Chosen by destiny to challenge and save a city. How not to forget

2017-06-25 06:02
Veteran Phillip Kgosana who used to be referred to as the "man in shorts" when he led the biggest student march from Langa township to Cape Town. Kgosana marched along 30 000 students in protest against oppression. Photo: Elizabeth Sejake

Veteran Phillip Kgosana who used to be referred to as the "man in shorts" when he led the biggest student march from Langa township to Cape Town. Kgosana marched along 30 000 students in protest against oppression. Photo: Elizabeth Sejake

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Renaming De Waal Drive after the man who led the 1960 protest march from Langa to the city centre is a fitting tribute, writes Tony Heard.

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.

"Peace is Aim"

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 Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Helen Suzman, FW de Klerk, Imam Abdullah Haron, Jakes Gerwel and my close friend, the banned, brave Reverend Theo Kotze. They helped our nascent nationhood in their different ways, and it is always a real pleasure to drive on such renamed roads – as it is to rustle our banknotes with Madiba half-smiling up at us.

I have even managed, on my road travels, to overcome a long political reserve about De Klerk, who, after all, bravely pulled the freedom trigger in 1990. He alone survives of those listed above.

Renaming De Waal Drive – named after the first administrator of the Cape – is arguably unfinished business. However worthy he might have been, that name has reached its expiry date. Something apt can be found to remember the early administrator, who at least persisted in having Chapman’s Peak Drive built in spite of the many sceptics.

Put simply, De Waal Drive was owned by Philip Kgosana and his horde of supporters for a courageous day. They resolutely marched on Cape Town to demand elementary justice. The Cape Times black Chev, with a photographer and myself in it, accompanied him in the lead all the way. It was one of the biggest stories I covered in my life.

He could have used the occasion, as he confided to me at dinner just over a year ago, to say to the 30 000: “Kill the wizards.” He had no such intention; nor did they. And it would have been a gain, not a loss for his cause, and for so many lives. Our history has been luckier than that of some nations, and we hope it stays that way.

Two brave men

Remarkably, Kgosana secured the promise of a meeting with then minister of justice Frans Erasmus – only if he got the crowd to disperse and then returned later in the day with a small group of supporters. He did this, with a lone police van solemnly preceding the crowd on the way home to Langa.

Kgosana then returned to Caledon Square, no doubt expecting an unusual parley for South Africa, but this did not take place. The group was simply arrested.

The treachery coincided with the proclamation of a state of emergency, and the country endured an unfolding generation of suspicion, guerrilla warfare and bloodshed before the mid-1990s, when that darkness finally ended.

Enter the good cop who nearly did the deal, but was betrayed.

Colonel IPS Terblanche was in charge of the Caledon Square police that fateful day. He parleyed with Philip and promised that, if the crowd dispersed, there would be a meeting with Erasmus. Something unknown, he had already defied the minister, who had ordered him to shoot. Instead, I am told by his proud family, he fell to his knees inside Caledon Square and prayed. He sought peace.

Terblanche, a seasoned policeman who had seen strife, strictly forbade his forces from leaving the inside of the police HQ. He walked out, unarmed, with a few senior colleagues and spoke to Kgosana “as one gentleman to another”.

I was within metres and heard this, and also heard him give the critical assurance, which was then relayed to the crowd by Philip over the police megaphone.

Later, while the government was trying to wriggle and deny the assurance – which it turned into a “request” – when challenged in Parliament by sharp-witted Harry Lawrence, a Progressive MP, fellow journalist Peter Younghusband and I were jolted into action. We made a statement to the effect that the assurance was given, and in due course handed this in to the Diemont commission of inquiry into the Langa events of that period.

As if to show guilt, the government had hastily arranged, soon after the arrests, for the secretary of justice to “interview” the incarcerated Kgosana in the police cells, which was a meaningless joke.

This is an object lesson for any politician daring to treat the public and media as dolts.

The fundamental importance of this tale is that it speaks to the current need for peaceful, disciplined protest and for negotiation, with one’s word kept on both sides. These are causes that both Kgosana and Terblanche upheld, and the Hendrik Verwoerd government betrayed.

I am convinced that the actions of these two men, as suggested in my commission statement and in my book The Cape of Storms, “avoided bloodshed that day”.

Renaming De Waal Drive after Kgosana would be a visible public act and underline the serendipities and ironies of history as so many people, from presidents to peasants, pass there on the way to the city and back daily.

Such renaming is not remotely a party political act, which I hope the minority parties will appreciate in the City Council. It is the recognition of incredibly prescient courage and forbearance, of such value to our future now. Any who may struggle to pronounce “Kgosana” will soon get used to it.

While we are about it, it would be appropriate to rename Caledon Square after the decent cop, Terry Terblanche, who was denied promotion for years for disregarding unjust ministerial orders.

Having been a witness, I deeply admire both these South Africans, now gone. I hope the broad community will share this, at least at a human level, and actively support the Council initiative*.

This can help us as a nation while we edge our way – as we can all hope in our hearts – to happier, socially just success in our sometimes still challenged country.

The march was, said Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times, the hour when “the Bastille might have been stormed in South Africa and wasn’t”.

Whatever the Council decides, two brave men stand in our history as beacons to what we were and what we could yet be.

Heard was editor of the Cape Times from 1971 to 1987

* A City Council newsletter, seeking comments or representations, gives June 30 as the deadline. Email yours to: naming@capetown.gov.za; or via SMS on 31046; or fax on 086 201 2975. You can also post them to the following address: Manager, Public Participation Unit, Box 298, Cape Town, 8000

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