Programme Directors, Cdes Mbulelo Ketye and Vuyisile Wauchope;
The Tiro Family;
AZANLA Generals, Cdes HLomani Mabasa, George Biya and Pitso Hlasa;
AZAPO Limpopo Provincial Chairperson, Cde Ngoako Moyaha;
Black Consciousness Movement Stalwarts, Cdes Mosibudi Mangena and Don Nkadimeng;
Comrades and Friends;
We are delighted to have been invited to say a few words at this the 48th anniversary of the gruesome murder by the white-settler regime of Onkgopotse Tiro by a parcel bomb in Botswana on 1 February 1974. He died at the tender age of 28 years.
Please allow me to begin by telling you that I slept over here in Polokwane last night. I made it double sure that I locked the door because we live in a cruel and anti-black world. However, my sleep was disrupted by a figure that somehow managed to enter the locked room. The person asked me to tender his apology for his inability to be with you this morning. But he added that I should advise you that it is a permanent apology for all the events of the Movement. It was none other than AZANLA Commander Kenny Justice Malele, whom we buried recently. Perhaps, it was all happening in a dream.
However, it is Martin Luther King Jr who warns us that, “if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”. Despite the limitations of the (English) language gender sensitivity of his time, King is certainly referring to both a woman and a man. Tiro took this message to heart. The way he lived his life make us conclude that he had discovered that something he was going to die for. He was ready to lay down his life for the restoration of the humanity and dignity of black people. And he knew that those goals could best be realised if the land was reclaimed by its rightful owners; and that black people were totally liberated in the land of their forebears.
Tiro lived his life in a manner that looked death in the eyes and challenged it to bring it on. He was fearless, and was never intimidated by death. As an indication that he would not live much longer, he once told his Comrades that, “It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die”. It has to be a person who not only knew that he was going to die sooner than later, but he who was also ready for that eventuality.
Just in case somebody claimed to have missed the message hidden in the profound statement that, “it is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die”, Tiro crafted a more graphic and direct statement that “there is no struggle without casualties”. This statement was also a soliloquy whereby he was also speaking to himself and getting himself ready for the journey to the end of life in its human form. Here we see an overwhelming evidence of a revolutionary that had discovered that something he was going to die for.
If his1972 “Turfloop Testimony” (graduation speech) entered him into the last mile of his journey to death, his “better to die” and “casualties” statements could be regarded as the “Revolutionary Testimony” that laid a solid foundation on the path to his death. In that regard, you could say he fearlessly marched towards the enemy’s bullets, many of which sidestepped him out of respect and fright.
Tiro’s birth was not an ordinary one. We are told that his father Nkokwe spoke to his spouse Moleseng prior to Tiro’s birth and told her that he had a dream where she was pregnant with a son they named “Ramerafe”, which means “the father of nations”. No wonder that, in his Turfloop Testimony on that Saturday morning of 29 April, Tiro posed a question to the black graduands: “Of what use will be your education if it is not linked to the entire continent of Africa?” He answered his own question. “It is meaningless”. By so doing he was embracing the values and responsibilities contained in his prenatal name “Ramerafe”.
Like somebody who knew that his time on earth was to be short, he rushed to achieve a number of historic milestones in the liberation struggle. Alongside Biko and Cde Don Nkadimeng who is also billed to speak here this morning, Tiro helped to mobilise the Azanian masses and revived the struggle that was in the doldrums after the banning of the political organisations like the ANC and PAC. SASO, the pioneer organisation of the Black Consciousness Movement’ (BCM), was soon founded in 1968 and launched at Tiro’s Turfloop University in 1969.
Once Tiro was expelled after his Turfloop Testimony, in 1973 he went to teach the subject history at Morris Isaacson in Soweto. One of his students was Tsietsi Mashinini who would become one of the leaders of the June 16 Uprising in 1976. Clearly, Tiro’s influence and the radicalisation of the young Mashinini was there for everyone to see. That June 16 Uprising took place under the general political direction of Tiro’s BCM.
We should not forget that we are here talking about somebody who had discovered that something he would die for. He skipped the country in 1973 and went to live in exile in Botswana. That is where he was now ready to meet his death. There is a sense in which you could say he chose his time of departure. It could not be a simple and ordinary death for someone who had prepared and convinced himself that “there is no struggle without casualties”. The use of the term “casualties suggests he had also chosen the manner of his death. Accordingly, that death had to be gruesome and tragic to leave an indelible mark that “the father of nations” had departed. An ordinary death would not resonate with the statement that “it is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die”. Besides, it is an honour to die in the hands of your enemy, and with your boots on.
So powerful was the explosion of the parcel bomb that took Tiro’s life that on that treacherous Friday afternoon of 1 February 1974 the community residents ignored as perhaps one of the dynamite blasts in the nearby granite quarry. Perhaps, that was the spiritual plot to ensure that nobody would be available in time to abort Tiro’s journey to martyrdom. Those in the know say that the power of the parcel bomb explosion lifted a Welcome Dover stove off its resting place. That woods stove used to be a trusted friend of black people to keep our cold homes warm. Our homes were cold by design. You therefore needed the warmth of that stove because there is only one season in the all the seasons of the year for black people. That season is winter in which a lot of things lose their life, colour and vibrancy. In summer, it is winter for black people. In spring, there is no green and life for black people. Despite being the tillers and sowers of the land, in autumn there is no harvest for black people.
During the pangs of the pervasive winter, our Dover stove gave us warmth and hope. And so it was that you could walk into a warm home with a promising pot on the stove. Sometimes it would turn out that there was no food but water in the promising pot. The black musician Simphiwe Dana beautifully explains that hope-giving phenomenon in her song “Bantu Biko Street” when she sings:
Xa ndihamb’ eBantu Biko Street”.
There is no doubt that this is a hopeful and full-of-pride statement. We are here being reminded that Biko remains our beacon of hope so much that it doesn’t matter that our purse or wallet doesn’t have money, but we will carry it with pride when we walk down Babtu Biko Street. With that Dover stove in his room, Tiro felt like walking down Bantu Biko Street with his penniless wallet held sky-high.
Let’s take you back to the moment of death. If the power of the parcel bomb “blew an iron Welcome Dover stove to the other end of the room, disemboweling Tiro and disfiguring his face”, then you have an idea how our Father of Nations met his gruesome death. It cut his body into pieces. His hands were never found, we are told. It should not worry us much that his hands were never found because there are about 50 million pairs of black hands to replace our stolen pair of hands. The ball is in our court – no, we are not playing; the gun is in our hands to pursue the noble mission for which Tiro was butchered by the racists.
Tiro did not just die for the land. He was the land. As the land he was, AZAPO vowed to return Tiro to Azania, the land of his birth. Working with the Tiro family, AZAPO worked very hard to ensure that Tiro’s mortal remains were exhumed in Botswana and reburied in Azania. The Movement of Biko went all out to ensure that Tiro’s bones would not lie stranded and neglected on the ground. His spirit was repatriated, while his bones were, so to speak, collected and placed in a coffin on a journey back to life at home. As the land he was, he was returned to the land. At the reburial, one could not help thinking that Tiro was not complete in that coffin. Some of his bones and flesh were left behind in Botswana where he took his journey to death. One found solace in the belief that the grave of the Father of Nations cannot be in one country, nor can his bones and flesh be kept by “one nation”.
To emphasise this point is to remind us that the land Azania is not outside black people. We are the land, and the land is us. When we talk about reclaiming the land, we are talking about reclaiming our being and soul. Our dignity is inseparably anchored in our land. In that sense, our land is our dignity. So, we are talking about fighting to restore our humanity and dignity as black people.
What can we do to ensure that Tiro’s memory is not erased? What can we do to ensure that Tiro did not die in vain? From the question “what is be done?”, should emerge the wayforward which is “our urgent tasks. Of course, AZAPO has written to both Tiro’s alma mater University of Limpopo and the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation to propose that the University be renamed “Onkgopotse Tiro University (OUT)”. AZAPO has already responded to a number of media enquiries on the proposed renaming. In 2005 the University of the North (Turfloop) and Medunsa were merged by the government to form the University of Limpopo. At the request of Medunsa, the University of Limpopo was unbundled with the result that the former Medunsa was renamed after the late ANC President to be Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University. What was somewhat funny to AZAPO was that Turfloop remained the University of Limpopo when it could have been renamed after Tiro – the cofounder of the BCM.
This Polokwane Public Library theatre is full with the cadres who are supposed to carry Tiro’s mission forward and ensure that his memory is never erased. These are the former AZANLA Combatants who now operate under the auspices of the “Azanian National Liberation Army Military Veterans Association” (AZANLAMVA), which was formed in response to a statute to help our former Combatants to access the available but limited benefits from the state. It is well and good that the former AZANLA Combatants get the benefits due to them in recognition of their contributions and sacrifices in the armed struggle and war of liberation. Unfortunately, AZANLAMVA is under-recognised by government. If hundred ex-Combatants of one association are given “RDP houses”, ours get ten or less. This has had the effect of generating divisions among AZANLAMVA members because we have now been forced, through no choice of our own, to be “haves and haves-not” in the same association. This has a potential to undermine the unity and cohesion in our association.
Worse still, our former AZANLA Combatants have been subjected to an arbitrary, exclusionary and abusive process where their AZANLA membership is “vetted” by SANDF officers who were never AZANLA Combatants, and therefore know nothing about AZANLA. This unfair and abusive process has resulted in not only our former AZANLA Combatants being disqualified, but some AZANLA Generals were initially disqualified as having never AZANLA Combatants. Yet these Generals are not only known by their counterparts in MK and APLA, there are records of their court cases in Botswana and South Africa about their AZANLA military operations. No wonder that AZANLAMVA has its motto as the statement “We Fought for Liberation”
This reminded me of a story that was related to me by the late BCMA Secretary of Defence & Operations and AZANLA Military Supremo Nkutsoêu Skaap Motsau during the funeral of his elder brother. He had gone to buy some stuff at a local spaza shop. The old man who was the owner asked him who he was. “Petrus”, he responded, offering the name he went by at the time. The old was annoyed and insisted that he was not Petrus; and that he knew Petrus very well. Cde Motsau was sharing the pain and helplessness of being denied your true identified by a person who is not you; and a by a person who knows little or sometimes nothing about you. That is the humiliating and degrading process to which former AZANLA Combatants are being subjected as they undergo some strange “verification” process to prove that they are who they are. You vouch that you are a former AZANLA Combatant who operated from a base in the Mount Aux-Sources Mountains and the Sekhukhune Caves. And somebody who lived in a double-story mansion insists that you are not. This is despite there being a case that was reported on in the South African media. You say you are Petrus, and somebody says you are not Petrus.
Rather tragically, our desperation to access the benefits due to us sometimes hypnotises us to forget about the struggle to fight for the restoration of our humanity and dignity. In this context, we mean the recognition of our contributions and sacrifices because “We Fought for Liberation”. Our understandable preoccupation with the efforts to access the benefits due to us should not make us forget that AZANLAMVA is an indirect product of statute. You therefore don’t want to think what would happen if uncaring politicians woke up one day and repealed the statute. We should therefore realise that former AZANLA Combatants are “on their own”, and beyond the temporary but limited benefits. Our cadres have a struggle to wage where they must give guidance and transfer their skills.
With all the supposed good intentions of government to demobilise and support former Combatants, we should never forget the historical intention of countries and governments to demobilise post-war soldiers and their armies. The reason is simple. With the military skills that soldiers are armed with, they are always a potential threat to sitting governments. What complicates the situation is that post-war soldiers usually suffer from what is known as “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) or simply “combat stress”. Sometimes, some soldiers end up being alcoholics who are double the potential risk for a given country. Therefore, taking care of post-war soldiers is more of a defensive than a welfare function. In the same breath, the misapplied “vetting” or “verification” process is nothing but an intelligence-gathering exercise to arm the government of the day with all the guerilla information to curb or break the bone of any potential relapse to an armed insurrection.
It is for the same reason that the liberation Combatants are usually singled out and treated as though they were better or fought and sacrificed more than the Masses that fought behind the enemy lines. As a matter of fact, the differentiation between the Combatants and the Masses is artificial and misleading in a people’s militia. The misplaced terms of “soldiers” and “civilians” are therefore foreign and reactionary to the armed struggle and people’s armies. Ours was never a conventional war between countries, but a war of liberation by the people against the enemy and its army of occupation.
Of importance to note is that the statutory demobilisation of liberation armies and the promise of welfare and material benefits to former Combatants tend to have the unfortunate depoliticising effect. The demobilisation soon degenerates into immobilisation and complete withdrawal from the liberation struggle. Former guerrillas soon decay politically and degenerate into elitists that regard themselves as the best things under the sun. Yet they are as poor and unfree as the Masses of the people.
Mao Tse Tung explains this degeneration in his essay “On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party” (1929). He gives an example of the political degeneration called “the purely military viewpoint” as a condition where Comrades “regard military affairs and politics as opposed to each other and refuse to recognise that military affairs are only a means of accomplishing political tasks”. In a sense, Mao dismisses this political degeneration as “selfish departmentalism” where the Comrades mistakenly think their group and tasks are better and fundamental than all the other component groups and tasks. Let’s bringing it closer home and add that these Towers forget that in the BC, politics is supreme. Mao blames all this political decay on the bourgeois tendency of “individualism”, which sometimes manifests itself as the “small group mentality” where “some Comrades consider only the interests of their own small group and ignore the general interests”. This political decay piggybacks on yet another political decay he calls “employee mentality”, which is a condition where some Comrades “do not realize that they themselves are makers of the revolution, but think that their responsibility is merely to their individual superiors and not to the revolution”.
To be sure, in AZAPO and the BCM as a whole, we do not have in our revolutionary vocabulary terms or phrases like “during the times of the struggle”, “when we were in the struggle”, or “post-revolution”. The revolution is permanent and unbroken. A revolution that has comfort breaks is an aborted revolution. In the permanence of the revolution, what changes are the methods of struggle. That is why the revolution is still on in Cuba, China, Russia, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, Peru and elsewhere. Even when AZAPO assumes state power, the revolution will be pursued and intensified against imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, racism, patriarchy and sexism. We shall not rest until we attain land reconquest, total liberation and socialism.