TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION
HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
SUBMISSIONS - QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
NAME: BASIL SWART
DR RAMASHALA: Mr Swart, Good Afternoon, You will be talking about the role of teachers at the time of the unrest. Isn't that correct? Would you please proceed with your submission.
MR SWART: (AFFIRMED STATES)
That's right, thank you. I had some reservations about coming forward but I feel now that it's imperative for people to come forward, to get to the truth of what has happened in South Africa. The role of teachers in the time of the unrest, was very important. But before I go onto that, I would like to give a self presentation. I am the ex deputy principal of Alexander Sinton High School. Alexander Sinton has always been in the forefront of the political struggle. This exposed many teachers and pupils to the struggle against this very unjust regime. In 1976, during the unrest this was when we had the Afrikaans language problem, I was arrested when I went to the aide of one of my pupils, who was shot by the security forces. I was kept in prison for a long weekend and was released on bail. Charges against me were eventually dropped. In 1985 I was arrested again, when we reopened the school in contravention of an order to close schools by the so-called Minister of Education, Carter Ebrahim, and was imprisoned for two weeks in Pollsmoor Prison. In June 1986, I was again arrested for being part and parcel of the unrest of the schools and held for 18 months at Victor Verster. In 1985, the revamped committee of 1981, which was a student organisation comprised of student representatives of different schools of the Western Cape, this committee organised with schools and organised protest rallies. Meetings took place at Sinton and other schools where that committee met. The activities of the Committee of '81 were directed against the injustices, the apartheid system, the inequality in the funding of schools where we had money being allocated on a racial basis. Of course the white schools got most of the share, of the pie. The committee organised protests and coming from the protests we always had stone throwing taking place against police vehicles and other official vehicles in general. This the police tried to stop, and became an everyday event in the area. The stones were thrown at police and government vehicles because they were perceived to represent the unjust government in power.
It is important to highlight the fact that teaching, at that time, could not continue because of the stoning, the unrest and the police invasion of schools. Sometimes it seems that the police were provoking the students. Schools were closed and no effective teaching was carried on from the start of February 1985. The schools were actually closed on the 6th September 1985, but I'll come back to that issue later in the presentation. The spread of awareness among the students, was in this way implemented before the establishment of the U.D.F. in August '85, but can at the same time not be understood outside the context it was part of.
In this landscape of unrest, we had to take a stand. It was both easy as well as difficult at the same time, because we were part of a teaching profession with it's own moral code and expected loyalty to the state. And we also shared the grievances of students against a system that clearly discriminated against our schools. This was the ambivalent situation that teachers were caught up in.
What options did we have? Some teachers resigned but the teacher's society at the time, the professional society like the T.L.S. which is the Teacher's League of South Africa, said that if teachers resigned, they would be deserting the children. So many teachers were in a very miserable situation. I think most of us were very unhappy, but we felt we had to carry on. Some resigned, others left the country, others went into other jobs, however, soon the teachers got together and said we had to stick this thing out. At that stage most teachers decided to teach under protest and to co-operate as little as possible with inspectors and the authorities for the sake of the children.
This was the context within which we reopened Sinton on 17th September 1985, when the schools were closed on the 6th September. Most important, this is from the teachers' point of view, was our role as the custodians of the children. When the student representative council called for a rally, the teachers then accompanied the pupils to these rallies. Our role was to look after their welfare, to secure their safety, and make sure that we would get them home and back to school again.
It was often difficult, because there would be a mass of police trucks or caspers, smoke, teargas. There was a lot of panic. We were not always very brave persons, so often we had to run very fast on certain occasions. The police knew about the student meetings, they came to interrupt these meetings with guns and caspers. They even shot students, students returned their fire with stones, tins. Of course we will not forget that students put up building barricades and road blocks as well. But these things were harmless against caspers and tanks. That the police came in full battle array to tackle unarmed people, was in itself very confrontational, and the police tricked the students in many incidents into violent reaction. Often the pupils were arrested, We had to go down to the police station and bail them out. We had to go down to the Athlone Police Station, to get quite a number of our students out, and on certain, on two occasions, I was arrested for trying to protect a child. As I mentioned in the beginning, I was even arrested for protecting students.
The same happened to many of my fellow teachers. My experiences, was in no way unique. Of course, there was always confrontation with the police and they wanted to know why the teachers were around and not at school. The answer to this question was two-fold, firstly, we were in our capacity as teachers in charge of student affairs, and it was our duty to see to their safety. Secondly, we replied that the pupils had taken a stand and we as teachers, form part of the oppressed, and we also took a stand with the pupils. We could not stand aside and let the pupils act on their own, we were also part of the struggle. We were also oppressed. And in this way we were in conflict with the authorities, and the authorities tried to use a heavy hand to try to stop us from participating.
I wouldn't say we were participating in the rallies, we were part and parcel of the process of securing the safety of the students. As a teacher, as a member of the teaching profession, Our duty was to see to students and of course, we were still part of the oppressed. Now the schools were closed, on 6 September 1985, by the then Minister of Education, for so-called Coloured Affairs, Mr Carter Ebrahim. The schools in the Athlone area, after community involvement, on 17 September, Sinton decided to open, re-open the school. Parents, teachers, pupils, were all arrested, who were on the premises, but then the community stepped in and surrounded the school with their cars, parked their cars, locked their cars, and walked away.
The police found themselves on Sinton premises,in actual fact, they were imprisoned at Sinton. They couldn't leave because the exits were all blocked. They then had to send for reinforcements. They cut the fence at the back and entered the premises and physically they removed the cars and took the pupils, parents and teachers to Mannenberg Police Station. The pupils and parents paid a fine but I, unfortunately was taken away by security police and taken to Brackenfell, where I was assaulted and eventually landed up at Bellville Police Station, and then at Pollsmoor.
All these events, the founding, launching of the U.D.F. in August 1985, made pupils, and I dare say teachers also, very much aware of what was happening around them, and this lead up to the unrest and eventually, lead to the Trojan Horse Incident, which is a incident which one must not take out of context, but is an incident that we have to remember, and I think that we have to sit down and record this incident and all the other incidents around in Athlone as part of our history.History of Athlone, history of the Western Cape, as well as the history of the new South Africa.
I sat here and listened to the Trojan Horse being related by families, by friends, it must have been very traumatic. It had a traumatic effect on students in general. Students refused to return to school because they feared the police. Attendance dropped dramatically and I think I have done the right thing in coming forward and sharing my views with the panel. Thank you very much.
DR RAMASHALA: Thank you very much Mr Swart. I want to observe certain parts in your submission. The first one is on page one: number two, general context - 1985, The committee of '81, which was a student organisation comprised of student representatives was formed. The committee organised the schools and protest rallies, now I want to underline that. The meetings took place at Sinton and other schools where the members of the committee of '81 met. So would you agree with me that Sinton High School became a target area?
MR SWART: Yes.
DR RAMASHALA: On page two, around the middle or the sentence, the paragraph which starts with: It is important to highlight the fact that teaching could not continue because of the stoning etc.etc. What I want to underline is the sentence and I quote "Sometimes it seemed that the police were provoking the students." I want to lay out a scenario, that on that particular day of the Trojan Horse the police were wearing unusual clothes, the police had an unmarked truck with crates in the back, the police were hiding in the crates , that they drove up the street, nothing happened, there was no stoning. They went back and then came back again. Would you think that that was done to provoke the students?
MR SWART: I think so, because the thing is, why should they then travel up and down and then wait for the truck to be stoned and then out of the crates, and open fire on defenceless children, and killing three of them.
DR RAMASHALA: The other part that I want to highlight, is on page three, the lat paragraph. "The police knew about the meetings students held so they came to interrupt these meetings and rallies with guns and caspers and all sorts of weapons. That, in fact the police came prepared with heavy ammunition. There was no rioting at that time, there was no stone throwing at that time. The police actually came to provoke violence and then to act in the way they did, with heavy and dangerous ammunition. Would you agree with that?
MR SWART: I would agree with that, yes.
DR RAMASHALA: Thank you, Chairperson, would you...?
CHAIR: Thank you Dr Ramashala and Mr Swart. Anyone of the team? Mrs Burton.
MS BURTON: Thank you chairperson. Mr Swart, Am I right in saying that at that time you were still in Pollsmoor prison?
MR SWART: Yes, In 1976, I was held in Athlone, '85 with the reopening of schools, I was arrested with the other parents, but I was separated from the rest and taken away by security and then taken to Pollsmoor.
MS BURTON: I'd like to say that I don't think you were right when you said that you weren't very brave, there were many very brave people at the time. But I wonder if it is possible for you, knowing that the turmoil that you and your community were going through, to think about if we were looking at an ideal society, what the police could and should have done at the time, given the fact there was great resistance. It had been growing in all our communities, all around this area, and in much wide spread parts of the Cape. There had been the closure and the reopening of the schools. There had been the Pollsmoor March, there had been the burning barricades, there had been a number of incidents of stone throwing. Now in a situation like that, what can one ask of a police force?
MR SWART: I know it's extremely difficult under those circumstances, but the thing is, what you know, I see around, watching T.V. etc. When there's unrest, say in Japan, or in Europe and, you know, stones are not thrown, but molotov cocktails, in other words, petrol bombs are thrown at the police, but the police are there with just their shields and they don't take any action, but in the South African context, but it is possibly because a black person throwing a stone, a gun is taken and pointed at the person and shot. Why do we have that? I just can't get the two together, petrol bombs are thrown - nothing happens, but a stone is thrown and a bullet is put through your head.
CHAIR: Thanks, I just want to unbungle this chicken and egg situation. Why do you think the stone throwing started?
MR SWART: I would say the stone throwing started because that was the only way in which, well possibly pupils and outsiders could show their disgust at the brutality, the harassment metered out by our police force.
CHAIR: Thank you Dr Ramashala and could you close for us please?
DR RAMASHALA: Mr Swart, it is very clear that this incident and others leading up to it and right after affected the entire community, in particular the community of parents whose children were killed and injured. But clearly it must have also affected the community of teachers and pupils, particularly at the Alexander Sinton High School. How did that community respond to an aftermath of the pain and the shock that occurred?
MR SWART: After the Trojan Horse Incident, we held quite a number of meetings with the parents, we called them to the school to explain to them what is happening at the school, what is happening in Athlone itself. And the parents came forward, helped the school, helped the children to attend school regularly because there was a dropping off in the attendance and they rallied by even attending meetings that took place at the mosque, so it was not just a so-called muslim thing at the mosque, it was all members of the community, coming together, sharing their experiences and helping each other during this difficult period of the Trojan Horse Incident.
DR RAMASHALA: As part of expressing our thanks to you, may I say that that period presented a dilemma for teachers as custodians of education. It presented a dilemma also in the sense that teachers could not stand back and lead the way for students without also in a way helping guide students in the process.
It also presented a dilemma because students were losing their time in terms of their study period for every year that a student could not learn, could not write their exams, that was a year lost in their future.
Clearly there is a whole generation from that period or children like Toyer a young man today, whose lives have been changed completely, who in a sense lost out, whose dreams were not realised. Those children are in limbo now, they are young men, yes but they are in limbo because their education dreams were never realised.
What in your opinion do you think we should do to sort of provide a transition and help them out? In a sense I think 99% of the children from that generation are unemployed, I think I am correct, when I say that.
MR SWART: Yes.
DR RAMASHALA: What can we do now?
MR SWART: Well, if you are speaking about Toyer, Toyer was one of my pupils. I sympathise with him, it was a difficult period for him to go through but I still think that we can as teachers get them back and you know, give whatever we can to close that particular gap that has been lost in his life where his education was shattered and we can still look forward in providing him with whatever we can.
DR RAMASHALA: In closing, may I say that thanks to you and all other teachers in the country both Black and White, for whom teaching was not fun at the time, for whom being in the schools presented a serious dilemma, but your participation and I think affirmation of the children and what they were doing, really helped sustain the children in their struggle for let me say quality education.
On behalf of the Truth Commission, I would like to say thank you for giving this perspective also.
MR SWART: Pleasure, thank you.
CHAIRPERSON: Thank you. Could we stand for departure to lunch. I just want to mention quickly that if you could return here please at 2.30, or rather 2.25 so that we could begin at 2.30. Could you stand as that witnesses leave the room, thank you.
COMMISSION ADJOURNS FOR LUNCH.