The Trojan Horse: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reaches the End of Its Mandate to Examine the Ugly Face of Apartheid in July 1998

By Lyons, Beth | New Internationalist, January/February 1998 | Go to article overview

The Trojan Horse: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reaches the End of Its Mandate to Examine the Ugly Face of Apartheid in July 1998


Lyons, Beth, New Internationalist


HUNDREDS of sets of eyes - of parents, schoolchildren, press, international observers - are riveted on a video screen. They are in a hall at the Athlone Technical College, outside Cape Town, South Africa.

On the screen, non-uniformed police officers suddenly jump out of crates in the back of an unmarked truck. The men, armed with rifles, fire shots down a narrow residential street at children coming home from school.

This was the 'Trojan Horse' incident of October 1985 - so called because of similarities to the mythical events in Troy when attacking Greek soldiers were concealed in a wooden horse.

Athlone, a coloured township outside Cape Town, had been a site of community resistance to apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s. In August 1985, 8,000 people marched to nearby Pollsmoor Prison where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. Police clashed with demonstrators. Over the next two months, police violence resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people. Countless others were injured and there were more than 300 arrests. A State of Emergency had been declared 11 days before the Trojan Horse incident.

On that day, three youths - Michael Miranda (aged 11), Shaun Magmoed (aged 16) and Jonathan Classen (age 21) - were killed and scores were injured. The children were allegedly throwing stones at the police, who testified they had feared for their safety. They said they had been ordered to arrest, not kill.

The audience watching the video of the events more than ten years later is taking part in the public hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The hall they are sitting in is just a block or two from the incident on the screen.

I am standing next to a young reporter in his thirties. He bursts into tears as the video starts. Then 22 years old, he was in Athlone that day in 1985 with the schoolchildren. 'It could have been me', he keeps saying.

A twelve-year-old student - just born when the attack occurred - perceptively points out that there was no room on the truck to put the children whom the police were supposedly going to arrest. And the police team was equipped with ammunition that could kill if fired at close range.

Seven of the police officers in the video are sitting on the stage, looking smug, with no trace of emotion on their faces. They have been subpoenaed to appear. As the Commissioners grill them, the still-angry but disciplined spectators listen to the police responses and mouth the word 'liar' to each other. 'Where are the stones?' they ask in disbelief.

Ten years ago, I am told, this crowd would have wanted to lynch the police officers who murdered their children. But today, this hall is a safe haven. The officers' safety is guaranteed by the community's commitment to a process of building the new democratic South Africa, motivated by ubuntu (which, in the words of Commission Chair Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is the 'essence of being human').

The audience includes relatives and friends of the dead and injured children. They testified on the first day of the hearings, recounting the unspeakable horrors they had witnessed and watched loved ones endure.

As I listened, I was repeatedly horrified not only by the abuses described but by the 'ordinariness' and ubiquity of murder, torture, detention and harassment in the daily lives of the majority of South Africans under apartheid.

Indelible in my memory is Mrs Zainab Ryklief's description of opening her home as a shelter for the fearful schoolchildren, running from police. Police pursued the children into her bedroom, shooting. Her bed was full of the children's blood, including that of the dying Shaun Magmoed. Afterwards, she asked her husband to buy a new bed because she could no longer sleep on it.

The focus here is on the 'victims'. But when you listen to witnesses reliving what happened as they tell their stories, they seem rather to be heroes and heroines, the survivors of apartheid.

There have been scores of public hearings of the Commission throughout the country since its inception in April 1996. …

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