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 Cradock. In 1979, the couple lived in Dimbaza, where Calata worked as a teacher. Fort and Nomonde had three children.
According to his wife, Nomonde, while Fort Calata 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 acting headmaster, Matthew Goniwe. Goniwe and Calata became friends and shared similar political views. In January 1984 students commenced a school boycott after discovering the expulsion of Goniwe by the Department of Education and Training (DET). Goniwe’s strong influence as a community leader and political activists precipitated his expulsion. The students demanded that Goniwe be reinstated. Close cooperation between Calata and Goniwe brought them to the attention of the state security apparatus who then set in motion plans to reduce their influence or eliminate 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 under the Internal Security Act. Calata’s comrades Mathew Goniwe, Mbulelo Goniwe, head prefect Fezile Donald Madoda Jacobs were also detained. Calata was detained at a secret location and his wife Nomonde fruitlessly sought to locate him the following day.
On 12 April 1984 Nomonde who worked at the Provincial Hospital in Cradock was summarily dismissed by the Matron and the Superintendent. Subsequent to her dismissal, the police informed her that Calata was detained in Diepkloof Prison in Johannesburg. 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 suffered harassment from the security police and she was threatened with eviction from their home. The little shop that she set up to support the family was vandalised. 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 assisted Goniwe in fighting against rent increases in Cradock through the Cradock Residents Association (CRADORA) and the Cradock Youth Association (CRADOYA). Both organisations were later affiliated to the United Democratic Front (UDF). In January 1985, the entire community council in Lingelihle resigned the first to do so in the country. The school boycott, boycott of white owned shops and the resignation of the council sparked a raging debate within the state security apparatus and between the latter and DET on whether to reinstate Calata and Goniwe or not ensued. In April 1985 the school boycott was called off. Calata and Goniwe were detained at the Security Police offices at Sanlam in Port Elizabeth.
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 Mkhonto 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 set up a road block where they identified the cars carrying the Calata, Goniwe, Mkhonto and Mhlauli. On 27 June 1985 the Cradock four were executed by the security police and their bodies burnt. After Calata and his comrades disappeared news broke out that his body and that of Goniwe had been found stabbed and burnt, near Bluewater Bay. Mhlauli and Mkhonto’s bodies were also found in the scrub in the same area but far apart from each other.
Calata, Goniwe, Mhlauli and Mkhonto were buried in Cradock on 20 July 1985, at a massive political funeral attended by thousands of people and people from all over the country. Speakers included the Rev. Beyers Naude and Rev. Alan Boesak. At the time of his death, the Calata family were expecting a child as Nomonde was six months pregnant with Thamani. On the day of the funeral the government declared a State of Emergency in the Eastern Cape and arrested scores of activists returning from the funeral. After the funeral the security continued to harass Calata’s wife.
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.
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