Forty years ago young people were fighting for their right to education; it was a fight that saw them take to the streets of Soweto, sparking an uprising in which scores of them died at the hands of the police.
But the struggle for education, a free and equal education, continues, says Nadine Cloete, the Goodwood film-maker whose documentary Action Kommandant documents the life and story of young anti-apartheid activist, Ashley Kriel.
Kriel was only 20 when he was killed in Hazendal, Athlone, by the police in 1987. In 1999, Jeffrey Benzien was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for his part in killing Kriel.
Cloete said there were echoes of the unity and sense of purpose demonstrated by Kriel and others of his ilk in contemporary youth struggles.
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“If we reflect back to last year – the Rhodes Must Fall movement and Fees Must Fall movement – I think that people have underestimated our youth of today. There are issues they are passionate about which they will stand up for and give their all,” said Cloete.
She said comparisons could be made between the Soweto uprising in 1976, when youth were fighting against gutter education, and now, when youth were fighting for free education.
The struggle continued, she said, because equal access to education remained elusive.
“We need equal education and employment.”
This year, July 9 will mark 29 years since Ashley Kriel was killed. Cloete is 29, and it resonates with her that she was born when the subject of her documentary died. She wanted to make the 90-minute film to recognise the sacrifice Kriel and others like him made for freedom in South Africa.
Action Kommandant was released on Friday May 27 in Seattle at the Seattle International Film Festival.
The South African release of the film followed at the Encounters South African International Documentary Festival, at the V&A Waterfront on Friday June 3.
Cloete reflects on being a little girl in Germany, where she and her family moved for a few years.
She remembers watching Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, on television.
“The people in Germany celebrated for South Africa. There were balloons and ANC flags all over. Growing up, this is what made me want to show people the true fighters of democracy and freedom in South Africa,” said Ms Cloete.
She said her inspiration to do the documentary came from her father, Dennis, who was a history teacher.
“Always when we drove through Athlone my dad would mention politicians and activists’ names to me, and I knew from a young age there were people who died for freedom.”
After she graduated in Film at UCT, she went to to work for a film company in Elsies River where she watched archive footage of Ashley Kriel.
“That just did it for me. I always heard his name, and hearing his name again and hearing his story struck me. His personality and charisma caught me. I couldn’t understand why someone like Ashley would be swept under the carpet of history.”
She felt an urgent need to tell Kriel’s story.
“Coloured people are always stripped of something. Our history is taken away from us, our language is taken away from us. Telling the story became important to me because it represents people of colour in a dignified way.”
Key to making the film, she realised, would be getting to know Kriel’s family as well as those who had known him.
“It all started with conversations and getting to know Ashley’s family. It was a bit difficult in the beginning while trying to gain the trust of the family, but it all worked out,” said Cloete.
She started working on the film project in 2011 and only started editing in 2015. So it’s been a long journey, and an emotional one.
“It is as if you are carrying another person’s life in yours and seeing everything about that person’s life is very touching, especially a hero like Ashley. But, it was a humbling and great experience. I am very honoured,” said Cloete.
* Nadine Cloete will be having a free Youth Day screening of Action Kommandant on Thursday June 16 at th