A CITY. HOW NOT TO FORGET
Like a pocket Moses, Philip Kgosana was hoisted on his friends’ shoulders. He held a police megaphone and called for quiet. He had an important message. He wore a borrowed jacket, short pants and no socks. He was so very young at 23. He was bareheaded in the hot summer sun. He was heading for history.
Most of the 30 000 protesters who milled loudly around him in the central city were much older, and wore hats. He held the crowd in the palm of his hand.
He prepared to speak to them. He first told them to “be as quiet as the graveyard”. They obeyed. This was destiny in action.
The scene took place outside Caledon Square police headquarters in Cape Town on March 30 1960.
As a reporter a shade younger than Philip, I was assiduously looking for a place to hide before the Sten gun shooting inevitably started.
Lines of young and armed white police officers stood inside Caledon Square headquarters.
I peered through a gap between the two massive, bolted wooden doors and saw them, nervous, waiting for orders to come out and fire. Troops were pouring into the city.
Parliament, situated right around the corner, was tense. I had seen white-faced, mainly Progressive Party MPs, who had mercifully broken from the conservative opposition United Party in 1959, peering through the railings, and armoured Saracen vehicles at the ready.
The liberal-inclined MPs were looking into the jaws of everything they feared most and warned against: mass revolt against injustice. Government MPs were mainly battened down in their offices. A drunk caused a diversion by climbing onto a Saracen and slithering off.
Philip – who died on April 19 at the age of 80, after a short illness, and who will be remembered in our history for generations – spoke wisdom to all South Africans that day. The city was at a standstill, with children taken out of schools, shops closed and telephone switchboards jammed.
Philip had marched along De Waal Drive, with another massed column taking Main Road below, into the city – where Parliament sat, and still does.
The House was then all white and the laws meticulously repressive. Today the place is nonracial and is enjoined to respect democracy.
Philip had been an impoverished commerce student at the University of Cape Town. He was there on a bursary, and had come to Cape Town from the north. He was also not well-versed in isiXhosa.
An unknown, his lengthy pre-march interview with Gerald Shaw in the Cape Argus that afternoon had been cut down by subeditors to a tiny, single-column item: “Peace is Aim, Native says”.
For Philip, the struggle over passes and oppression came first. He had been catapulted from his studies early in the year to become the full-time Cape regional secretary of the Pan Africanist Congress.
His regional chairperson had already been incarcerated after the bloody convulsions of Sharpeville and Langa shook South Africa and the world on March 21 that year. His national leader, Robert Sobukwe, had been imprisoned with many others.
Philip was on his own as a leader as he took his followers out of the bondage of Langa and neighbouring black spots to meet with uninviting power.
He knew Sobukwe insisted that demonstrators should eschew violence.
He also knew what had happened at Sharpeville: 69 peaceful protesters killed by tumbling (“dum-dum” like) police bullets, many in the back.
Things could go any way. It was nine days after that blackest day in our history, and protesters were now almost at the very gates of Parliament.
After some thought, Philip decided to avoid marching to the cockpit of white power. He chose Caledon Square – luckily for Cape Town and all in the city that day.
His emergency assumption of duty as regional secretary set the course of Philip’s long life.
It would mean prison, skipping his bail and the country, exile, study abroad, helping child refugees in many parts of the world (which rings bells today), and earning plaudits from the UN for dedicated work.
It meant ultimate return to his homeland after Nelson Mandela’s release, then some political and valuable community work. He died in April, almost exactly a year after I met him face to face for the second time in our lives. In March last year, we embraced each other as we shared memories of those unbelievable days.
Why is this story significant – not only for the Cape, but for all of us South Africans?
It is important partly for what did not happen. The legislative capital city was not burnt to the ground, with bullets flying and blood in the streets, with incalculable consequences for human life – and, indeed, with the grimmest tidings for the already terribly pessimistic prospects of peace for South Africa.
So it is time now to remember Philip Kgosana in a highly visible way, and I have formally proposed a way forward which, shorn of party wrangles, all can share in with equal enthusiasm.
The City of Cape Town has actively before it the suggestion that De Waal Drive should be renamed Philip Kgosana Drive, in the same way that, in common with other parts of the country, Cape roads – from boulevards to tiny lanes – bear the names of people such as Nelson