Language skills lead to the truth about a ghastly episode in SA’s apartheid past

Review: Vivien Horler 

Hunting the Seven – How the Gugulethu Seven assassins were exposed, by Beverely Roos-Muller (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

If ever there was a case to be made for all white South Africans to learn an African language, over and above Afrikaans, Chris Bateman’s experience does so.

He was the Cape Times crime reporter who, on March 3, 1986, headed to the intersection just outside Gugulethu after hearing about a shoot-out in the area.

When he arrived the intersection had been cordoned off. Police were throwing sand on to pools of blood in the road. Chalk rings had been drawn around cartridges scattered on the tar.

A lot of policemen, many of them senior, were present, which was unusual as Gugulethu was generally underpoliced. When Bateman approached a police spokesman he knew well, the policeman told him he would have to get his information from Pretoria. This too was puzzling – why Pretoria for a shooting in Cape Town?

The official story was that the police had had a tip-off: terrorists planned to ambush a van ferrying police to the Gugulethu police station for their morning shift. Police staged a counter ambush, and when the white van carrying the “terrorists” approached, attacked it. A gun battle ensued.

All seven terrorists were killed, and all the defending policemen survived, “a triumph of intelligence work and anti-terrorist training”.

Bateman was not convinced. Fluent in Zulu and Xhosa, having grown up at a trading station in KwaZulu-Natal, he headed into the Dairy Belle hostel, which overlooked the intersection.

There he spoke to three people who had witnessed the attack. A cleaner told him he had heard a bang, and ran to the window where he saw a man lying under a tree at the intersection. The cleaner then rushed outside, and saw the same man being shot in the head by a policeman.

A Dairy Belle worker told Bateman he had heard a bang, and went to the window where he saw a man lying next to a tree. A policeman had walked up to him and shot him in the head.

Another man emerged from the bushes with his hands above his head, but was kneed by a policeman. The worker heard a police officer shout: “Skiet hom!”, and the first policeman turned back and fired two shots at the victim’s head, at virtually point-blank range.

A third witness told Bateman a similar story.

Tony Heard, the Cape Times editor, weighed up the different versions of what had happened in Gugulethu that morning, and published Bateman’s story under the headline “Man with hands in air shot –  witness”, alongside the official, police-sanctioned story (required by law under the State of Emergency regulations of the time).

There was consternation, but as we now all know, thanks to information that emerged at various inquests, trials and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Bateman’s version was the true one.

Without his language skills, the truth may never have emerged.

Author Beverley Roos-Muller says Bateman’s article “is one of the most significant examples of fine media work in South Africa’s history, akin to a Watergate moment…”

She also says: “Anyone who doubts that a free media is essential to keep democracy and truth alive need look no further than this case.”

Apart from Roos-Muller’s denouement at the end which exposes the police’s cynical and sickening motive for the attack, much of the ground in Hunting the Seven has been covered over the years.

Yet it is still worth reading as a reminder of our country’s terrible history. As the writer Christopher Hope says in a quote on the cover: “…a tale of cold-blooded assassination, told in forensic detail, and a merciless dissection of the old apartheid regime, where cruelty vied with stupidity”.

It’s also worth reading as it is well written, reading more like a fast-paced crime novel – except that it tells a shameful truth.

At the end I was left with a feeling of grief. The seven victims were not terrorists or activists or anything of the sort, just seven arbitrary young men going about their business – several of them were looking for jobs on the day they were killed – who happened to fall into the clutches of a vile section of the police.

A last thought: maybe it would help in this fractious society of ours, even today, if more of us could speak each other’s languages.

  • Hunting the Seven is one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for June.


One thought on “Language skills lead to the truth about a ghastly episode in SA’s apartheid past

  1. David Bristow

    If only – my son went to Rondebosch Boys High and I tried really hard to argue for Xhosa to be taught, but I was a lone voice so he learned Afrikaans instead. It’s a bloody joke, he is a med student and has to deal with isiXhosa speakers daily.


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