In memoriam: Ronald Carolissen

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Moegammad Tahier Kara is busy with his master’s degree in the Sociology of Education at the University of Stellenbosch and he writes about the unsung heroes who died during the Apartheid Struggle. Read the first commemoration below.

Picture provided by the family of Ronald Carolissen and is published with courtesy of George Carolissen

A remarkable individual stood as a beacon of resistance and hope in Stellenbosch – the town where apartheid was designed and engineered. It was the heart and birthplace of the apartheid government. Meet Ronald Carolissen, born and raised in Stellenbosch. He dedicated his life to fighting against the oppressive apartheid regime, and he paid the ultimate price when he was shot in cold blood by the apartheid regime. His unwavering commitment to the cause inspired others to join the struggle for justice and freedom. In the broader context of the anti-apartheid movement in Stellenbosch, Ronald Carolissen's sacrifice holds immense historical significance. As a well-known figure in the struggle in Stellenbosch, he had a life story that intertwined with the collective narrative of resistance against apartheid’s oppressive regime. He is still remembered by the people of Stellenbosch for the extraordinary courage and resilience he displayed, as are the many other individuals and groups who fought for freedom and dignity during one of the darkest chapters in the history of this country, South Africa. The Carolissen family has made a significant contribution to the apartheid struggle.

The family of Ronald Carolissen was made up of 10 people. His mother and father were Hennie and Dinah Carolissen. There were five brothers and three sisters. The children are Ronald, Vincent, Charlotte, George, Richard, Naomi, Esther and John. Vincent and Charlotte have passed away. The family lived in Borcherds Street until the start of the implementation of the Group Areas Act in Stellenbosch. The Borcherds Street area was declared a white area under the act. The Carolissen family and many other people were forcibly removed from their houses and relocated to Cloetesville and Ida’s Valley. The Carolissen family were relocated to a flat in Lang Street, Cloetesville. By the time of the killing of Ronald, the family had moved to a house in Raziet Street, Cloetesville.

The apartheid regime was brutal and oppressive. Apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the government of South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s. Under apartheid, people were categorised by their racial identity (white, black, coloured, etc). These categories were aligned with distinct legal and social rights, privileges and restrictions. South Africans were subjected to harsh discriminatory laws, forcibly removed from their homes and communities, and deprived of basic human rights, including the right to vote and access to quality education and healthcare. The system perpetuated a deeply unequal society, with segregated public facilities, neighbourhoods and educational institutions further worsening racial divisions. The regime’s brutal enforcement of apartheid led to widespread death and destruction, protests, international condemnation, and the ultimate dismantling of the regime, paving the way for a more inclusive and democratic South Africa.

The year 1976 is legendary in the history of South Africa and the world. The 16th of June is when the uprising started in Soweto. The uprising was against the imposition of Afrikaans as a compulsory language in black schools. The children were forced to learn Afrikaans. The year 1976 was a turning point in the history of South Africa. The struggle against apartheid gained momentum because the masses got involved in fighting for justice and freedom. This event on 16 June is primarily how the struggle was ignited in Stellenbosch. It provided the catalyst for people like Ronald Carolissen to get involved.

The 8th of September 1976 is a date etched in the memories of the Carolissen family and the people of Stellenbosch. On this day, he was killed by the apartheid regime. He was only 22 years old at the time of his death. Too young to die. In the previous few weeks, their house had been raided regularly by the police. They pulled out all the drawers, threw the clothes on the floor and made a mess of the house. The police were joking and laughing at the destruction of the house. According to John, the family conversations at night were about the imminent calamity that would befall the family. They were never in doubt that someone in the family would have to make the ultimate sacrifice fighting for justice. Ronald and his brothers were regularly on the run from the police. Sometimes they would sleep at the homes of their friends. George mentioned that they would sometimes even sleep outside to avoid being picked up by the police. This is what the security police were good at – bringing instability and doubt into the minds of the people. However, their vision of a free South Africa kept them going day in and day out.

In the face of relentless adversity, Ronald was unwavering in his pursuit of a just society. However, the price of his activism was perilously high, as he and his family became a primary target of government oppression because of their activism. The apartheid regime put a price on his head to eliminate him from society. The family had a simple message for the people of Stellenbosch. Apartheid is wrong, and many injustices are being perpetrated for one reason: they are not white. For this one reason, he was a threat to the South African state. Therefore, it was unsurprising when he was shot and killed by the police. Opponents were never safe from the brutality of the apartheid regime. By his entering the struggle against apartheid, the ultimate sacrifice was always a possibility. John, his youngest brother, often repeats the fact that they were prepared to die in the struggle for freedom and justice in South Africa. Despite this danger, the people participated in the fight against oppression. It testifies to the evil of apartheid, that people were ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in this noble cause of fighting for justice.

At the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, his brother, Richard, testified about what happened on the day that Ronald was shot. “Me and Ronald were in the vicinity of the flats in Langstraat in Cloetesville; the police were chasing a group of people and shooting at them. Ronald told me that we should get out of the way, and we ran towards the flats. I ran into one flat, and he ran into another one. I heard some shots while I was in the flat. When the shooting stopped, I came out of the flat and I saw how they were dragging Ronald’s body out of the flat in full view of everyone. His clothes were drenched with blood. According to an eyewitness, Ronald was locked up in the bathroom of the flat. The policeman told him to open the window of the bathroom. If he didn’t open the window, he would break the window. Ronald said: ‘Okay, sir, I am going to open the window.’ He opened the window and he put his hands into the air. When he raised his hands in the air, the policeman shot him from very close range with a shotgun. A spray of bullets penetrated his heart, liver and lungs.” While his brother’s body was lying on the ground, the policeman’s colleagues came to the killer and congratulated him, telling him it was a good shot. The policeman who shot Ronald Carolissen was Constable Riaan van Zyl. This was the cruelty of the apartheid regime – killing someone in cold blood and then congratulating him for the dastardly act. Constable Van Zyl committed suicide two years after the event.

After Ronald was shot by the police, a person by the name of Andrew van Wyk went to their home and told his mother, “Ronald was vrek geskiet deur die polisie” (Ronald was killed by the police). Andrew van Wyk was from their neighbourhood. The community was full of such people who worshipped the white man, even if the white man had taken away his dignity and treated him inhumanely.

These incidents and many other similar incidents brought unspoken trauma to the mother of Ronald.

The mother of Ronald was a great human being who supported her children. By writing this tribute to Ronald, we shall also value her and give her the highest praise for the role she played in the struggle. It was a silent struggle, the most difficult of struggles that a person can go through. There cannot be a higher price for a mother to pay than to lose a child. It was not just losing her son; the way he was killed made the pain of the mother much worse. The pain that a mother goes through in losing a child in this brutal manner can never be understood by those who have not gone through the same trauma.

That night of the killing, the family sat together, wondering what was to be done. Their mother told them that their immediate instincts would be to take revenge for the death of their brother. But Aunty Dinah said, she has lost a child and they have lost a brother. She would not like something like this to happen again to one of her children. That day, Uncle Hennie also returned from the hospital, where he had been diagnosed with cancer. Imagine the thoughts of the family – on the same day Ronald was killed.

Afterwards, there was a sham for a trial. The outcome of the court case was predictable. The court judged that nobody was to blame for the killing of Ronald. The policeman acted in the line of duty. According to Richard, “We expected the outcome of the trial, and we had no reason to believe that the policeman would be found not guilty of the brutal murder of my brother.” Uncle Hennie passed away in 1979.

The rest of the family played an active part in the struggle against apartheid. John was detained under the Internal Security Act in 1981. He was in prison for three weeks. He was tortured and assaulted by the police regularly for three weeks. He went on a hunger strike. They called on his mother to bring food to the prison for him. He was too weak to feed himself, and Aunty Dinah had to feed him. Aunty Dinah was not allowed to look at John. She had to enter the place in the prison he was in, by walking backwards. She had to feed him while they were sitting back to back on chairs. His mother was not allowed to look him in the eyes – again, the cruelty of the apartheid regime and the unspeakable trauma of a mother who could not look her son in the eyes while he was weak and injured by all the torture and assaults. Aunty Dinah passed away in 1981 at the age of 59.

Ronald’s sister, Naomi, was a trade unionist and played a vital role in the organisation of workers in the winelands area. Vince and George were active members of the ANC when it was unbanned. George was also a worker at Stellenbosch University. George mentions that the university implemented apartheid to the letter. He remembers that while they were walking in the corridors, they had to be careful not to be caught walking in the same corridor as a white person. The white people didn’t even want to share the same corridor with them. George relays the story that they went to visit their father while he was at work. He also worked at Stellenbosch University. One day, a professor in the building he was working in told his father, “Daar is wit klonkies buitekant wat na jou soek” (There are white children outside looking for you). His father went outside and saw that they were his children. He told the professor that they were his children. Needless to say, the professor never spoke to him again.

According to George, the family is proud of their contribution to the struggle against apartheid. They never expected anything in return for their role in the struggle for freedom in South Africa, even when one of their brothers made the ultimate sacrifice. George is a happy man and can walk proudly around Stellenbosch with his head held high. Furthermore, he says that even now, when the ANC is mismanaging the country and with the never-ending stories about corruption, South Africa is still a much better country than in the days of apartheid. They were in the firing line and can testify to the horrible and evil nature of apartheid. George says, “With all the bad news and ongoing corruption, we are still better off as human beings than under apartheid.”

After almost 30 years of freedom and democracy, Ronald’s story continues to live in the memory of the people of Stellenbosch. However, the full story of his death at the hands of apartheid has not yet been told in its totality. This piece of writing is an attempt to capture the legacy of Ronald Carolissen.

After almost 30 years of freedom and democracy, Ronald’s story continues to live in the memory of the people of Stellenbosch. However, the full story of his death at the hands of apartheid has not yet been told in its totality. This piece of writing is an attempt to capture the legacy of Ronald Carolissen. The impact of Ronald’s sacrifice in the anti-apartheid movement and his enduring legacy are nothing short of profound. Through their unwavering dedication and selflessness, many people not only brought attention to the injustices of apartheid, but also mobilised a generation to rise against oppression. Their actions helped galvanise the international community, drawing global support and condemnation of the apartheid regime. The Carolissen family received numerous letters from people outside the country expressing their anger at how the family was treated by the apartheid regime. The letters are signed by a significant number of people. Even after his tragic passing, the spirit of Ronald’s activism continued to fuel the struggle for equality, inspiring countless others to carry on his mission. The changes they helped bring about were significant, contributing to the eventual dismantling of apartheid and the establishment of a more inclusive and democratic society. Today, Ronald’s name resonates as a symbol of bravery and determination, reminding us that one individual’s commitment to justice can ignite a fire of change that transcends time and continues to inspire future generations in the ongoing fight for human rights and social justice.

The person you have read about gave his life for a just cause. He fought for freedom and justice, and he paid the ultimate price. We can honour his legacy by continuing the fight for justice. We can stand up to oppression and discrimination. We can work to create a more just and equitable world. We can all make a difference. Here are some specific ways that you can honour Ronald’s legacy and continue the fight for justice:

  • Learn more about people’s lives and their contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle. Share their stories with others.
  • Get involved in organisations that are working to promote justice and equality.
  • Volunteer your time or donate to their cause.
  • Speak out against injustice and discrimination. Let your voice be heard.
  • Vote for candidates who support policies that promote justice and equality.

By taking these actions, we can honour people’s legacy and help to create a more just and equitable world.

A process is ongoing with the Stellenbosch municipality to rename the old Beyers Street as Ronald Carolissen Lane. It is also an ideal place to commemorate all the other people who played a significant part in the fight for justice in the country. We are working with Stellenbosch University, specifically Professor Aslam Fataar, who is heading the transformation programme that emanated from the Khampepe Report. We are also in discussions with the Centre for the Afterlife of Violence and Reparative Quest (AVREQ) at the university to incorporate our efforts into their programmes.

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  • Dr. Rashid Begg

    Thank you for keeping the memory and history of our freedom fighters alive. A people whose history is denied will lose their identity - people of colour in SA face such a dilemma.

  • I am an attorney dealing with the "Unfinished Business of the TRC" at the Foundation for Human Rights. We work together with families of victims to get to the truth of what happened to their loved ones, hold perpetrators who did not get amnesty or did not apply for amnesty accountable so that families can get closure.

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