In search of Onkgopotse Tiro’s full story

There is no comprehensive monograph on the life of student activist Onkgopotse Abram Tiro. Despite Tiro being one of the progenitors of the Black Consciousness Movement and a peer of Steve Biko, few photographs of him exist. As someone who gained “notoriety” prior to the advent of television in this country, film footage of him is also nonexistent. Yet Tiro’s role in conscientising the youths who would lead the Soweto revolts of June 1976 was, in a word, monumental.

A South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) member based at Turfloop University, Tiro came to prominence when he was expelled after a rousing anti-Bantu education speech during a graduation ceremony, sparking nationwide protests.

He was later recruited for a job teaching history at the Morris Isaacson High School in Orlando West, Soweto, from which leaders such as Tsietsi Mashinini emerged.

In 1973, Tiro left South Africa for Botswana and, once there, forged links with international movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He continued his underground work for organisations such as the South African Student Movement (SASM), Saso and the Black People’s Convention (BPC).

A year later, he was killed by a parcel bomb. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s amnesty hearings, nobody came forward to claim responsibility for his murder.

A Blues for Tiro, a Steve Mokwena film made a decade ago to mark the 30th anniversary of the June 1976 uprising, is an enigmatic record that does not try to keep his memory alive per se, but rather speculates about what he would think of our “freedom”.

“I first heard of Tiro in 1985,” says Mokwena. “I was a pupil at Seana Marena Secondary School in Mapetla [in Soweto]. I was in the SRC [student representative council] as well. I remember being counselled by the principal, Bra Steve Monyemerathwe. He said: ‘The things you went through, we went through before,’ and he told me the story of this teacher he taught with at Morris Isaacson.”

That teacher was Tiro.

Mokwena says “the magic” of Morris Isaacson lay in the staff recruitment strategy of Ntate Lekgau Mathabathe, who was the school principal at the time Tiro was expelled from Turfloop in the early 1970s.

According to academic and historian Steve Lebelo, Mathabathe’s strategy — which yielded Tiro and, possibly, other firebrands — exposed a weakness in the apartheid regime’s controls that let charismatic organisers such as Tiro slip in through the cracks.

“Teachers were chosen by school committees and school boards. School committees tended to be communally-based structures. This is where the apartheid state realised that it made a grave mistake because it allowed that space to be controlled by the community, untampered with,” says Lebelo.

“In 1977, the state takes over the schools and determines who teaches where. If you think about it, that was a reaction to Tiro.”

Tiro’s stint at Morris Isaacson may not have lasted more than six months, but it was time well spent.

In Mokwena’s film, confidant and comrade Harry Nengwekhulu says the sight of his friend’s corpse, torn apart by a parcel bomb at the age of 27, will haunt him forever. For Lebelo, it is precisely the manner of his death that highlights the irony of Tiro’s place in history.

“That the security police went to such great depths to assassinate him through the use of a parcel bomb in Botswana [suggests that] the state seemed to think that his impact was much more extensive than we black people are prepared to acknowledge.”

Lebelo believes part of the reason Tiro became so effective in galvanising young people was his strategic position as a teacher, which he used for maximum reach, but also the dynamic nature of organising around the parameters set by the apartheid apparatus.

“Even before he gets to teach, the speech at Turfloop opens up the vistas for students to begin to appreciate the work that Saso was doing from 1968 to the ’70s and the fact that the BPC, set up in 1972, was actually making conscious and deliberate efforts to set up high school structures, and SASM actually becomes the medium for that.”

Apart from the BPC, says Lebelo, youth clubs were mushrooming in places such as Mapetla and Moletsane in Soweto. Added to this, SASM was not banned at the time.

The Students’ Christian Movement, set up by SASM, was an effective medium to start the mass mobilisation of young people in 1974 and 1975, says Lebelo. “By ’76, it was the momentum.”

In the film, fellow teacher Fanyana Mazibuko calls Tiro simultaneously “influential to his people and dangerous to the enemy”.

But his murder and the brutality exacted on him appeared as if, in part, the state was punishing itself for letting him slip through the cracks.

In conversation, Mokwena recalls Tiro’s unlikely charisma. “He came from the rural areas. He was ultra-conservative. This fellow was like a Seventh Day Adventist guy from Zeerust. He gets conscientised, really, when he gets to Turfloop.”

Piecing together the full story of Tiro may perhaps not be such a difficult task.

There are journalists such as Bokwe Mafuna who “followed Tiro and his cohorts from Turfloop to the townships … and were really conscientised by the students”, Mokwena recounts. There are family members scattered across Zeerust and Soweto.

“The part that needs to be researched is what did Onkgopotse do once he got to Botswana, because Keith Mokoape [a comrade in the BPC who went to Botswana before Tiro] started expressing sentiments about a transition to the African National Congress while he [Mokoape] was still in the country, a position which was divisive within the BPC executive,” argues Lebelo.

“Keith, by the time he got to Botswana, becomes an ANC activist and an official. In fact, he is at the cutting edge of the new recruitment drive, revitalising the ANC through the masses of students that were leaving the country at the time.’’

Had he been alive, what would Tiro have done when the ANC used the momentum of 1976 to bolster its Umkhonto weSizwe ranks, an ironic shift that may have been the beginning of the end for black consciousness as a political force in the public imagination?

It is an interesting question around which Lebelo is willing to speculate. “I doubt Tiro had time to even consider what his next move would be, but I doubt he even considered linking up with the ANC,” says Lebelo. 

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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