The story of young MK guerrilla Ashley Kriel, as told by his older sister Michel Assure, shook Gasant Abarder to his core.
Cape Town - The house in Albermarle Street in Hazendal, Athlone, still stands eerily – as modest and unassuming now as it was then on that fateful day of July 9, 1987.
It was the day Ashley Kriel was killed.
Twenty-nine years later the true circumstances of Ashley’s death have not been established.
The version of Jeffrey Benzien – the infamous security policeman who used the “wet-bag” method to torture activists as part of his repertoire – to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was that he shot 20-year-old Ashley by accident during a scuffle in the house.
Benzien was granted amnesty, even though the TRC found “there are inconsistencies and even contradictions on some aspects”. He was granted amnesty on February 17, 1999.
Also read: Ashley Kriel: ‘It was murder’
On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, I faced a TRC of my own.
At a press conference I attended (fortuitously, because a meeting I was scheduled to go to at the same venue was cancelled) sat Ashley’s older sister Michel Assure.
Holding back tears, Michel reflected on the way the Cape Argus reported on Ashley’s death. It was humbling to hear her thoughts.
“In this new era, the Cape Argus newspaper’s way of reporting, comparing it to back then, during the apartheid years… it went through my mind that at the time when they reported on Ashley’s death in the Cape Argus it was said that Ashley was a terrorist. They branded Ashley a terrorist,” she said.
Then she repeated: “A terrorist.”
Michel was a guest at an announcement that funding would be made available for the completion of a documentary about Ashley Kriel’s life by young filmmaker Nadine Cloete.
When Ashley was killed, I was a young boy of nine. I didn’t know much about what was going on, never mind the story of Ashley Kriel.
What I did know, was that what was happening around me wasn’t normal.
How could fully armed soldiers running into classrooms at my primary school in Mitchells Plain, hunting down activists at the height of PW Botha’s State of Emergency, be considered normal?
Hearing Michel’s story, I was moved to apologise on behalf of the Cape Argus for the way it reported on Ashley’s death.
It got me thinking: Why has there never been a TRC on the media for the role it played in propping up apartheid South Africa? But more about that later.
For now, I was immersed in Michel’s story. By now, Michel was in tears. By now, I was choking back tears of my own.
“Ashley was very young when he was murdered. He started becoming active at a very young age, when he was about 14.
“When he died, I thought the security police were s***-scared of Ashley.
“They couldn’t stand the fact that he was so young and so resilient.
“They killed Ashley and I know it. I went to the house where Ashley was killed and I could see, all the signs were there. They brutally tortured him.
“When I entered the house, I found blood on the tarmac in the backyard.
“On the stoep I found blood. When I entered the kitchen I found a trail of blood on the floor and on the walls.
“In the bathroom I found a laundry basket with blood-stained clothing.
“I found on another spot in the yard a blood-stained cap.
I found a towel, also blood stained. In the backyard I found a spade, also with blood on this spade. I painted this picture to myself.
“I was alone at home when the security police came to tell us about Ashley’s death. It was very inhuman, the way they just came to tell us.
“First it was that Ashley killed himself, he shot himself. Then they just asked me so abruptly, ‘Who can go with you to go and identify him?’
“I was alone at home with my baby son. I just couldn’t believe what they were telling me. I knew the brutality of the security police – we got to learn it during that time – what the security police would do sometimes to torture the people or to harass people.
“I just didn’t believe that Ashley was dead. I thought they were playing a trick on me. When they left I took my son with me and went to my neighbour down the road, a few doors away – also an activist and now my brother-in-law. I went to tell the aunty that they just came to say Ashley is dead and that I had to go and identify him.
“I had to contact this captain at the Athlone police station. From there, Athlone police station referred me to the Salt River Mortuary. I went down that aisle in the Salt River Mortuary still not believing that I was going to see my brother.
“When I last saw Ashley he was 17 going on 18. He was still my little brother and Ashley was very timid and still a boy.
“To me he was my little brother and walking down that aisle I thought: ‘You know what, I’m not going to see my little brother, it’s not my brother.’
“I thought: ‘The police are trying to play this trick on us. They’re going to show me a mutilated body or something horrible just to unnerve me or just to do something bad because that’s what they did to the families.’
“They used to do it to my mom. My mom was also so scared to death. They used to threaten her and said when they came looking for Ashley, ‘As ons hom kry gaan ons hom vrek skiet, plat skiet soos ’n haas (If we find him we’ll gun him down like a hare).’
“To think that at the end of the day they really carried out their threat.
“When I got to the end of that aisle in the mortuary, I got to this glass window and when I saw him lying there all I could say to the aunty next to me was, ‘Shame, it is my little brother.’
“But the first thing I noticed was on his forehead – a big gash. That’s where the story comes in of what I saw in the yard: a bloodied spade. He was beaten with the spade. That’s how those blood splatters came to be there.
“During that time when it was the death inquest… there wasn’t even an exhibit of the stuff found at the scene.
“When we went to the TRC, only then could they send forensic people out and they could trace the blood stains, although the walls had been painted over.
“And they could trace the blood stains on that floor.
“I feel the TRC failed us because the perpetrator never came clean… he never told the truth and he was granted amnesty.
“I’m a Christian… even during the TRC hearings Jeffrey Benzien came to me and he extended his hand to me.
“I turned my back to him because I couldn’t find it in my heart to forgive him.
“He was never repentant and he boasted about Ashley’s death. I turned my back. I refused to shake his hand.
“Sometimes I feel so guilty. I always make this example when we speak about Madiba – such a remarkable man.
“He could find it in his heart to forgive those perpetrators. He sacrificed so many years. Ashley died in an instant. But Madiba also suffered. So who am I not to want to forgive Benzien?
“But I still say if he had to come clean… how he boasted and boasted about how he killed and tortured and interrogated other comrades.
“He boasted about Ashley’s death. I still couldn’t believe that since, even after our newfound democracy, he was still employed in the police force.
“There were some times I felt I wanted to do something to this man. I had many sleepless nights when I felt I wanted to go and kill him because how could he kill my brother? My mom probably also didn’t have the will to live.
“My father was taken when my mom was 29 and he was brutally stabbed to death. She had to rear us single-handedly. Then he still goes and takes her son?
“I felt that I wanted to go and kill him. I went to the extent where I went through a telephone directory and I found (his contact details). I found his address. I thought: ‘Ag, if only I could get hold of a firearm or something and just one night ask someone to take me there.’
“I thank God I came to my senses. They tortured and maimed us, they killed my little brother, but at the end of the day we came out stronger people.”
Also read: Indy boss to help fund Ashley Kriel doccie
Michel’s story shook me to the core. I only recently started learning about Ashley’s story. He left his community in Bonteheuwel at a young age to join the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.
He was a talented young man who was earmarked for officer training all over the world in countries sympathetic to the liberation struggle.
But Ashley became physically ill at the thought of not continuing his fight back home. At his insistence, the ANC eventually sent Ashley home after his military training was complete.
As Aneez Salie, Ashley’s best friend at that time, then a fellow MK guerrilla and now Cape Times editor, recalls: “He felt so committed to our people, he was determined to offer his own life. Not recklessly, because there were none who loved life more than those who were prepared to give it up for a cause.
“In MK and the ANC, we got to know the greatest love there is, for what greater love can there be than to be prepared to give your life for another?”
I offered my apology to Michel on that Tuesday morning. But today, in this piece, and as the current editor of the Cape Argus, I offer my apology to all those the newspaper had wronged and in some way, however small, indirectly or directly, supported an illegitimate regime that thought nothing of the life of a young man such as Ashley Kriel and others.
Last year too, we learnt that a former Sunday Times editor, Tertius Myburgh, an almost legendary figure in South African journalism, was an apartheid spy.
Last year, Media24’s chief executive Esmare Weideman apologised for Naspers’ role in supporting the apartheid regime. But earlier this week too, I wrote two pieces in this newspaper about the injustice and oppression dished out by my very own company against my colleague Aneez Salie and many other black journalists – well after our hard-won democracy was born.
Etched as part of the painful memories and hurt Michel suffered, losing her brother Ashley so violently, is how the Cape Argus branded him a “terrorist” and callously reported the triumph of the security police at the time.
It took the bravery of a young filmmaker, Nadine Cloete, to remind us all here at Newspaper House that Ashley’s story has not been told properly and that my children and their children need to know the truth.
The Cape Argus will support Nadine’s work to tell Ashley’s untold story and the untold stories of so many of the fallen heroes who died for our freedom.
We have a duty to tell these stories.
The world will know the story of Ashley Kriel.
* Gasant Abarder is the editor of the Cape Argus