From Brighton to Pretoria ‘we stand by our lead­ers’

Some key events from this week in his­tory are re­flected in the fol­low­ing re­ports from the ar­chives of the Ar­gus’s 160-year-old ti­tles

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

RAG­ING storms and tor­ren­tial rain pum­melled the south west of Eng­land in the sec­ond week of June in 1964, but not enough to de­ter a group of stu­dents march­ing in protest from Brighton to Lon­don.

Their ob­jec­tive was to bring at­ten­tion to a turn of events many thou­sands of kilo­me­tres away that would have far­reach­ing ef­fects that are still felt to­day.

Re­mark­ably, one of those drenched but de­ter­mined stu­dents would rise to be­come a pres­i­dent of a demo­cratic South Africa and one among the sub­jects of that protest would be his pre­de­ces­sor.

The news re­port of June 13, 1964 – “Marches, pe­ti­tion and vigil in Lon­don” – was, of course, a part of the in­ter­na­tional re­ac­tion to the life sen­tences passed in Pretoria the day be­fore in what the re­port called “the South African Rivo­nia sab­o­tage trial”.

The con­victed eight – Nel­son Man­dela, Wal­ter Sisulu, De­nis Gold­berg, Go­van Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Ray­mond Mh­laba, Elias Mot­soaledi and An­drew Mlan­geni – were, it was thought at the time, lucky to avoid the death penalty. Nearly three decades later, the luck – if that’s what it was – was South Africa’s.

But it came at a cost, not least per­son­ally for those most di­rectly af­fected by the out­come of the trial.

And one of those, back in June 1964, was 21-yearold Thabo Mbeki, one of the party of 60 stu­dents at Sus­sex Univer­sity who marched in the rain from Brighton to Lon­don. He was the son of tri­al­ist Go­van Mbeki and did not see his fa­ther again for decades.

In Pretoria, a sense of how the news was re­ceived – and per­ceived – is ev­i­dent from the re­port, “Crowd sings as the sen­tences are known”.

“As soon as the sen­tences were heard a sec­tion of the crowd out­side the court broke into song. Posters were un­folded. One read: ‘You will not serve these sen­tences as long as we live.’

“Af­ter a few min­utes po­lice linked arms and pressed the crowd off the streets in front of the Palace of Jus­tice. Na­tives flowed out over the north­west side of Church Square fol­low­ing the slo­gan bear­ers.

“The po­lice used dogs to get peo­ple out of an al­ley lead­ing to the back of the court, where the con­victed men will be re­moved from the build­ing. Other posters read: ‘We are proud of our lead­ers’, ‘No tears will be shed’, and ‘Sen­tence or no sen­tence we stand by our lead­ers’.

“A troop car­rier full of armed po­lice­men left the court in front of a truck car­ry­ing the con­victed men to jail just be­fore one o’clock.

“As the truck emerged the men pushed their hands out of the barred win­dows and gave the clenched-fist sign. Hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors, both black and white, shouted in recog­ni­tion.

“The truck was fol­lowed by another truck­load of armed po­lice. There was no dis­tur­bance as the con­voy moved off, but the po­lice had to clear a path be­fore Mrs Win­nie Man­dela could drive off. She was given a big send-off by the crowd which then slowly dis­persed.”

If there’s some hint of res­ig­na­tion in that slow dis­per­sal – and, doubt­less, the Na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment must have felt it had fi­nally wrenched the heart out of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment that had shown its met­tle – the “crowd”, the peo­ple, were not done even if the set­back was im­mense.

It is likely a dif­fer­ent kind of pol­i­tics would have been pos­si­ble had dif­fer­ent choices been made ear­lier on – per­haps from 1910.

Af­ter the mid-1960s, how­ever, the apartheid jug­ger­naut was all but unas­sail­able for long enough to do im­mense harm, as re­ports from the early weeks of June in later years bear out.

In 1973, the im­pli­ca­tions of ur­ban so­cial en­gi­neer­ing – the “apartheid spa­tial plan­ning” of con­tem­po­rary idiom – drew at­ten­tion in a re­port on the Pro­gres­sive Party’s Cape congress, which “adopted a res­o­lu­tion is­su­ing a warn­ing to mu­nic­i­pal, di­vi­sional pro­vin­cial and cen­tral gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties of the grave cri­sis within coloured hous­ing in greater Cape Town”.

It was a cri­sis, the June 11 re­port spelled out, born of forced removals.

The res­o­lu­tion “specif­i­cally called for the re-ex­am­i­na­tion of the pro­posed Mitchells Plain’s scheme, with a pro­jected to­tal pop­u­la­tion of 250 000”.

Speak­ing on the mo­tion, Cape Town coun­cil­lors Tom Wal­ters and Joan Kantey “said about half of the new houses built by the coun­cil were not to house peo­ple who ur­gently needed homes, but to ac­com­mo­date peo­ple who had homes but had been ‘re­moved’ by the gov­ern­ment for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons”.

The congress passed another res­o­lu­tion – one that is painfully res­o­nant to­day – “ex­press­ing se­ri­ous con­cern at the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of so­cial con­di­tions in many ar­eas of the Cape Penin­sula, re­sult­ing in in­creased crime, va­grancy and anti-so­cial be­hav­iour”.

“It said the ‘un­happy and dan­ger­ous state of af­fairs’ was pri­mar­ily the re­sult of gov­ern­ment pol­icy, which had de­stroyed the so­cial fab­ric of the mass of work­ing peo­ple in the Penin­sula by shift­ing thou­sands of peo­ple away from their com­mu­ni­ties and many miles from their places of work.”

All the while, apartheid it­self was, per­force, en­ter­ing a phase of po­lit­i­cal con­tor­tion­ism as its cus­to­di­ans sought to make it seem rea­son­able and work­able.

Thus, on June 8, 1974, read­ers learned of then-sports min­is­ter JG Koorn­hof ’s cal­cu­la­tion of an ac­cept­able con­ver­gence of race and sport: “Box­ing tour­na­ments be­tween whites and blacks could take place only on the ba­sis of multi­na­tional in­ter­na­tional stan­dards.”

How­ever, there was no ob­scur­ing the dam­age or the dan­ger in per­sist­ing with a po­lit­i­cal ex­per­i­ment that was fail­ing even as it be­gan.

Within a decade, the stakes were much higher than the racial po­litesse of box­ing matches.

The sec­ond week of June 1986 brought news of the dec­la­ra­tion of a na­tional state of emer­gency “as the cri­sis in South Africa deep­ened in­ter­nally and in­ter­na­tion­ally”.

“Re­ports of a spe­cial cab­i­net meet­ing were con­firmed as the rand plum­meted and po­lice made coun­try­wide swoops on anti-apartheid ac­tivists. At the gates of Par­lia­ment more than 100 wail­ing and scream­ing women from Cross­roads were ar­rested when they dis­played plac­ards.

“Sources in the Depart­ment of Fi­nance were pri­vately warn­ing that the rand could be ex­pected to dip even lower than 36 cents, par­tic­u­larly af­ter an­nounce­ments later in the day.”

A sub­sidiary re­port that day – “No singing, whistling in de­ten­tion pris­ons” – told of Depart­ment of Jus­tice reg­u­la­tions de­ter­min­ing that “emer­gency de­tainees may not sing, whis­tle or make un­nec­es­sary noise”, the pun­ish­ment for break­ing these rules in­clud­ing “cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment for those un­der 40, the with­drawal of some meals or soli­tary con­fine­ment”.

Singing or no singing, how­ever, the writ­ing was al­ready on the wall.

The end game was ini­ti­ated by the most prom­i­nent of the Rivo­nia tri­al­ists of 1964, Nel­son Man­dela, who, at about the time of the state of emer­gency in 1986, de­cided on his own ini­tia­tive to en­gage the gov­ern­ment.

The ini­tial en­counter did not break the log­jam im­me­di­ately, but, within four years, South Africa was a dif­fer­ent coun­try.


Nel­son Man­dela and his fel­low con­victed Rivo­nia Trea­son tri­al­ists, all for­mer po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers on Robben Is­land, re­turn on the fourth an­niver­sary of Man­dela’s re­lease from jail. Here they are in the quarry in which the black pris­on­ers were made to dig lime­stone daily. Some say Man­dela’s eyes were dam­aged by the lime dust.

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