Greta Apelgren: An Activist For Human Rights

Apartheid was characterized by an authoritarian political culture based on white supremacy, which ensured that South Africa was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation’s minority white population. Draconian laws were put into plàce to deprive non-white people of their Human Rights and to maintain the apartheid regime’s repressive goals.

The Natives Land Act of 1913 opened the door for white ownership of 87 percent of the land, leaving black people to scramble for what was left. Once the law was passed, the apartheid government began the mass relocation of black people to poor homelands and to poorly planned and serviced townships.

The Group Areas Act was fashioned as the “cornerstone” of Apartheid policy and aimed to eliminate mixed neighbourhoods in favour of racially segregated ones which would allow South Africans to develop separately.

Pass laws and apartheid policies prohibited black people from entering urban areas without immediately finding a job. It was illegal for a black person not to carry a dompas. Black people could not marry white people. They could not set up businesses in white areas. Everywhere from hospitals to beaches was segregated. Education was restricted. And throughout the 1950s, the National Party passed law after law regulating the movement and lives of black people.

Verwoerd wrote the Bantu Education Act, which was to have a deleterious effect on the ability of black South Africans to be educated as Verwoerd himself noted that the purpose of the Bantu Education Act was to ensure that blacks would have only just enough education to work as unskilled laborers.

On 21 March 1960, South African police killed 69 peaceful protesters in Sharpeville, sparking nationwide dissent and a wave of strikes. A subgroup of protesters who were tired of what they saw as ineffective nonviolent protests began to embrace armed resistance instead. Among them was Nelson Mandela, who helped organize a paramilitary subgroup of the ANC in 1960. He was arrested for treason in 1961 and was sentenced to life in prison for charges of sabotage in 1964.

In response to the 1960 protests, the government declared a state of emergency. This tactic cleared the way for even more apartheid laws to be put in place. Despite the state of emergency, black groups continued to organize and protest. However, a crackdown on many movement leaders forced them into exile abroad.

During the 1980s, resistance became even more fierce. Peaceful and violent protests finally began to spark international attention. Nelson Mandela, the movement’s most powerful and well-known representative, had been imprisoned since 1964. Mandela inspired his followers to continue resisting and conducted secret negotiations to end apartheid.

The situation led to growing dissent among the majority black population. Anti-apartheid groups were organized by the black community to protest against the situation imposed on the community. The government responded by arresting the leaders and participants. Violence erupted across the country between the government and the black community. Internal pressure by the anti-apartheid groups and international embargoes forced the government to reconsider its position and agree to end segregation.

Greta Apelgren graduated from the University of the Western Cape in 1978 with majors in Social Work and Sociology. During the 1976 student protests, she learned the full realities of how oppressive and destructive apartheid was in the lives of black youth, particularly in terms of the old black education and the merciless violence of the previous government towards black youth, shooting children in the schoolyards and in the streets.

From 1980 to 1986, she helped establish and manage the Wentworth Development Centre, which focused mostly on the social development needs of the youth of Wentworth. She was an executive member of the Board of Management of the center, an executive member of the Local Civic Organisation, an active member of Christ The King Catholic Church in Wentworth, working mostly with youth programs. Prior to her arrest, she was employed as a professional community development officer by the Durban Child and Family Welfare Society, dealing mostly with issues affecting township women and children, impacted mainly by the inequalities of apartheid.

From 1983 to 1985, she was an active member of the political organization known as the United Democratic Front, UDF, as well as an active member of the local township branch of the UDF, referred to as the Wentworth United Committee of Concern, UCC. Through these structures, she actively campaigned against the tricameral elections because it deliberately excluded African people from that political dispensation. African people would continue to be denied their democratic rights to vote. 

In January 1986, she was recruited by Robert McBride to become a member of a Special Operations Unit of Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress. Her role at that stage was only to provide support, for example, transport, money, to the Commander and operatives in the unit. She was involved in this unit from January 1986 to July 1986, before she was arrested together with Robert McBride and his father, Derick McBride.

She was arrested on the 17th July 1986 and detained under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act until early November 1986 when she was transferred to Westville Female Prison and held in solitary confinement. She was charged with 15 counts of furthering the aims of a banned organization; ANC, terrorism, murder, attempted murder, aiding a prisoner to escape, and harboring a terrorist. From February to mid-May 1987, she stood trial at Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court and was convicted of 5 of the 15 counts. Four counts related to the escape of Gordon Webster from the Edendale Hospital and one account to the reconnaissance for which she undertook electrical substations, located between Nigel and Ladysmith. 

Apelgren recalls her incarceration in solitary confinement; “That was very, very painful. I don’t even want to describe psychologically what I had to do to survive down there. I will write it down, I will write it one day, but I could never tell you, but it did teach me something and that is that no human being can live alone more than, I think, even one month because there’s nothing you can do to survive by yourself every single day. The basement was an entire wing of the prison, it was actually an entire floor. I felt as the months went by that I was going deeper and deeper into the ground. Physically I wasn’t, but psychologically I was. I became so psychologically damaged that I used to feel that all these cells, because there were a whole lot of other cells that were empty but they were locked, that to feel all these cells are like coffins and there were all dead people in there. It was as if I was alive and all these people were dead. I was so disturbed but I would never, never let the wardresses know, but they did destroy me. My suggestion is that no prisoner, regardless of their crimes, should ever be in isolation per se, not even this Section 29 business for two weeks. I know it serves a purpose but ultimately when it’s prolonged, I don’t think anybody can handle it. I’ve been out of prison now for more than 7 or 10 years, but I haven’t recovered and I will never recover, I know I won’t. I have tried to.

The first two years after my release I tried to be normal again and the more I struggled to be normal, the more disturbed I became. I had to accept that I was damaged. A part of my soul was eaten away as if by maggots, horrible as it sounds, and it will never get back again.

Sorry, this was the worst part of my life. I think I’ll be okay later on.”

On the evening of the 4th of May 1986,  Greta Apelgren assisted Robert McBride, Derick McBride, Welile Khumalo, Antonio Du Preez, and Matthew Lecordier to rescue, MK Commander, known to her as  Steve Mkhize, but later identified by the name of Gordon Webster. He had been in the intensive care ward at the Edendale Hospital under armed police guard at the time of his escape. Her role was to wait under a bridge near the hospital to where Robert and others would bring Gordon. From this point, she had to drive him immediately back to Wentworth, to Robert’s father’s workshop. She was unable to fulfill that actual role that evening because Welile had approached her car and insisted she drive him away from the scene, because of the presence of a traffic control officer further down the street, which made him very nervous. Robert and the other unit members drove Gordon to Wentworth.

During the week of the 5th to the 8th of May 1986, she assisted Robert and other comrades to move Gordon from the workshop to a house somewhere in the Umlazi township. On Friday the 9th of May 1986 she assisted Robert in the transportation of Gordon Webster and his girlfriend Anne to Botswana where they were then transported by MK comrades to a safe-house in Gaberones   

During the rescue operation at Edendale Hospital, two armed police officers on guard in the intensive care ward were wounded during the shoot-out and returned fire inside and outside the intensive care ward. Although her role and  position were situated approximately two kilometers from the scene, she was nevertheless convicted of the assault of the two police officers on the grounds of common purpose

Apelgren ruefully states;” It is clear that I was associated in operations which resulted in injuries sustained by victims and the death of Mr. Buthelezi. Despite the minimal role I played in these operations, I accept political responsibility for such injuries and death. I express my deep sorrow to the victims concerned and mostly to the parents and the family of the late Mr. Buthelezi'”

Apelgren was trained by Robert McBride and Commander Gordon Webster, about the importance of ‘military code words’. In other words, you could only be told what your role is. At that time there were so many police informers, that they were all so paranoid. Each person could only be told exactly what they had to do. They  could not be told everything, 

On June 14, without being briefed on the detail of what was going to happen, MK operative Apelgren sat in a Mazda to keep a parking bay for McBride. Those were her instructions under the discretion of McBride’s autonomy as a commander of the Special Operations Unit that reported through Ismail to MK headquarters and Joe Slovo, who answered to ANC president Oliver Tambo.

Once McBride had set a timing device for 15 minutes, with Lecordier on the lookout, he and Lecordier walked to meet Apelgren. They drove to a mobile police station in the middle of Durban to see if the police would rush towards the blast, which is exactly what happened.

Apelgren only discovered the following morning, when she heard the news on the radio and then later on in the day when her sisters bought the newspaper, and she read that an explosion had taken place directly outside that hotel, more or less in the place where she had parked that car. It was only then that she realized that what they actually did there was not just park an ordinary car for other comrades who needed it. It was actually a car bomb.

It must also be remembered that human rights violations affect many more people than simply their direct victims. Family members, communities, and societies themselves were all adversely affected. The conflict in South African had effects far beyond those who were activists or agents of the state; many victims who approached the Truth And Reconciliation Commission were simply going about their daily business when they were caught in the crossfire. Human rights violations can also trigger a cascade of psychological, physical, and interpersonal problems for victims that, in their turn, influence the functioning of the surrounding social system.

Hi family. This picture was taken at the State President’s House in Cape Town in 2010. It was taken on the front steps. Kgalema Monthlante was the President then, with Jacob Zuma as Deputy President. I’m standing next to the ex-President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. The blue arrow points to a Mkhonto we Zizwe freedom fighter who died recently. It was such an honor for me (as a freedom fighter) to be in the presence of such great leaders!

The central purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 was to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of apartheid by the full disclosure of truth. The apartheid government was found by the TRC to be the main perpetrator of gross human rights violations.

She explains; “I wasn’t playing a game. It was a war situation and that was an act of war. I have to counsel myself spiritually. All guerrilla fighters feel this way. You do feel a detachment. It’s very difficult to say that under the same circumstances, you would never do it again.

I had always been a person who was too sure of myself. I|always knew what I wanted in life. I was always successful. But that experience really humbled me. I learned humility more than anything else.

The degree of blatant racism that was inflicted on black people brought this group of freedom fighters to the brink of destruction. And what they had to do was to keep fighting racism. That was their only conflict!

By: Lorraine Richards

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