Liberation and the birth of a new nation always come at a price. This truism is often ignored when it comes to acknowledging the supreme sacrifice made by ordinary folks – the downtrodden – who shed blood and paid with their lives in the struggle to bring about national freedom and independence.
The glory of victory is often shined upon the most powerful elements of society, even though they may have done next to nothing in the struggle for freedom. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as the Matthew Effect, wherein cumulative advantage often goes to those who are possibly connected or strategically positioned closer to the levers of power and influence. It is taken chapter and verse from the gospel of Matthew, where the rich are said to get richer and the poor get poorer.
Historical schisms and ideological views in the leadership of the national liberation struggle in South Africa are arguably based on the differences in interpreting the inequities and prejudices that make ordinary folk count for nothing in the scheme of things. Political elites in the leadership tend to position themselves strategically to benefit first and let the devil take the hindmost.
None of the Poqo martyrs from the grassroots who suffered death by execution for their political beliefs are ever considered for glorification in the new dispensation since 1994. There are 134 recorded political executions of freedom fighters at the gallows in Pretoria Central Prison between 1960 and 1990. Ninety four (94) plus one of them are members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) of Azania, having participated in the Poqo Insurrection of 1961 to 1967, and the one Azanian National Youth Unity militant who was executed in 1987. The others belonged to various formations of the broad liberation movement.
Philemon Tefu built a pyramid shaped monument at the Mamelodi West Cemetery with his own bare hands. It is a fitting tribute by one of their own. Most of the Poqo martyrs were buried on these grounds as prisoners of the state in handcuffs, without a respectable farewell by their families. Tefu used mortar with rocks and stones, and placed on record the name of each and every one of the ninety-four martyrs who had faced extra-judicial sentencing and arbitrary execution. Tefu served life on Robben Island maximum prison from 1963 for more or less similar offences as the martyrs. He completed the task of erecting a monument in 1993. Even though Tefu has himself passed, the monument in honour of his gallant fellow comrades still stands.
John Harris of the African Resistance Movement is the only white person to be hanged for taking part in the armed struggle. Harris belonged to a progressive section of the Liberal Party, whose enlightened leadership formed an alliance with the PAC to fight white supremacy. Jordan Ngubane, author of An African Explains Apartheid (1963), was a prominent national leader of the Liberal Party whose relationship with the leadership of the PAC is well recorded. Another leading personality in this patriotic united front was Patrick Duncan, the rebel son of a former governor general of South Africa, who voluntarily joined the PAC’s mission in exile and was later posted as chief representative of the liberation movement in Algeria. The blood of John Harris too has watered the tree of freedom.
The Poqo Insurrection
After the PAC was proscribed in April 1960 and its leadership imprisoned, the next phase in the unfolding program of action, to bring down white domination, kicked in. A historical summit meeting of underground political leaders and the Task Force of the PAC was held in the neighbouring Lesotho. They outlined a campaign involving ordinary folk in a sweeping mass movement to revolt against the apartheid authorities. John Pokela, Mfanasekhaya Gqobose, ZB Molete, TM Ntantala, PK Leballo, Garson Ndlovu, Elliot Mfaxa, and others intended the uprisings to later transform into a full-blown national revolution. The Poqo Insurrection started on 11 September 1961. The nationwide activities of Poqo happened in Cato Manor, Munsieville, the Pondoland villages, Mbekweni near Paarl, the townships of Pretoria, and many other places too numerous to mention.
The modus operandi of the Poqo/APLA insurrection was compared to Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army, led by Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi. Poqo and the Mau Mau (as the Kenyan resistance army was referred to in the yellow press) used pangas, machetes and an assortment of self-made weapons in surprise attacks against representatives of colonial authority and its collaborators. Poqo and Mau Mau both eliminated traitors and sell-outs from within their own ranks. They both fought at the level of mortals. Once arrested by the enemy, patriots of the Poqo Insurrection were summarily put to death by hanging, with a rope around the neck, at the gallows in Pretoria Central Prison.
The Poqo/APLA group of ninety four deserves special mention because it is largely made up of rural folks from the backwaters of unknown villages, farms and peri-urban townships. They are contemptuously referred to by detractors of the PAC as the unwashed, uneducated country bumpkins with less sophistication. They are the known unknowns.
The apartheid and settler state had hurriedly set up special kangaroo courts and applied spurious and unjust laws such as ‘common purpose’ and ‘belonging to a banned organisation’ as tools of retribution to sentence them to long terms in prison or to death instantaneously. They even appointed a retired judge to head up a commission whose findings were predetermined.
The story of the Poqo uprising is known in the new South Africa, but it is swept under the carpet and hidden from the eyes and ears of curious young people who are eager to realise transformation and change – the fruits of freedom – in their lifetime. Conservative researchers and academics either pour scorn on the campaign of the Poqo braves or pretend as if their armed campaign was meaningless. The Jacob Zuma administration hesitates to officially honour the families of the slain with bravery medals and to recognise them as military veterans. They did not die in vain. Collectively the blood of the martyrs could be seen as the spirit medium – a revolutionary myth – that sustains the ongoing struggle of the African people, as led by their true vanguard, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. Their memory serves to egg on the undying spirit of the PAC’s political activists.
Organic intellectuals, who are germane to the national liberation struggle, have the duty to investigate and research about each and every one of these martyrs, making their heroic contributions known and recorded in the annals of the history of armed struggle in occupied Azania.
The Seed Dies and then Rises from the Soil as a Fresh Plant
The Poqo revolt was led by young men and women who held the belief that to be an Africanist (Umafrika poqo) was to suffer hardships for your commitment to the cause of national liberation, and to make supreme sacrifice with your life, as a way to serve the oppressed and dispossessed African people to achieve national liberation. They epitomise the vital spirit of selflessness that is sorely missed in reconstruction and development of the land of Africa.
As in the parable of the seed that dies in the fertile soil to re-emerge as a new plant, the blood of Poqo martyrs formed the seed of the revolution and the emergence of a new nation. We cannot afford to pretend as if this important landmark in the history of the struggle for freedom and national independence never happened.
It had to take an influential outsider to tell the Kenyan government in 1996 that it was a sickening disgrace that Dedan Kimathi, commander of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, lay buried for four decades in an unmarked and shallow grave, in an independent and free Kenya.
It is treacherous for all freed citizens to desecrate the memory of the revolutionaries who volunteered and died so that the future of the African people should be bright.
We have to ask: What will it take to shake the sons and daughters of a free Africa out of their reverie and make them realise that the achievement of national freedom was never free?
By Jaki Seroke
The writer is a PAC stalwart and Chairperson of the Pan Africanist Research Institute (PARI).