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South Africa joined in the Americans’ black history month celebrations by re-membering and reflecting on the life of Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, a student activist and black consciousness revolutionary who died on 1 February 1974. I host the “lit review desk” on the MA’AT Reggae Show every Saturday on Temaneng Community radio station in Kimberley, South Africa. Two Saturdays ago, the plan for the show was to interview author, journalist and nephew of Tiro, Gaongalelwe Tiro, who had written his uncle’s biography Parcel of death – a biography of Abram Onkgopotse Tiro in 2019. Gaongalelwe was eager to remind South Africa that there were countless black consciousness student activists who lost their lives in the struggle – everyone knows Steve Bantu Biko but there are countless, nameless, un-re-membered fallen heroes. When I got to the studio I realised I’d forgotten my phone at home, which meant I wouldn’t be able to get Gaongalelwe on the line and I panicked. I had prepared questions to lead the discussion but now I ended up improvising on air, commenting on highlights from the biography, reflecting on how the loss of this famous revolutionary was so closely linked to my own family’s loss in the struggle, albeit of unknown activists and reflecting on how the story of Ongopetse reminds many of us South Africans of the gaping wounds in our lives…

Onkgopotse Tiro was born in 1947 in Dinokana, South Africa, was raised by his mother and grandmother and died in 1974 in Botswana. He obtained his degree at the University of Limpopo where he was elected president of the Student Representative Council (SRC). In 1972, he delivered a speech at a graduation ceremony that criticised the Bantu Education system and the university’s administration which oppressed black students. At the time, his speech shook the entire country and protests erupted in other universities; shortly thereafter, in 1976, students were killed during the Soweto June 16 uprising. Tiro was expelled from the university and banned from the country. He joined the liberation movement in exile in neighbouring Botswana, where he was killed by a letter bomb. Tiro’s death is representative of the cruelty of the apartheid system in South Africa. Tiro’s life not only reminds us of the history of violence that can be traced back to 1652 when Jan Van Riebeeck stepped out of his boat and invaded the South African land; it evokes the memory of generations of freedom fighters who disappeared and remain un-buried and un-celebrated.

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My uncles were amongst the students that planned the Soweto uprising, inspired by the black consciousness movement and the South African Students Organisation to which Tiro belonged. Hundreds of students died in the protest against the use of English and Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools and most who survived the bullets of June 16, joined umkhonto we sizwe (spear of the nation), the military wing of the ANC and went into exile. In 1977, my uncles skipped the country and one of them never returned. The trauma of white oppression continues, haunting the lives of countless black people…

Malume’s* bones (For Jabu Mazibuko)

  • I was nine month’s old
  • in prison with my mother
  • on the dawn of a march
  • so long ago it ceased to matter

  • my mother’s heart broke
  • inside my mouth that day
  • I was feeding on her right breast
  • from 5am until 8 pm

  • we were in a small holding cell
  • at the protea police station
  • our crime a letter that we never received

  • malume you had written us letters from exile
  • but not even one reached us
  • the telephone didn’t ring with your voice
  • but the security police detained us anyway
  • demanding us to account for a body
  • whose bones we still wish to bury

  • my nappy rash worsened
  • if only mama knew your grave number malume
  • or the house number of your current residence

  • today
  • my freedom still hangs on politics
  • of a country that has forgotten
  • that the dead speak

  • they let us out that night
  • but I’m still in prison malume
  • mama’s breasts still bleed
  • I will feed on her left breast
  • until we can put flowers on your grave

Celebrating the history of our black heroes is a far-fetched idea because the lives of black people are still in shackles. Radio Temaneng is situated in a small container inside a huge stadium with no lights. Presenters of the radio shows use their own money to buy data and call in guests. Freedom of speech is still in the hands of those who own the economy. But our black blood stirs us.

The MAAT Reggae Show presenter tried several times to call in Gaongalelwe for the interview. For some reason we were not able to connect to him. Reggae music was played during the wait. Fortunately, Gaongalelwe was listening in to the radio show and went ahead to call in so that we could finally have the interview. Tiro’s nephew, Gaongalelwe, and others like the presenters at Temaneng in an un-lit stadium in a remote part of Kimberley are keeping the torch of our un-remembered heroes alight.

*malume is the Zulu word for uncle

The author, Sizakele Nkosi, is a Creative Writing lecturer at Sol Plaatje University, Kimberley, South Africa.