The 16th of December has long been a day disputed in the history of South Africa. For much of the Afrikaans-speaking population the date was a celebration of the Voortrekkers’ victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Blood River in 1838 whereas black South Africans found the celebrations offensive, as the day represented the loss of their land and associated freedom, and the death of a great Zulu chief, King Dingane. During the late 1920s and ‘30s, African workers mounted vigorous protests against Dingane Day celebrations by white South Africans. Many of these protests were led by Johannes Nkosi.
Born in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) on the 3rd September 1905, Johannes Nkosi moved to Johannesburg in his early teens, where he was employed as a domestic worker. In Johannesburg, he was exposed to the philosophy of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, later the South African Communist Party), of which he became an official member in 1926. He moved to Durban in 1929 and Nkosi found himself becoming more involved with the CPSA, arranging public meetings for African dock workers, while lecturing at the night school run by the Party. He was also responsible for selling Umsebenzi, the mouthpiece of the CPSA.
The Durban beer riots of June 1929 saw the strengthening of the CPSA as many black South Africans felt the need for greater militancy. The Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) was considered the strongest black organisation in Durban at the time, but the moderation of its leader, A.W.G. Champion, disillusioned many of its supporters. Consequently, many Africans turned to the more outspoken Nkosi, who in his speeches propagated for the burning of passbooks and the establishment of a ‘South African native republic’.
In October 1930, Champion was deported, leaving a leadership vacuum in Durban. By December of that year it is said that Johannes Nkosi had become the most influential African leader in Durban.
The CPSA started a country-wide campaign to burn passbooks on 16th December 1930, Dingane’s Day, which was so vehemently opposed by most black South Africans. During the protests a bloody exchange between members of the Party and the police saw a number of protestors, including Nkosi, seriously injured.
Sadly Johannes Nkosi succumbed to his injuries on the 19th December 1930, dying of a cerebral haemorrhage after an emergency operation. Rumours were that he had been struck down by a single bullet to the head, but an autopsy revealed that his skull had been fractured, and that he had several severe stab wounds all over his body.
As the first member of the CPSA to die at the hands of the state Johannes Nkosi is considered a revolutionary martyr, and his death is commemorated annually by both the ANC and the SACP on the 16th December, now celebrated as the Day of Reconciliation.
In July 1953 a memorial to Nkosi was unveiled at the Stellawood Cemetery in Durban, and more recently, Alice Street in Durban’s CBD was renamed Johannes Nkosi Street in recognition of the ICU and CPSA meetings which were held in the vicinity of Cartwright Flats, one of the stops on Durban’s Liberation Heritage Route.