The ghost of Delmas

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Thabiso Ratsomo, accused No. 22 in the Delmas Treason Trial

The final chapter of the Delmas Treason trial — the longest political trial in the history of South Africa —« came to an end in December 1989 when five of the accused were released from Robben island prison, in this article Thabiso Ratsomo, one of the Delmas 22, shares some thoughts and memories of the trial with us.

It is 15 months now since I was found not guilty and discharged in the Delmas Treason trial. Even though many months have passed, it is not easy to forget the 442 days I spent as one of the accused in the trial.

Before I share my thoughts with you, I want to say that the story of the Delmas Trial is just one of many stories that can be told by people who have been on trial in one of apartheid’s courts.

Many thousands of freedom-loving South Africans have suffered because of their ideals. Many have been sent to jail and many have died. We know who some of these people are, but there are many others whose names have never ever been published in the news­papers. Only when the full history of the struggle is written will we know the sacrifices that our people have made in the struggle for liberation.

DETENTION AND TRIAL
In April 1985 I was detained in my room at Rhodes University. Some weeks later, on 11 June, I appeared with 21 other comrades in a packed courtroom at the Magistrate’s court in Pretoria. We were charged with treason, terrorism, subversion, murder and furthering the aims of the ANC.

In court an army of black policemen in “riot control” uniform used force to separate us from our relatives and supporters who we had not seen for many months.

Exactly seven months after our first appearance in court, we pleaded not guilty in front of Judge Van Dijkhorst and his two assessors, Mr. Krugel and Dr. Joubert in the small farming town of Delmas, 70 kilometres east of Johannesburg. The trial that followed came to be known as the “Delmas Treason Trial”.

From the start of the trial, we were aware that this was a political case and that we had to conduct our defence on that basis. We knew that it was not only us 22 on trial but our organisations and all people who stood for freedom and democracy in our country as well.

Throughout the trial we were conscious that a war of ideas was being fought. On the one hand were those ideas that defended apartheid, oppression and racism. On the other hand were those which called for non-racialism, equality, freedom and democracy for all the people of South Africa. The courtroom was the battleground.

THE UDF BLAMED
The state’s claim was that the executive committees of the UDF and its member organisations had an unlawful secret agreement — a con­spiracy — with the ANC to overthrow the government by violent means.

In the Vaal area, the Vaal Civic Associ­ation (VCA) — a member organisation of the UDF — was blamed for the violence that swept the area in 1984. Most of the 22 accused, including myself, came from the Vaal and were members of the VCA.

When the Lekoa (Vaal) Town Council increased the rent and service charges in August 1984, the VCA called protest meetings. On 3 September, the VCA led the residents on a protest march to the council offices. But the marchers never reached the offices. The police shot at them — without giving any warning. After this, violence swept the area. Within days, it spread across the whole country.

The UDF and its member organisations were blamed for the ‘unrest’ in which councillors, policemen and government property were attacked. The state alleged that the UDF’s criticisms of government policy was the cause of this violence.

The documents used by the state to prove its case were the UDF Declaration, minutes of the UDF regional and national executive committee meetings, and videos and tape recordings of mass meetings of the UDF and its member organisations such as the VCA.

We were questioned at length about why the UDF had ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu as its patrons. The state also asked why many UDF executive committee mem­bers were people who were in jail for ANC or Umkhonto we Sizwe activities.

A SIMPLE ANSWER
Our answer to the charges against us was a simple one. The UDF was a coming together of many non-violent organisations and was formed in order to oppose the New Constitution and the Black Local Authorities. We were a legal organisation and we operated openly.

We said the UDF recognised the important role played by the ANC and its leaders in the struggle. So when the UDF was formed it saw fit to make these leaders its patrons.

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August 1987: advocates, attorneys, accused and families keeping the bond strong

We were lucky to have a powerful and committed defense team. Even though the trial was long and called for a lot of work, nothing was too much for them. They worked until late at night, and often our attorneys had to go to the townships to find our comrades and to get information.

During the trial, I developed a great admiration for advocates Arthur Chaskalson SC, George Bizos SC, Karel Tip, Gilbert Marcus and Zac Yacoob for their patience and dedication. We got to know each more closely and as a result a strong bond between us and the lawyers developed. In many ways this good relationship made the defence strong.

We were not impressed at all with the state advocates. We felt that their arguments were often emotional and called for sympathy from the judge. I must say without any fear that they, were no match for the most junior of our defence team members.

However, Judge Van Dijkhorst did not find it difficult to accept some of those emotional arguments. Soon, we began to ask ourselves if Judge Van Dijkhorst was taking sides in this case. He seemed to favour the state. Seventeen months later we started to believe that we may have been right.

DISMISSING THE ASSESSOR
On 9 March 1987 one of the accused, Petrus Mokoena, was asked by the prosecutor about the UDFs Million Signature Campaign. This campaign was launched in 1984 to protest against the Tricameral parliament and the Black Local Authorities. During lunch time Dr Joubert told the judge that he also signed the petition.

On the morning of 10 March the judge shocked us all — he dismissed Joubert. The judge said that because Joubert signed the petition, he would not be able to decide fairly if we were guilty or not.

We challenged the judge. Our lawyers brought three applications as a result of the dismissal. They argued that the judge used the law incorrectly to dismiss Joubert and that he did so without asking us our opinion.

We said both the judge and Krugel were biased against us and that they seemed to favour the state. Krugel was a member of the Afrikaner Broeder-bond. This organisation was known to have influenced past policies of the government. We said Krugel’s judgement could not be fair to us.

We asked that the case be stopped. Judge Van Dijkhorst was not impressed by our arguments and we lost the applications. This was a heavy blow to us. But we were able to fight on, mainly because we gave each other strength and support. We were also organised.

WITH ONE STEP
I remember comrade “Terror” Lekota — UDF publicity secretary — saying to us at the beginning of the trial: “Comrades, we must organise our­selves so that we can move together with one step.”

We chose a cell chairman, a treasurer, a timekeeper and a committee for dealing with prison officials at Modderbee Prison where we were kept. We also arranged ourselves into groups of three for cleaning the cell and for preparing meals.

During our free time we played games. Soccer was the favourite day sport, but in the evenings we played monopoly, cards, dominoes and snooker. It still amazes me that the 22 of us could share one ‘cell’ — a small hospital ward at Modderbee prison — with very few problems.

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The 22 accused in the courtyard at Delmas in April 1986

There was never a day that went by without us thinking what would happen to our families and loved ones if we got the death penalty or a long sentence. We worried about who would support them. Often, we wished that the trial would end for once and for all so that we could know where we stood. But time seemed to drag and the tensions and anxieties increased.

THE ‘DELMAS BUS’
These were difficult times. But the support we got from our people and organisations such as the South African Council of Churches (SACC) helped us more than I can say. We knew that our organisations and our people were behind us and they would never dump us at the time when we needed them most.

I will never forget the grannies and grandfathers who came to give us support every Tuesday and Thursday.

They never once missed the Delmas Bus in the three years we were on trial. Most were pensioners from the Anglican’s Cyprian church in Sharpeville — the church of Reverend Moselane, one of the accused.

They never got tired of waking up in the early hours of the morning and making it through the cold winter wind. They were a real source of inspiration and in the absence of relatives — who were often at work or simply could not attend the trial regularly — they filled the gap.

WEDDING OF THE YEAR
There were also some happy moments during the trial. Like the wedding of the year!’

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Bride Makgauta and bridegroom Lazarus More are congratulated by Archbishop Tutu and Terry Waite. The priest next to them was Rev. Moselane

None of us will forget the afternoon of 20 June 1986 when one of the trialists, Lazarus More, got married in the same courtroom we appeared in at Delmas. “Terror” and Oupa Hlomuka were the two best men! I remember that the night before the wedding “Terror” and Oupa spent hours shaving their.faces. They looked much younger the following day!

Many people came to Delmas for this special event. The late Bishop Simeon Nkoane of the Anglican Church conducted the service, helped by Reverend Moselane.

Bishop Tutu came to the wedding together with Mr. Terry Waite who was sent to South Africa by the head of the Anglican Church in Britain. (Mr. Waite disappeared while in Beirut, Lebanon in January 1987 and has not been seen since. He went there to try and promote peace in the area).

The wedding was a joyous occasion, but we couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for the new bride if Lazarus was given a long sentence. Again, we wished for a speedy end to the trial.

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Three former accused – Simon Vilakazi, Gcina Malindi and Thabiso – sharing a joke outside the courtroom at Delmas in 1987

BURYING THE GHOST
Finally, after three long years — on 18 November 1988— I was found not guilty and discharged. In all, 11 of us were found not guilty. The other 11 comrades were found guilty and sentenced.

In December 1988 Popo Molefe, United Democratic Front (UDF) national general secretary, Patrick “Terror” Lekota, UDF publicity secretary, Moss Chikane, former UDF Transvaal regional secretary and Tom Manthata, former secretary of the Soweto Civic Associa­tion, were sentenced to prison for periods of between six and twelve years.

Gcina Malindi, a youth and civic leader in the Vaal and six other members of the VCA were found guilty of terrorism. All were given five years each. Gcina went to jail with the other four. The other six got suspended sentences.

One year later, in December 1989, the Appeal Court buried the Delmas trial ghost when five judges threw out all the convictions and sentences and released the five comrades. The Court found that the judge had dismissed Joubert without first giving us an opportunity to express our opinion. Judge Van Dijkhorst may not have been impressed by our lawyers’ arguments, but the Appeal Court judges were!

In the judgement, Chief Justice Corbett said: “In general… the judge in a criminal court should not make rulings or give direction in regard to the trial affecting the interests of the parties without giving them the opportunity to be heard.”

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Moss Chikane, “Terror” Lekota and Tom Manthata – still in prison clothes – are welcomed home by UDF President Albertina Sisulu (centre) and relatives and friends

The five comrades came home on 15 December after spending one year on Robben Island. When they got off the plane at Jan Smuts airport, they were greeted by hundreds of supporters who gave them a big welcome home. The case was finally over!

Despite the hardship suffered in those long years, I have no regrets. I am proud to have been put on trial for the noble ideals of freedom and democracy. I believe that the work of the UDF and its member organisations has contributed to the changes in South Africa that we see now. Today I feel more confident than ever before that we will see “FREEDOM IN OUR LIFETIME!”

NEW WORDS
ideal — an idea that seems so perfect that you try to achieve it
conscious — aware
patrons — an important person honoured by an organisation
assessor — when there is a chance of the death sentence, two assessors must help the judge listen to the case
attorney — a lawyer who cannot defend an accused person in the Supreme Court
advocate — a lawyer who can defend accused people in court. Judges are chosen from among the advocates

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It’s now over three years since the beginning of… the Delmas treason trial

The 22 men who were first charged in the Delmas Treason Trial. Three have been released.

The 22 men who were first charged in the Delmas Treason Trial. Three have been released.

The ‘Palace of Justice’ in Pretoria has a special place in the history of South Africa. It was in this building that Nelson Mandela and his comrades were sentenced to life in prison for
plotting to overthrow the government of this country.

Now, 24 years later, 19 men are on trial in the very same courtroom. They too are being charged with plotting to overthrow the government. If they are found guilty, they too could be sentenced to life in prison — or maybe even death.

The trial in Pretoria is known as the ‘Delmas Treason Trial’ — because it was in the small eastern Transvaal town of Delmas that the trial began nearly three years ago. The trial, one of the longest in this country’s history, was moved to Pretoria in August last year.

When the trial began in June 1985, 22 men stood in the dock. But in November 1986 the judge said three of the 22 were innocent and he set them free.

“WE ARE NOT GUILTY!”

The other 19 are still facing charges of treason, subversion, murder, terrorism, and furthering the aims of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.

Most of those on trial are members of the United Democratic Front and its member organisations. One is a member of the Azanian People’s Organization, and one is a member of Azanian Youth Unity.

Most of the accused come from townships in the Vaal Triangle. Many of them were members of the Vaal Civic Association (VCA).

The accused have told the court that the VCA was started in October 1983 to fight for better living conditions for the people of Sharpeville, Sebokeng, Boipatong, Evaton and Bophelong. It was one of the 17 organisations banned by the government in February this year.

When the Lekoa (Vaal) Town council increased the rent and service charges in August 1984, the VCA called protest meetings. On 3 September, it led the residents on a march to the council offices. But the marchers never reached the offices. The police shot at them. People say they gave no warning.

The 19 accused are being charged for the troubles that began in the Vaal on 3 September. They are also being charged for the ‘unrest’ that afterwards spread through other parts of the country.

At the beginning of the trial, all the accused pleaded not guilty to the charges. They said that it was true that they fought against apartheid and injustice. But they say that at all times they used peaceful methods and that their organisations worked legally and openly.

THREE YEARS OF HARDSHIP

Police in the Vaal in September 1984.

Police in the Vaal in September 1984.

All the accused have suffered greatly in the past three years. The three UDF leaders, Popo Molefe, Patrick ‘Terror’ Lekota and Moses ‘Moss’ Chikane are still in jail. They have been behind bars since April 1985. They have asked for bail five times — but each time the judge has refused.

Molefe was arrested a month after his wife gave birth to a daughter. Lekota and Chikane’s wives gave birth after their husbands were already charged.

The other 16 are out on bail — but they are not allowed to go home. Most of them live by themselves in Johannesburg. Most days they travel to court in Pretoria — and when they do not have to go to court, they must report to a police station twice a day.

The families of the accused have also suffered. Besides living without husbands and sons, they have also lost the breadwinners in their families.

But all the hardships of the past three years have not broken the spirit of the19 accused. They greet all the visitors who come to the trial with smiles and warm handshakes. They even crack a joke or two. They are very grateful when people come to the trial to show their support.

And support is what the 19 need. They are fighting a mighty battle to prove that they are innocent.

“A HOSTILE JUDGE”

Many policemen, councillors and informers from all over the country have given evidence against the accused.The prosecution has used minutes from meetings and thousands of other documents and pamphlets in its case.

In March 1987 the judge, Justice van Dijkhorst, ‘fired ‘one of the assessors in the case. (When there is a chance of the death sentence, two assessors must help the judge listen to the case). The judge dismissed the assessor, Dr Willem Joubert, after finding out that he had supported the UDF Million Signature Campaign in 1983.

The lawyers for the accused said the judge had made a mistake in law when he dismissed Joubert.They said he should stop the case.

The accused also said that the judge and the other assessor, Mr Krugel, were ‘hostile’ towards them. They felt that when the judge and Krugel questioned witnesses, they often helped the prosecution.

The accused also said that they were unhappy with the assessor, Krugel. He was a member of the Broederbond, a powerful Afrikaner organisation that believes in apartheid. How could they get a fair trial from such a man, they asked.

The accused said the judge and the assessor should step down. After four days of argument, the judge decided that he and Krugel would not step down — and that the trial should go on.

“THE TRIAL IS IMPORTANT”

The brave Helen Joseph shares the joy with the three who were released.

The brave Helen Joseph shares the joy with the three who were released.

The 19 know that it is not only their own innocence that they must prove. Another 911 people are also named in the charge sheet. Some of these are well known people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rev Frank Chikane and Dr Beyers Naude. There are also 50 youth, women, worker and community organisations named.

If the 19 accused are found guilty of treason, then all the other people and organisations named may also be charged with treason.

As one of the accused says: “What happens in this trial is important for everybody in the struggle. It is a challenge to those peaceful methods that people have been using to unite people against apartheid.”

NO STONE UNTURNED

At the trial Learn and Teach asked many of the accused the same question: “The trial has taken so long and you have all suffered very much. Don’t you wish the trial was over already?”

“Yes,” they answered. “We want to know what our future is.”

But at the same time, they said they want to leave no stone unturned to show that they are not guilty — no matter how long it takes.

Such is the courage of the accused in the Delmas Treason Trial. It is a great pity that such people are not free to help build a better country for all who live in it.

By keeping these men stuck in a courtroom for so long, the government is not only silencing the voice of the accused. It is silencing the voice of the people. It is making all those who want to see the end of apartheid look like criminals!

THE 19 MEN ON TRIAL

POPO SIMON MOLEFE (36) is the national general secretary of the United Democratic Front (UDF).
PATRICK ‘TERROR’ LEKOTA (39) is the national publicity secretary of the UDF.
MOSES (MOSS) MABOKELA CHIKANE (39) was the UDF’s Transvaal secretary and he worked at the Community Resource and Information Centre in Johannesburg.
PATRICK MABUYA BALEKA (28) was an insurance salesman and a member of Azanian Youth Unity (Azanyu).
REVEREND TEBOGO GEOFFREY MOSELANE (41) is an Anglican priest from Sharpeville.
OUPA JOHN HLOMUKA (34) was an insurance salesman and a member of the Azanian People’s Organisation.
GCINUMUZI PETRUS MALINDI (28) of Sebokeng was the leader of the Evaton Baptist Church’s Youth Committee.
MORAKE PETRUS MOKOENA (49) owns a cafe in Evaton called vWest End Restaurant’ and was secretary of the Evaton Ratepayers’ Association.
TSIETSI DAVID MPHUTHI (50) was a branch vice chairman of the VCA and sold wood and poultry for a living.
NAPHTALI MBUTI NKOPANE (42) worked for a furniture store in Vereeniging and was a branch chairman of the VCA.
TEBELLO EPHRAIM RAMAKGULA (37) is an electrician from Sebokeng and was a branch treasurer of the VCA.
BAVUMILE HERBERT VILAKAZI (32) worked for the Urban Training Project in the Vaal Triangle and was a member of the VCA executive.
SEKWATI JOHN MOKOENA (35) was secretary of the Boipatong Residents’ Committee.
SIMON TSEKO NKOLI (28) of Sebokeng worked for the Institute of Race Relations.
PELAMOTSE JERRY THLOPANE (29), a part time salesman from Sebokeng.
SERAME JACOB HLANYANE (39) is an electrician from Sebokeng and was a branch treasurer of the VCA.
THOMAS MADIKWE MANTHATA (48) was a field worker for the South African Council of Churches and a member of the Soweto Civic Association.
HLABENG SAM MATLOLE (63) worked for a dry cleaning factory and was a branch treasurer of the VCA.
THABISO ANDREW RATSOMO (30) of Sebokeng was studying journalism at Rhodes University where he was the president of the Black Students’ Movement. He was a treasurer of the VCA before he went to university.

NEW WORDS
palace — a big building or home — like a king’s house.
the accused — people who are charged in court
dock — where the accused sit in court
innocence — not guilty
grateful — happy and thankful
documents — important papers
informer — ‘impimpi’
prosecution — the people who try to prove you guilty in court
hostile — not friendly, not on your side