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AUGUST IN THE HISTORY OF BLACK PEOPLE – HOPE, TRAGEDY, SOUL AND RESISTANCE

August in History (1)

What does Marcus Garvey, the Herero people of Namibia, James Brown and Mapetla Mohapi have in common? Other than the fact that they are all Africans and fighters for the freedom and pride of Black people, they all share a connection with the month of August.

Born on 17 August 1887, in St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, Marcus Garvey grew up to be a leading figure of the Pan African Movement and one of the most vocal advocates of Pan Africanism and Black Consciousness. While Africa was still in the clutches of the colonial grip, formalized in the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885, Marcus Garvey famously coined the slogan, Africa for Africans, those and at home and those abroad! In 1914 he founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)  which by the 1920s is said to have had over 6 million members and over a 1000 branches in Africa and in the diaspora. Although by the founding of the UNIA there was a Pan African Movement, as symbolised by the first Pan African Conference held in London in 1900, before Garvey the movement was largely an affair of intellectuals such as W.E.B DuBois and South Africa’s Tengo Jabavu, who in their own right are towering figures of the Pan African Movement. Garvey, largely a self-taught man with a love for books and a talent for writing and oratory gave the Pan African Movement its first mass based organisation.  Garvey, whose conscientisation came about as result of his travels in South America, England and the USA observed “the greatest weapon used against the Negro is Disorganisation”. It is therefore no wonder that Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), who visited South Africa as a guest of AZAPO never tired of highlighting and emphasising the importance of “Or-ga-ni-sa-tion”.

While Marcus Garvey was in his youth, on the 11th of August 1904 the Herero people, of current day Namibia, led by King Samuel Maharero faced the Germany army of over 1500 men with modern armaments led by Lothar von Trotha at the Battle of Waterberg. This was after the Herero people revolted against German colonial rule which started on the 12th of January 1904.  Indicating his murderous and genocidal impulse, von Trotha had, prior the fateful encounter of the 11th, written the following:

“I believe that the nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this was not possible by tactical measures, have to be expelled from the country…This will be possible if the water-holes from Grootfontein to Gobabis are occupied. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of the nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.

(From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herero_and_Namaqua_Genocide )

With armaments that were no match to that of the Germans the Herero fought bravely for two days, 11-12 August. King Samuel Maharero organised a retreat for his people who managed to escape an attempt to encircle them. Jan Cloete a witness of the battle stated that

“I was present when the Herero were defeated in a battle in the vicinity of Waterberg. After the battle all men, women, and children who fell into German hands, wounded or otherwise, were mercilessly put to death. Then the Germans set off in pursuit of the rest, and all those found by the wayside and in the sandveld were shot down and bayoneted to death. The mass of the Herero men were unarmed and thus unable to offer resistance. They were just trying to get away with their cattle.” (ibid)

On the 2nd of October, von Trotha issued the Vernichtungsbefehl (extermination) order, which stated that

“The Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the ‘long tube’ (cannon). Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people”

The genocide of the Herero happened with the full knowledge and indifference of Germany and other European Powers, only 32 years later Europe and the world was plunged into a murderous and genocidal campaign that is the Second World War. The experience of the Herero people at the hands of von Trotha and the German army was classified by the 1985 United Nation’s Whitaker Report as one of the earliest attempts at genocide in the 20th Century

Crossing the Atlantic, that borders the west of Namibia, to North America particularly the United States of America a country founded on genocidal encounter between the natives of that land and European settlers and slavery of Africans. The year is 1968, America is engaged in an imperialist war in Vietnam, which is facing increasing opposition at home. Huey P Newton Founder of the Black Panther Party is in prison. Stokely Carmicheal who had, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), coined and popularised the slogan “Black Power” is now Prime Minister of the Black Panther Party. In his new role he gives a powerful speech at the Free Huey P. Newton rally. In April of that year Dr Martin Luther King Jr. dies from a bullet of an assassin. The murder of Dr King is followed by riots in major cities in America that continue for days. In this year of revolt, counter-culture and protests the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown released in August 1968 a two part single calling upon Black people to “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud“. This song would be the anthem of the Black Consciousness Movement emphasising Black Consciousness themes of  Black Pride, Black Empowerment and Self Reliance.

South Africa, December 1968, Students Representative Councils from Black Universities decide to form a Black Students Organisation. In July 1969 at Turfloop, the inaugural conference of the South African Students Organisation takes place, and Steve Biko is elected the SASO’s inaugural President. SASO went on to launch the philosophy of Black Consciousness in South Africa, revive political activity in the country and give Black people of this land a new found pride, empowerment and self-reliance. It is the philosophy of Black Consciousness that empowered the heroic Student protests of June 16, 1976 against Bantu Education and the system of Apartheid. Exactly a month after the June 16 uprising, on the 16th of July Mapetla Mohapi, then Permanent Secretary of SASO was detained without charge by the apartheid police.  On the 5th of August 1976 Mapetla Mohapi died in police custody. The police claimed he had committed suicide and produced a suicide note which was found, by hand writing experts, to be forged.

In commemorating the events and celebrating the people who fought to advance the liberation of Black people and in rededicating ourselves to the cause they fought and died for, remember and take heart in the words of Marcus Garvey when he says “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life”.

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