Biography of Fort Calata

Born: 5 November 1956 – Died: 27 June 1985

In summary:

Teacher, community leader, political activist and member of the UDF. One of the ‘Cradock Four’ murdered by the South African security forces in the Eastern Cape.

Fort Calata was born on 5 November 1956. Fort’s grandfather, the Reverend Canon James Arthur Calata, was the Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1936 to 1949. In 1956, when Fort was born, Canon Calata was one of the accused in the Treason Trial. Fort Calata and his wife Nomonde met in 1974 in Lingelihle, Cradock. In 1979, the couple lived in Dimbaza, where Calata worked as a teacher. Fort and Nomonde had three children Dorothy, Lukhanyo and Tumani.


According to his wife, Nomonde, while Fort was still at school in 1976, he wrote a letter to the municipality in Cradock, informing them about the dirty streets and the bucket system. Despite writing the letter anonymously, the police traced it and identified him as the author of the letter. Subsequently, he was detained and questioned. In October 1980, he was detained again in Dimbaza for three weeks as a result of his political views. Calata was then transferred to work in Cradock.


In 1983, Calata worked as a teacher under a newly appointed headmaster, Matthew Goniwe. He and Calata became friends due to their shared political views. In February, 1984, pupils started a school boycott demanding that the Department of Education and Training reinstate Goniwe. He was fired days earlier for refusing to leave Cradock to teach in Graaff Reinet.

The close cooperation between Calata (President, Cradock Youth Association, Treasurer, Cradock Residents Association ) and Goniwe (Secretary, Cradock Residents Association) brought them to the attentions of the state. The security apparatus, then set in motion plans to reduce their influence, when that failed they plotted to assassinate them.


On 19 March 1984, former President FW de Klerk attended a State Security Council (SSC) meeting where former Finance Minister Barend du Plessis proposed the “removal” of Goniwe and Calata. Du Plessis said: “In Cradock is daar twee oud-onderwysers wat as agitators optree. Dit sou goed wees as hulle verwyder kon word.” (In Cradock there are two ex-teachers who are acting at agitators. It would be good if they could be removed.)


On the 31 March 1984, at 10 o’clock in the evening the police arrested and detained Calata, Goniwe, Mbulelo Goniwe and Fezile Donald Madoda under the Internal Security Act. Calata and M Goniwe were detained in Diepkloof Prison in Johannesburg.


On 12 April 1984, Nomonde who worked at the Provincial Hospital in Cradock was summarily dismissed by the Matron and Superintendent. She was dismissed for wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan: ‘Free Mandela’. Nomonde visited Calata in May 1984 and a second visit was denied because the police claimed Nomonde was late. Calata remained in detention for six months. In June he was informed that he had been “listed” which meant that he could not be quoted. On 21 August Calata was dismissed from his teaching post.


Meanwhile during his detention, Calata’s wife and family suffered harassment from the security branch. She was often  threatened with eviction from their home. The little shop that she set up to support her family was regularly ransacked by the unwelcome officers. In August 1984, the community launched a boycott of white owned shops for a week in protest against the detention of their leaders. As a result, the government buckled under pressure and released Calata and others in October 1984.


Calata and Goniwe led a campaign against rent increases in Lingelihle, through CRADORA and CRADOYA. Both organisations affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF) in December 1983. In January 1985, the entire community council in Lingelihle resigned, the first and only to do so in the country. The resignation, coupled with the school boycott and regular economic boycotts of white owned shops,  set off alarm bells within the state security council. The school boycott was eventually called off in April 1985. By then, it had stretched to 15 months the longest ever boycott in history.


Around this time the police set in motion plans to eliminate Calata and his friends. He was monitored, followed by vehicles and his home was visited by the head of the Cradock Security Police, Major Eric Winter. The Deputy Minister of Defence, Adriaan Vlok, also visited the township and was shown Calata’s home.

On 27 June 1985, Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli (known as the Cradock Four) drove to Port Elizabeth to attend a UDF meeting.  All of them did not return to Cradock.


The police are believed to have set up a road block where they identified their car.  That night Calata, Goniwe, Mkonto and Mhlauli were executed by the security police. They burnt their bodies afterward. News of the four men’s disappearance and subsequent discovery of their desecrated bodies near Bluewater Bay outside Port Elizabeth heightened political tensions in the country.


Calata, Goniwe, Mhlauli and Mkhonto were buried in Lingelihle, Cradock on 20 July 1985. The funeral was among the largest political gatherings of the mid-eighties. Although it was banned, an estimated 60 000 mourners attended. Speakers included the Reverends Beyers Naude and Alan Boesak. Just hours after the funeral, the government declared a partial State of Emergency in the Eastern Cape and then Transvaal. It proceeded to  arrest  scores of activists returning from the funeral.


Two weeks after the funeral Nomonde gave birth to her and Fort’s third child Tumani.


A two-year inquest into the death of the Cradock four began in 1987 (Inquest No. 626/87) under the Inquests Act No. 58 of 1959, headed by Magistrate E de Beer. At the end of the inquest on 22 February 1989, the Magistrate found that the four had been killed by “unknown persons” and that “no-one was to blame”. In 1992 President FW de Klerk called for a second inquest after the disclosure on 22 May 1992 by the New Nation newspaper of a Top Secret military signal calling for the “permanent removal from society” of Goniwe, Calata and Goniwe’s cousin, Mbulelo. The second inquest began on 29 March 1993 and ran for 18 months in terms of the Inquests Amendment. Judge Neville Zietsman, in delivering his verdict, found that the security forces were responsible for their deaths, although no individual was named as responsible.


A monument commemorating the lives of three generations of Cradock activists, who died during the struggle, including the Cradock Four, was unveiled by then-Deputy President Jacob Zuma and Eastern Cape Premier Makhenkesi Stofile.  On April 2006, the South African Government honoured Calata by conferring him with the Order of Luthuli in Bronze. Courtesy: Rhodes University

Edited: Lukhanyo Calata