As we celebrate Human Rights Day on 21 March and the month of March as Human Rights Month, we think of our struggle heroes and heroines. We are able to celebrate our freedom and our human rights in a constitutional democracy because others give their life for the cause.
The stories of some of our struggle stalwarts should inspire us all to do even more in our daily work and to serve the public in the spirit of Batho Pele and with the same dedication and commitment as many of the human rights’ giants on whose shoulders we stand today.
In March 1960 Robert Sobukwe wrote to the Commissioner of Police stating that the Pan Africanist Congress would be holding a five-day non-violent protest campaign against pass laws, starting on 21 March. On that fateful day, which was later to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, Sobukwe intended to give himself up for arrest at the Orlando Police Station in the hope that his actions would inspire other Black South Africans.
An order was issued for the banishment of Sobukwe to the Driefontein Native Trust Farm, in Vryburg. Sobukwe, however, never spent time in banishment as he was sentenced to imprisonment for incitement, when he was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting Africans to demand the repeal of the pass laws.
At the end of his three-year sentence the Apartheid Parliament enacted a General Law Amendment Act. The Act included what was termed the 'Sobukwe Clause', which empowered the Minister of Justice to prolong the detention of any political prisoner indefinitely. Subsequently, Sobukwe was moved to Robben Island, where he remained for an additional six years.
While on Robben Island, Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement – his living quarters were separate from the main prison and he had no contact with any other prisoners.
Sobukwe was released from prison in May 1969 and was banished to Galeshewe in Kimberley, where he was joined by his family. However, he remained under twelve-hour house arrest and his banning order prohibited him from participating in any political activity.
When Sobukwe fell ill he applied for permission to go for medical treatment. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to have treatment at Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town. Each time he left Kimberley, he had to report to the police station – which he also had to do when he arrived at or left Cape Town. The apartheid government deliberately made it harder for Sobukwe to receive treatment by insisting that he should comply with the conditions of his restrictions, despite his evidently failing health.
Steve Biko, as the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, believed that the emancipation of the mind was necessary before political freedom could be attained. By 1973, the apartheid regime had banned Biko from writing or speaking publicly, talking to journalists, or speaking to more than one person at a time. This did not deter Biko.
In August 1977 Biko, in violation of his banning order, drove to Cape Town to meet with members of other liberation movement organizations. On their way back through the Eastern Cape, the police stopped Biko and Peter Jones at a routine road block near Grahamstown and arrested them.
The police interrogated them at the security police headquarters in Port Elizabeth about their alleged involvement in distributing "subversive" pamphlets in the area. Biko sustained severe injuries during this interrogation. Yet, despite evidence of neurological damage, the government’s district surgeons allowed Biko to be kept in the cell, naked, chained to the grill, and did not record any external injuries. When Biko's condition did not improve and he lapsed into semi-consciousness, the doctor recommended that Biko be admitted to a hospital. On September 11, the security police decided to transport Biko approximately 1 100 kilometres away to Pretoria Central Prison, through the night, lying naked on the floor of a small truck. Biko, then aged 30, died shortly after his arrival in Pretoria.
Mahlangu was a freedom fighter who left for exile and military training in the wake of the 1976 uprisings.
A year later his unit re-entered South Africa on a mission and they were intercepted in Johannesburg. Mahlangu and his 2 companions, Mondy Motloung and George “Lucky” Mahlangu, were accosted by the police. George Mahlangu managed to escape, but in the ensuing gun battle two civilian men were killed and two wounded. Solomon Mahlangu and Mondy Motloung were arrested. They were both severely tortured and assaulted and not allowed to see lawyers. The judge accepted that Motloung was responsible for the actual killings, but since he had been so brutally beaten during his capture, he had suffered severe brain damage and was unfit to stand trial.
Solomon Mahlangu had not fired a shot, but was left to face the murder charges alone and was found guilty on two counts of murder. He was sentenced to death by hanging.
Mahlangu on his way to the gallows said: “Tell my people that I love them. My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom.”
At the age of 26, it was the 1956 Treason Trial that put Laloo Chiba on a political path. He first became a member of the Transvaal Indian Congress and by 1959, he had joined the South African Communist Party.
He was profoundly affected by the extreme violence of the apartheid regime during the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. This incident convinced him of the need for armed struggle and controlled sabotage to pressurise the apartheid regime and he subsequently joined Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. By 1962, he had been promoted to platoon commander.
Chiba was brutally tortured by the Special Branch when he was arrested after his comrades were caught sabotaging a railway line. The Special Branch failed in their efforts to break him and, not being able to extract any information from him, they was unable to lay charges. Chiba was released – deaf in one ear from the torture he endured – only to be re-detained in 1964 and subjected to further remorseless interrogation.
Chiba was charged with membership of the High Command of MK in October 1964 and sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment on Robben Island. On his release in 1982, he became active in the United Democratic Front and continued to work underground.
According to South African History online, Chiba stayed in B Section on Robben Island, alongside other leading figures in the struggle. During his imprisonment, Chiba and Mac Maharaj were responsible for Nelson Mandela’s manuscript of his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela would write up the manuscript which was then given to Chiba, who spent the next night transferring Mandela’s handwriting to his own “almost microscopic shorthand, reducing ten pages of foolscap to a single sheet of paper”. Mac Maharaj then smuggled the shorter version out of prison.
Victoria Mxenge qualified as a nurse at Victoria Hospital in 1964 and moved to KwaZulu-Natal soon after marrying lawyer and activist Griffiths Mxenge. Her husband was imprisoned on Robben Island not long after their marriage. After his release from Robben Island he was served with a two-year banning order which was followed by intermittent detentions including 109 days in solitary confinement. Victoria completed a midwifery course at King Edward Hospital in Durban and took up service as a community nurse in Umlazi while studying law through UNISA.
In 1981, just 5 years after her husband had set up a legal practice, she got her legal qualifications, joined the practice and was subsequently admitted as an attorney. When her husband was murdered in November 1981, it fell upon her to identify his mutilated body at a government mortuary the morning after. She vehemently refuted the claim by the apartheid police that the ANC had murdered her husband.
Victoria carried on with the law practice after the murder of her husband, and often intervened to protect youth who were ill-treated in detention. She was part of the defence team in the 1984 treason trial against leaders of the United Democratic Front and Natal Indian Congress in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court.
In July 1985 she was invited to speak at the funeral of the Craddock Four – Matthew Goniwe, Fort Calata, Sparrow Mkhonto and Sicelo Mhlauli – who were murdered by the Security Police. The funeral was attended by approximately 50 000 mourners. Within days of the funeral speech, on 1 August 1985, four men attacked Mxenge in the driveway of her home in Umlazi and murdered her in front of her children.
In 1987 a magistrate refused a formal inquest hearing but argued that she had died from head injuries and been murdered by persons unknown. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report on the assassination of Victoria Mxenge documents that Marvin Sefako (also known as Bongani Raymond Malinga) was recruited by the security branch and Malinga confessed that he had killed Mxenge.
In 2006, Mxenge was posthumously conferred the national order of the Order of Luthuli in Silver for her contribution to the field of law and her sacrifices made in the fight against apartheid. The Order of Luthuli is given to South Africans who have made a meaningful contribution to the struggle for democracy, human rights, nation-building, justice and peace, and conflict resolution.
At 28 years old, Neil Aggett was the first white South African to die at the hands of South Africa’s security police. As a doctor who worked mostly in overcrowded black hospitals, he was acutely aware of the hardships and poverty-related diseases of workers, and soon became involved in trade unions that were working to champion worker rights.
While working at Baragwanath Hospital Aggett won the trust and respect of both staff and patients. In an attempt to understand his patients he learned Zulu. It was also at Baragwanath that Aggett became involved in the trade union movement. As a result, he became a target of harassment by the Security Branch and was labelled a communist.
In November 1981 Aggett and his girlfriend, Liz Floyd, who was also a doctor and an anti-apartheid activist, were seized. Aggett was held at the notorious John Vorster Square police station. During a police interrogation, a team of police officers repeatedly covered his head with a wet towel. They tied the towel so tightly that Aggett struggled to breathe and electric shocks were administered to his body.
In the last week of his life he underwent an interrogation session that lasted for 62 hours. After more than 70 days in detention without trial, Aggett was driven to suicide in February 1982, allegedly by hanging himself with a scarf.
His death in 1982 was called suicide, but 16 years later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission ruled that him being assaulted, blindfolded and given electric shocks for more than 70 days in detention was the direct reason for Aggett taking his own life.
Ahmed Kathrada was only 10 years old when he started distributing political pamphlets. He became actively involved in politics at an early age, joining a non-racial youth club run by the Young Communist League when he was 12.
At the time, there were different schools for different race groups. He was Indian, so since could not be educated in the “European” or “African” schools in his area, so had to be sent to live with his aunt in Johannesburg so that he could go to school there.
At the age of 17, he left school to work for the Transvaal Passive Resistance Council in opposition to the so-called Ghetto Act, which aimed to restrict the rights of Indians.
In 1955, he was was one of the organisers of the Congress of the People in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted.
He was charged with high treason in 1956, but was acquitted. He went underground in 1962 after he was subjected to house arrest for 13 hours a day, as well as over weekends and public holidays. He began attending secret meetings at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, which was the underground headquarters of the ANC.
Later the apartheid security forces raided Liliesleaf Farm. This lead to the well-known Rivonia Trial. Along with Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, Uncle Kathy was sentenced to life imprisonment, with hard labour.
He spent 26 years and 3 months in prison‚ 18 of which were on Robben Island. And he became the first prisoner on Robben Island to obtain a degree. While in prison he obtained four university degrees in total.
This March it will also be two years since Uncle Kathi left us, when he passed away on 28 March 2017. His is a life dedicated to the struggle for freedom, for human rights and for non-racialism.
Today we are free because of the sacrifices Uncle Kathy, and so many others, made for our freedom.
Their lives inspires all of us to do the same – to uphold the human rights of others. As public representatives and public servants, we are there to serve the public. Public servants can either help our people to access their human rights, or they can be an impediment to the realisation of those rights. Service delivery is a human rights issue – when proper service delivery doesn’t happen it severely affects the human rights of our people.
We have made significant progress in the attainment and enjoyments of human rights in our country. These include not only civil and political rights, but also socio-economic rights.
The attainment of human rights is no longer determined by the colour of a person’s skin. We have built a society founded on equality, freedom and human dignity.
This does not mean that our country is perfect – no country is. But we have managed, within 25 years, to make significant strides in reversing the effects of centuries of colonialization, apartheid and discrimination.
As we celebrate Human Rights Month, must continue to build on these successes.