Shalate Davhana and Malesela Maubane
South Africa’s story of a colonial and apartheid past points to a period when the majority of the people of African descent were treated as third-class citizens, while those who vehemently rejected the policies of the apartheid regime faced daily police torture.
Compol Building was one of the dedicated sites used to apply brutal acts of torture against political activists.
The building of torture now houses the South African Police Service Museum and is situated on Pretorius Street, Tshwane.
The building was originally built as the Government Building in the 1890s, but later was taken over by the police, with the museum becoming part of its structure in the early 1990s and paints a picture of atrocities fuelled by our apartheid past.
A surviving victim of the security forces’ brutality, 98-year-old Dr Tlou Theophilus Cholo recently visited the notorious building accompanied by leaders of various trade unions, political and civic organisations.
Cholo was one of the first volunteer cadres of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) in the early 1960s. He was also a labour activist, involved in challenging the trade union politics of the day.
The nonagenarian resides in Soshanguve, a home he has been occupying since the 1960s forced removals from the fertile land in Wallmansthal, along the N1 on the north of Pretoria.
One might ask why Cholo decided to retrace his steps to a place which caused him so much pain.
During what was his first visit to Compol since the inception of a democratic South Africa, Cholo laid bare his feelings about his detention at what others rightfully called a simulation of a concentration camp.
Cholo relived a moment in a dark basement where he was hanged upside down, unclothed only to suffer endless beatings. His nails were plucked out with pliers and was beaten to a pulp until he could not feel pain anymore during those cold nights.
Almost every opening of his body oozed blood. Political luminaries such as the late Bram Fischer, lawyer and chairman of the South African Communist Party, were some of those who once experienced the brutal torture at the Compol.
After six months in detention, Cholo was tried for terrorism in the early 1970s and imprisoned for 16 years on Robben Island.
He is listed by the South African History Archive as one of the victims of politically motivated crimes, as identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – an organisation set to investigate the apartheid atrocities and develop a process of allowing apartheid perpetrators of evil to tell the truth as they understood it, if there were to be reparation and reconciliation.
The visit to the museum was more for Cholo about finding healing and closure of the painful past that had subjected him to untold physical and emotional pain.
Now Cholo is challenging the government to rename the museum after those who contributed to a free South Africa. The names he has in his mind include Bram Fischer or Father S’mangaliso Mkhatshwa, a Catholic priest who was tortured for his role of opposing apartheid injustice as a member of the ANC.
The freedom stalwart believes the museum should be open to members of the public to make them aware of the cruel events of torture that took place in the precinct, as well as archiving its cruel history so that the current and future generations may know what injustices of apartheid looked like.
Former first citizen of Tshwane and ANC treasurer-general Gwen Ramokgopa was part of the visiting entourage in her capacity as president of the Tlou Cholo Foundation. She has invited the youth to visit the facility so that they can appreciate that the freedom they enjoy came at a high price.
In 2009 the South African government awarded Cholo the Order of Luthuli in Silver, for his self-sacrifice in the struggle against apartheid and for outstanding leadership in the trade union movement.
In 2018, the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) conferred on him an honorary doctorate for a lifetime dedicated to the fight for social justice and accountability – and honoured the liberation stalwart through the second instalment of the Dr TT Cholo Annual Legacy Lecture in October this year, coinciding with his 98th birthday.
There is a move to lobby the government to rename Mabopane Highway, also known as John Vorster highway, after his name. The highway links Soshanguve to the city of Tshwane.
The governing party is also planning to award Cholo the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankwe honour – the highest award given by the ANC to political stalwarts who have made an outstanding contribution and sacrifice to the liberation struggle.
- Davhana is a Mancosa alumnus and a TUT employee, Maubane is a TUT alumnus and a post-graduate student at Unisa