Anton Fransch was in high school when he decided to become a freedom fighter in the 1980s during the height of the fight against apartheid in South Africa. The anti-apartheid struggle forms a significant part of South Africa’s history since it signifies the moment when people of color across the Rainbow Nation decided to revolt against policies of racial segregation under the system of apartheid.
In Cape Town, there was a rise in anti-apartheid activists and warriors from the Cape Flats who fought alongside the African National Congress (ANC). Fransch would become one of them until his sad end at the age of 20 after single-handedly taking on the apartheid security police and the South African Defence Force in a battle for more than seven hours.
Born in the Cape Flats suburb of Bonteheuwel in 1969, Fransch was the second youngest of seven siblings. While at Modderdam High School, he joined the Congress of South African Students and the Bonteheuwel Military Wing as resistance against the apartheid regime had begun to intensify.
Fransch was 17 when he was asked to leave South Africa for Angola to receive military training. Having mobilized thousands of young people in the fight against apartheid, he had become a target of the secret police who regularly raided his family’s home in search of him.
Scores of his comrades were already behind bars; some murdered while others had disappeared. In 1986 when Fransch left for Angola, he had been featured as a fugitive and terrorist on the apartheid television show, ‘Police File’.
In Angola, the 17-year-old learned more about the struggle for freedom, becoming a hardened guerilla trained in weapons, explosives engineering, communications, first-aid, urban and guerilla warfare, according to an account by South African History Online. It said that he led troops into many successful military operations against the apartheid South African army and their ally, UNITA.
Fellow soldiers under his command say he always ensured everyone was in high spirits, especially during difficult times, and would always perform the dangerous task of getting food and luxuries for his fellow soldiers while fighting in the bush as a guerrilla.
After more than two years, Fransch, in 1989, was instructed to return to South Africa where he was to set up new military cells and intensify the armed struggle in the Western Cape, stated the South African History Online. Operating under the identity of David Govender, a young UCT student, Fransch rented a room in a double story house in Athlone’s Church Street, with the Noordien family who knew him as Mohammad, a “man with a heart of gold” who was always willing to help, the family would later describe him.
Fransch would stay with the Noordien family without the knowledge of his own family members, who didn’t even know that he was back in South Africa until his tragic end in November 1989.
That month, the apartheid police had captured a comrade who knew Fransch’s address and had threatened to kill his mother and nephew if he refused to disclose it. The man was compelled to reveal Fransch’s location, and what followed was what The Namibian described as “one of the most epic and iconic stand-offs in the entire fight against the oppressive government – Fransch’s last battle, ‘The Battle of Athlone’”.
At approximately 12:00 am, on November 17, the security police and the South African Defence Force arrived at the Noordien house on Church Street and began building a parameter around the house. They took up positions on every side of the house, including on the rooftops of neighboring houses to make it difficult for Fransch to escape.
Then they began shouting at Fransch to surrender but heard no response. Armed with explosives and automatic rifles, the police entered the darkened house and quickly retreated with only the Noordien family with them.
It would later emerge that Fransch allowed the police to take the family to safety. Now battling on Fransch’s terms, the security police once again asked him to surrender, but the 20-year-old responded only with “a defiant laugh and ‘come and get me if you can!’” At 12.30 am, the police opened fire and the battle of Athlone began.
Armed with explosives, a pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle, Fransch managed to dodge each and every bullet fired at him while firing back at the police from strategic points within the house. This continued for three hours and the police got frustrated. They called for more reinforcements and at around 03:00 am, a Casspir rammed the wall of a neighboring house and was positioned where they thought Fransch was hiding. At this point, reports said the battle became “more intense”.
“…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,” writes South African History Online.
The battle continued for another three hours, with Fransch refusing to surrender.
At 7:00 am, an apartheid riot squad sergeant was instructed to throw a grenade through a window where they believed Fransch had positioned himself. Thus, after keeping a squadron of police and soldiers at bay for more than seven hours, Fransch was eventually killed in a hand-grenade explosion and his body was found badly disfigured afterward.
The police later said there was a detonation inside the room before the riot squad sergeant could throw the grenade but a neighbor, Basil Snyder, who witnessed most of the battle, said he saw the sergeant throw the grenade.
“It was the most heroic death. It was the bravest fight that I know of in the struggle. I believe there were one or two others who fought alone against an army of people. He fought here from 12.45 to 08.45 in the morning when, finally, they couldn’t beat him with anything of their gunfire, but with a hand grenade that was thrown and blew him up,” Snyder said in 2014 when Fransch’s stand against the police was remembered by a group of family, friends and members of the ANC at Kromboom Park in Athlone 25 years after the event.
“Anton was a hero because of the way he fought that battle and the way he allowed the police to first take the family to safety, who lived in the house where he rented,” said Mohamed “Gori” November, a close friend of the deceased and fellow MK soldier.
“He was 20 years old but he had to take on the responsibility of a man at a very young age. He became a man long before he completed being a boy.”