Political arrest shackles Emeraan Ishmail’s athletics career


WITH many school athletes’ lives revolving around their subjugation because of the politics of the day, many had to quit athletics even before reaching their full potential at senior level.

During the political uprisings of the 1980s, thousands braved the oppressive regime when teargas filled the air, rubber bullets were flying and live ammunition triggered.

Emeraan Ishmail
Emeraan Ishmail wins the boys under 17 400m at the Athlone Stadium.

Others were arrested or placed in a dark hole where “no one knew his name”.

One such person was Emeraan Ishmail.

He was regarded as “nothing”, bitterly and derogatory “nothing”.

His humanity was taken from him; he was taken from his family and friends – he remained “nothing” – in absolute absentia from society.

Detention at Victor Verster

Over the course of 98 days, his world had changed irrevocably.

His detention, at Victor Verster, had become the most gut-wrenching experience in the year he turned 21 (in detention), while Eid was being celebrated outside of prison. He lost his athletics career while others lost their lives.

This was on Wednesday, October 15, 1985 when Trojan Horse hit the world headlines. Jonathan Klaasen, Michael Miranda and Shaun Magmoed were gunned down in Thornton Road, Athlone, by Douw Vermeulen and others atop a crate on the back of a Railways truck.

Three dead, and several others were arrested; Ishmail was arrested later.

Emeraan Ishmail
Sintonites Leon Pietersen, Emeraan Ishmail and Lorna Daniels at the Athlone Stadium in 1982.

The Railway policemen hid in the crate and drove up and down Thornton Road, Athlone, provoking youngsters who had nothing but resentment for the National Party government of “State President” PW Botha. Botha was the Minister of Coloured Affairs in 1969. Botha, now deceased, had put in place the Tricameral Circus – he called it the “Tricameral Parliament”; the separation of coloured and Indians, based on race, in Botha’s parliament of segregation in 1983.

All this circus parliament did was to entrench political power in the hands of the white government.

Emeraan Ishmail wins the boys under 17 400m at the Athlone Stadium.
Emeraan Ishmail wins the boys under 17 400m at the Athlone Stadium.

Botha’s abominable policies did not last; he did not last either; removed from public office by a combination of illness and mutiny in the cabinet, and ultimately succeeded by FW de Klerk.

The country was on the road to freedom, well democracy.

One could say that democracy came late; it came too late. Democracy came too late for an entire country; black and white, deprived of international sport, simply because, by sheer brute force, the white Afrikaner government persisted with its apartheid policies.


International sports isolation crippled white South Africa who had had a taste of international sport prior to 1970.

There was no such opportunity of international sport for Ishmail and the plethora of athletes before him.

He was a talented 800m athlete at the tender age of 13 years. He had gained Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) colours in  1980 and 1982 as a boy’s under 15 and 17 athlete.emeraan-diploma

By 1983, he was the South African Amateur Athletics Board’s junior men’s 800m champion.

In 1984 he was a student at the University of Cape Town. He was running as well ever.


“I recalled that in 1985 Mark Jacobs told me that we cannot run during the period of unrest. I admired him and respected him as an athlete, but I remember disagreeing with him. I wanted to be an athlete irrespective.”

Ishmail had a change of heart when Trojan Horse happened.

Emeraan Ishmail
Emeraan Ishmail wins the boys under 17 400m race for Iona at the 1982 interhouse meeting at City Park.

“I narrowly missed being in the mix when the Trojan Horse incident occurred. I had been in Belgravia Road (parallel to Thornton Road) where we (political activists) had burned out a truck when my father picked me up to go with him to the hardware store. It was while we were at the hardware store in Thornton Road that the cops killed the people in the incident that came to be known as the Trojan Horse massacre. I was picked up the next day when the cops chased us and arrested me in a house around the corner from the Trojan Horse incident,” recalls Ishmail.

When Ismail got to the prison cells in Athlone, there was Rodney Regter of Belgravia High School, a former WPSSSU athlete, too.

Dumped in Epping

Regter was in the thick of the massacre, his blue and white tracksuit clearly visible on the Trojan Horse footage.

“I was released two days later, having spent three days in the Athlone police cells. A few hours after being released I had been arrested again on Friday night. I was scared of what the cops could do to me, but I was more scared of the trouble that I would be in at home for being picked up again on the same day that I was released. Fortunately for me, the cops were more interested in getting to a braai, and did not feel like the paperwork that was involved. They dumped us in Epping,” says Ishmail.

The unrest of 1986 had put an end to Ishmail’s athletics career. He was steeped in ultra-leftist politics and his demeanor had taken on a serious look.

“My arrest and detention in 1986 ended my athletics career forever.

Emeraan Ishmail
The start of the boys under 17 800m race at the Athlone Stadium in 1982. Emeraan Ishmail is the athlete with the white headband.

When I went into detention, I was very fit. I think that I never recovered from this level of fitness again. In fact, I think the 23 hours of detention for 98 days altered my metabolism as well. But, my sacrifice is minuscule to the sacrifice of other people. I lost a sporting career, others lost their lives,” reflects Ishmail.

Habibia Primary School

Ishmail attended Habibia Primary School. He did not compete as an athlete there.

He then attended Alexander Sinton High School. He competed in the sectional athletics meeting in 1979, his first year at Sinton (Std 6) and won his 800m race comfortably. He was spiked out of the race in the champs, but did complete the boys under-14 800m event, wearing only one spike.

Emeraan Ishmail
Emeraan Ishmail, right, at a club meeting with the rest of the athletes after training the same night.

Harold Cressy’s Mark Cookson and Parkwood’s Trevor Maart represented WPSSSU in the boys 14 under age group. In 1980, he was placed second and fourth in the boys under 15 age group in the A-Section won by Belgravia High School.  At the champion of champions, he came second in the boys under 15 800m and wasn’t placed in the 1500m, the first two places going to Maart and G Spandiel of Gordon High School. Maart, Spandiel and Ishmail were picked for the WPSSSU boys under 15 800m and 1500m races. He was placed second in the 1500m at the SASSSA championships. Ishmail had a quiet season in 1981 and, by 1982, he was back in the WPSSSU team alongside Sintonites Dianne Carelse, Kevin Africa and Leon Pietersen.

In 1983, he became the South African Amateur Athletics junior men’s champion at Curries Fountain, Durban.

He is a UWC science graduate, a UCT B.Com (Honours) and MBA graduate.

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