Legacy of pain: Georgina Williams and her 22-year-old daughter Jade. Williams’s 11-year-old son Michael was one of three young people shot dead by police in the Trojan Horse incident in 1985. Picture: PIPPA GREEN
Legacy of pain: Georgina Williams and her 22-year-old daughter Jade. Williams’s 11-year-old son Michael was one of three young people shot dead by police in the Trojan Horse incident in 1985. Picture: PIPPA GREEN

Athlone may be steeped in music and cinema, but it has also been a site of atrocities whose effects have reached across a generation.

The difficulty of breaking that cycle is reflected in the life of former resident Georgina Williams and her 22-year-old daughter Jade.

Williams’ son Michael Miranda was 11 when he was shot dead by railway police in an incident that came to be known as the Trojan Horse.

On October 15 1985, a railway truck cruised down Thornton Road, one of the main arterial roads in Athlone. There are several schools in the area, and many became rallying points against apartheid. Michael attended Heatherdale Primary, a block away from Thornton Road.

On that day, pupils had filled the streets because the government had closed the schools. The truck turned and came down Thornton Road again, through the crowd. A stone hit its windscreen and policemen who had been concealed in crates on the truck jumped out and opened fire.

Three people were killed – Jonathan Claasen, 21, Shaun Magmoed, 16, and Michael.

"It was an ambush in more ways than one," says University of the Western Cape history professor Premesh Lalu, who was at Belgravia High at the time. "The closure of schools in September was part of the plot because if you got students out of the schools on to the street, you were setting them up."

Williams was a seamstress at a clothing factory in the city. Because the schools were closed, she had asked her brother to take Michael and his two younger sisters to her sister who lived a block from Thornton Road. Michael and his cousin, Salie, then 14, collected pigeons. They had gone outside to swop them.

"Salie and Michael were together when this thing exploded. Michael died instantly because he was shot in the face. Salie was shot in the chest and felt Michael fall against him. But Salie still had the strength to turn around and run. Then his sister got him and they rushed him to hospital so he survived and he was like, where’s Michael? Did you find Michael? And … ja," Williams fizzles out.

She sighs often. She and her brother spent the night looking for Michael. He was found the next day, in the morgue.

Salie had a major operation. He never found their birds. This was not the only tragedy that day when domestic birds signalled terror.

Zainab Rycliffe told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that she had given shelter to children on their way to the nearby Muslim school. One had insisted on going home; she had reluctantly opened the door and three of them walked into the gunfire. Shaun Magmoed rushed back into her house, mortally wounded.

She could not sleep in her bed; she could no longer work with children because her 'nerves were too tender', and she could not cope with loud noises

"Then I noticed my child was sitting in the chicken coop and the police were walking up and down in the passageway behind the house. He choked the chickens so that they would not make a noise because of the police walking up and down with their rifles," Rycliffe told the Truth Commission.

Then a policeman kicked open the door, grabbed Shaun and said "the pig is dead". Her kitchen was shattered by bullets; there was blood on her bed where Shaun died.

Rycliffe told the TRC she was "very ill" after that. She could not sleep in her bed; she could no longer work with children because her "nerves were too tender", and she could not cope with loud noises.

Today, Williams lives in Eastridge, Mitchells Plain. A photo of her only son dominates the living room and she keeps the press clippings of the incident and its commemoration embossed in plastic in a box. She works as a machinist in a garment factory.

An inquest in 1988 ruled that the police had acted in an "unreasonable" way and 13 of them were charged. But the Cape attorney-general refused to prosecute. The families brought a private prosecution, which failed.

She took "calming tablets" but that made it worse. "I was on drugs all the time. My kids were growing up and I wasn’t even aware of that."

Her youngest, Jade, born the year SA became a democracy, portended a new future for the family. She did well at her Mitchells Plain school, excelled in dance and in 2013, went to Stellenbosch University to study management sciences on a bursary. But her studies stopped abruptly at the end of her third year. The bursary was not renewed after her second year because she had not passed enough modules.

Stellenbosch University’s Martin Viljoen says in "almost all cases" the university will try to support students to enable them to continue their studies. "This was the case with Ms Williams. E-mails were sent to her with suggestions on the way forward, but unfortunately, she did not make use of the suggested opportunities."

Jade says she was affected by what she calls "the whole #FeesMustFall debacle" — she felt the security on campus made the atmosphere less safe and "homey". It was "devastating" not to be able to continue, she says. "Because it’s the final year and also knowing I’m a first-generation student in my family, and knowing that all these pressures and expectations put upon you."

Jeremy Michaels of the Mitchells Plain Bursary and Role Model Trust, founded six years ago by former finance minister Trevor Manuel, is trying to help get Jade back to her studies, and the university has said she will be readmitted.

If this happens, it may dent the legacy of pain for her mother that had its genesis 32 years ago on a street in Athlone.

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