1990 South Africa was at the crossroad, the Groote Schuur minutes and the eventual release of President Nelson Mandela raised the hopes of millions of South Africans for a peaceful transition from the Babylon of Apartheid South Africa to a non-racial democracy.

When black Bolanders came to realise that it was business as usual and that there were elements abroad in the region or in their towns who either did not wish to adapt or even accept the promise of a new day for all they had enough.

Late in June 1990 residents in Ashton, Zolani embarked on a series non violence action that set in motion and irreversible process of change.

Many months later they emerged from the bloodied brutalised but immensely proud that God had led them through own Exodus. Reaching the other side of repression they knew for themselves that the days of baasskap were over and they had helped to bury it.

Now, just as those few months and it was a very short period in one year in 1990, brought the nationís focus on a brave and an uneven struggle between the community of Ashton, of Bonnievale, of Robertson and the security forces, and the results of that was editorialised - was scrutinised by the media and even appeared on the front page in one occasion of the New York Times.

Very fleetingly the Boland emerged on the national agenda and on the national stage of the political arena. Very soon after that our reality out here faded again into oblivion.

I pray that the scrutiny of TRC will bring the story of the Ashtonís, the many Montaguís, but particularly the lives of the people on the surrounding farms into itís full perspective. And seek to gain a living and an ongoing monument that will testify very loudly to the hidden lives lost over the forgotten years on some obscure farm, the resettlements of Kananadorp from Sakkiesdorp to Khwezi township.

The drunk father coming from going back to the farm and being arrested, being brutalised and then being released again.

Young farm boys, young Afrikaners being initiated into manhood by the rape of our mothers behind some lonely koppie.

The young men who were arrested because for a moment they felt that they could fight and stand and justify all that had regulated their lives and being arrested and thatís how my lawyer was Gary Janson and police officers would come into the jail and take statements saying that they are from Gary Janson and Associates.

I donít what happened to them, we donít know what happened to them. All those hidden lives somehow we should bring it and resurrect it so that we again can give meaning to what happened not only in the passing glory of a political action because that somehow bring its own reward and a very fleeting moment of Iíve lived.

But we are talking about what continues to happen, the further you go into the more and more areas of the region further away from the Breede River valley, further away from the river and itís affluence. Those lives needs to be subjected to the full glare of publicity and inquiry so that we again can also see particularly in those lives, also people who had lived, also people who had tried to be human and just make it through another day for their sake, for their childrenís sake and as South Africanís for Godís sake.

CHAIRPERSON:

Thank you very much, Father. We would like to try to see the history of the people will not be forgotten and yes, that they be in a way resurrected and we do hope that the work of this Commission will make some contribution to the healing of our people. And we pray that God will bless us, so that we can make a new start all of us, that each one of us can we regard a fellow human being as a brother or sister.

We thank God for the work that you have done such as for instance director of Project Vote in which you helped people and assisted them during 1990 and 1994ís elections. You helped people in participating in that election.