ALEXANDER Sinton High School has honoured one of its teachers who were at the forefront of the student-teacher uprisings against apartheid in the eighties. FARID SAYED attended the event.
On Saturday, November 21, the school in Athlone unveiled the Nabil Basil Swart Foyer, two days after he had celebrated his 84th birthday.
Swart was described in a newsletter issued to commemorate the occasion as ‘the school’s most abiding human symbol of anti-apartheid resistance during the turbulent mid- to late eighties’.
This was a period when the apartheid regime tried to introduce ‘reforms’ that would have given token representation to Blacks.
These policies were, in effect, a concerted attempt to further divide Blacks in their fight against the racist regime.
Resistance to this divide-and-rule policy was met with brutal force by the racist regime.
One of the schools on the Cape Flats that was in the forefront of the intense resistance to the regime’s crackdown was Alexander Sinton.
And Swart, who led from the front, was among the parents, students and teachers arrested on the morning of September 17, 1985, after police had laid siege to the school.
While most were released after paying ‘admission of guilt’ fines, Swart was detained by the Security Branch.
Swart was held at Brackenfell Police Station, where he was interrogated and physically and verbally abused by six members of the Security Branch.
He was then transferred to Pollsmoor Prison where, he was detained for two weeks.
In June 1986, Swart was detained for a third time under the regime’s State of Emergency measures. This time, he spent ten months in prison without trial. His first spell of detention was in 1976, when he was arrested while helping one of his students shot by the apartheid police.
Speaking on behalf of the family, his son, Dehran, said that the school had played a central role in the lives of his father and the rest of the family. Dehran taught at the school from 1985 to 1996, of which one year was spent in detention without trial.
‘Alexander Sinton was a school where true education actually happened. A student at this school was not only involved in academics or sport. Here the ethos of the teachers was geared towards students with a conscience seeking social justice.’
Dehran said that the current state of affairs in the country called for developing students with that conscience.
Nabil Swart, in expressing his thanks to the current principal, Mr Michael Petersen, the staff and Ms Fazilet Bell, who heads the legacy project at the school, said that it was important to recognise the role of all the organisations that were part of the struggle.
‘The ANC does not own the struggle,’ he declared.
‘Our learners should know the real history of our struggle, and this must go into our history syllabus.’
The keynote speaker, Leonard Gentle, a former teacher at the school and retired director of the International Research and Information Group (Ilrig), also noted the importance of a factual and all-encompassing record of the history of the struggle.
‘If we don’t engage our own history, others step into the vacuum and do it on your behalf and distort it.’
Gentle made reference to the history of the student-teacher uprisings at Alexander Sinton in 1980 and 1985 that had made its way onto the internet.
‘There were factual errors.’
He said that the history written by those who do not identify with the struggle cannot grasp the concept and strategy of the student boycotts of 1980 and 1985.
Gentle said that, unlike a boycott where one stayed at home, it was one where, akin to the trade union movement’s factory occupation, the students took over the school.
Gentle paid tribute to Swart for the role he played in leading the students, teachers and parents in occupying the school as ‘a space of resistance’.
He added: ‘When Carter Ebrahim [Minister of Coloured Education in the House of Representatives] closed the schools on September 6, 1985, he was hoping to break that resistance.
‘So it was important for us to reoccupy the school. On September 17, Basil [Swart] was there leading students, teachers and parents.’
Following the arrest of 173 people at the school on that day, ‘while we were all released the same day,’ Gentle added, ‘it was Swart who spent a long time in detention because he was the frontline man.’
Gentle concluded: ‘In celebrating the life of Basil Swart, who was the source of inspiration for us all, we are not just looking at the past but rescuing the past from the distortion [of our history] and saving it as a means to celebrate something we can still learn from.’
- Disclosure: The writer was a student at Alexander Sinton High School from 1968 to 1972.
This article was first published in the December 2020 print edition of Muslim Views.