Heroic leader was ever the community activist
Between 1956 and 1960 there were three marches that defined the history of political resistance in South Africa. The first one was led by Lillian Ngoyi, who marched with more than 20 000 antiapartheid female activists to the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
The second was the march led by Pan African Congress (PAC) head Robert Sobukwe. He and the people of Sharpeville in Gauteng walked to the local police station, while other people did the same countrywide, on the fateful day of March 21 1960.
The third one was the march to Parliament in Cape Town by 30 000 people to protest the pass laws on March 30, nine days after the Sharpeville massacre. Hitherto, there had not been any march to Parliament, the seat of the racist apartheid regime since 1910.
In leading that 9km walk to Parliament, Philip Kgosana etched his name in resistance history and became one of the poster boys of defiance. He had come to Cape Town as a student and stayed at Langa’s hostels, where he imbibed the politics of the PAC.
His former school principal, Bob Leshoi, had seen to it that he was accepted at the University of Cape Town and assisted him with pocket money to buy books.
This after matriculating at Lady Selborne High School in Pretoria, where PAC politics and radical Africanist ideologies were prevalent.
In Langa, he lived among migrant workers and struck up a lasting friendship with Manelisa Ndibongo. The visit by Sobukwe in February 1960 to Langa set Kgosana on a path of no return. Those whose lives Sobukwe touched could not be the same, and so it was for Kgosana.
Kgosana had attended the inaugural launch of the PAC in Orlando in Soweto in 1959, and served in the resolutions committee under John Nyathi Pokela. Back in Cape Town, he was elected regional secretary under the leadership of Sitembiso Mlokoti Mlokoti, who was the chair, and Clarence Makwetu, who was deputy.
Kgosana’s life mirrored the turbulent history of the PAC, going from great heights to conflict and unending strife.
After skipping the country in 1960 while on bail, he received a hero’s welcome in places such as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, where he was hosted by Mwalimu Nyerere, and then Ethiopia. He was one of the first PAC cadres to receive military training in China and Ethiopia.
Because of strife in the PAC he was expelled, along with other members.
Kgosana then worked for the UN’s refugee committee as a programme development officer. He served on various committees while at the UN for 34 years. It was here that his leadership skills were honed. He blossomed as a community activist, organiser and able fundraiser for the world’s oppressed. He received many awards for these efforts.
While stationed in Uganda as the UN representative there, Kgosana was instrumental in working with the Chinese to build a railway line linking Tanzania with Zambia and Uganda.
When the consultative conference was convened in Moshi, in Tanzania, in 1967 to address the ills of the PAC after the assassination of one of its leaders, David Sibeko, Kgosana returned to his organisation and worked clandestinely for the PAC, negotiating the supply of arms from Nepal to its military wing. When Kgosana returned home in 1996, after 37 years in exile, much was written about him. His heroic role in the 1960 anti-pass campaign was not lost to our generation. The iconic photo of a young man leading a march in Cape Town, dressed in shorts and wearing what looked like a handmade jacket, given to him by Leshoi, remains etched in our minds.
His book, Lest We Forget, was banned and circulated underground in the many political classes that were established by the PAC cells. These formed the basis of the revival of PAC politics in the 1980s.
Kgosana was instrumental in organising the PAC convention, held at Vista University (now University of Pretoria), where a strategy was crafted to revive the PAC. The convention resulted in the 1996 PAC conference in Thohoyandou in Limpopo, where Kgosana was elected the party’s national organiser. He played a pivotal role in reviving the PAC and oversaw the restructuring of the party’s youth cells.
Kgosana was a father figure to PAC members and led the lobola negotiations of more than 40 of them. Louis “Magenge” Ngwenya, who became Kgosana’s bodyguard and personal assistant, shed tears as he narrated the eventful life he had lived serving his mentor.
A community activist, Kgosana used his UN pension to pay the university fees of many needy students.
He leaves behind his beloved organisation, the PAC, in ruins. His generation, who raised the flag of the PAC high, lived to see it disintegrate to the point of a mute reception from society.
In most of his public addresses, Kgosana would belt out his signature song: “I bambeni we bafana! Ibambeni we zintsizwa!”
He loved rock music and was a keen farmer, an accomplished businessman, a devoted husband, a compassionate freedom fighter, a diligent friend, a caring human being and a soft-spoken mentor. Go well, son of Afrika. Izwe Lethu. –
Thami ka Plaatjie
PHILIP ATA KGOSANA