Today, 40 years ago, there was a seminal event in the history of Salt River High School. Anwar Omar relates the story to Gasant Abarder.
Cape Town - Salt River is in my blood. My parents grew up there. I attended school and played sport there. My interest is piqued by the mere mention of the suburb.
I watch with interest as gentrification of the area is discussed. There are evictions under way to make way for development.
There is little I don’t know about Salt River. Or that is what I thought. Today, 40 years ago on September 2, 1976, there was a seminal event in the history of the suburb and my alma mater Salt River High School.
It had a profound effect on the lives of at least 10 young Salt River High pupils. That day they and fellow pupils found their voice in solidarity with the students of Soweto, Gugulethu, Langa and all those active in the Student Uprisings of ‘76.
But until a few months ago I didn’t know about this event. It is one of apartheid South Africa’s untold stories. It made the papers of the day, but it was perhaps deliberately consigned to the recesses as if it never happened.
That was until Anwar Omar, 54, decided to immortalise in film the event, which saw scores of Salt River High pupils march to the CBD - among the first such marches to successfully reach the centre of town - to oppose the brutality of the regime’s onslaught.
Back then the area housed predominantly Muslim, or so-called Cape Malay, families. It was tight-knit and not really responsive to the politics of the day.
But Anwar, then 14, and his older brother, Rashied, now the resident imam of the Claremont Main Road Mosque, and a small group of their peers were at the centre of Salt River’s political activism.
The group mobilised a march that would make them lifelong activists fighting for social justice.
The actions of Anwar and Rashied would subsequently lead to their arrest and detention for 10 days - along with schoolmates Mariam Gafoor, Azam Mohamed, Fasieg Abrahams, Riefaat Hendricks, Armien Saban, Ismail Lackay, Moegamat Samuels and Leon Bosch.
“The Soweto Uprising quickly spread to the black townships in Cape Town, like Gugulethu, Nyanga and Langa, and subsequently also to the so-called coloured townships on the Cape Flats, like Athlone and Belgravia.
“We were invited to join a march to the Athlone police station by Alexander Sinton, Belgravia High and Hewitt College on September 1, 1976.
“We took the train to Athlone to join the march and were teargassed and beaten up badly by the police with batons and rubber bullets. Many students were arrested that day. This led to the decision to march to Parliament the next day - September 2.”
The scores of marchers were buoyed by their almost unexpected progress, reaching the CBD when others before them had failed.
Anwar remembers the events vividly.
“First, I remember my older brother Rashied making a speech on a loudhailer in the quad of the school to encourage and explain why we had to march to Parliament.
“Mariam Gafoor was outlining to the students the march formation. Others, like myself, were involved in encouraging and convincing our peers to join the march.
“We left the school via the Rochester Road gate, which is about 20m from the top of Main Road (Victoria Road). We were in formation with the students, arm-in-arm.
“Some students, like Riefaat and I, were assigned the responsibility of keeping the march on one side of the road, so we formed a chain, keeping the others inside the line.
“As we marched and progressed towards the CBD past Rex Trueform and other factories, we were singing We Shall Overcome. Many of the factory workers encouraged us and many others joined the march.
“When we got to Adderley Street in the CBD, for some reason we did not turn left to go to Parliament, but right towards the Cape Town station and the Golden Acre.”
There would soon be mayhem for the large group of Salt River High marchers.
“As we approached Strand Street, Riefaat told me, Let’s go to the front’. At the front, we virtually stumbled onto a huge contingent of riot police who were assembled at the intersection of Adderley and Strand streets.
“They started shooting teargas and beating us with batons and sjamboks. There was total pandemonium and panic amongst the students who broke formation and tried to flee from the police’s onslaught.
“In this chaos, I tripped over a girl who fell in front of me, hitting the ground as well. I felt two numb burning sensations as I hit the ground and saw this burly policeman stand over what now had become quite a large group of fallen and stumbling students on the ground.
“I had been hit twice with his baton on my lower back and elbow. I managed to get up and run away in the opposite direction. Police were everywhere and our school clothes made us an obvious target.
“I joined many students on foot back home to Salt River after that.
“Many like myself were bruised badly and others were injured more seriously. I remember making my way back home on foot crying from the teargas and bruises. Many others were arrested.”
Anwar may have escaped the police this time, but the actions would motivate him and the group even more. There were boycotts and a number of other protests.
On one occasion, weeks after the march, a group of pupils burned books in protest and the building was damaged in the ensuing blaze.
Anwar and the others were identified as the troublemakers and security police rounded them up, one by one.
“I was arrested at the school. When I got to the Woodstock police station the others were there too.
“We were all placed into one cell with a mat and two blankets to sleep on the concrete floor.
“Soon after our arrest we were visited by the late Dullah Omar, who was our lawyer and advised us not to make any statements.
“He told us not to worry, he would be applying for bail on our behalf and that because we were juveniles, we had a good chance of being remanded into our parents’ custody.
“After less than 48 hours, we were excited that we were granted bail, but disappointed shortly thereafter when our bail was rescinded.
“We were then taken back to the Woodstock police station in a truck together with other non-political suspects for further investigation and incarceration.
“I was terrified, but was coached by Rashied and Riefaat to say nothing and refuse to make a statement.
“I think, because I was the youngest, less of the investigation focused on me, but rather the older ones, who were in the leadership positions.
“We were interrogated by a Sergeant Van Wyk, the investigating officer, one by one.
“We were each taken out of the cell and walked outside to the detective’s office, located outside the cell area on the second floor.
“This procedure caused a lot of anxiety and conflict in the group as the investigating officer obviously tried to play us off against each other, saying: You have done something or someone else had said you have done this or that’.
“I remember being taken out of the cells for my turn and when asked about the fire at the school, in particular, and other events in general, I refused to even speak. I also refused to make a statement.
“Fortunately, I was not beaten or tortured.”
The 10 pupils were eventually granted bail, but had to report to the police station twice daily - before and after school - as part of the bail conditions.
But their detention didn’t make them heroes, far from it. They were shunned by the community.
Luckily, there were sympathetic teachers, including Struggle veteran and former provincial education minister Yousuf Gabru, who was detained, interrogated and assaulted in custody in 1976.
“The march and our subsequent arrest had a very negative and counter-intuitive response by our fellow students, in particular, and the broader residents in Salt River.
“The police started investigating and interrogating other students and residents in Salt River and parents were now afraid their kids would get arrested as well.
“Many parents discouraged their kids from participating in political activities and many others even prohibited their kids from associating with us.
“We were branded as activists and troublemakers. So immediately after our arrest, a period of almost total political silence occurred at the school and among the broader community.
“It was only a few years later, when I was still at school leading up to 1980, that political activism and awareness again came to the fore at the school.
“Teachers like Mr Gabru, Miss Meeran and a few others encouraged us to take the Struggle forward and almost became part of the student movement, encouraging and advising us in the background. They were both arrested under the Terrorism Act.Â
“My parents, in particular my late dad, were very supportive and became politicised by our activities and arrest. They were obviously concerned about our safety and well-being, but never discouraged us from being politically active.”
Today, nine of the 10 (Armien Saban died a few years ago) will hold a reunion of sorts: a get-together to mark 40 years of the September 2, 1976 march and the birth of their activism.
Anwar will use the opportunity to gather footage and interviews for his documentary.
The school, even though the memories of 1976 lie dormant, is still a champion of social justice.
Principal Russell Bell pays little mind to the catchment area policy other schools use to keep children from the fringes of the metro out.
The reasoning, I suppose, is that the parents who once lived in the area and attended the school now live in Bonteheuwel, Mitchells Plain and other Cape Flats suburbs.
So why must their children be denied the chance of attending a school that shaped and influenced so many young minds because of where they live?
Anwar says: “Our story should definitely be part of the ethos of the school and can be used to instil a sense of social justice and activism amongst the students and teachers.
“They can learn from our experience and use the sacrifices made by us and others in the current struggles they are grappling with.
“We grappled with many issues at the time, for example our slogans were Education for liberation’ or Liberation before education’.
“These issues are still very much applicable and relevant today.
“The scope of the documentary is specifically about the events and experiences around the arrest of those 10 students, the impact on their lives, how it affected them and their political consciousness.
“I have started trawling the South African Library to compile the chronology of events. I recruited a first year university student to assist me with the research. I have been in touch with the other students and they are all keen to participate.
“It’s an important story to be told and documented, so that it’s not lost to Salt River High, the Salt River community and the rest of South Africa.
“In 1976, many thousands of other students were arrested as well and our story reflects the political atmosphere at the time.
“It is a story that is reflective or representative of many other similar stories that are lost and have not been told and will never be told.
“Many stories of other high level activists have been told, but this is a story of 10 ordinary students who were arrested at the time. They were all juveniles and I’m sure, as with myself, these events had a profound impact on their lives and political consciousness.
“I feel that in many instances this human interest aspect of the Struggle against apartheid is sometimes lost in the shadow of more dramatic events and stories.”