Ashley Kriel Was an Anti-Apartheid Martyr

Thirty-three years ago this month, South African apartheid police murdered 20-year-old activist Ashley Kriel. But his resistance legend has not been forgotten: Kriel's commitment and fierce oratory still inspire movements for justice in South Africa today.

Ashley Kriel was a youth activist in anti-apartheid resistance in the 1980s.

It’s early Saturday morning and I leave Ruschka at home because I sense that today is going to be hard. Reaching Bonteheuwel, a sprawling township on the Cape Flats, takes less than twenty minutes from my home in Wynberg. I park my car on the sandy sidewalk and walk towards the small council house belonging to Ivy Kriel. Activists are dotted all along the fence in front of the house and in the small barren space meant for a garden, now filled with plastic chairs. I pass through them, nodding a silent greeting which they return. Those who are speaking to one another are whispering.

I join the line of family members as they slowly file past the body. Ashley Kriel is lying flat on his back in the coffin in the middle of the tiny room. There is barely space to move. And then I see his face. I look but cannot see. Yet, I do see. His forehead is swollen. His eyes are closed. A deep gash leaping out of his forehead has been stitched up by the coroner. The dark curls are brushed back. In that split second, my eyes blur and I feel my knees bending. A sharp pain shoots through my chest. A comrade hoists me up under my arms, steadying me. I am helped up the narrow steps to a bedroom upstairs where I find Ashley’s sister Melanie. We are both crying.

I know that I had to look at him some time. I was reluctant because I wanted to remember him as I knew him. But it would have been strange for me not to be part of the family ritual. Melanie, unlike her sister Michelle, is unable to function. While 24-year-old Michelle is in the kitchen below helping visitors to the family home, her sister, sedated the night before, cannot stop crying.

It was Michelle who had called me a week ago at UWC and given me the news: “Zubeida, the police have shot Ashley. They took me to see his body in the morgue this afternoon. Please tell everybody.” I became icy cold. As if a winter chill had descended on my office. I cut out, suppressing all emotions.

“Where is your mother? Don’t worry, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

I had left work immediately, thinking about the need to form a funeral committee, finding lawyers to investigate the killing, raising the money to help the family. There was no time to deal with emotions. Organizing often became a way for coping with horrors that we dealt with daily. We had to be strong for the family, for the community, hiding how completely shattered we were.

I was aware that Ashley had left the country about a year after his final school exams. Some had tried to dissuade him but he was angry. He and his friends in Bonteheuwel were shot at with birdshot and beaten whenever they tried to organize meetings at their school. He wanted to be equipped to fight back and had decided the only way was to be armed himself. He left the country at the end of 1985 and joined the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

I regret now that I looked at his face this morning. Unknown to many of us, he was sent back after being trained and had been living at a house in Hazendal, a small working class, Coloured suburb near Athlone. I would have preferred remembering him as I knew him.

I used to watch him closely when he arose to address the crowds at meetings of the United Democratic Front. I was never quite sure whether it was his political rhetoric or his personal charisma that set the crowd off. “Viva Ashley, Viva! Long live, long live!”

Igama lama Ashley Kriel, malibongwe.
Igama lama Ashley Kriel, malibongwe.
(The name of Ashley Kriel, let it be praised.
The name of Ashley Kriel, let it be praised.)

He had this way of raising his arm alongside his ear when he shouted: “Amandla!” (Power!) To which the crowd responded tumultuously: “Ngawethu!” (To the people!) All speakers ended their speeches with these words. But not all raised their right arm as Ashley did. Some right arms were pushed forward diagonally with their fists clenched. Other arms were bent at the elbow at a kind of right angle to the shoulder. Ashley’s arm was always straight in the air with four fingers clenched in a fist and the thumb extended, the ANC’s power salute.

The extension of his arm elongated his body, giving him a new kind of height, which added a further dimension to his defiant words. I could see the young women comrades in the audience tantalized by his charm. Although the sexual appeal would have been dominant amongst the women, he had his male admirers too. The combination of personal charm and political commitment made him a youth leader of great attraction.

He was the Che Guevara of the Cape Flats. Long, tapered face with a mop of curly black hair. A lean, slender body dressed in khaki shirt and black beret. We were all proud, very proud of him.

When Ashley came to ask if he could stay with me for his final school year, I was happy to have him. We were able to provide him with a comfortable study space so that he could do the best he was able.

In a different time, he may have been the local Don Juan. But he grew into his teens just when the schools’ protest erupted in the Western Cape. With the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), one of our veteran youth organizers, Cecyl Esau, was quick to identify Ashley as the one who could help bring the youth of his township together to form a branch of the Cape Youth Congress.

While all of us who had organized and mobilized people against apartheid developed a special relationship during those years, it did not always mature into full-blown love. Ashley was one of the few who evoked that unreserved emotion. He was loved not only by his family but also by many of us who saw in him the embodiment of all our hopes. He was young, from an impoverished background, but held his own on public platforms with veteran leaders such as Alan Boesak and Oscar Mpetha.

The previous week, as part of the funeral committee, it had been one of my jobs to piece together the scant information that we had about the circumstances surrounding his death. Mourning in that crowded little house where his body lay, I relived the painful night when I sat down to prepare a fact file for the press.

I have waited for Ruschka to sleep so that I can be undisturbed as I compile my notes into a coherent whole. When the night is mine, the words come easily and I stop only intermittently when two of the metal arms of the typewriter with letters e and r get entangled. With my forefingers, I lightly unhook the one arm from the other. They slide into place on the keyboard and I resume my typing:

Ashley Kriel was alone when he died. Salma Ismail, the schoolteacher with whom he boarded, was at work. Her younger brother Imtiaz Ismail had taken their vacuum cleaner for repairs. They knew Ashley as “James.”

In a prepared statement this week, police said he died from a bullet fired from his own weapon during a scuffle with two policemen who had tried to disarm and arrest him at the Athlone house.

The statement does not explain why Ashley was wearing handcuffs as claimed by Imtiaz Ismail who returned from his errand about 1:30 p.m.

Imtiaz’s witness is as follows:

As I pulled into the driveway, three or four plain-clothes policemen told me to stop. I switched off the car. They told me and the friend with me to stand with our hands against the car and they searched us.

I then walked around the back of the house with the policeman following me. I saw James lying on his side. There was blood on his forehead. His arms were stretched out in front of him and he was wearing handcuffs.

The police were looking for more handcuffs but could not find any. They took the handcuffs off James and put them on me.

I asked the one policeman what was wrong with James and he told me: “Hy is doodgeskiet omdat hy ‘n terroris is.” (He was shot dead because he was a terrorist.)

I blot out Ashley’s face as I write and write, finally signing off the sheet as issued by the Ashley Kriel Funeral Committee.

The next day, we hand out the fact sheet to journalists at a press conference with an addendum: “The above information will be used by the Weekly Mail this week. Journalists are free to make use of any information since it is not possible to bring family members and others together here at this press conference.”

A further information sheet has all the details of the funeral program for the following day. We could not have imagined how complex our funeral plans were to become.

I pulled myself together and help Melanie move down the steps so that she can follow her brother’s coffin out of the house. His body is placed inside the waiting hearse. We get into our cars and slowly file into line so that the procession can move in an orderly fashion towards the New Apostolic Church.

It is a dark grey winter’s day, as if the skies reflect the somberness of the mourners. We hope it will not rain and deter people from gathering on the sports field as planned.

At the church, we see the armored vehicles parked all around. Casspirs with armed men peering from their open doors greet fearful mourners as they file into the church. Many of us are accustomed to this display of force but for the average member of the New Apostolic Church, this is not something they generally encounter when they attend Sunday services.

I can see the fear on people’s faces. They are quiet and very nervous. The proceedings are brief. Ashley’s uncle speaks. The priest makes some general biblical commentary, his blandness offensive to the activists.

I scan the pews: women in their black dresses or suits with black hats or lace scarves. Men with their hats in their hands resting on the laps of their black pants.

They are part of the conservative religious community and they love Ivy. She had listened to the deacons as best she could when they explained the detail of the service. She knew they were not excited about welcoming the many khaki-clad youth who were determined to demonstrate wearing the volunteer uniform of the ANC.

She cared deeply for her son and she never cared for his involvement in politics. She never quite understood it. And now it had brought about his death, justifying her opposition to his involvement. He was the one she had relied on when she became ill. He was the one whom she had hoped would care for her when she became old.

She has a weak heart and when she could not work, when Ashley was fourteen, she reluctantly allowed him to go out in the middle of the night to sell the local daily Afrikaans newspaper, Die Burger. She and her daughters waited for him at 5am to take the few cents he earned for the day to buy bread. Then she would make him as comfortable as possible for his short sleep before he had to wake up again and ready himself for school.

The crowd surges towards the door at the end of the service, then suddenly retreats.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

Before anybody can answer, I smell it—the pungent ammonia stinging the air floating through the open church door. “Oh my God, they are shooting!” shouts a mourner.

The armed men stationed outside the church shoot rounds of teargas at the pallbearers as they descend the steps. The activists take over and run with the coffin all the way to a second church to get it away from the gas overpowering the mourners.

As I pass through the door and out into the hazy daylight, I see the coffin dancing grimly on the shoulders of the young men moving rapidly down the streets. I cringe, thinking of Ashley’s battered body bashing up against the coffin sides as different waves of comrades pass the casket on like a baton in a relay and run with it as fast as they can.

There is little point in trying to get to my car. Some churchgoers are in a hurry to get home as quickly as they can. The only way many of us can maintain our dignity is to walk through the mass of armed men circling the church and follow the body on foot. Fleetingly, I imagine that today is the day I will die. Ruschka will be looked after. I do not have to worry. I have always wondered when it will come, but today all the elements are in place. A helicopter hovers directly above use in the overcast sky. Rows of yellow riot vehicles are backed up by masked men who train their automatic weapons on us. All along the road, sharpshooters are crouched on the rooftops of the small Bonteheuwel dwellings, prepared for retaliatory action from the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). We know such an offensive would never come on the streets of Bonteheuwel, crowded with civilians. The commander-in-chief, Chris Hani, would never sanction such action. There is talk that he had taken a special liking to Ashley and that he had personally given the go-ahead for him to be sent back into the country. In these times, it is not always possible to distinguish between speculation and fact.

I gather from the police reaction that they too must have believed that Chris had a direct interest in this fatality. Although I have never met him, I feel he is the one person we can rely on to fight back against the might of the apartheid military machine. Yet it would have made no sense for MK to plan anything at the funeral to endanger ordinary people. Public demonstrations or funerals for mobilization of communities and their radicalization, providing fertile soil for underground military activities.

Arriving at the Anglican Church, the funeral committee quickly realizes that any plans to move the funeral onto the field would be too dangerous. We confer with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Reverend Alan Boesak and Moulana Faried Essack and decide to merge the program planned for the field and the one for the church. The church service becomes a mass rally and the mass rally becomes a church service.

Out comes the ANC flag to be draped over the coffin. Hymns merge into freedom songs and freedom songs into hymns. Tears become laughter and laughter becomes tears. Both Tutu and Boesak poke fun at the police, creating a levity essential to lowering the mood of anger.