Unzima Lomthwalo Ufuna Madoda[1]

[Extracted from The Cape Town Book by Nechama Brodie]

In April 1959, a breakaway group of the ANC, under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe, formed the political party known as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

At the time, black political activity in the western Cape was largely overshadowed by events taking place in the Transvaal, in Johannesburg in particular, and Africans still made up only around 10 per cent of the population of the peninsula – an estimated 75 000 people.[2] But the increasingly poor conditions in the two largest settlements, Langa and Nyanga, meant it was only a matter of time before something sparked the simmering tensions.

The townships were badly overcrowded and under-serviced, and still heavily dominated by ‘bachelor’ males because of the state’s insistence on a migrant rather than a permanent black labour force. It was within this segment of the population that the PAC’s messaging began to find a receptive audience,[3] and filtered outwards.

When, on 18 March 1960, Sobukwe and the Cape secretary of the PAC, Philip Kgosana, announced a campaign to end the pass laws, to start three days later, on 21 March, the meetings at Langa and Nyanga were attended by thousands.

On the morning of Monday 21 March, a crowd of 6 000 protestors gathered in Langa outside the New Flats;[4] at Nyanga they gathered at a rugby field. Both groups were instructed to leave their pass books at home and proceed to the local police station – Langa and Philippi, respectively – where they were to present themselves in small groups for arrest. Women were told to stay at home.[5]

The campaign was very clearly intended to be non-violent, designed to fill up police stations and effectively immobilise police services, and temporarily shut down industry (which would have no labourers to work), until their demands – the abolition of unjust pass laws – were met.

Simultaneous protests took place in other locations. In Soweto, Robert Sobukwe marched to the Orlando police station and was arrested as planned. Another large crowd gathered at the police station in Sharpeville south of Johannesburg.

Around 1pm everything changed. At Sharpeville the police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people. The news reached the PAC leaders in Cape Town via the radio.[6]

The protestors in Langa regrouped near the New Flats. The police attempted to disperse them by driving their vans and Saracens[7] into the crowd, which led to protestors throwing stones. Near 6pm[8] a command to disperse was issued – and ignored. A few minutes later, the police opened fire.[9] Two protestors were killed, and tens wounded. Later that evening, riots broke out. A driver working for the Cape Times was also killed in Langa when the car he was in (he had been driving two of the paper’s journalists) was overturned and burned.[10]

The strike action continued for the rest of the week. By Friday, 25 March, the PAC leaders led another protest outside the Caledon Square police headquarters (now Cape Town Central police station) at which the police chief, Colonel Terblanche, announced there would be no arrests for pass law trespasses until things returned to ‘normal’. That evening, the Minister of Justice extended the suspension to the entire country.[11]

The funerals for those killed at Langa were held at the Langa Cemetery (Brinton Street) on Monday 28 March. ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli had called for it to be a national day of mourning, in honour of the dead of Sharpeville and Langa. A nationwide stayaway took place, and 50 000 people attended the funerals in Langa. That same day, parliament promulgated the Unlawful Organisations Act, which gave the state the power to ban the ANC and the PAC (the actual banning of the organisations would take place a little over a week later).

As the strike continued, groups like the Black Sash and the South African Coloured People’s Organisation worked with committees from the PAC and Langa Vigilance Association to deliver food to the blockaded townships. By that stage, an estimated 95 per cent of African workers in Cape Town were taking part in the stayaway, as were large numbers of coloured workers. The police continued to raid the townships, attempting to force men back to work. They beat those who tried to escape.[12]

On 30 March, a spontaneous and peaceful protest march began in Langa and Nyanga, swelling to over 30 000 people as the procession continued, headed again to Caledon Square. At the police station, the local PAC leader, Kgosana, was somehow persuaded to send the marchers home in return for a private meeting with the Minister of Justice. When he arrived for the meeting later that afternoon, he was arrested. That same day, the government declared a state of emergency and banned public meetings. It took another week to break the strike, during which time police and military units cordoned off both townships. The suspension of pass laws was lifted, and thousands of people were arrested, including many political leaders. Those who escaped detention laid low out of necessity. By the middle of April, the ANC and PAC had effectively been forced underground.

[1] ‘The burden is heavy, it needs men’ – from the freedom song ‘Asikhatali’ (‘It doesn’t matter / We don’t care’) by the Reverend James Arthur Calata.

[2] At the 2011 census this proportion stood at 39 per cent of the city’s 3,74-million people.

[3] Tom Lodge. ‘The Cape Town Troubles, March-April 1960’. Journal of Southern African Studies. April 1978.

[4] now the ‘Old Flats’

[5] Lodge 1978.

[6] Lodge 1978

[7] a six-wheeled armoured personnel carrier

[8] Sean Field. ‘Sites of Memory in Langa’. HSRC Press.

[9] Lodge 1978

[10] Philip Kgosana, SADET Oral History Project, December 2001.

[11] Tom Lodge. ‘The Cape Town Troubles, March-April 1960’. Journal of Southern African Studies. April 1978

[12] South African History Online. ‘Aftermath: Sharpeville Massacre 1960’. http://www.sahistory.org.za/aftermath-sharpeville-massacre-1960