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Black, Mixed-Race Citizens Mourn 'Adventurous' Bystander, 13, Killed by Police Bullet Election Day Wounds Still Fresh in Nonwhite South African Township

September 13, 1989|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

EERSTERIVIER, South Africa — They buried Leonard Rass, a 13-year-old boy crippled by cerebral palsy, on the Cape Flats on Tuesday, remembering his beautiful handwriting, his talent for telling fantastic tales and the brutal way he died--shot from behind by a policeman's bullet.

Hundreds of singing and weeping mourners carried the boy's small white casket on their shoulders to the cemetery after one of the first funerals for up to 30 black and mixed-race people who died during clashes with police in the troubled townships near Cape Town on election day a week ago.

Anyone Is Vulnerable

"What happened to Leonard is something that could have happened to anyone, anywhere in our (nonwhite) communities," the Rev. Allan Boesak, the mixed-race anti-apartheid leader, told the boy's parents.

"If the police had not retaliated against our people, then he would not have died," Boesak added. "Every single mother and father right across the country is standing with you in your pain."

Amid a growing outcry over alleged police abuse of power during the Sept. 6 unrest, in which bystanders like Leonard were among the victims, the government law-and-order chief Tuesday appointed a senior officer to conduct an internal investigation into the accusations.

And acting President Frederik W. de Klerk, slightly loosening the government's clamps on anti-apartheid protest, said he will allow a march to protest police brutality today in downtown Cape Town, following "definite assurances" from Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu and other organizers that it would be peaceful. Tutu called it "a victory for freedom of expression."

De Klerk, on the eve of his selection for a five-year term, also appealed for patience from defiant activists, saying it is not necessary "to vent political aspirations through disorderly protest and rioting. The door to a new South Africa is open. It is not necessary to batter it down."

But the wounds of last week's trouble remained fresh Tuesday in places such as Eersterivier, a tidy mixed-race township near Cape Town, where the five-week-old peaceful "defiance campaign" against apartheid and laws prohibiting political dissent has bubbled over into violence.

The trouble peaked last Wednesday when police moved into townships to stop protests against elections for the country's white, mixed-race Colored and Indian houses of Parliament. The black majority, which has no vote in national affairs, was joined by mixed-race and Indian anti-apartheid activists calling for an election boycott. (The Colored and Indian houses of Parliament are much less powerful than the controlling white chamber.)

In Eersterivier, about 100 demonstrators began to march on a polling station. The group was 100 yards from the guarded voting booths when three policemen appeared with weapons drawn. As the protesters turned to run, the officers opened fire, witnesses said.

Shot in the Back

Rass, who had been sent to a relative's house on an errand, was watching from the curb. He also began to flee, and several bullets struck him in the back, according to the family's attorney, Ralph Stuurman, who saw the body.

"Leonard was a most adventurous child," remembered Mary Isaacs, one of his teachers at a special school for children with cerebral palsy. What surprised her most about him, she said, was that he came from a family that could not even afford the $80 annual tuition, yet he had "beautiful handwriting."

Isaacs remembered that Leonard, despite a left leg withered by cerebral palsy at birth, "liked to be where the action was. And the other children loved him because he'd tell such fantastic stories.

"I'm sure he just wanted to be there that night, to tell the kids, 'I was there. I saw it.' He was very curious," Isaacs added.

That same evening, as barricades of burning tires lit the night sky around Cape Town, the police broke up protesters with tear gas and whips and opened fire with rubber bullets, birdshot and even skerppunt bullets, deadly sharp-point ammunition, according to residents interviewed Tuesday.

Some residents said police patrolled in unmarked cars, firing indiscriminately at people standing outside their homes.

A 5-year-old girl, Momthunzi Maishebelele, was walking along a street in Khayelitsha when she was shot by the occupants of a car patrolling on a street that the police had blocked off to local traffic.

"Mama, please help! The Boers have shot me," Iris Dyantyi remembers the girl cried. Dyantyi took the girl to her parents' home, where she died. Later, Dyantyi used a razor blade to pull pieces of birdshot out of 15 injured people who showed up at her doorstep.

Patrick Muller, 13, was killed by a bullet fired at point-blank range at his head when police chased him and other youths down a street in Bellville South, a mixed-race township, witnesses said. In a neighboring township, Yvette Otto, 16 years old and five months pregnant, was shot to death. Residents blamed police.

In all, 200 were injured and rights activists say 30 people died, most at the hands of police. The police say that only 15 people died, all as a result of black factional fighting or mob violence.

A mixed-race police lieutenant in Mitchell's Plain has publicly accused white riot officers of provoking protesters and beating them, "feasting on them," as they ran away. The nation's top mixed-race policeman has backed his officer's account, saying he would like riot squad officers "to act more professionally."

De Klerk, while offering his "sincerest condolences to the bereaved" Tuesday, praised the police "for the sacrifices they have made . . . under the most difficult circumstances." If any abused their powers, he added, "remedial steps will be taken."

In an apparent effort to avoid further international condemnation, South Africa's police this week banned the use of whips to control demonstrators and have allowed funerals of unrest victims to proceed without interference.

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