Murder of ANC guerrilla Kriel haunts sisters 27 years later
"I salute the rank-and-file members of the ANC. You have sacrificed life and limb in the pursuit of the noble cause of our struggle … I salute combatants of Umkhonto weSizwe, like Solomon Mahlangu and Ashley Kriel, who have paid the ultimate price for the freedom of all South Africans." – Nelson Mandela, in his first speech in Cape Town on his release from prison in February 1990.
Ashley Kriel was just 20 years old when he died on the Cape Flats on July 9 1987, a martyr in the fight for freedom in South Africa. Yet, despite the passage of time, his two sisters are today still battling to find closure over his brutal death.
In the eyes of Michel Assure and Melanie Adams, Kriel was a born leader who was both spirited and funny. Even though they had fears for his safety, his sisters were not surprised when he joined the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), to fight the apartheid regime. Kriel went to an ANC camp in Lusaka and later returned, but spent most of his time in hiding in areas close to their childhood home.
Ashley Kriel's sisters, Michel Assure and Melanie Adams, do not believe their brother's killer told the truth. (David Harrison, M&G)
The security police caught up with him in Athlone, a suburb on the sand-swept Cape Flats. In a moving interview at the ANC's Athlone office, where Assure now works, she vividly recalled the horror of going to the "safe house" where Kriel was killed.
The quieter of the two sisters, she said her visit threw up many unresolved questions around his death.
"What I saw in that house told me a story. The blood on the tarmac in the yard greeted me, leading into the house, the entrance of the kitchen, the blood spatters on the wall," she said.
"I found a bloodstained spade and I suspect he was beaten with the spade. And that caused the gash on his head, which I had seen when I went to the mortuary."
Although Assure is now middle-aged, a wife and mother, her commitment to uncovering the truth about her brother's murder has not diminished over the years. Perhaps because she was also the family member who had to identify her brother's body at the morgue, the pieces of the puzzle simply don't add up for her.
"In the mortuary, other than the gash in the head, I had seen that Ashley had grown into such a beautiful strong young man, and it made me strong," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "I refused to break in front of the security police there. I refused to show them weakness. I chose to be strong for Ashley. He was handcuffed when he was shot."
Like her elder sister, Adams feels a lack of closure around her brother's death. The strong bond they share was evident the moment she bounded into the boardroom where we met, sporting a yellow T-shirt bearing the face of President Jacob Zuma. Adams is humorous and strong-headed, by her own admission, and she also wants answers.
What the sisters do know is that Kriel was shot in the back by the notorious apartheid security policeman Jeffrey Benzien, who was granted amnesty after testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Yet Assure said there was still confusion about what really happened to her brother that day. Questions remain. Why was there bloodstained clothing lying around in the safe house?
"Did they make him undress? How did those bloodstains get on to the wall? Did they torture him? These are still questions remaining in my mind all the time. And that I feel is why I feel Benzien did not come clean. He did not tell the truth. What the TRC was meant to do was give families some closure, and yet he never really showed any remorse."
Both sisters were present to hear his evidence at the commission, and Benzien approached Assure. "He wanted to shake my hand, but I think it was more a stunt, a publicity stunt. Because he never personally came to apologise to the family. We are not heartless people, and for the sake of reconciliation, we would have shaken his hand. But he never did it the proper way. And I feel the TRC let our family down. Because, as I always say: 'Take Madiba, what a remarkable man. If he could find it in his heart to forgive the perpetrators, then so can we,'" said Assure.
"I believe Benzien is still in the police force. He explained to the TRC how his family and his children were affected, but what about us? I am not looking for pity from anyone, but what about us? Then Benzien even complained to the TRC because he said we did not want to reconcile. But I couldn't shake his hand because he didn't come clean."
The sisters' mother, Ivy, died heartbroken over their brother's death, they said. "My mom was supportive of Ashley, but she was very, very scared, and she wasn't a very outspoken person. She always warned Ashley that he would be detained and go to jail," said Assure. "But I don't think she would ever have anticipated that he would be killed. It was only later, when the security police came hunting for him, they actually threatened [us] and told my mom they would gun him down. In Afrikaans they told us: "Ons sal hom platskiet soos 'n haas [We will shoot him like a rabbit]."
Jeffrey Benzien, a former Special Branch detective, demonstrates the 'wet bag' torture technique to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town in 1997. (Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)
The family had one last Christmas lunch together, when the sisters disguised Kriel so he could spend a day with their mother in their suburb of Bonteheuwel, which is today a haven for gangsterism. Over lunch, Kriel played a guitar and even sang a song for his mother. The sisters cried when he slipped out again into the dark that night, and they did not hear much from him again for more than 18 months.
And then the police came to tell them the shocking news that he was dead. At first they claimed he had shot himself.
Over the years, Assure said, journalists had taken away their photographs of Kriel, and they have none left to show me. But she played some video footage of a lean, tall Kriel, delivering a speech in Bonteheuwel, which instantly brought him to life. What looked like hundreds of residents from his poor neighbourhood had gathered in a community hall, and he told them why he was joining the fight for freedom in South Africa.
His sisters remember worrying about him all the time, wondering where he was and knowing he suffered from Crohn's disease (an inflammatory bowel condition). Today what they really want is closure around his death.
As to whether the hard-won freedom their brother lost his life for had made the country a better place, they pause to give it some thought.
Adams said she still battles to pay the school fees to send her child to a local government school, and she would have hoped that by now the poor could gain access to free education.
"They are meant to be getting a better education, so they can grow and take advantage of everything they have today," she said. "I am personalising this out of experience, because I am not looking for hand-me-downs."
Things could certainly improve, she said, but freedom had been won. Although there is no statue to commemorate their brother, and they know people sometimes just call on them when it is election time, sharing their story with Zuma was a cathartic experience for Adams.
"When it comes to President Zuma, right, I've heard about him being a very nice person and charming. I've heard all the other negatives and seen negatives," she said, after quaintly describing herself as "Miss Verbal Diarrhoea".
"We were invited to have tea with him last year at his Cape Town official residence, the day before he made his [presidency] budget vote speech. I told him: 'People say a lot of things about you, but you are a very nice guy.' I had him laughing there, in stitches. I was so taken by this man – he is so down-to-earth. He was also crying with us when we told the story about Ashley. You can't expect him to know the ins and outs, but he would have probably known about Ashley. We brought across Ashley the person, and the family experience for us. And for the first time, tears just came when I spoke about Ashley."
While Adams said people were now "gunning" for Zuma as president, she said you have to spend time with him to know him. "He doesn't go out of his way to charm you, it is just who he is. He is such a nice and very humble person. I love his personality. I love who he is. I don't know whether he has good advisers or not, but he should take responsibility for his actions. However, I am saying also, yes, do expect us to vote for him as president, but at the same time, why do we know all these things? How did it come about that we happen to know about all these things?
"Think: did we know what De Klerk did? Did we know about his house? Did we know what shit went down behind the scenes?" Adams wondered. "No, we were never exposed to that information. Here it is upfront and we know it. We can criticise him, and we can say don't vote for him, because XYZ is happening. But it still means that we know about these things because of the struggles of the ANC that fought for that transparency."
Isn't she concerned that if Zuma signs the Protection of State Information Bill, South Africa could slip into another era of suppression?
Adams didn't hesitate to respond: "Then we can do something to stop it. We have been given that opportunity now to fight without being arrested, without being tortured. Can you try to understand where I come from, in trying to weigh it up?"
Jeffrey Benzien, a former Special Branch detective, demonstrates the 'wet bag' torture technique to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town in 1997. Photo: Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive
"I believe Benzien is still in the police force. He explained to the TRC how his family and his children were affected, but what about us?"
It was either the 'terrorist' or the cops – one had to be killed
In 1997, Captain Jeffrey Benzien was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Ashley Kriel's murder, and for the torture of a number of ANC activists.
Since Kriel's death, Benzien told the commission he has stood by his version that his death was an accident. Benzien said he and another security policeman had been sent by their commanding officer to 8 Albermarle Road in the Hazendal area of Athlone.
"Our task was to do surveillances [sic] of the grounds there, to determine whether the trained ANC terrorist Ashley Kriel was hiding out there," said Benzien. "We only had information to the effect that the above-mentioned terrorist could be in the house or in one of the adjacent houses."
They knocked on the door to determine if anybody was at home. "After a couple of minutes, a coloured man opened the door," Benzien told the commission.
He had immediately recognised this person as the "wanted terrorist, Ashley Kriel", he said. Benzien said he suspected Kriel might be carrying a firearm under the jersey and towel he was holding.
Benzien said he tried to pin Kriel down and they had tussled before he saw he was holding an automatic pistol, which he managed to seize. He took his handcuffs from his pocket and asked his colleague to handcuff Kriel's hands. He only managed to handcuff his left wrist.
"With me on his back, he thrashed in all directions and tried to enter the house. At some stages, we were on the ground and at other stages we were kneeling. It was during this stage that I heard a shot. It was his firearm that was still in my right hand that had gone off."
During the search of Kriel's room in the house, Benzien said a hand grenade was found under his pillow.
"My purpose was to arrest him and not to kill him ... I am very, very sorry that he had to die, but ... it could have left myself and Sergeant Abels being wounded or killed." – Glynnis Underhill