The day the liberation Struggle was changed
On October 19 1977, a seismic event occurred in the South African liberation Struggle, putting paid to the dominant role of the black radical tradition in the reaction to racial oppression.
On that fateful day, Jimmy Kruger, the infamous apartheid minister of (in)justice, held a media conference to announce new measures to clamp down on resistance to the apartheid state.
The day, dubbed Black Wednesday, became synonymous with issues of media freedom because Kruger banned church publication Pro Veritate and black newspapers The World and Weekend World.
The police also detained The World editor Percy Qoboza for five months. For media freedom freaks, this was the highlight of the moment; in reality, however, the media was collateral damage.
Crucially, Kruger also banned 17 Black Consciousness-leaning organisations. The decision did not come as much of a surprise as the panicky regime was becoming increasingly erratic.
It had just martyred the leading light of the Black Consciousness movement, Steven Bantu Biko, a month earlier. Of the banned organisations, the irrepressible South African Students Organisation (Saso) was undoubtedly the most significant.
It had blazed the ideological trail that reignited the fire for freedom among oppressed black South Africans.
The period 1960-1968 was a dark hour for the oppressed, with leading liberation movements the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania exiled and moribund.
Both had formed military wings in the early 1960s but the armed Struggle had not taken off in any meaningful way. Furthermore, the banning of the ANC and PAC and the incarceration and exiling of their key leaders had diminished their capacity for mass mobilisation.
Few dared to raise their heads above the parapet after the apartheid regime had demonstrated the lengths it was prepared to go to clamp down on resistance. It had butchered 69 protestors in Sharpeville in 1960 and jailed some of the more prominent leaders of the liberation Struggle, including Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela.
The regime charged Sobukwe with inciting the protest while Mandela was first arrested for leaving the country without a passport but later charged with others for high treason. The regime looked increasingly unassailable. Then later in 1968 entered Saso onto the scene, imbued with a new political ethos, Black Consciousness.
Black Consciousness, with slogans like “Black Is Beautiful”, promoted Afrocentric pride that centuries of colonial and settler-colonial conquest had diminished. The conquest had ingrained subservience and self-doubt that went to the core of the humanity of black people.
As a result, many straightened their hair, bleached their skins and sought to mimic the ways of the white man in any way possible. Increasingly, they took for granted the supposed superiority of the white race.
Saso coalesced around the magnetic personality of Biko, who became its first president and principal theoretician. The formation and the ideology it espoused grew from strength to strength until it finally broke into the popular consciousness of South Africans with the Tiro Affair in 1972. Class of ’72 valedictorian at the then University of the North, Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, occasioned the seminal moment when he climbed into apartheid and its artefacts during a graduation ceremony.
A whirlwind fallout followed, with unrest across tertiary institutions and scores of students being expelled or leaving studies on their own accord to focus on the Struggle. It was also during this period that the issue of the armed Struggle was broached openly for the first time within Saso ranks and the first batch from the lot escaped to exile, led by Keith Mokoape.
The student movement established the Black People’s Convention (BPC) in December 1972 to organise elders in the black community and to mobilise them behind the liberation Struggle.
The proliferation of Black Consciousness spawned several other formations across different sectors of society. The apartheid regime became increasingly wary of the influence of the movement. In March 1973 it banned eight Saso-BPC activists: Drake Koka, Bokwe Mafuna, Steve Biko, Barney Pityana, Harry Nengwekhulu, Jerry Modisane, Strini Moodley and Saths Cooper.
Three months later, in June 1973, apartheid securocrats recommended that other Saso-BPC activists Tiro, Mosibudi Mangena, Chris Mokoditoa, Jeff Baqwa, Bennie Khoapa, Sipho Buthelezi, Ela Ramgobin and Sam Moodley be banned.
Black Consciousness, with slogans like “Black Is Beautiful”, promoted Afrocentric pride that centuries of colonial and settler-colonial conquest had diminished
Instead, the regime arrested Mangena the same month before charging him under the Terrorism Act and sentencing him to a five-year prison term on Robben Island. Tiro escaped to exile in September the same year before the apartheid agents, with the help of individuals in the Botswana security establishment, assassinated him with a parcel bomb on February 1 1974.
The regime escalated its harassment of the fledging movement. Still, in 1974, it rounded up scores of Saso leaders after they had organised “Viva Frelimo” rallies to celebrate the impending liberation from colonial rule of neighbouring Mozambique. Cooper, Muntu Myeza, Moodley, Mosiuoa Lekota, Nchaupe Mokoape, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, Nkwenkwe Nkomo and Kaborone Sedibe were charged, found guilty and imprisoned on Robben Island.
On August 5 1976, Saso leader Mapetla Mohapi was assassinated while in detention on suspicion of recruiting youth for military training outside the country.
While Saso was initially in universities and other institutions of higher learning, it subsequently made several deliberate attempts to link up its programmes with the broader struggles facing the black community.
The mantra of the new generation of activists was that they were “black first and students after”. Saso, therefore, rolled out community self-help initiatives and reached out to elders and youth in and outside schools while spreading its philosophy.
The earlier morphing of the African Students Movement into the South African Students Movement (SASM) when it fell under Saso’s sphere of influence was another significant development. The organisation that organised in high schools became an essential vehicle of political conscientisation and a breeding ground of liberation Struggle leaders such as Tsietsi Mashinini, Khotso Seatlholo, Murphy Morobe, Khehla Mthembu and Seth Mazibuko.
SASM became the decisive force behind the June 1976 student rebellion that changed the course of South African history. The apartheid regime, typically, reacted with violence, killing scores of students and driving thousands into exile.
However, this too did not extinguish the fire for liberation among black South Africans that the Black Consciousness movement had lit. The regime stepped up its act and martyred Biko and banned the organisations that he and his generation of activists had established or inspired, finally drawing a curtain on the black radical tradition’s leadership of the anti-apartheid Struggle.
Tiro is author of Parcel of Death: The Biography of Onkgopotse Abram Tiro
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