Ramakhula's door. A South African trek from tenant's complaint to treason trial

RAMAKHULA got into the treason trial because of his door. His trial, along with that of 19 co-defendants, has come to be known as the Delmas trial, after the small town where it is being held. Ramakhula's co-defendants include leaders of the United Democratic Front, a nonviolent, anti-apartheid organization banned by the government. The Delmas proceeding is the most important treason trial in South Africa since 1961. It will set the boundaries of legal protest.

What follows condenses and quotes the trial's record, which cannot be published in South Africa, since restrictions there forbid reporting of court evidence.

Ramakhula was born in 1950 of poor parents who sent him to a farm, where he became a herd boy. He never went to school, but in night classes he learned to write his name and read a few words in Sotho, an African language. Eventually he found work as an auto electrician, living in a black township called the Vaal Triangle and commuting to a job in Johannesburg.

In 1973, Ramakhula married, and in 1977 was assigned a house to rent in the township. When he entered the house, he found holes in the floor, uneven walls, and the outside door rotted. He complained to the local administration board and also sent his wife to complain, but nothing happened. In 1978, he went again himself. His elected town councilor promised to talk to the town manager, but ``there was no progress at all.''

In 1981, he told a superintendent at the board, ``Even the walls to that house are cracked.'' The superintendent said the board no longer paid for repairs.

Ramakhula bought a new door, in installments. He put it up, struggling because the walls of the house were not straight. In 1983 he fell in arrears with rent and the board attached some property. They took the door.

Ramakhula borrowed from his employer, paid, and asked for the door. The superintendent sent him to where the door was stored. ``I found it without the locks. ... My door, which I paid money for, which money, in fact, was supposed to have been paid for in the rental, which rental caused them to come and take that very door. In fact, that is the door I am talking about, which is mine.''

No one could tell him what had happened to the locks. Ramakhula took the door and fitted it back.

Toward the end of 1983, Ramakhula went to a municipal election meeting. One candidate was ``the very official who was locking people outside houses on behalf of the board.'' Another was the councilor Ramakhula had spoken to about his door. Ramakhula did not vote.

He went to another meeting, held in a church. One speaker told about councilors who in winter kept blankets meant for distribution to pensioners and in summer distributed them just before the election.

People at the meeting formed an association.

Here the court record reads: ``Now the accusation against you, Mr. Ramakhula, is that you helped and voted for this association as part of an unlawful agreement with the African National Congress [ANC], the South African Communist Party [SACP], and the United Democratic Front in order to overthrow the South African government.''

(The ANC is Nelson Mandela's party and has been outlawed in South Africa since 1960. The SACP was outlawed in 1950.)

Ramakhula went to some association meetings. One day the association discussed the local high school. To deal with overcrowding and other problems, the school had ruled that any pupil who failed should not be readmitted. Ramakhula's adopted son was one of many students who had failed.

On advice from the man who had talked about education, parents and children went together to talk with the principal. ``We explained to him that our problem was that if children are being chased away from school, and they are now going to be in the township for the rest of the day, they will end up being hooligans or turned into tsotsis [gangsters], and then later they will not have anything to do in life,'' the parents said. They added, ``You can teach them outside in the sun there.'' An agreement was reached; 300 children were readmitted.

The ad hoc group that had organized the petition to the school became an area committee of the association. Ramakhula was treasurer.

In July 1984, councilors raised rents in the Vaal Triangle. People protested that they had no money. They called the councilors corrupt puppets of the white government. They decided to stay home from work the first Monday of September and march to the administration buildings. Ramakhula was to be one of three leaders.

At 10 a.m. residents gathered at a church and set off on the one paved road to the administration board, singing and waving homemade placards. Ramakhula was in the front row.

Four councilors were killed in the Vaal that day. One, Motuane, lived a block from the route of the march.

The prosecution charges the marchers with his murder. The defense says that Motuane was being killed by the time the march came near his house, that the marchers passed by, singing and unaware.

About 10:30, police blocked the march with vehicles and a helicopter flying overhead. They did not talk to the marchers. They used bullets and tear gas. In the days that followed, violence increased in the Vaal, and many other parts of South Africa.

Ramakhula was detained in October 1984. In 1985, he and 21 others were charged with treason. Three defendants were discharged in 1986.

Ramakhula's experience illustrates what can happen to people trying to go about their business in a society caught up in a larger history. Judgment in the Delmas trial is expected next Tuesday.

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