Surviving the violence of a police state

In December 1977, an assassination attempt was made on me. We were at home, Ismail and I, telling stories to my young nieces who were staying with us at the time when my daughter Shehnaz sounded the alarm that our garage was on fire. This immediately got me rushing to the door. Fortunately for me, Zwelinye Goba, our former gardener, was staying with us at the time and he preceded me by seconds or minutes to the door. He is a tall man, I am a short woman, and he was shot twice in the shoulder. When I got to the door, Zwelinye was already lying there bleeding and he said to me: “Please go away, they are calling your name, and they are swearing at you.”

Had I been the first to open the door, I would have been shot in the head, most likely fatally. Zwelinye was rushed to hospital, where he made a good recovery.

About three weeks later, my friend and colleague, Dr Rick Turner, who was also banned at the time, was shot dead in his home. From the description of the car that had left our house and one that an observer had seen at Rick’s, it appeared to have been the same car.

Before this assassination attempt, there had been one arson attack on our home in 1972. Years later, in 1985, there was another one. The 1972 attack was purported to be by a member of the Black Consciousness Movement, believed to have become an agent of the state. The 1985 one we assumed to be part of a more general assault by the then government on resistance to its barbaric laws.

In 1985, the National Party government began its death dance. In despair, it tried to do whatever it could to change the situation in its favour. That year, an intelligence source was reported by the Sunday Times of July 14 to have said: “There is a revolutionary assault going on in the country and the government has no instant counter-revolutionary force.”


Within days of this statement, the first stone was cast by the government to cause ripples in a situation which, up to then, had been fairly calm. That was the shooting on August 1 1985 of Victoria Mxenge, an attorney in Durban who defended many anti-apartheid activists and was active in many democratic organisations, including the Natal Organisation of Women and the United Democratic Front (UDF). Victoria’s assassination took place two weeks after she had spoken at the funeral of four Eastern Cape activists (Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli). They became known after their deaths by assassination as the Cradock Four.

Victoria’s husband, Griffiths Mxenge, a lawyer, anti-apartheid activist and Robben Island detainee, had been assassinated a few years before in November 1981.
The assassination of Victoria Mxenge understandably provoked a response on the part of students and pupils. There were demonstrations. There was some stone-throwing. There was damage to one or two houses, but generally speaking, these actions were low-key. On August 8 1985, we held a meeting at Umlazi to protest Victoria’s assassination and it was at that meeting that the very first mobilised attack by the government, using black people against each other, occurred.

I drove into the township just before 6pm, and despite newspaper headlines of the day reporting on violence raging in the area, found it quite calm. The vast cinema hall, where the meeting was scheduled to take place, was still filling up. The assembled crowd danced and sang in the way people usually do at meetings to break the monotony of waiting. Every now and again a small contingent of mourners walked up and down the hall bearing a banner which read: “Don’t Shoot, We’re Not Fighting.”

peakers took their positions on the platform at about 7pm. Florence Mkhize, a founding leader of the UDF and Natal Organisation of Women, leaned over to tell me that outside the police were like an army, but that they were keeping their distance. She said Inkatha was also there. By the time the meeting started, there was a rumbustious audience of about 5 000 people, some standing outside unable to get in.

The meeting was on the verge of ending when attention was diverted by a fearful commotion outside. Like wildfire, the message spread through the hall that Inkatha was on the attack and the orderly meeting disintegrated into a swirling, frantic mass. People began jumping down from the gallery and clamouring to reach exits. I managed to get out of the hall with the help of one of the UDF members, Chris Hlongwane. We clambered through a barbed-wire fence and scaled up a steep sandbank on to flat land, from the top of which we could see the cinema submerged in the smoke of teargas, intermittently lit up by flares flung into the sky.

After a while we ventured to my car, which I had parked in front of the cinema. My car was safe, although scores of others had been badly damaged. A man lay on the pavement, bleeding profusely. We got him into my car with the help of Zo Mbele, a UDF member from Lamontville, who volunteered to drive with me to the hospital. We proceeded only a few yards when we were stopped by a blockade of burning tyres and suffocating teargas. Overcome by choking and streaming eyes, I handed over the driving to Zo.

By now the calm road of just a few hours ago had transformed into a battlefield of people confronting each other with whatever weapons they could muster.

We reversed the car into a dirt lane and crossed over onto the main road, but were stopped again by groups of people flanking the road on both sides. The passenger door was yanked open and it seemed we were about to be stopped or attacked. But someone recognised us and called out “comrade”, and the call was taken up by others along the road and we were allowed safe passage. It occurred to me that the Inkatha attacks had provoked an instant response and that these were UDF supporters.

The man we tried to save was declared dead on arrival at the hospital, and we were directed to take him to the mortuary. We were required, according to regulations, to witness the officials collect all personal effects from the body. The deceased was without any possessions or documentation. I would learn later that 15 UDF supporters were killed by Inkatha that night.

As violence escalated all around Durban in the following months of 1985, I became involved in trying to assist people who were under threat. I would go to the police for help, and they would point-blank say to me that the people who claimed they were going to be attacked deserved the attacks that were being made on them. My experience was that the police literally withdrew.

My interpretation of this period is that those people who actually attacked and did the killing were instigated, orchestrated by the pernicious system of apartheid to do so. Inkatha, provoked by the disruptions in schools and by pupil mobilisation, provided that counter-revolutionary force the state sought.

Refugees were living at the Gandhi settlement in Phoenix, the result of rising racial tensions between Indian and black communities living in the Inanda area. On arriving at the settlement early one morning, I found looters and arsonists on the premises and I immediately called the police. The police seemed uninterested, and so I called the Daily News to get them to alert the police. Two Casspirs came soon thereafter and parked in the grounds. The police remained in the Casspirs and the looters disappeared on seeing the vehicles. After five minutes, the Casspirs left and it was business as usual for the looters.

I saw the main house on the Gandhi settlement being set on fire. I phoned the fire brigade for assistance and I was told that they had specific instructions not to go out there and help in any way.

A police statement at the time stated that the police had instructions to keep a low profile to avoid accusations of instigation. Instigation was so real, and they were so conscious of the fact that they had deliberately provoked this whole situation, that they now actually said they wouldn’t go there in order not to be accused of instigation.

In that fraught environment, our house was attacked in what was to be our third petrol bomb attack. I was once again a target. I was seen as being a little bit too active in trying to assist, or overcome the machinations of the police and the military of the system, which always remains faceless, nameless. A petrol bomb thrown through our lounge window caused considerable damage to the lounge area. That was the last of the attacks that we ourselves suffered during those times.

Fatima Meer was a leading struggle activist who died in 2010. This is an edited excerpt from her autobiography Memories of Love and Struggle, completed and edited by her daughter, Shamim Meer. It is published by Kwela

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