Azikhwelwa was at forefront of struggle

Simon Nare

Simon Nare

The Alexandra azikhwelwa bus defiance campaign of the 1950s had residents, mostly workers, brave the long walk to and from the city, undaunted by distance.

The much-chronicled campaign punctuated Alexandra residents' struggle against apartheid. It was common to see walking women with babies strapped to their backs.

The campaign might have taken place more than half-a-century ago, but to some elderly Alexandra residents it feels like it happened yesterday.

Simon Noge, Keke Koalepe and Arthur Magerman still vividly remember the queues of walkers stretching from the township into the town.

They remember masses of bodies that filled pavements. Many raised the ire of the police who reacted with brutal force.

"They thought they would discourage us, but instead it agitated us even more," said Noge who was in his early 20s in 1957 when the defiance campaign spread like wildfire to other areas across the country.

Azikhwelwa, which means we will not ride, became synonymous with defiance against the apartheid regime.

It all started a few months before the end of 1956 when word spread that Putco was about to increase fares by one penny.

Most people who were at the forefront, like Dan Mokonyane, are dead.

The dominant political organisation was the ANC at the time, but the campaign was orchestrated mainly by workers.

After concerted efforts towards mobilisation, on January 7 1957, workers from Alexandra decided not to ride buses owned by Putco.

Putco was established in 1945 as a government transport initiative meant for African workers.

Despite increasing employers' subsidies for Africans, the government allowed Putco to increase fares, shifting the burden to the African proletariat.

This angered the masses and the defiance campaign was launched.

It grew ever bigger, spreading to other places throughout the country, notably Evaton in the Vaal and Lady Selborne in Pretoria.

It rumbled on for several months and an estimated 70000 workers boycotted buses.

They walked in the heat and torrential rains, typical of a South African summer, harassed, arrested and beaten-up by the police.

"It came with a price because some people who were caught, were sent to work on potato farms," Noge said.

That also culminated in the boycott of potato products such as fried chips, a favourite among township residents.

And those who rode bicycles and horse-carts to town were subjected to harassment by the police.

"It is hard to imagine it today, but we used to ride horse-carts on Johannesburg streets, and the horses would leave droppings along streets such as Commissioner.

"Our bicycle tyres would be punctured by the police and our horse-carts tampered with just to inconvenience us.

"They thought they were discouraging us," he said.

"You would not sleep in town because you would be arrested. In fact, we would even make sure that we came back home early to attend strategic meetings about the way forward."

Magerman remembers with pride how Alexandra residents were united in the defiance campaign.

"We were the envy of other townships. They used to wonder how we did it. Others would come for tips on the campaign," he said.

Koalepe agreed that the campaign came with sacrifice, because some people were killed and others separated from their families.

"Some of our friends died in jails," he says.

Magerman and his peers believe the bus campaign had a huge political influence on other campaigns that followed.

It is for that reason that the Azikhwelwa bus boycott formed part of heritage month in Alexandra.

"My age group has not forgotten about it, but to youngsters it is wearing off," he said.

Heritage month celebrations organiser Pascal Danoyi said this year's theme was Azikhwelwa.