Anton Fransch and the Battle of Athlone: The Death of a Soldier

Anton Fransch could best be described as a mystery. He was a sweet, kind and gentle boy who loved life and was deeply loved by everyone who knew him. He was also a hardened guerrilla soldier who sacrificed his life at the age of 20, by single-handedly taking on a small army of apartheid soldiers.

Anton’s story begins in the Cape Flats suburb of Bonteheuwel, where he was born and raised. The second youngest of 7 siblings, Anton was described as a naughty but sweet kid who would help out wherever he could. He would be as ready to help hang up the washing as he was when a comrade needed to be hidden from the apartheid secret police. His defining qualities were the fact that he never seemed afraid of anything and placed loyalty to the liberation of his people above everything else. It is these qualities that would someday turn him into an effective soldier and an eventual martyr.

Anton grew up during a time when the uprising against apartheid had begun to intensify and the government had responded with a brutal state of emergency. Like many of the youth in the area, he had been inspired by Ashley Kriel to join the struggle movement as a kid. At the time, he was a student at Modderdam High and had joined the Congress of South African Students, under the leadership Ashley, as well as the Bonteheuwel Military Wing. He had been instrumental in mobilising thousands of young people in the fight against apartheid and the secret police had started taking notice.  By the age of 16, Anton had already been detained several times. He became a wanted fugitive and the police had regularly raided his family’s home, in search of him. Many of his comrades had already been arrested, viciously tortured, murdered and disappeared.

It was in September 1986 that Anton was instructed to leave the country for Angola where he would undergo specialist military training. This instruction came after he was featured as a fugitive terrorist, on the apartheid television show, Police File. He was only 17 at the time.

During his time in Angola, Anton began building an almost mythical reputation as a gifted, fearless guerrilla soldier. His best friend and most trusted comrade, Adil November, described him as a “guerrilla of a special type and a special calibre”. He had received training in weapons, explosives engineering, communications, first-aid, urban and guerilla warfare, and he led troops into several successful military operations against the apartheid South African army and their ally, UNITA. He was described by the soldiers under his command as someone who always made sure that they were in high spirits, even during the darkest of times. As guerrillas fighting in the bush, food was hard to come by and trying to get food was in itself, a dangerous mission. Anton was however a charmer and a gifted smuggler who always managed to get his hands on some luxuries. More than 2 years later, in 1989, Anton was instructed to return to South Africa.

Back in South Africa, his mission was to set up new military cells and intensify the armed struggle in the Western Cape. He rented a room in a double story house in Athlone’s Church Street, and operated under the identity of David Govender, a young UCT student. Also living in the house was the Noordien family. Although he operated under a different name, he was still the sweet and kind young man that everyone came to know and love. Mr Noordien described him as a man with a heart of gold and Mrs Noordien says that he never hesitated to help her whenever she needed it. During this time, the Noordien’s came to love Anton and he came to love them.

His family did not know that he was back in the country. It was too dangerous for them to know. He did however tell the one person he could not ignore, his mother. As a teen, his parents had divorced and this is perhaps where he grew a bit quieter, more contemplative and intensely loyal to those he loved. He loved his mother the most and it weighed heavily on him that her health had deteriorated in his absence. He had to let her know that he was fine and that he was also fighting the apartheid regime for her. This was the last time she would see her beloved son.

On the 6th of November, the secret police had captured and interrogated a comrade that knew Anton’s whereabouts. They had threatened to murder his mother and little nephew, and as a result, he revealed Anton’s location. This marked the beginning of what would be Anton’s last stand against the oppressor.

The police arrived at the house on Church Street at approximately 12:00am, on the 7th of November. They started building a parameter, cutting down shrubs to clear their line of sight. The police had taken up positions on every side of the house as well in the properties and on the rooftops of the neighbouring houses, effectively creating a war zone.  This was after all, Anton Fransch. They had received intelligence that he was an effective and dangerous soldier, and they could not leave anything to chance.

Against the backdrop of midnight, they began to shout at Anton, telling him to give himself up. They did not hear a response. Heavily armed with automatic rifles and explosives, they then proceeded to approach the darkened house, attempting to enter it. As soon as they entered, they made a quick retreat, bringing only the Noordien family with them. Anton had instructed them to take the family to safety. At that point, he was more concerned about the safety of his Athlone family than he was about the police.

Having to explain why they retreated, the heavily armed policeman claimed that Anton had several weapons and explosives. He however only had a Makarov pistol and an AK47 rifle. It was clear that something had frightened them, and they weren’t prepared to go back in. What was not clear was why they were frightened. What was it that they saw in the dark that made them run away and fabricate a story to cover up for their cowardice? Did they see something that all sadistic and cowardly oppressors have nightmares about? Maybe they saw a man with no fear in his eyes, and maybe this is what scared them the most. In him, they may have seen the inevitable fall of apartheid.

They made one last attempt at getting him to surrender, but the response they got was not what they wanted. What they got was a deep, defiant laugh followed by, “Come and get me if you can!” At approximately 12:30am, the apartheid police opened fire and the battle of Athlone had begun.

They fired their automatic rifles from all possible positions: from the left, right, back, front, on top of the roofs. The bullets struck everything, except for Anton. Armed with his pistol and AK47, he returned fire on the men on the right, left, back, front and on the rooftops. They made several attempts to enter the house but regardless of what they tried, they would be met with bullets. Whenever they shouted at him to come and surrender, he laughed. After more almost three hours of being mocked, humiliated and outmanoeuvred, they were frustrated and sent for more reinforcements. It was also at this point, that they decided that they no longer wanted him to surrender. They wanted him dead.

At about 03:00am, a Casspir vehicle made its way up the road, and rammed into the wall of a neighbouring property. After breaking down the wall, the Casspir was positioned nearest to where they thought Anton had positioned himself. It was from thereon that the gunfire became even more intense. Afterwards, the police forced their way into the homes of surrounding neighbours and took up positions near all the windows that faced the house. At that point, there were 40 apartheid policemen with automatic rifles surrounding the house. Just after 03:00am, they shouted, “Come out you pig. Today you are going die.” They opened fire and did not stop.

During the course of the battle, several ambulances were seen entering and leaving the battle area. It was suggested that Anton had taken down a few apartheid policeman. It is estimated that the police shot more than a million bullets at him, with not one managing to so much as graze him.

At approximately 7:00am, an apartheid riot squad sergeant was authorised to throw a grenade through a window where they thought an exhausted Anton had positioned himself. At approximately 07:45am, the cowardly sergeant made his way on top of a roof, laid down to avoid being seen, released the pin, and threw the grenade. A loud bang followed and after 7 hours of battle, a deadly silence fell over the whole of Athlone. The battle had come to its tragic end.

Anton’s brother, Mark, had said that on the day of the battle, he had gone to work and heard over the radio that a terrorist was fighting with the police. Little did he know that it was his brother taking on a contingent of 40 heavily armed apartheid policemen. It was only when a newspaper contacted him that he found out that his brother was killed during the battle. He rushed to the house and entered the room where Anton had died. What he saw had haunted him ever since. The room was torn apart by bullets and Anton’s flesh and hair was plastered against the wall. Anton’s mother had also witnessed the horrific scene and had never recovered since then. At Anton’s funeral, which was held at the Bonteheuwel Metropolitan stadium and attended by over 5000 mourners, his mother could barely stand. Her beloved son was no more.

The apartheid police conducted an inquest and presenting what they had written in the report, an apartheid judge declared that Anton had committed suicide by bombing himself. However, a neighbour, Basil Snyder, had seen the sergeant throw the grenade and had also witnessed the explosion that followed. The apartheid police had never interviewed any witnesses and had refused to release the details of the enquiry. Mark had only managed to get his hands on the police file in 1995, when he applied to the truth and reconciliation commission. This was 6 years after the event took place.

Amien Noordien, the patriarch of the Noordien family, had described Anton as a tough guy with a heart of gold. He said Anton was the kind of man who could fight his own battles, but was not prepared to sacrifice the lives of others.

Basil, who had witnessed most of the battle, says that it was the bravest thing he had ever seen and will ever see. Testifying at the truth commission, he said that it was important for him to tell the truth to Anton’s family about what happened and “that a brave soldier died in the service of his country”.

Yes, Anton was brave and fearless, but this still does not explain why he would invite his own death by single-handedly taking on a small army. Perhaps the answer lies with understanding who Anton was as a person.

He was not someone that did things impulsively, so he would not have taken death lightly. He thought long and hard before he did anything and had a deep understanding of the consequences of his actions. He was also a man who never placed the lives of others above his own and valued loyalty above everything else. He also felt the pain of others deeply, and this is what drove him to join the struggle and fight against oppression. He wanted to save everyone, even if it meant sacrificing himself.  If there was anything that scared him, it was the thought of hurting others and not being able to save everyone.

Anton would have known that if he surrendered, there could only be two possible outcomes. Either they would murder him like they did with Ashley Kriel, or they would arrest and interrogate him.
If he was to die, he would do so as a defiant soldier whose only goal in death was to embolden his comrades. If he could no longer defend the struggle in life, he would do so in death.
If he was arrested and interrogated, they would try to extract sensitive information that would put the lives of his comrades in danger. He had promised his comrades that he would never betray them, but even he knew that no matter how fearless the soldier, it could never be guaranteed that he or she would not give in under the brutality of torture. The apartheid regime excelled at brutality and their torture methods still leaves the hardest of soldiers waking up in the middle of the night, screaming. Given who he was, it was very likely that he decided that surrendering was too risky and that he would rather die than risk putting the lives of his comrades in danger. It was even more likely that he chose death for both of these reasons.

Men like Anton never die. They become a part of who we are, where we are headed, and the choices we make in life. Their courageous spirit guides us, makes us a little bit braver and makes us value not only our own lives, but the lives of others as well. And at times, when we feel powerless and unable to change our circumstances, he is the voice in our heads that makes us straighten our backs and look fear right in the eyes, the voice that whispers, “Come and get me if you can.”

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