In April 1972, the University of the North (now the University of Limpopo, nicknamed Turfloop) graduated its third class as a fully autonomous university, and Onkgopotse Tiro spoke as the elected speaker for the graduating class.
Tiro had been a prominent student leader on campus since his arrival in the late 1960s, and was a member of the students’ representative council (SRC) and of the South African Students’ Organisation (Saso). At the time of his selection as speaker he had completed his degree in education, and was working towards a postgraduate diploma in education.
By this time Tiro was already very politically engaged. His activism had early roots: he had been exposed to political protest at the age of 12, when, in 1957, his local primary school in the village of Dinokana, near Zeerust, was closed as thousands of local women protested the introduction of pass laws. This led to a frequently interrupted education in a series of schools in the Western Transvaal and Soweto.
By the time he completed matric at Barolong High School in Mafikeng, he was already a student leader, and was elected to speak at the leavers’ party. According to the Barolong principal Lekalake, “Tiro’s speech about the conditions the pupils were subjected to was so influential that dramatic changes were made immediately in the make-up of the school’s administration.” This gift for transformative oratory was to become his hallmark at Turfloop and beyond.
Tiro’s invitation to speak at the 1972 graduation was issued by the SRC, under the leadership of Aubrey Mokoena (who had been Tiro’s own vice-president the previous year). The role of such speakers was traditionally to support the university and its policies. According to one student who was present, “speakers at graduation were always custodians of the ideology of the time”. Bearing witness to this, Mokgama Matlala, the chief minister of Lebowa who also spoke that day, gave a speech advocating the policies of Bantu education. Tiro, however, did not conform to this tradition. His speech was a damning critique of Bantu education and the broader discriminatory policies of apartheid, particularly its manifestations at Turfloop.
Tiro’s speech married the structural injustices of Bantu education, and indeed apartheid itself, with the local realities faced by students at Turfloop, and it was laced with the hypocrisy he saw there.
He criticised apartheid on its own terms: the fact that an ostensibly black university was run by white administrators and staffed predominantly by white faculty; that, absurdly, its book shop was only open to whites; that it awarded university contracts for food supply to a white administrator rather than a local black supplier; and that vacation jobs on campus were allocated to white students “when there are students who could not get their results due to outstanding fees”.
He decried the indignities that parents of the graduates were forced to undergo, being kept outside the hall while white dignitaries sat in the front rows; he called for a black university to have black leadership and to allocate jobs and contracts for its functioning within the black community.
“The system is failing,” Tiro declared. “It is failing because even those who recommended it strongly, as the only solution to racial problems in South Africa, fail to adhere to the letter and spirit of the policy.”
Though his critique was deeply political, and enmeshed in local grievances, it was also framed by Christian values: he opened the speech quoting an American lay preacher on the centrality and importance of the truth, and he closed it on a ringing note of warning to university and apartheid authorities, with evangelical echoes of Martin Luther King Jr, saying: “In conclusion, Mr Chancellor, I say: Let the Lord be praised, for the day shall come when all men shall be free to breathe the air of freedom and when that day shall come, no man, no matter how many tanks he has, will reverse the course of events. God bless you all!”
The aftermath of this speech was in some ways predictable, and in others extraordinary. Appalled at what they perceived as the abuse of the platform he had been given, the rector and advisory council of the university expelled Tiro. The university senate, all members of which were white, concurred.
In response, the black academic staff of the university walked out in protest, students at Turfloop boycotted lectures, and the national committee of Saso began to mobilise. Tiro’s expulsion set off protests of solidarity, not only at Turfloop, but also elsewhere around South Africa at other black universities and colleges.
Though the University of the North insisted that Tiro was the only culprit to be blamed, this was a clear miscalculation. They failed to realise that his words had had an electrifying and galvanizing effect. Percy Mokwele, a young lecturer in education, who was present, recalled: “When Tiro addressed the graduation ceremony we were there in the hall. And during his talk students cheered, cheered and accepted what he was saying. And some black members of staff — especially the younger ones — also cheered.”
This is an edited excerpt from ‘Limpopo’s Legacy: Student Politics and Democracy in South Africa’ by Anne Heffernan (Wits University Press, 2019)