Remembering Abram Onkgopotse Tiro


 Names: Tiro, Abram Onkgopotse
Born: 1947, Dinokana, a small village near Zeerust, South Africa. (One source suggests he was born in 1950. But it seems that the correct date is 1947)
Died: 1 February 1974, Botswana
In summary: Activist, teacher, one of the founders of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) killed by a parcel bomb. 
Activist Abram Onkgopotse Tiro grew up in Dinokana, a small village near Zeerust. He attended primary school at Dinokana and Motswedi, and matriculated at Barolong High School in Mafikeng. Tiro had two brothers and one sister. His mother was a domestic at Emmarentia in Johannesburg. Little is known about his father and it appears his mother had a profound influence on his upbringing.

After completing grade 12 (Standard 10 in those days), he enrolled at the University of the North for a degree in Humanities. He was elected president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) in his final year. At the university’s graduation ceremony in 1972, Tiro delivered a speech that sharply criticised the Bantu Education Act of 1953.  This later became known as the “Turfloop Testimony”. Authorities at the university were angered by Tiro′s outspokenness and the speech precipitated his expulsion. Despite demonstrations by students under the new SRC, Tiro was not readmitted.

Tiro’s expulsion from Turfloop had far-reaching consequences that the university’s management could not have anticipated. In May 1972 there were a number of strikes on black campuses across the country in support of Tiro. By the beginning of June all major black campuses endorsed a solidarity strike in his support. On 2 June 1972 students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) demonstrated in support of Tiro.
In 1973, Tiro became involved in the activities of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), a movement set up and developed primarily by Black students after 1968 to encourage Black people to liberate themselves psychologically from the effects of institutionalised racism and white liberalism. It is not clear what Tiro’s involvement in the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) was in 1969. In fact, evidence suggests that the initiative for the formation of SASO came from Natal University’s Black Campus, where Steve Biko was clearly in the forefront. However, it is at Turfloop that the first major outbreak of dissent occurred in 1972. Tiro not only precipitated this outbreak but was also at the centre of it.  And in 1973 he became SASO’s chief organiser.

Following his expulsion from Turfloop, he was offered a post as a history teacher by Lekgau Mathabathe, the Headmaster at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto. It is here that he introduced his pupils to BCM’s philosophy and started a campaign to encourage students to question the validity and content of the history books prescribed by the Department of Bantu Education.

There is no doubting the link between Tiro’s expulsion and the emergence of the South African Students Movement (SASM) in April 1972. Indications are that while Biko proved to be resourceful in organizing students in institutions of higher learning, he did not have any interactions with those in high schools. It was left to Tiro and other adherents of BCM to mobilize students at high schools. And as Tiro’s presence at Morris Isaacson became apparent, the authorities were alarmed.

Morris Isaacson High School became known as the “cradle of resistance” and produced the likes of Tsietsi Mashinini, one of the student leaders who spearheaded the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Tiro was therefore instrumental in establishing SASM. SASM and SASO were affiliates of  BCM and their aim was to influence the direction of Southern African student politics. In 1972 he was elected the Honorary President of the movement at a congress in Lesotho. However, it was not long before the government started putting pressure on school principals to dismiss those students  they had offered employment to after they were expelled from universities. After six months at Morris Isaacson, Tiro was expelled.

After Tiro lost his teaching post, the apartheid government used its powers to silence or restrict SASO’s leadership. Those affected, becoming famously known as the SASO Nine, included Steve Biko, (who had become SASO’s leader at its inception), Bokwe Mafuna, Barney Pityana, Saths Cooper, Strini Moodley, Harry Nengwekhulu, Drake Koka and Jerry Modisane.

Nengwekhulu had just returned to South Africa after spending nearly two decades in exile in Botswana. Biko had broken away from the white dominated student body NUSAS to form the black-led SASO.
Travelling to all parts of Southern Africa, including Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana, Tiro won more support for the Black Consciousness philosophy. However, towards the end of 1973 he found out that the police were planning to arrest him and he fled to Botswana, where he played a leading role in the activities of SASM, SASO and the Black People′s Convention (BPC). While living a simple life at the Roman Catholic Mission at Khale, a village about 20km from Gaberone, he was instrumental in forging links with militant revolutionary groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1973.

Throughout his life he showed a commitment to working for the well-being of the underprivileged. He believed that “the primary source of income for blacks is land, and we need to restore land to the dispossessed”. Perhaps the fact that he had spent his childhood in the rural village of Dinokana had sharpened his appreciation of the importance of land.

On 1 February 1974, while still in Botswana, Tiro was completing an application form to continue his studies through Unisa when a student known only as Lawrence handed him a parcel supposedly forwarded by the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). As he opened it, the parcel bomb exploded, killing him instantly. Tiro was buried in Botswana.

In 1998 Tiro's remains were exhumed by the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO) and his family and returned to Dinokana for reburial. Unfortunately the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) failed to conduct an in-depth investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death. In a tribute to Tiro the president of (AZAPO), Mosibudi Mangena, described him as “a man of strong convictions who refused to compromise his principles, a person of simple tastes who could not accept the way black people had been dehumanised by the apartheid policy, a man who lived by the motto that it is better to die for the an idea that will live than to live for an idea that will die”.

The assassination of Tiro in Botswana in 1974 was part of a series of attacks on BCM activists considered instrumental in spreading dissent in South Africa. This followed the death of Mthuli Shezi in December 1972, one of Tiro’s close associates, at the Germiston Railway Station. Shezi was pushed under a moving train, supposedly by a white station cleaner. Mapetla Mohapi was another activist and a close associate of Tiro, Biko and Shezi who fell victim to brutality leveled against BCM activists. He died in detention in August 1976 in what the police claimed was suicide. They said he hanged himself.

Another was Wellington Tshazibane, who, it was claimed, hanged himself while in police detention in December 1976. Tshazibane was known to have masterminded the aborted bomb attack on a restaurant at the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg for which Isaac Seko was convicted and jailed for 12 years. The killings of BCM activists continued into 1977, with several others being targets. These included Jacki Mashabane, who also died in detention for his association with Tshazibane. Matthews Mabelane, a student at Madibane High School also died in detention early in 1977, with police claiming that he fell from the 10th floor in an attempt to escape.

But the most outrageous death in detention was that of Steve Biko in September 1977. All these were deaths of people who, in one way or another, were linked to Tiro. For a while after Biko’s death in 1977 deaths in detention tapered off. From 1978 a series of terror trials followed, related to attacks carried out mainly by Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres. And as part of PW Botha’s response to what he perceived as a “Total Onslaught” mounted by the ANC, these trials ended with the accused being convicted and sentenced to death. The first of these and one that caught the attention of international media was that of Solomon Mahlangu during 1978/9.

Early in the 1980s cross-border attacks on activists, similar to the attack on Tiro, resumed. Targets included well known personalities like Chris Hani (several assassination attempts on him in Lesotho failed), Ruth First (killed by a parcel bomb in Mozambique), Albie Sachs (his arm was blown away by a parcel bomb), to name but a few. These attacks were not restricted to countries across South Africa’s borders. An attempt on Dulcie September’s life was carried out in Paris, France.

Other methods of political assassination included cross-border abductions of activists. South Africa’s security police raided the headquarters of liberation movements in neighbouring countries and kidnapped activists who would never be found. But it does appear that Tiro was the first cross-border victim of the security police’s campaign of eliminating state opponents through the use of parcel bombs.

References

  • Mdhlela, Joe (1999). The new dictionary of South Africa biography, volume 2, Pretoria: Vista University
  • (1998). ‘Remains of murdered activist Abram Tiro to be reburied in SA’. South African Press Association [online] Available at: doj.gov.za [accessed on 13 February 2009]
  • Mashabela, H (1987) A people on the boil (Johannesburg), p106. Available online at: http://books.google.co.za/IsaacSeko [Accessed on 16 February 2011]  

            This biography was retrieved from www.sahistory.org.za/people/abram-onkgopotse-tiro

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