Not many people would be aware of the name, Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, despite the fact that he’s regarded by many as the ‘father’ of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. In fact, Tiro is one of countless forgotten heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle – a revolution takes an army, and overcoming the apartheid regime took the will of an entire generation, most of whose names we are unaware. But that’s something that Gaongalelwe Tiro, the nephew of the slain Onkgopotse Tiro, wants to see changing with his recently published book, Parcel of Death.
The biography tells the little known story of Onkgopotse Tiro, from his childhood in Zeerust in the North West Province to his death in exile at the hands of the South African government. But it was the few years that Tiro spent as a student at Turfloop (now the University of the North) where he made the largest impact.
Turfloop was founded in 1960 as part of the South African government’s efforts to segregate universities. It was one of five universities that was established or re-classified to serve specific ethnic groups, and was regarded as a ‘black university’. But as Alan Paton rightly pointed out in his article, Turfloop Testimony – A Comment, the idea of Turfloop being ‘black’ was a complete farce:
……this was not a black university at all. From the point of view of power, authority, emoluments, amenities, it was a white university. It had a white Chancellor, a white Council, a white Registrar. Of its 35 professors, 30 were white. Of its 42 senior lecturers, 37 were white. Of its 61 lecturers, 32 were white. Only the student body was black. It was a black university, but its overt message was one of white superiority”
And it was this hypocrisy that Tiro was speaking about as the president of the Student Representative Council when he addressed the audience at the 1972 Turfloop graduation ceremony. His speech, which has come to be known as the “Turfloop Testimony” was heavily critical of the Bantu Education Act:
I have been asked to come and thank you, but there is nothing to thank you for because our parents are not even in the hall. Most of them are standing outside and other people, basically the relatives of the lecturers who are predominantly white, are here enjoying the activities of the graduation ceremony. The Bantu system is very poisonous and we are not really impressed with it, and the day of liberation is going to come, and when that day comes not even the military might of this country is going to stop it.”
The university, in an attempt to quash any further ideas they deemed revolutionary, expelled Tiro from Turfloop the next day. Rather than put an end to things, their actions sparked a wave of protest, first at Turfloop, and then across the country as students stood in solidarity with Tiro.
Following his expulsion from the university, Tiro went on to join the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), and in 1973 took over as the South African Students Organisation (SASO) Permanent Organiser. In the same year he helped establish, and was elected president, of the South African Students Movement (SASM) – the group responsible for organising the famous 1976 student protests a few years later. At the same time Tiro was working as a history teacher at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, where he introduced his pupils to the BCM’s philosophy, encouraging learners to question the validity of the history books prescribed by the Department of Bantu Education. Morris Isaacson High School became known as the ‘cradle of resistance’, producing the likes of Tsietsi Mashinini, one of the student leaders who spearheaded the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Sadly after six short months, the principal of Morris Isaacson was put under pressure by the government and forced to fire Tiro.
With no job and the discovery that the police were planning to arrest him, Tiro went into exile in Botswana towards the end of 1973, where he continued his work and played a leading role in the activities of SASM, SASO and the BCM. On the 1st February 1974, while still in Botswana, Tiro was handed a parcel which had supposedly been forwarded by the International University Exchange Fund. As he opened it, a bomb exploded, killing him instantly. Tiro was the first known activist to be killed outside of South Africa by means of a letter bomb, a practice of assassination that would become more common in later years.
With the government refusing to allow his body to be returned to South Africa, Tiro was buried in Botswana. Some 24 years later his remains were brought home and, on the 22nd March 1998, Onkgopotse Abram Tiro was finally laid to rest at his family home in Dinokana Village.