OPINION: Remembering a sacrificed young life

I have always been fascinated by the story of Ashley Kriel. My father grew up in Bonteheuwel and went to school at Arcadia High, so the first five years of my life were spent in the sprawling, so-called coloured township. Like many other young couples at the time, my parents lived in an extension of my grandmother's home, a house she was relocated to after District Six had been declared 'whites only' under the Group Areas Act.

Kriel, known as the 'Che Guevara of Bonteheuwel', was killed by the apartheid police on 9 July 1987, at the age of 20. I was but a child then, attending crèche in walking distance from the streets where his political activism played out. Therefore, to walk into the Bonteheuwel Civic Centre yesterday to watch a free screening of Action Kommandant, a documentary on the liberation icon's short life, conjured up many deeply-buried emotions.

Clearly, I was not the only one moved by young director Nadine Angel Cloete's film. Through chilling testimony from his sisters, comrades and friends, audio from Kriel himself and beautiful illustrations, Cloete revisits his story very powerfully. Even though Kriel was shot and killed in a house in nearby Hazendal, several people in the documentary insist on his love for Bonteheuwel and his strong desire to feel the energy of the place when he arrived back in the country from exile.

It therefore added a deep layer of emotion to view the documentary among members of his community, in the packed Bonteheuwel Civic Centre, right where Kriel had harangued his fellow youth and inspired their struggle. His old classmates, his family, his comrades and countless curious youngsters overflowed the venue and even spilled outside, where an additional big screen and speakers had to be fitted to accommodate everyone. Yet, you could have heard a pin drop as all eyes were glued to the screen.

WATCH: The trailer for 'Action Kommandant'

I was thrown back to the first time I stepped into this hallowed hall, at the age of four. Dressed in a red knee-length skirt, white T-shirt and white elefantes (shoes that were all the rage at the time), I emerged from a group of classmates all dressed alike to recite my part in a crèche concert. I was way too short for the microphone, but somehow my bombastic voice projected across the packed venue. For years thereafter, at birthdays, Christmas dinner and Sunday lunch, various members of my family would remind me of how they panicked that nobody would hear me, only to be blown-away by the poise and volume of this tiny child's voice.

I now live in Mowbray, with my Belgian husband and two young boys. Without divulging too much about the documentary, I learnt through testimony from his friend Desmond Grootboom (a close family friend of mine), that when the apartheid police turned up the heat, raiding houses in Bonteheuwel and surrounding neighbourhoods, the activists would meet at a place along Durban Road, around the corner from our current house.

For a moment, I felt as if Kriel's ghost was whispering to me, encouraging me to celebrate what is good about Bonteheuwel, to relive its proud past and not just count the tally of people killed in the ongoing violence that now plagues the one-time epicentre of political activism in the Cape.

With the looming local government elections and the internal challenges being faced by the ANC in the Western Cape, I wonder how different the political landscape would be in the province if Kriel were still around today. How would he have handled the transition from leading the youth liberation struggle to having a seat in government and the privilege that goes alongside that?

While there is no doubt we have a long way to go, we have come a long way too. I am reminded of this daily, when driving along the elevated freeway, we pass the large image of Nelson Mandela on the Civic Centre and my two Belgo-South African boys, aged six and four, say to me: "Mom, we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Madiba...". Theirs is an oversimplified version of the liberation movement and the struggle for equality to be sure, but it is a story they love to be a part of. It is a story I love to be a part of and that finds some distant root in Kriel's sacrificed young life. Action Kommandant documents it beautifully and, for that, deserves to be diffused far and wide.

Leanne de Bassompierre is Eyewitness News deputy news editor in Cape Town.